Commemorating Renée Thornton
Updated: Mar 2, 2022
Commemorating Renée Thornton, pioneering female hot air balloonist, fabulous artist, undiagnosed autistic, who has passed away at the age of 89. Renée was the first woman to fly across the English channel in a hot air balloon – she did so in a race, setting a record time!
I met Renée when working in Kondi café in Bristol whilst studying for my masters – the first words I heard about her was ‘oh, you can serve this lady, I hate her, she’s so rude’. I took this as a challenge! People should be given a chance, so I chose to sit next to her whilst eating lunch – and talked with her, every lunch, a few times a week.
It worked! A year later, when the café had new owners, she had become a staff favourite, because of her banter! Once given a bit of room and forgiven for her occasional tactless comment or faux paus, she was a great energy in the café. She’d always grab the crossword (actually cut it out and took it home a few times…) and she’d often ask other customers or the staff for help. It was such fun.
We became great friends over our time there. She had no husband or children. Eventually she would say she thought of me more as a grandson. I gave her a book of poetry I’d written for my family for Christmas, and she loved it! She invited me to her house for coffee, and I went many times, and would visit her when back in Bristol after finishing my degree.
Upon entering her house for the first time I was greeted by something between a museum and an art-gallery! The shelves were lined with medals and trophies from ballooning, and the walls were covered in beautiful artwork. One piece of art I really loved, and she said I could have it! I will cherish it always.
The painting Renée gave me, of Whiteladies road in Bristol in the evening
Renée never received an autism diagnosis from a professional. She was a child of the 1930’s, and female to boot. I only know because one lunch, when I sat down to eat with her during my shift, she said ‘you know Adam, I think I have autism’. She had read a large article in the paper and recognised herself! In retrospect, she would undoubtedly meet the criteria.
She worked her whole life as an accomplished and valuable personal secretary (she was perfectly organised, and never beat around the bush) and in other administrative roles. She only had one chance at love – a gentleman she told me about wistfully. He asked her to marry him, and she said yes! However, he came from a Catholic family, and so asked her to officially convert. But that’s not Renée. She was too fierce, too principled. She would not live a lie. They broke up. She never had another relationship. She often spoke about this with watery eyes. One time I remember joining her, and held her hand.
But that wasn’t the end of Renée’s story. Although she lost the one man she ever loved to her principles, she concentrated on something else, and became one of Britain’s foremost female hot air balloonists. Her name is still known in their circles. And she became a brilliant artist. Her art was beyond amateur, and often sold. I am incredibly lucky to own a piece I feel such affinity to. She lived a life of routine, within which she was happy. She was undoubtedly a successful and great woman.
One of Renée's paintings, of an evening in Venice
At the time, I wasn’t researching autism – that’s one of life’s coincidences. But I’ll never forget Renée. The only thing I wish is that I knew how to contact her family (she was a great-aunt, that’s all I know), or where her ashes are: along with talking about the man who she never married, she’d often repeat that she wanted her ashes to be scattered at the top of a mountain. She believed humans received wisdom from the skies, and wanted to be as close to the sky as possible for her death. If anyone can help find her family, or tell me how I could find them, I would love to climb that mountain and scatter them for her. Few people have left such an impact on me. I’m moving to Switzerland to research autism and show why minds like Renee’s aren’t diseased, so it would be doubly appropriate if I did this for her there!
I posted the above comments as a tweet thread here but wanted to immortalise it in this post, because she was a very special lady that I was very lucky to know. Thinking about it, she's probably the oldest autistic I've met, and was living proof of the benefits and challenges that autistics have faced in the last century: I have no doubt that she was an excellent employee (she has a little black book on her at all times and would write down every single expenditure she ever had!) but I have also never met anyone who was greeted with such animosity by the people around her, because of her foibles. For instance, I distinctly remember a day out during which we visited the bank, and Renée's somewhat brash tone and straightforward way of speaking actually elicited a rude response from the bank clerk, of a sort which I have never heard before or since from a customer service representative. Renée didn't seem to notice, mind, but it struck me how many people must have reacted against her because she lacked that social nuance. I'll admit it led to some pretty hairy situations in the cafe too! Luckily I have extremely thick skin and an extremely high tolerance of embarrassment, so I was able to wade through the situations without much problem; but I know that she must have spent her life around people who didn't realise that she wasn't rude as such, her mind just didn't work like ours. It was for that reason I loved her, though - and I'll never forget her giant grin when she had the crossword in hand or waved to me as she entered the cafe. I found her charming.
Rest In Peace, Renée. I'll remember you always, and repeat your achievements and insight as far as I can. I know you'll be glad of that (although you never boasted! How long was it before you told me of all your medals! I had to wheedle it out of you!). I'm sorry I didn't come and visit more in the last few years. You would always pop up in my heart and mind, though. My favourite customer; and indeed, something like a grandmother, which I am sorry you missed out on experiencing.
Love. **UPDATE 02/03/22. Through some modern miracle and happenstance, Renée's family did indeed get in touch with me! Her favourite nephew happened to go by the café, somehow bumped into someone who read this post, and has managed to reach out to me! He is working out what to do with the ashes (he's thinking of taking them up in a hot air balloon! An excellent idea). It's been lovely to reminisce about Renée with someone else who knew her so fondly, and who I had heard so much about. We are now pen pals of a sort, exchanging updates and emails every now and again. It's so funny and wonderful to have such a connection. I know Renée would be overjoyed.**
Renée's painting of hot air balloons ready to go at dawn.