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Lady Mary Heath

Lady Heath pictured on right, as featured in the Lady Heath Documentary,
Lady Heath pictured on right, as featured in the Lady Heath Documentary,

 

Knocknaderry House, The Home Of Lady Heath Is Clearly Seen As Worse For Ware These Days, But This Is The Place Where The Life Of A Woman That Was Set To Change Aviation & Athletics Forever Began.
Knocknaderry House, The birthplace of Lady Heath
(© 2005 Byron Smith)

 

One of Ireland’s many forgotten heroes, Lady Heath, was born Sophia Theresa Catherine Mary Peirce Evans on the 10th of November 1896, in Knockaderry House, near Newcastle West, County Limerick.

From a young age, Sophie’s life was to be a difficult one. Her father battered her mother to death when she was only 13 months old. He had a long history of mental illness, and was sent to Dundrum Mental Asylum For The Criminally Insane in Dublin, where he died in 1916.

Sophie was brought up by her grandfather, a doctor in Newcastle West and her aunts. She was an outgoing and vivacious child, and her aunts - especially her much loved Aunt Cis - di their best to protect her from local gossip. What the young Sophie knew about her background is open to question; in later life, she would claim to have been adopted.


In her mid-teens, Sophie escaped the tedium of provincial life when she was sent to school in Dublin and later to the Royal College of Science, where she was an outstanding student and regular contributor to the student magazine. Money was always a worry and in 1919, she abruptly married her first husband, Capt William Davies Eliott Lynn at Rathmines Parish Church, Dublin, an engineer stationed at the Curragh. No sooner had she married than she signed on with the War Office as a dispatch rider, based first in England and later in France. She returned to Ireland after the war to completed her studies, with her husband's agreement, and then followed him to East Africa, where they had acquired a coffee farm. During this period she became a pioneer of women's athletics and a founder of the Women's Amateur Athletic Association.

Money continued to be a problem and with the marriage in trouble, Sophie returned to England for ever longer periods. In May 1925, she was a delegate to an Olympic Congress in Prague, travelling for the first time by aeroplane. It was a flight that would change her life. Back in London, she was one of the first members of the London Aero Club at Stag Lane and soon qualified for her B licence, gaining publicity as the first women to "loop the lop" and to parachute from a plane. She campaigned vigorously to be allowed sit for an A or commercial licence, which would allow her to fly for money, and after a long campaign, became Britain's first female commercial pilot.

By now her estranged husband was dead and she was on the hunt for a second, preferably with enough money to fund her aviation activities. She married Sir James Heath, aged 72 to her 31, in October 1927 and with him, immediately set off for South Africa, her new Avro Avian boxed away in the hold. In January 1928, she would fly the Avian back to London - a flight that made her name worldwide.

Late in 1928, she was in the USA, where aviation had become the latest fad. She had attempted to get a full-time job with KLM, but this did not last, presumably due to her gender and the difficulty in female pilots obtaining commercial jobs during the 20's. In North America, she lectured all over both the USA and Canada, and had a job promoting Cirrus engines, keeping her name in the public eye. In August 1929, her career effectively ended after a horrific crash while testing a plane during the National Air Races in Cleveland.

By the early 1930, Lady Heath had married (Lexington Kentucky  in November 1931) her third husband - a former Trinidadian jockey called GAR ("Reggie" or "Jack") Williams. They then came back to Ireland and went through another wedding ceremony in Tralee on 21 Oct 1932. As an inter-racial marriage, very unusual at the time, it caused some comment. Both of them worked as instructors at for Iona National Airways at Kildonan Aerodrome, Finglas, North County Dublin (See Kildonan Aerodrome For More Information).

By the time she came back to Ireland, her best days were behind her. Dispite this, she actively promoted aviation for all, rich and poor, young and old. Her genius for organisation remained and she helped found the National Aero Club, the Irish Aero Club and the National Junior Aviation Club (All later broke up, though some reformed post WW2). When Iona folded, she and Williams set up the short-lived Dublin Air Ferries. She developed a serious drink problem and although she helped found Dublin Air Ferries in March 1935  and was seen in Co Mayo when Felix Waitkus crash landed in September of that year, she was living in London a year later and rarely came back to Ireland.

By now her drinking problems were acute and with her company failing, she moved to London. She died 9 May 1939 " a poor unknown woman" after falling down the steps of a tramcar. She was only 43.

Compiled By Byron Smith, HASOI Society Director with the assistance of Lindie Naughton.

More information on Lindie Naughtons blog: www.ladyicarus.blogspot.com

 

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