Britain’s first woman pilot Edith Maud Cook
Edith Maud Cook, parachutist and Britain’s first woman pilot, discovered her desire to fly in her native town of Ipswich. Ruth Dugdall celebrates her life
JULY 9, 1910, and a crowd of over 3,000 people gathers in Coventry, all of them gazing at the sky in hopeful anticipation. They want a spectacle, and they won’t be disappointed. For the 300th time, Edith Cook is about to perform a parachute jump from a gas-filled hot-air balloon. As the crowd watches, she dangles from the balloon, gripping a trapeze bar. When the balloon is high enough, she will let go, dropping as much as 4,000 feet, opening her parachute as she falls.
The feat is dangerous and thrilling, especially at a time when merely seeing a woman in trousers can cause a stir. Here is a woman showing the bravery, technical skill and theatrics that have made her famous throughout the land.
Edith’s gas-filled balloon takes her high above Coventry Cathedral. The crowd looks up, applauding the young woman as she releases her parachute and begins to fall. A gust of wind picks up, catching the parachute . . . the audience’s applause turns to cries of fear.
EDITH GETS AIRBORNE
In 1888 the whole country was celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Ten-year-old Edith had walked from her home at 90 Fore Street, Ipswich, to the recreation grounds near Portman Road. She was excited. Today, to mark the queen’s special day, Captain Dale’s hot air balloon was going to fly above the town.
The balloon, Eclipse, was Edith’s first encounter with flight, and it sparked what would become her life’s vocation. Even as a child she must have known it was a dangerous occupation. Just four years after she saw Captain Dale he died at Crystal Palace in a ballooning accident. But fear was not going to hold Edith back.
Her father, James Wells Cook, owned two bread and confectionery shops in the town, in Tacket Street and Foundation Street. Young Edith had a comfortable upbringing, and could have followed the family trade. But she had different plans and nothing was going to stop her. At 14 she ran away from home and took her first balloon flight. Spirited and driven, Edith knew what she wanted to be.
Six years later Edith applied for the job of ‘lady parachutist’ for the Spencer Brothers, who had achieved fame doing parachute demonstrations around Britain. Edith made her first parachute jump when she was 21. Holding tightly onto the trapeze, she would be lifted into the sky as the balloon ascended several thousand feet. Then she would let go, dropping to a safe height, when she could pull her parachute cord and float back down to the excited waiting crowds. She achieved considerable notoriety, as newspapers eagerly reported on the 300 or so jumps she completed. Unpredictable as parachuting is, Edith never knew exactly where she might end up, and once landed in a remote spot on the Scottish Highlands, where she got lost for a while. On other occasions, she landed in a field inhabited by a bull and had to run to safety, and once parachuted into Ramsgate Regatta, despite the fact she couldn’t swim.
EDITH THE PILOT
In 1909, Edith travelled to the south of France to train as a pilot. What must Louis Bleriot have made of this short, determined woman, when she first arrived at his flying school? He had never trained a woman before. Just six months after he met Edith, Louis became the first man to fly across the Channel. Edith nurtured an ambition to be the first woman.
Flying was still in its infancy, and her risky endeavour required courage as well as skill, but Edith had plenty of both. She was declared the first British woman to pilot a plane when she flew a Bleriot X1 at Pau Airfield in January 1910. She was also the first British woman to fly solo.
The British press reported that she had “succeeded in leaving the ground and so becomes the first woman of British nationality to pilot an aeroplane”. Yet Edith’s skill as a pilot has often been overlooked, and it is only in the last decade that her contribution to aviation has begun to receive the attention it deserves. Edith was queen of the skies long before Amy Johnson (1903-1941), or Amelia Earhart (1897 -1937), yet these women are household names. The spirited Suffolk woman is only just being recognised.
“At 14 she ran away from home and took her first balloon flight. Spirited and driven, Edith knew what she wanted to be”
AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN?
When Edith performed her balloon stunts she used several fabulous stage names – Viola Spencer, Viola Fleet and Viola Kavanagh. This could have been a nod to the theatrics of the events, which were gathering larger and larger crowds and making her famous across Britain. But there could also have been a more serious reason. According to the Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group, Edith’s father wanted to keep his daughter’s identity hidden from his customers, so she became the slightly more glamorous Viola.
Edith knew the risks. In August 1908, she had a narrow escape after she failed to detach her parachute from the balloon and ended up drifting through the night, 25 miles from her drop zone, singing to herself to keep her spirits up. Edith always carried a small revolver with her when she worked. She said she never knew where she would land ...
THE TRAGIC FINALE
Edith wasn’t supposed to do the jump that windy day in Coventry in 1910. It should have been her colleague, Dolly Shepherd.
It was ten years since she had embarked on her unusual career, and her 300th jump. The balloon ascended as it should, but as Edith dropped back to the ground, her parachute was caught by a gust of wind that blew her onto the roof of Centaur Cycle Works. A second gust pulled the parachute to the ground, 40 feet below, taking Edith with it. She broke her pelvis and her leg, and suffered internal injuries. As surgeons worked on her, the switchboard was jammed with people calling to wish her well and asking for news of her recovery. Sadly, she didn’t recover.
Five days later, aged just 31, Edith died from her injuries. Her funeral, in London Road Cemetery, Coventry, was attended by over 200 people, yet Edith was buried in an unmarked grave. The coroner commented that he hoped it would be an end to “such antics”.
Edith died a famous woman, but history soon forgot her and relatively few people knew what she had achieved in her short life. This changed 100 years after her death, when, on July 14, 2010, a memorial ceremony was held in Coventry and a gravestone finally added to the plot, with the inscription: “We honour her life, lived to the full. We honour her determination, shown in an age which did not easily recognise the independence and contribution of women.
We honour her courage and the contribution she made to aviation, at a time when there were many risks and uncertainties in taking to the air.
May those who visit this grave, realise the enormity of the ultimate price she paid in the pursuit of her dreams and the part that she played in the history of aviation.”
Thanks to the Ipswich Society, there is now a commemorative blue plaque at 90 Fore Street, the place of her birth, now Neptune’s Café.
Planning permission was granted three years ago for a statue of Edith to be placed in the waterfront area, near her birthplace. A fundraising campaign has been organised, and £60,000 is needed. For more details visit http://www. suffolkaviationheritage.org.uk.
It will be a fitting legacy for the Suffolk woman who achieved so much, in such a short life. She deserves to be remembered.
Edith Cook from Ipswich, Britain’s first female pilot
EHORZ ULJKW The proposed site in Ipswich for a new statue of Edith
DERYH A dedication service for the new headstone marking the grave of Edith Maud Cook, London Road Cemetery, Coventry. Edith died in 1910 in a parachute accident in Coventry. From left, ltor Louise Argent (great great great neice of Edith Cook), Rev Carol Newborn, Councillor Brian Kelsey (Lord Mayor of Coventry), Martin Atkinson (Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group)
EHORZ OHIW A sketch of how the statue of Edith could look, by Geoff Pleasance