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

EADT Suffolk - - Contents -

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.


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.


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”


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 ...


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. suf­folka­vi­a­tion­her­

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...

EHORZ OHIW A sketch of how the statue of Edith could look, by Ge­off Plea­sance

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