Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Annie Edson Taylor - Daredevil Pensioner

October 24th 1901 would prove to be quite an eventful day for Annie Edson Taylor, as not only was it her 63rd birthday, but it would also be the day when she would be the first person ever to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Born in 1838 in  Auburn, New York, Annie and her seven siblings enjoyed a comfortable upbringing as her father Merrick Edson owned a flourishing flour mill. Her father died when she was just twelve years old which left the family distraught but not penniless, as he had left a substantial amount of money, providing the family with financial security.

Annie was able to train as a teacher, during which time she met her husband, David Taylor. Several years after their marriage their son was born, but he died within a few days. David went to fight in the Civil War and was fatally wounded in 1864, leaving Annie a widow at the young age of twenty-five.

Annie's life changed dramatically. She spent the following years moving from one city to another in various teaching jobs, but as she tried to maintain the lifestyle that she'd grown accustomed to, her savings and wages soon dwindled as did the work and eventually she became desperate. Her future looked bleak with a strong possibility of spending the remainder of her life in a poorhouse.

In July 1901, Annie read in the New York World  that the Pan American Exposition was taking place in Buffalo, New York and that many people would also be flocking to see the nearby Niagara Falls. It was then that the idea of her daredevil stunt came to her. She would attempt to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, a feat that no one else had ever accomplished. She hoped that her daring plan would generate enough money to bring her financial security.

She found a company to design her barrel and enlisted Frank M. Russell, a successful promoter of carnivals and other events, to publicise her stunt. Newspaper reporters were keen to interview Annie and find out why a sixty-two year old woman would attempt such a dangerous stunt. She told one reporter, 'I might as well be dead as to remain in my present condition.' When asked if she was contemplating suicide, she replied, 'Not by any means, I am too good an Episcopalian to do such a thing as that...I entertain the utmost confidence that I shall succeed in going over the Falls without any harm resulting to me.'

Annie's custom built oak and iron barrel was 4 1/2 ft high and 3 ft in diameter and lined with cushions and straps to secure her inside. A rubber tube connected near the top of the barrel supplied Annie with air. As a test run she first sent the barrel over the Horse Shoe Falls with a cat inside. The cat survived the experiment and the barrel withstood the drop of  158ft. Annie was delighted and more determined to take the risk.

Annie with her barrel and cat.

Just after 4 p.m on October 24th, 1901, several thousand spectators gathered to watch Annie perform her daring stunt. She was secured inside the barrel and set adrift further upstream from the Falls. Weighted by a 200-pound anvil, the barrel floated along the river, through the rapids. The crowd gasped as the barrel tumbled over the brink and plunge into the deep water below. Hidden by the heavy mist, the onlookers waited anxiously for the barrel to appear. When it slowly came into view, the waiting rescue boat and crew retrieved the barrel and pulled it on to the rocks.

The lid was broken open and Annie raised her arm and waved her hand to let the onlookers know that she was still alive. Amazingly she emerged just dazed and shocked with only a cut behind her ear. However, she declared that she would 'rather face a cannon knowing I should be blown to pieces than do it again.'

Although Annie's stunt did bring her some financial relief, sadly it wasn't to last and she lived her final years in poverty until her death in 1921.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Josephine Butler ( 1828 - 1906)

Josephine Butler was one of the great social reformers of the nineteenth century. Although a deeply pious woman, she tirelessly campaigned for the welfare of prostitutes and led the campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886.

Professor James Stuart said in his tribute to Josephine Butler, after her death, 'Mrs Butler was one of the great people of our world. In character, in work done, in influence on others, she was among that few great people who have moulded the course of things. The world is different because she lived...She was a great leader of men and women.'

Born in Northumberland in 1828, to wealthy landowners, John and Hannah Grey, Josephine and her nine siblings were raised with the staunch influence of her father's political views and activities and her mother's religious teachings in Christianity. John grey had high moral principles and a strong dislike for inequality and injustice. He was also an active member of the Anti-Slavery Society of Northumberland.

In 1852, Josephine married George Butler, an academic from Cambridge. It was around this time that Josephine became active in feminists movements. Both she and George shared a deep Christian faith and a strong commitment to liberal reforms.

It was after the tragic death of their five year old daughter, Eva, that Josephine stricken with grief and depression, plunged herself into her charity work. "I became possessed with an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener than my own - to meet people more unhappy than myself," she later wrote.

In 1866, Josephine, George and their three sons moved to Liverpool, where George was to take a position as the new headmaster in Liverpool College. It was here at Brownlow Hill Workhouse, that Josephine had her first encounter with prostitutes. Women that were forced by lack of work into prostitution to feed their children, were rejected by society as 'ultimately bad.' Josephine always found them 'courteous and gentle,' Despite being of weak and frail health herself, she would sit on the damp bricks of the workhouse floor and join the women in their tedious work of picking oakum for caulking boats.

