Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group

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Edith Maud Cook


Britain’s First Female Pilot



Early Life


Edith was born on the 1st September 1878 in Fore Street, Ipswich, where at the time her father James ran a Baking and Confectionary business. Her younger brother Bertie was born in 1881. Very little is known about Edith's early life, although it is believed that she may have witnessed the ascent of Captain Dale's balloon, Eclipse, in the recreation grounds off Portman Road in 1888, on the occasion of Queen Victoria's birthday celebrations. This event may have inspired Edith's interest in aviation. In an interview given many years later, she claimed to have run away from home, at only 14 years of age, to embark on a balloon flight.


Edith applied to the famous Spencer Brothers for a position as a lady parachutist when she was around 20 years old. This highly dangerous occupation entailed hanging onto a trapeze bar below the parachute, which was in turn attached to a balloon. When the balloon ascended to several thousand feet above the earth the parachutist pulled a release cord and descended by parachute to the delight of the crowds.


Parachutes and Balloons


Between 1898 and 1908 Edith had completed well over 300 parachute descents. Her popularity rose and the press reported her many adventures. In keeping with the tradition of her chosen profession, she adopted a number of ''stage names' such as Viola Spencer, Viola Fleet and Viola Kavanagh. During her career she had, by all accounts, fallen into lakes, been lost in the Highlands, attacked by a bull and carried aloft up to 20,000 feet when the parachute release jammed. Drifting alone through the moonlight, her voice frightened her when she started to sing. Famously at the Ramsgate Regatta she parachuted into the sea, wearing a cork lifebelt, as she could not swim. There is no doubt that Edith was a very courageous and inspirational young lady. Her adventurous spirit would lead her to her next conquest of the air.


Aviation


In December 1909, Edith Cook became Louis Blériot's first female pupil at his newly opened Flying School at Pau, France. Blériot had famously flown across the English Channel in July 1909. Known as Miss Spencer Kavanagh she made excellent progress and was making practice manoeuvres in a Blériot XI single seater monoplane before the end of the month. French and English journals of the time commented on her achievements, which could have included actual flights. However, she then joined Claude Grahame-White's newly established British Aviation School also at Pau where, according to a later report attribute to Edith herself, she made her first flight in early January 1910. At around that time the British press reported that:

 

“Miss Kavanagh has already succeeded in leaving the ground and so becomes the first woman of British nationality to pilot an aeroplane".   


In January 1910, a report that Marie Marvingt, a French athlete and balloonist, was the first woman to fly a monoplane was rescinded. None of the journals of the time, supported by new research, have revealed any other claimant to the achievement. Edith Maud Cook can, therefore, claim to be the first woman in the world to successfully pilot a monoplane.


July 1910


Back in England Edith continued with her parachuting activities. Standing in for Dolly Shepherd at Coventry on the 9th July 1910, she gave her last press interview. After discussing various types of aircraft she added:


 "As soon as I can get a thoroughly good all British machine I shall fly across the Irish channel (sic). That is my ambition. I have just returned from Pau in France where I have been practising on a Bleriot and have made several successful flights".


During her descent by parachute a change in the direction of the wind caused her to land on a high factory roof, before falling into the street below, breaking her pelvis and arm. Edith was rushed to hospital but died of her injuries on the 14 July 1910.


Headstone


On the 100th anniversary of Edith's death, Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group dedicated a headstone on her previously unmarked grave in the London Road Cemetery in Coventry. Attended by the Lord Mayor of Coventry, Vicar Carol Newborn, Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group, descendants, aviation representatives, Friends of the London Road Cemetery and others, the event was widely reported in the national media. Not only was this act a mark of respect, but also a necessary step prior to initiating the project for a permanent memorial in her home town of Ipswich.


The Dedication


God of the living and of the dead, help us to honour the life, the hope and the courage of Edith Maud Cook.


Remembering her association with this city and the tragic circumstances of her death, we dedicate this Headstone, which marks her final resting place, to her memory.


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 pioneering spirit, taking her place with others of a similar mind, of a similar passion.


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.


Amen        

Vicar Carol Newborn


Memorial Statue Project


In June 2013, Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group was granted Outline Planning Permission to place a statue on an existing granite plinth, in sight of Edith Cook's place of birth in Ipswich, in a suitably aspirational area between the town's University and College, and near to the premier Ipswich Waterfront.  The summary of the reasons for the grant of permission are given below:


"The proposal to erect a piece of artwork to Edith Cook at the location proposed is acceptable in principle having regard to the existing vacant plinth and the proximity of the plinth to the birthplace of Britain's first female pilot. Subject to reserved matters, it is considered the artwork proposed at this location would contribute to the sense of place and aesthetic quality of the area".


Donations


£60,000 is required to produce and erect the statue of Edith Cook in Ipswich. To donate, please click on the poster to download a form that provides details of what to do. All donations are important to the project and very much appreciated.


RAF Museum Podcast


The RAF Museum has produced a podcast ‘Women's Suffrage and Woman Pilots' that mentions Edith Cook. Click the link to download it.


Acknowledgements and Copyright


© Meeting Aérienne Pau 6/7 June 2009

British Library

Suffolk Record Office

© Musée de l’Air et de l’’Espace/le Bourget

© Musée des Arts et Métier/Paris

© Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group

© RAF Museum - Women's Suffrage and Woman Pilots podcast

Edith Cook Memorial Trust Payment Slip v3.pdf Edith Cook Memorial Trust Payment Slip v3.pdf