When just 1 year old, she sat on her kitchen floor in a pool of blood, beside a mother who would never move again.
This is not the opening scene of a modern crime tv show, but the start of life in 1890’s rural Ireland for one of the world’s most daring and trailblazing aviators, who became known in later life as Lady Mary Heath.
The story begins with her mother, an attractive tall brunette named Kate Theresa Doolin, who started her life in a respected farming family (though a few of them were known to have a fondness for the drink, but sure who didn’t in Ireland back then?) with land at Causeway, near Tralee in County Kerry. When working in a nearby town, young Ms. Doolin met a handsome, wild and often charming man called Jackie Pierce (John Pierce-Evans). She took a job as housekeeper for his uncle in Knockaderry, near Newcastle West in County Limerick, and later married Jackie in a ceremony in Dublin City.
Their daughter, Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, was born on the 10th November, 1896. Just a year later, she was being gathered up from her kitchen floor by distraught neighbours, taken from beside the cooling body of her mother, who had been bludgeoned to death with a stout stick earlier that day, by Sophie’s own father Jackie.
John Pierce-Evans was found guilty (but insane) at the murder trial, and locked up, while his daughter was brought to live with her Grandfather in Newcastle West, and raised in a rather restrictive fashion by her two maiden aunts there. Though she showed an early talent and passion for sports, her female relatives discouraged and even outright forbid this ‘unladylike’ interest. Sophie’s schooling brought her to County Cork, County Armagh, and finally to Dublin, where she could play hockey and tennis and excel at both. Third level education took her to the Royal College of Science in Ireland, as one of very few women there, but the country needed educated farmers and so she was allowed in. Sophie gained a top-class degree in science, specialising in agriculture, and played for the college hockey team.
World War 1 brought her to England and France, serving as a dispatch rider for 2 years, and by the time she moved from Ireland to Scotland, her reputation for being an “unsuitable” influence on women preceded her. Just after the war, Sophie received a University placement in Aberdeen, and as she had married her first husband, started life in the UK as Sophie Mary Eliott-Lynn. Her Irish aunts were aghast at the thought of the bad impression she might make on her young cousins, writing to their mother with the admonition “For Mercy’s sake, Lily, don’t let Sophie get hold of the girls.”
Moving from Scotland to London in 1922, it was clear sports had a firm hold of her. She helped found a Women’s Association which became the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association in 1926, and she served as the joint secretary while continuously campaigning for the inclusion of a full women’s programme at the Olympics. She set a world record for the High Jump, and became the first women’s javelin champion in Britain. In 1925 she had travelled as a delegate to the International Olympic Council, and it was there she first took flying lessons. Her book (the first of its kind), entitled ‘Athletics for Women and Girls’, was published the same year. By 1926 she was representing the UK at javelin at the Women’s International Games in Gothenburg, and came 4th, throwing 44.63 metres. Her Irish records for the shot and discus were not bettered until the 1960’s.
From 1925 through to 1929, Sophie was probably the most famous Irish woman on the planet. Those first few flying lessons turned into a burning passion for aviation, and she shifted her pioneering spirit to the skies. Though Amelia Earhart had been firing imaginations and setting records since 1922, Britain was not ready to embrace female liberation, and Sophie fought prejudice and ignorance to become the first woman in Britain or Ireland to get her commercial pilot’s license. Her test included proving to a panel of men that she could control an aircraft… at all times of the month.
Her first marriage had not been a happy one, and she was estranged from her husband, Major William Elliot Lynn, when he died in early 1927. Immediately she sought a new husband, preferably one who could finance her flying until she could make a living from it, and made a list of the wealthiest British bachelors. On selecting and marrying Sir James Heath – who was 45 years her senior – on 11 October 1927, she became Lady Heath (though she is often referred to as ‘Lady Mary Heath’). By then she had already set a number of altitude records for small aircraft, and also for a heavy Shorts seaplane. Lady Heath landed quite spectacularly in the middle of a football match after becoming the first woman to parachute from a plane, and in 1927, was the first female pilot to win an open race.
American newspapers loved her, calling her “Britain’s Lady Lindy” (after Charles Lindberg), but her exploits also made the front pages in Ireland, Britain, South Africa, France and the Netherlands. She planned to fly home from Lecturing in South Africa to become the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small open-cockpit aircraft from Cape Town to London, landing at Croydon Aerodrome. Taking off in January 1928, it took her 3 months rather than her planned weeks, but on the 17th May her Avro Avian biplane made a successful if bumpy landing in England. Despite having piloted and maintained the plane through 9,000 miles, then 32-year-old stepped to greet the swarming crowd looking fabulous in heeled shoes, silk stockings, pleated skirt, fur coat and a cloche hat.
Lady Heath was determined to earn her way as a pilot. She would give joyrides at air shows, and she often flew back to Ireland, where thousands would gather on her arrival to see the airplane and pay her to go up in it, if they could afford it. She’s remembered in Ballybunion, County Kerry, where she’d go to visit her aunt Cis, by local lads who still say “she was good at the sales talk”; there’d always be more ready to go up with her once the last lot had shakily departed her plane. She turned that silver tongue to lobbying for a job as a commercial pilot, and eventually succeeded with the Dutch airline KLM. Though it didn’t last – the Dutch and British Press turned on her quite viciously and she was losing her public standing very rapidly – for a time she flew as first officer on European routes. Another record was achieved – she was the first woman to fly a commercial aircraft.
Surprised and hurt by the European backlash she had received, Lady Heath took up an invitation to lecture and promote flying in the USA. She had met Amelia Earhart when the American crossed the Atlantic and landed in London, and invited her to fly in the Avro Avian. Earhart had been so impressed she had promptly bought the biplane and took it back to America with her. Following across the Atlantic made sense, and by then the proper training of pilots and ensuring reliable equipment had started to feature strongly for Lady Heath.
In July 1929, she wrote an article for Scientific American magazine, entitled ‘Is Flying Safe?’ Worldwide, flying had become very popular, and in Britain by then graduating pilots had to have at least 10 hours of instruction before they were let go up, with hundreds of men and women becoming pilots each year. Lady Heath believed that well-trained pilots, and construction standards, were the most important factors of airline safety. In Britain, in early 1928, 45,000 flights had been made with no accidents reported. She could see that America had the fastest growing commercial airline industry, with Stout Air Services in business since 1925, and passenger safety was a big concern.
Only a month after her article appeared, on 29 August 1929, Lady Heath crashed her plane into a roof while practising a dead-stick landing at the National Air Races in Cleveland. She sustained a fractured skull, broken nose and internal injuries, with newspapers reporting that her recovery was unlikely. She did survive, but the accident ended her piloting career. Her second marriage ended too; she divorced Lord Heath in 1930.
After remarrying (an English airman G.A.R. Williams in 1931), and moving back to Dublin, she founded her own private aviation company. She also founded the Irish Junior Aero Club, teaching young pilots to fly, and forming the bedrock for the national Aer Lingus airline which followed.
Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, the great Lady Mary Heath, died of head injury following a fall while on a tramcar in 1939 – the fall was thought to have been caused by an old blood clot – at the age of 42.