The abysmal treatment and suffering that prostitutes received in the workhouse led Josephine to open her own home to these poor unfortunate women, many of which were disease ridden and many were children. Even though accepting these women into his home was jeopardizing his career, George Butler shared Josephine's compassion and welcomed the women and children, whatever their circumstances.

Before long the Butler's beautiful, grand home was full. Josephine, anxious by the plight of the many female penitents being discharged from the workhouse into a life of homelessness, set about establishing her own refuge for female outcasts. In 1867, the Butlers secured a building near their own home which became known as the 'House of Rest.'

She would train the women for domestic service or prepare them for emigration. Women could earn a sixpence a day, with which they were 'delighted,' making clothes either from donated recycled garments or new cloth. She wrote, " I have expended a good deal in materials to make clothes for the poor and have got several women fitted out to return to their homes in Ireland or America, which they were prevented doing by nakedness."

Josephine also had a keen interest in women's education and in 1867, she joined Anne Jemima Clough in organizing courses of advanced study for women. Together they formed the North of England Council for promoting the Higher Education of Women, of which Josephine was appointed president. After campaigning to Cambridge University to provide more opportunities for women students, in 1869, The Cambridge Higher Examination for women over the age of eighteen was sanctioned.

The campaigning continued and spread across the continent, following a visit by the Butlers to Switzerland in the same year. This led to the formation of the International Women;s Association, which extended Josephine's influence across France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. It was around this time that Josephine began her crusade against the Contagious Diseases Act, introduced in the 1860s and sought to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the armed forces by regular internal examinations of prostitutes. She objected to any laws applying only to women and this act was no exception.

Throughout her campaigning, she was often shunned and beset with 'violent and cruel' criticism, being referred to 'a woman who calls herself a lady.' The idea of a woman speaking about sexual matters in public was quite shocking, but still George continued to support his wife regardless. The Act was finally repealed in 1886.

Around 1885, Josephine came into contact with Florence Booth of the salvation Army, who shared Josephine's distress concerning the number of young child prostitutes 'walking our streets.' Girls as young as thirteen years of age were working in brothels on the continent.Under English law the seduction of a child aged thirteen and over was not a legal offence. This widespread organized trafficking of young girls was known as the White Slave Trade. Girls were misled to believe that they were going with a seemingly respectable foreign gentleman to Brussels, to a highly paid position or perhaps marriage. On arrival, the poor unfortunate girls would be handed over with false identifications to a terrible, cruel life in a Belgian brothel.

Together with William Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Josephine and Florence set out to publicize this dreadful trade. With the help of a former brothel-keeper, Rebecca Jarrett, a thirteen year old girl called Eliza Armstrong was brought from her alcoholic mother for £5, to be transported to the continent. Eliza was in fact taken to Paris, where she was put to service with a good Christian family known to the Salvation Army. This exposure led to an uproar and the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen years.

After George Butler died in 1890, Josephine continued campaigning until the early 1900s, where in the last few years of her life she became a supporter of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. She died in 1906 at her son George's home in Northumberland.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Lilian Bland, Pioneering Aviatrix.

In September 1910, the lesser known aviatrix Lilian Bland, not only flew Ireland's first powered biplane, but was also the first woman in the world to design, build and fly an aeroplane. Her American counterpart, Amelia Earhart was only just twelve years old at the time.

Lilian was born on 28th September 1878 at Willington House near Maidstone in Kent, England. She came from a long line of Irish descendants, dating back as far as 1670 and in 1900 her father John moved the family back to his native Carnmoney in Co. Antrim. Lilian became interested in photography and would often wander over Carnmoney Hill, her favourite place, where she would watch and photograph the birds soaring overhead and dream of joining them up in the sky.

She was an unconventional young woman, engaging in activities that were not appropriate for a young lady in the Edwardian period. She dressed in breeches, smoked cigarettes and tampered with motor car engines. She rode astride on horses and took part in hunting, fishing and shooting activities, of which she was very skilled.

By 1908, Lilian had established herself as a sports journalist and press photographer for London newspapers. During the summer of that year whilst staying with friends in Scotland, Lilian spent most of her time watching and photographing the seagulls manoeuvring in the skies above her, increasing  her longing to be up there with them and her fascination in flying. A postcard of Louis BlĂ©riot's monoplane with it's dimensions, sent to her by her Uncle Robert from France, further fuelled her aspirations in aviation.

Lilian attended the first official aviation meeting held in Blackpool in 1909, where she took careful detailed notes of the measurements and dimensions of the aircrafts on display. She also observed the aviators in flight, noting that 'they keep their heads to the wind and turn a corner by drifting round tail-first.' She read all the information she could in books and magazines, especially Flight magazine, and at her uncle's well-equipped workshop, set to work designing and building her own plane.

