Full name Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans
Born 10 November 1896 in Knockaderry, County Limerick
Died 9 May 1939 (aged 42) in St Leonards’s Hospital, Shoreditch, London
Cause of death Head injury
Resting place Surrey
Lady Mary Heath (10 November 1896 – 9 May 1939) was an Irish aviator and began life as Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans in Knockaderry, County Limerick, near the town of Newcastle West. She was one of the best known women in the world for a five-year period from the mid 1920s.
When the young Sophie Peirce-Evans was one year old, her father John Peirce-Evans, bludgeoned her mother Kate Theresa Dooling to death with a heavy stick. He was found guilty of murder and declared insane. His daughter was taken to the home of her grandfather in Newcastle West where she was brought up by two maiden aunts, who discouraged her passion for sports.
After schooldays in Rochelle School, Cork; Princess Garden Belfast and St Margaret’s Hall on Mespil Road in Dublin, where she played hockey and tennis, Sophie enrolled in the Royal College of Science in Ireland (which later became subsumed into UCD and is currently home to the Taoiseach’s office on Merrion Street).
The college was designed to produce the educated farmers which the country then needed. Sophie, one of the few women in the college, duly took a top-class degree in science, specialising in agriculture. She also played with the college hockey team and contributed to a student magazine, copies of which are held in the National Library of Ireland.
Before becoming a pilot Lady Heath had already made her mark. During the First World War, she spent two years as a dispatch rider, based in England and later France, where she had her portrait painted by Sir John Lavery. By then, she had married the first of her three husbands and as Sophie Mary Eliott-Lynn, was one of the founders of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association after her move from her native Ireland to London in 1922, following a brief sojourn in Aberdeen. She was Britain’s first women’s javelin champion and set a disputed world record for the high jump. She was also a delegate to the International Olympic Committee in 1925, the same year that she took her first flying lessons. In 1926 she represented the United Kingdom at javelin at the Women’s International Games in Gothenburg, coming fourth with a throw of 44.63 metres.
The following year, Lady Heath became the first woman to hold a commercial flying licence in Britain and along the way, set records for altitude in a small plane and later a Shorts seaplane, was the first woman to parachute from an aeroplane (landing in the middle of a football match). After her great flight from the Cape, she took a mechanic’s qualification in the USA, the first woman to do so.
In an era when the world had gone aviation-mad due to the exploits of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Lady Heath was more than able to hold her own. “Britain’s Lady Lindy,” as she was known in the United States, made front-page news as the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small open-cockpit aircraft from Cape Town to London (Croydon Aerodrome). She had thought it would take her three weeks; as it turned out, it took her three months, from January to May 1928
A scale model of the plane used by Lady Mary is on display at The Little Museum of Dublin. She wrote about the experience later in a book Woman and Flying, that she co-wrote with Stella Wolfe Murray. In July 1928 she became the first woman appointed as a co-pilot with a civil airline, KLM.
Just when her fame was at its height, with her life a constant whirl of lectures, races and long-distance flights, Lady Heath (she married Sir James Heath in October 1927) was badly injured in a crash just before the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929. Before her accident Lady Heath applied for American citizenship, intending to promote aviation among American women.
Lady Heath was never the same after. Following a divorce in Reno, Nevada, from Heath in 1930, she returned to Ireland with her third husband G.A.R. Williams, a horseman and pilot of Caribbean origin, and became involved in private aviation, briefly running her own company at Kildonan, near Dublin in the mid-1930s, and helping produce the generation of pilots that would help establish the national airline Aer Lingus.
Lady Heath first marriage was to Major William Elliot Lynn after which she was well known as Mrs Elliot Lynn. Her husband died in London in early 1927, and then she married Sir James Heath on 11 October 1927 at Christ Church in Mayfair, London. In January 1930 she filed for a divorce from Heath, on the grounds of alleged cruelty, in Reno, Nevada, United States and was awarded a decree nisi in May of the same year.
She was married on 12 November 1931 to English airman G.A.R Williams in Lexington, Kentucky, United States.
On 9 May 1939, aged 42, she died in St Leonard’s Hospital, Shoreditch, London following a fall inside a double-decker tram. At the inquest the conductor gave evidence that she was sitting on the top deck and she seemed “very vague”; another passenger commented to the conductor that “I think the lady is asleep”, before she fell down the stairs and hit her head on the driver’s controller box.
A pathologist said he found no evidence of alcohol but detailed evidence of an old blood clot that may have caused the fall; the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. On 15 May 1939 her ashes were scattered over Surrey from an aircraft flown by her husband from Croydon Airport.