S is for Dolly Shepherd

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for round 19 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if I miss out some of the alphabet.

dolly-shepherdRegular readers will know of my admiration for the early pioneers of aviation, but this week’s remarkable subject was not so much a flyer as a faller – Dolly Shepherd: The Edwardian Lady Parachutist.

Shepherd was born in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, in 1886 and was always an adventurous sort. At the age of sixteen, she got a job as a waitress at the Alexandra Palace, North London, specifically so she could listen to the famous American Sousa Band as she couldn’t afford a ticket.

But the person she actually met was Buffalo Bill Cody who was in London with his Wild West Show. She overheard him say that he was in need of a new target for his trick of shooting an egg off a woman’s head. Cody’s wife was the usual subject, but she was unwell and Shepherd immediately volunteered to replace her.

The young Dolly Shepherd

Cody had an abiding interest in aviation, first in kites and later in gliders, airships and aeroplanes, and the following year he took Shepherd to the aerial workshop run by the famous French parachutist and balloonist Auguste Gaudron.

Within thirty minutes of meeting Gaudron, Shepherd had embarked on her new career as a lady parachutist.

Parachuting had been around for a century or more but was highly dangerous since the primitive parachute of the time was no more than a canvas canopy that was impossible to steer and could not always be relied upon to deploy correctly.

In 1905 Shepherd made her first jump. This involved sitting on a trapeze slung below a hot air balloon as it rose to a height between two and four thousand feet before descending under the makeshift parachute. But things did not always go smoothly and on one occasion both the balloon and the parachute malfunctioned and carried Shepherd to a height of 15,000 feet. At such a height, the cold and lack of oxygen meant that she might easily have fallen, but she was able to cling on until the balloon returned to earth.

Dolly in actionAccording to BBC History magazine Shepherd said she liked to ‘go high because I had it in my head that if I had to be killed, I’d like to be killed completely: good and proper!’ She recalled that on one occasion she almost landed on a steam train. ‘That driver, he had some forethought: he blew the steam and just blew me off into a canal at Grantham.’

It may sound as though Shepherd made light of the dangers she put herself in, but she was well aware of the risks she took. At an exhibition she was meant to give at Coventry in 1910, she was replaced by Edith Maud Cook who was killed after a gust of wind collapsed her parachute and she was blown onto a factory roof.

But the event that Shepherd is best remembered took place at Ashby de la Zouch where she and a woman called Louie were to perform a tandem jump. This involved two woman being hoisted into the air. They would then vent the balloon so that it began to fall before parachuting down separately.

Tandem Jump

Tandem Jump

On this occasion, Louie’s parachute became tangled and useless and as the balloon rose to 11,000 feet, Shepherd showed remarkable calmness by getting Louie out of her safety harness and then with Louie holding on to Shepherd the two floated under one chute.

The sequence is illustrated in the image on the left and it is officially recognised as the first ever tandem jump and mid-air rescue.

The two landed hard, Shepherd taking the brunt of the impact that left her paralysed. Her doctor decided to relieve her paralysis with highly unorthodox electric shock therapy which remarkably worked and she was back under her parachute within a few weeks.

Shepherd continued to give exhibition jumps for another four years until one day, as she prepared to jump, she thought she heard a voice saying, ‘Don’t come up again or you’ll be killed.’ She gave it up there and then and two years later she joined the war in France as a driver mechanic.

When the Chute Went UpShe later married, becoming Dolly Sedgewick, and when in her nineties she flew with the Red Devils, the British Army’s Parachute Regiment Display Team. She died in 1983 and the following year her autobiography was published: When the Chute Went Up. The Adventures of an Edwardian Lady Parachutist.

Shepherd is remembered with a street named after her at Ashby de la Zouch where there is also a permanent exhibition to her memory at the local museum. And at the place where she landed following her tandem rescue, there stands an oak tree planted by the land owner as a tribute to her bravery.

For further information, see Shepherd’s Wikipedia pageWhen the Chute Went Up on Abebooks, Shepherd’s oral history recording at the Imperial War Museums, the memories of Kate Dyson her great-great-niece, Engines of Our IngenuityHarringay Online and The Awesome Silence of the Infinite Sky, a drama of her life.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

4 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 16th November 2016

    scary stuff!

  • Yorkshire Pudding 16th November 2016

    What a life she led!
    Looking at the tandem position illustration, I wouldn’t have minded practising it with Dolly Shepherd for half an hour.

  • Melody Steenkamp 16th November 2016

    Some people are truly daredevils….

    Have a wonderful ABC-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-w-team)

  • bettyl - NZ 18th November 2016

    I guess you have to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way to become famous–at least, in her case! What fantastic history. Thanks so much.


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