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Lady Mary Heath 2

Lady Sophie Mary Heath (18967-1939)


Born Sophie Peirce Evans in Knockaderry, County Limerick, Ireland in 1897. She earned a degree in science from the University of Dublin. Before she was 29, she had been married and widowed.

As Sophie C. Elliot-Lynn she was a member of the Great Britain 19XX Women’s Athletics Olympic team and a key force in founding the English Women’s Amateur Athletic Association in 1922.She wrote Athletics For Women and Girls: How to be an Athlete and Why in 1925. The book was based on papers she presented to the International Olympic Committee in 1925, and the preface is a talk she gave that was also broadcast by the BBC on April 9, 1925.

She was also a pioneering aviator. Lady Heath qualified for private, or ‘A’ license, but the International Commission for Air Navigation revolked women’s rights to earn a commercial, or B license, in 1924.

Lady Heath fought the band and the commission agreed that if she attended flight school and passed the test, she would be granted a commercial license. She did in 1926 and the commission recinded the ban.

She became the first woman to fly solo from CapeTown, South Africa to London in 1927-28. She went on publicity tours in England and in the United States. In 1928 she was received by President and Mrs. Cooledge.

An interesting story from that flight is that when she requested the British Air Ministry for a plane to lead her across the Mediterranean sea, she was denied.

Not to be defeated, she asked Benito Mussolini for an escort plane. He agreed on the condition that she share her experiences with him. In failing health in her last years, Lady Heath was destitute when she died.

Source : A Proper Spectacle : Women Olympians 1900-1936 by Stephanie Daniels and Anita Tedder and “Heath, Lady Sophie Mary” in Encyclopedia of Women in Aviation and Space by Rosanne Welch, 1998; London Times

heath_lomax_350Lady Sophie Mary Heath arriving Croydon, UK from Capetown, 1928

Lomax, Judy, Women of the Air, Lomax, 1986

Lady Icarus – the Life of Irish Aviator Lady Mary Heath – Lindie Naughton was published by the Ashfield Press, Dublin, in 2004.

A NEW biography on the woman who became the first pilot to fly an open-cockpit plane from Cape Town to London has revealed that she had strong Kerry connections.

For a five-year period from the mid-1920s, Limerickborn pilot Lady Mary Heath was one of the best-known women in the world. It was an era when everyone had gone aviation mad, due to the exploits of Charles Lindberg and, later, Amelia Earhart.

But Lady Heath made front-page news worldwide as the first pilot ever, male or female, to fly a small, opencockpit plane solo from Cape Town to London.

Back home in Ireland in the 1930s, she was reputed to have landed her plane on every flat field in the country and always made at least one annual visit to Ballybunion to see her Aunt C is, the woman who had brought her up.

Later on in her life, to the joy of the locals in Ballybunion, she would land her plane in a place called Larkin’s Field, and, for a small fee, take the more intrepid spectators into theair for short spins. On one visit, local breeder Jim Clarke presented her with a greyhound.

Now Ashfield Press has published Lady Icarus, the first full-length biography of one of the truly great Irish women of the 20th century. Written by journalist Lindie Naughton, it tells the tale of a remarkable woman who truly flew too close to the sun, combining high adventure with considerable poignancy.

Never one to sit still for long, Lady Mary had already spent two years as a dispatch rider during the First World War, pioneered women’s athletics in Britain and helped introduce women’s track and field to the Olympics.

Along the way, she was to travel widely and marry three times, eventually returning with her third husband, a Trinidadian, to establish her own air company in north Dublin.

Most remarkably, the woman born Sophie Peirce Evans at Knockaderry, Co. Limerick achieved all this despite the most unpromising of beginnings. When she was just a toddler, her crazed father had murdered her mother and was put away for life after a sensational trial.

Lady Icarus is published by Ashfield Press in hardback

60 Years Ago Saturday, November 27th, 1999

Lady Heath, the famous Irish airwoman, born inn Newcastle West, has died as the result of a fall from a tramcar, aged 42. As Sophie Mary Pierce [Pierce Evans -Ed.], she was born in Co Limerick in 1897. She was the first woman to hold the British Ministry’s commercial licence, which she obtained in 1926, and in that year she set up a world altitude record for light planes at over 17,000 feet.

Her greatest achievements were in 1928 when, at age 31, she made the first solo and light plane flight from Capetown to Cairo, and she set up another world altitude record for light planes at 23,000 feet. She acted as second pilot to the KLM Company, in Amsterdam, and flew on all their European routes. Lady Heath was well-known in Limerick, where she gave flight exhibitions.

Lady Sophie (Mary) Heath

“It may be merely the impatience of a woman, but is it not time we ceased to quibble over the exact amount in pounds, shillings, and pence each unit is to contribute to the cost of an All-red route and looked at the broader Imperial aspect? Trade, they used to say, followed the Flag. To-day and in the future it will also follow the aerodrome, for without speedy communications commercial competition is impossible.”

