No doubt you’ve heard of Amelia Earhart, but what about the woman who inspired Ms. Earhart?
Aviatrix* Sophia ‘Sophie’ Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans, known at the height of her fame as ‘Mary, Lady Heath’, was once the most famous Irish woman in the world, celebrated for her extraordinary exploits as a pilot, and for her determination to live by her own rules. It is important to note that throughout her life Sophia would use several different forenames, all mined from her birth name.
Born 17 November 1896 at Knockaderry House, on her father’s estate in County Limerick, thirteen months after her birth Sophia’s life took a shocking turn.
Her father John Peirce-Evans, brutally bludgeoned to death his wife, Sophia’s mother Kate Theresa Smyth, a former servant of the house. Baby Sophia was found sitting in a pool of blood on the floor next to her mother’s battered lifeless body.
John had a history of violence toward Kate and others, and it was suspected he was mentally ill. Deemed insane at the time of the murder, he was interned in the Limerick Lunatic Asylum, ‘at the leisure of the Lord Lieutenant’. There is no evidence he ever served time for the brutal slaying of his wife.
A new family for Catherine Sophia:
Sophia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents George and Henrietta Georgina Peirce, and her father's sisters Anna Maria Peirce and Sophia Louisa Peirce. The family would call her Catherine Sophia Peirce. Her spinster aunties would actively dissuade her from any ‘unfeminine pursuits’.
Catherine Sophia proved a disappointment to them by growing into an accomplished young woman who pursued studies in agriculture at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. She was one of the very few women accepted into the school.
|Formerly the Royal College of Science, now part of the Government Buildings complex.|
Further discomfiting her relatives, Catherine became a sports aficionado. At nearly 6ft tall Catherine developed a taste for high jump, long jump, javelin and the pentathlon, and these 'unfeminine pursuits' proved a good fit for her.
Catherine would go on to co-found the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association in 1922, compete at the 1926 Women’s International Games and lobby for women’s athletics to be included in the Olympic games. In fact, her address to the 1925 Olympic Congress at Prague resulted in the inclusion of women’s track and field events in the 1928 Olympics.
During her studies at the Royal College of Science Catherine met her first husband, William Davis Elliott-Lynn. They were married 26 November 1916. She signed the marriage register Catherine Sophia Peirce-Evans. The marriage was dissolved in 1925. William died in 1927.
Up into the wild blue yonder:
Following the dissolution of her marriage, Catherine Sophia became Sophie, decided to learn how to fly, joined the London Aeroplane Club, took flight training and earned her pilot’s license 4 November 1925.
Sophie briefly abandoned flying in 1926, in protest of “the jealous and malicious treatment of women pilots by club officials and men pilots”. Women were banned from holding commercial pilot licenses, as menstruation was deemed a prohibitive disability.
Following a groundswell of public support, Sophie was soon not only flying her Avro Avian, a small open-cockpit plane, but working as a flight instructor as well. The years leading up to 1929 would prove stellar for her.
Sophie flies into the record books:
- First woman to fly solo from London to Glasgow.
- July 1926: flew all around England to promote light aircraft flight, landing at as many aerodromes as possible in a single day, managing more than 50. Successfully landed in an additional 17 fields.
- First woman to perform a loop-the-loop in a light aircraft.
- Established world altitude records, flying at 16,000 feet in 1926, and 19,000 ft and 23,000 feet in 1927.
- Only woman entered in 2nd International Aviation Meet at Zurich, Sophie came away with two prize cups.
- July 1928: Sophie, now known as Mary, Lady Heath, finally won the right to possess a ‘B’ pilot’s license, allowing her to fly commercial aircraft.
- Hired by Royal Dutch Airlines, Mary was the first woman to pilot a passenger plane.
- 1929: First person of any gender to fly solo over Africa, from Capetown to Cairo, and then on to Croydon Aerodrome, England. This harrowing journey of over 9,600 kilometres took months rather than weeks, from 5 January to 18 May 1929, due to a minor crash and numerous stops.
Amelia Earhart was so impressed by Mary’s flight over Africa that Amelia was in England to welcome Mary home. Amelia bought the Avro Avian Mary had used for the flight, and shipped it back to America. Earhart used it for training flights.
Mary’s personal life: inevitable bumps along the way:
On 11 October 1927 Sophie married Sir James Heath, becoming Mary, Lady Heath. He was 75; she was 30. In the press of the day rumour had it Mary needed a husband with deep pockets who could finance her desire to fly throughout the world. However, the truth is by 1927 Mary was already earning a tidy sum.
In 1930 in Reno, Nevada, U.S.A. Mary filed to have the marriage dissolved, on the grounds of extreme cruelty. The British courts did not recognise the divorce until 4 July 1932, granting Lord Heath a ‘decree nisi’, making him the injured party, based on his claim that Mary had already married her third husband.
It didn’t help Mary that the American papers reported she’d married her lover in Kentucky. Damned press! It was looking like polygamy until it was revealed the marriage took place in Dublin on 21 September 1932. This third husband was George Athenry Reginald ‘Jack’ Williams. Mary would go by the name Sophie Mary Heath Williams.
Mary’s extraordinary flying career and her personal style delighted fans the world over. At the acme of her career she was reportedly earning as much as £10,000 a year. Often upon landing, she would emerge from the cockpit fashionably attired, including fur stole, silk stockings and heels.
A crashing halt to a life's work:
The flying career of this brilliant aviatrix came to an horrific end on 29 August 1929 at an airshow in Cleveland, USA. Over the course of her career, Mary had had three previous but minor crashes with her plane; however, this crash left her badly injured, with a fractured skull, broken nose and internal injuries. She would never again pilot a plane.
Undaunted Mary returned to Ireland and founded her own aviation company, training the first generation of pilots who would fly for the newly minted Aer Lingus, the National Airline of Ireland.
Despite all of her achievements, unhappiness plagued this brilliant woman. Perhaps she never really got over the tragic beginning of her life.
Once the most famous Irish woman in the world, Sophia ‘Sophie’ Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans (Elliott-Lynn/Heath/Williams) met a sad end, dying 9 May 1939, after suffering a head injury in a fall on a tram. She was only 42 years old.
Her detractors in the press took a post-mortem swipe at her, saying Sophie had fallen because she was drunk. The coroner’s report revealed the truth. Sophie had no alcohol in her blood. He concluded Sophie likely lost her balance and fell because of a brain injury caused by the skull fracture she had suffered in the 1929 crash that ended her flying career.
The asterix I've placed to next to the word 'Aviatrix' is to mark it out as an arcane term. It was used to describe Sophie during her lifetime; that is the only reason it appears. It is entirely appropriate to refer to Sophie as an aviator.
If you mine newspapers for Sophie, you'll come across some interesting stories. Use all forms of her name in your search.
There has been at least one book written about Sophie, but I cannot speak to its accuracy.
1] Of Sophie: my colourised versions of what I understand are public domain images.
2] The Former Royal College of Science ©Éire_Historian