"...to seek and to find the past, a lineage, a history, a family built on a flesh and bone foundation."

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A Loop-the-loop life: Sophie Peirce-Evans, Irish Aviatrix’

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



Saturday, November 7, 2020

’On a Celtic cross, a young soldier in a photograph'

As the first world war began how many Irish families proudly affixed to the parlour wall a portrait of their fine young man in his uniform? How many of those portraits were trimmed in black crepe by the war's end in 1918, as a picture that was once a point of pride became an icon of mourning?

On this blog I have shared the stories of the young men in our family — William Dunne, Thomas Michael Kettle and William Pell — who were killed during the First World War. These stories secure our connection to them, and images of them serve to prompt remembrance. 

This blog post is about another young man in an image, a young man to whom I am not related, who also gave his life on a battlefield in Europe so very long ago.

Sometimes when I am in a cemetery I find myself drawn to the grave of someone to whom I have no connection. Perhaps there is something about a carved detail on the stone, or maybe a line in the inscription, that makes me want to know more about those in whose memory the marker was erected.

On an unseasonably warm day, I was at Glasnevin to lay flowers on family graves. Nearby the grave of one of my maternal great-grandmother's sisters, out of the corner of my eye I saw a photograph affixed to a simple Celtic cross, and I felt drawn to look at it.

It turned out to be a very old image of a young man in uniform. I felt compelled to learn more about the tender looking soldier gazing out of that image. The inscription on the stone provided many details which helped to guide me in finding out more about him and his family.

The stone reads,

In / Loving Memory / of / Elizabeth Lyons / 27 High St. / Beloved Wife Of / John Lyons / Died 1st April 1897 / Aged 32 years / Her daughter / Elizabeth M / Died 18th July 1897 / Aged 3 years / and her son / Sergeant Francis Lyons / No. 6626 1st Batt. R.D.F. / Killed in Action France / 21st March 1918 / Her Sister / Julia Byrne / Died 27th Aug. 1926 / R.I.P. / Sacred Heart of Jesus / Have Mercy On Their Souls.

The image that drew me to this grave is of the Lyons' son Francis. As the inscription on the stone attests, Francis was a soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The addition of his service number 6626 made it easier for me to find his First World War record of service.

Who was Francis Lyons...

Francis Lyons was a Sergeant in 'Y' Company, First Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Francis was killed in action in France on 21 March 1918, at the very beginning of a period of battle which took place between March and August of 1918.

During this time of less than five months, the Allied Fourth and Fifth Armies were driven back across the Somme battlefields; thousands of soldiers perished, and Francis Lyons was among their number. Unfortunately in the case of Francis, his body was never recovered, so he has no known grave. However, he is memorialized on the Pozières Memorial near Amiens, France.

Further research on Francis Lyons's family led me to think that perhaps there are no longer any family members left to remember Francis, so when we are in France we visit the memorial on which he is commemorated.

On to Pozières...

The very first time we went to Pozières we left Paris early in the morning and drove north and west to Amiens, and the Pozières Memorial. Along the way we passed several smaller military cemeteries. The countryside was wide open and green, while the clouds rolling in had that slight timbre of rumbling within them that signals a storm. After driving for just over two hours, we reached Pozières. The imposing gateway is right next to the highway, and the cemetery dominates the surrounding landscape.

The principal gate of the Poziéres Memorial.

The inscription at the top of the gate describes those for whom the memorial stands:

In memory of the officers and men of the fifth and 
fourth armies who fought on the Somme battlefields 
21st March - 7th August 1918 and of those of their dead 
who have no known graves

Taken from just inside the main gate, this image gives a sense of the breadth of the memorial.

The Pozières Memorial commemorates the loss of 14,656 souls. The panels on the surrounding walls are filled with the names of those killed who have no known grave; the inscriptions are in order by regiment. As you can see from the dates recorded on the gate, Francis Lyons was among those who were killed on the very first day of this period of battle.

On the first day we visited, the rain held off, and after reading many of the other panels and following the numbers for a while, we went to panels 79 and 80, and there found the inscription in remembrance of Francis Lyons — LYONS,F. along with those of his fellow regiment members.

Though it is only a small gesture, each time we visit Pozières I trace the letters of the inscription for Francis, say a prayer to his memory and hope there are others who remember him. 

As with many of the war memorials in France, there are so many names inscribed upon the walls, it can be overwhelming. When I visit them, I think about all of those families who over the last one hundred years have come to France to search for the graves of their loved ones, or for the simple inscriptions upon walls for those who have no known grave. At sites such as Poziéres, Thiepval, the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot, Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) and many others, these are the last remaining marks of the lives of their lost loved ones. 

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