Unearthing the lost history of the lady aeronauts
To celebrate International Women’s Day, author Sharon Wright shares how she went in search of the forgotten women of early flight.
‘Wa-HOO’ I sneeze, as quietly as I can. Which is not very. It’s an unfortunate time to develop a dust allergy, sitting in a hushed library, researching among rare archives for my new book, Balloonomania Belles.
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I turn the pages of eighteenth-century memoirs, sniffing and sniffling into my crumbling tissue while everyone kindly pretends not to be irritated (I would be). Still, a woman has to do what a woman has to do. Isn’t that the whole point of International Women’s Day? What I have always had to do is tell people’s stories.
As a journalist my favourite jobs always involved meeting people. ‘And then what happened?’ I’d ask, as one extraordinary misfortune or triumph or secret followed another. People often accuse journalists of making things up. I always say they don’t have to. Now I have turned to true stories from history, as a non-fiction author.
I first encountered the world of the lady aeronauts (balloonists) more than 20 years ago, when I was a young reporter on the Keighley News in West Yorkshire. I wrote a story about Lily Cove, the tragic young balloonist who died in a mysterious parachuting accident at Haworth Gala in 1906. My career took me into national newspapers and magazines but for some reason, Lily’s story never left me. In 2014 I turned it into a play, a ghost story called Friller (she wore bloomers for her leaps).
As I read about Lily I soon realised that the Edwardian barnstormers were only the latest in a long line of fearless females who had been taking to the sky since 1784, very soon after the Montgolfier brothers invented the balloon and 125 years before the first aeroplane left the ground. The first flights caused such a sensation among everyone from fashionistas to philosophers it was dubbed ‘balloonomania’.
In Georgian England women were, politically and legally, second-class citizens. Yet here they were flying for goodness sake. I soon realised this was a little known vanguard in women’s quest for self-determination and economic freedom. They wanted a thrilling adventure and the fame and freedom that came with it. While some such as Sophie Blanchard in Napoleonic France remain well known most are not. No-one had gone looking for the whole, extraordinary story of the lady aeronauts, from the age of enlightenment right up to the gilded Edwardian era before the First World War.
The quest continues
The more I looked, the more I found. There weren’t only one or two daredevil divas, there were dozens and each had a gripping story. So where did I look? Cue crumbling tissue. I pieced together my book in the only place that matters, libraries. For me, nothing can compete with the physical record, however many antihistamines are required. I sought out archive material everywhere from original letters, artefacts, cuttings and rare books at the National Aerospace Library, to original Edwardian magazines and obscure histories at the British Balloon Museum and Library.
I spent hours and days combing newspaper reports from down the centuries. It made me sad to know just how much we have lost with the terrible decline of the regional press. So much life and history was recorded every single day in the century I was researching. They truly were papers of record. The clues were all there, as I meticulously tracked details through the archives to arrive at the truth. I turned detective, cross-checking, following new information, piecing together the narrative. I also visited local historians who are always so generous with their time and expertise, again lucky to be allowed to see original reports and documents that give life to the past.
Lily Cove will always be my favourite lady aeronaut, but up there too are Letitia Sage, the first Englishwoman to fly and Margaret Graham, a ridiculously accident-prone nineteenth-century superstar. As we mark the beginning of women’s suffrage this year, I admire Muriel Matters, the flying suffragette who flew a dirigible emblazoned with VOTES FOR WOMEN over London in 1909.
Our precious history
The world is racing carelessly along, trying to put all our shared history into digital formats. But that is just not possible. There is too much and every single scrap is invaluable. Not every piece of evidence and writing and pictures can be found on a computer screen, though digital resources are invaluable for different reasons.
There is also little to compare with holding a piece of paper or a book handled by the person you are writing about. As if it went from their hands to yours in the long, important journey to readers of every age. How many other stories risk extinction if everything is being impatiently sorted, some judged worthy of keeping, some discarded or forgotten?
I am so glad I found the lady aeronauts in time. The women I have come to know so well found their freedom in the clouds. I found mine in the library.
About the author
Sharon Wright is the author of Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas who First Took to the Sky, published by Pen & Sword. The book reveals the astonishing stories of the fabulous female pioneers of balloon flight. More than a century before the first aeroplane women were heading for the heavens in crazy, inspired contraptions that could bring death or glory and all too often, both.