Lady Sophie (Mary) Heath

The Queen flew in on a Moth

Before Amelia Earhart, there was Lady Mary Heath, “Queen of the Skies”

The Lady-Queen flew into Jacksonville at 3 p.m. on Jan. 4, 1929. Her tiny De Havilland Moth appeared as a dot in the far-off sky. Onlookers gaped from the field. Perfectly and mundanely the Moth met the grass; the Queen alighted every inch the British Olympian who had flown the length of darkest Africa.

“She made the wings fast in flying position, climbing around the plane like a great cat,” the Jacksonville Journal said. “She was clad in a colorful cretonne smock and wore high, soft leather boots …She spun the propellor and started the engine herself while a score of men and boys stood open-mouthed in a semi-circle.”

Lady Mary Heath was tall and imposing, fresh and ruddy and brisk. She was a champion athlete – she shared the world record for women’s high jump – and she was a flyer such as the locals had never seen. Lady Heath had astonished the world the year before by flying an Avro Avian monoplane from the Cape of Good hope to Cairo, an amazing, puddle-jumping jaunt hard on the heels of Charles Lindbergh’s solo across the Atlantic.

Flying is so safe, the Lady-Queen said, ”a woman can fly across Africa wearing a Parision frock and keeping her nose powdered all the way.” (She made the trip with a Bible, a shotgun, a couple tennis rackets, six tea gowns and fur coat, in a time when men flew with boiled eggs and ham sandwiches.)

Lady Heath chatted with Jacksonville aviation enthusiasts Ralph Greene and and Robert Gamble at the airport. She and her companion, the wife of a Royal Flying Corps officer, were guests of the George Washington Hotel that night. Next day in a lonely sky the Lady-Queen and her Moth again became dots in the distance and were gone.

Lady Mary Heath

In 1929, at the fifth annual meeting of the women’s division of the National Amateur Athletics Federation (NAAF) it was decided to stick by their resolution of…

“athletic competition for girls and women, more rather than less, but of the right kind”(46) and opposed women’s participation at the Olympic Games because the Games involved 1) Specialised training for the few 2) Opportunity for the exploitation of girls and women 3) Possible overstrain in training and during contests”(47)

This indicates that some American women were the ones opposed to the idea of feminine exertion, while the Amatuer Athletic Union, the male control of athletics in America, appeared to be in full favour of women’s participation in the Games. When asked their opinion on the matter the AAU quoted Lady Mary Heath, vice president of the FSFI, who was also in full support of women’s participation.

The American college women athletes indicated they were also in favour of Olympic competition by approving entry of college in the Games and continuing intercollegiate athletics (49) which led the women’s division of the NAAF to “condemn” them.

In the The New York Times of 5 January,1929 (p.17). Lady Heath stated;

“If men and women were evolved from the same parent stock…. We need the same air and healthful exercises … We British did not send a team to the Olympic Games. One of the things which has mitigated toward making our decision to come into the next games finally, is the Splendid way your girls (America’s) were turned out and looked after.”

Sophie Mary Pierce (Lady Mary Heath)

Sophie Mary Pierce [Pierce Evans -Ed.] (later Lady Mary Heath) had a varied and fascinating career. She was born in Newcastle West Co. Limerick and after emigrating to England became involved in athletics, setting a women’s high jump world record and becoming Brisith javelin champion. In aviation she was also a record maker, the first woman to make a parachute jump, and the holder of two altitude records for light airplanes. Her flight from Captetown to London (28p) was only one of her memorable achievement.

Lady Mary Heath, Amelia Earhart, Avro Avian

Amelia Earhart first became interested in Avro Avian airplanes in 1928 after her goodwill flight across the Atlantic Ocean to England. While still overseas, and in great demand by members of the media, Earhart slipped away and met aviatrix Lady Mary Heath for a flight in her Avian.

Earhart fell in love with Lady Heath’s Avian, accepted an offer to buy it and shipped it back to the United States. Later that same year, she flew the small, open-cockpit biplane across America.

While Earhart’s original Avian has been lost to time and removed from flying records, the 1927 Avro Avian that Mendieta will fly this September is painted in the same silver and blue colors to match Earhart’s original airplane. It also carries the same official U.S. registration number (7083) and British registration (G-EBUG). Today, this Avro Avian is the only flying Avian in North America.


Avro 594 Avian III G-EBUG
Construction number (c/n) R.3/AV/412 29.10.27
Reg. G-EBUG, Cert.of Reg. No.1510 to Lady Heath, Manchester
85hp A.D.C. Cirrus II engine.
Image: Oshkosh, 27 August 2001, © V.N. Smith 2001

Further Reading
Lady Sophie (Mary) Heath and Stella Wolf Murray, Woman and Flying, 1929