First she built a biplane glider, with a wing span of six feet, that she flew successfully as a kite, which encouraged her to start work on her full-size glider. She used materials of bamboo, spruce, elm and ash and remembering the seagulls in Scotland, she steamed the ash to bend it into shape to emulate the slight curvature at the tip of their wings. Spruce was used for the ribs and stanchions and she soaked unbleached calico in a mixture of gelatine and formalin, to make it waterproof. The skids were also made of ash and the outriggers were bamboo.

The engine bed was made from American elm and was fastened by wires attached to the upper and lower wings, to keep it secure. The fuel tank was housed in the chassis and the canvas pilot's seat was enclosed and secured by four straps to prevent the pilot from falling out. The controls were a bicycle handle bar. The finished glider had a wingspan of twenty feet and seven inches and weighed tow hundred pounds. Due to some doubt of its flying capability, Lilian, with deliberate irony, named it the Mayfly.

The Mayfly

The Mayfly had its trial flight on the slopes of Carnmoney Hill, where Lilian had enlisted the help of  four six-foot tall, burly members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and a young lad called Joe Blain. All five hung on to the Mayfly as the wind took it up into the air. The four constables promptly let go, leaving Joe to hang on and bring the glider back down to the ground. Lilian concluded that if the Mayfly could carry the weight of five men, it could quite easily manage an engine.

Lilian ordered a two-stroke air-cooled engine, from the newly founded A.V Roe Aircraft Company in Manchester, for the sum of £100. After a delay in the order, Lilian, who was unable to wait any longer, travelled by ferry to England and returned to Ireland on the boat train, with her new 20hp engine and adjustable-pitch propeller, much to the astonishment of the other passengers. She wrote in a letter to Flight magazine that 'it fitted very neatly into a railway carriage and also an outside car.'

Once fitted, the engine was slow to start and the vibration loosened the bolts and snapped the wires between the struts, so Lilian made further alterations to strengthen the biplane, which included fitting a T-bar yoke and a tricycle undercarriage. The Mayfly was dismantled and moved to Lord O'Neill's parkland at Randalstown, as the field at Carnmoney was too small for it's first flight. The only drawback of the park was the resident bull, but undeterred Lilian wrote, 'If it gets annoyed and charges I shall have every inducement to fly!'

As the engine was housed behind the pilot, the Mayfly was started by Joe Blain standing between the tailbooms and swinging the propeller. At first the flight wasn't very smooth with the plane making faltering hops at short distance, but after several attempts it flew to an altitude of 30 feet and stayed in the air for a quarter of a mile. Lilian was delighted and in disbelief  kept checking the wheel tracks on the wet grass to confirm that she had taken off. 'I have flown!' she wrote in a letter to  Flight magazine.

Lilian Bland in her overalls which she advised were, ' the best things to wear.'

Lilian continued experimenting with further flights and planned to improve the design of the Mayfly. She started a business offering her biplanes for £250 (without an engine) and gliders for £80, but this was short lived as her father who had been worried about her precarious exploits, bought her a Model T Ford motor car. She taught herself to drive and became Ford's first agent in Northern Ireland.

In October 1911, Lilian married her cousin Charles Loftus Bland and emigrated to Canada. She returned to Kent in 1935, where she lived with her brother Captain Robert Bland, until the 1950s, when she retired to Cornwall, She died at the age of 92 on 11th May 1971 and is buried in the churchyard in Sennen, near Land's End.

Lilian Bland is one of the pioneering women featured in Daughters of Ireland.


Monday, 15 December 2014

Lady Betty, The Merciless Hangwoman of Roscommon

Lady Betty was a notoriously cruel and fearful public executioner born around 1750, who according to Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) drew on the walls of her dwelling with a burnt stick, 'portraits of all the persons she executed.'

Her story starts in the second half of the eighteenth century, when in desperation to flee from her plight, Betty Sugrue, a destitute farmer's widow from County Kerry, Ireland, set off with her two children on the long walk to Roscommon town, in search of a better life.

Sadly, one child died of starvation along the road, leaving only her eldest son, Padraic. They eventually reached Roscommon and took shelter in a derelict shack and managed to survive by scavenging and begging from the gentry of the town. Betty became a recluse and only the support of her beloved son prevented her from succumbing to insanity.

Betty was known to have a cruel and violent temper, which combined with the relentless life of poverty, drove Padraic to go to America to seek his fortune. Betty was frantic and begged him to stay, but he would not be deterred and promised her that he would continue to support her, by sending money home. She was distraught and couldn't bear for him to go and for the first time hostility grew between them.

One night in April 1775, Padraic set off  on his journey, leaving behind his broken-hearted mother. Betty became a complete hermit, only going out at night to the inn where Padraic had worked, to get her food. Even the money and letters she received from Padraic did nothing to lift her from her misery and despair. Over the years she turned bitter and angry and developed a hardness in her character.

In his letters to his mother, Padraic told her that he had joined the Continental Army in New York, which would take him further west into the wilderness. He said he would write as and when he could. As the years passed, it seemed to Betty as though his home in Ireland was becoming more of a distant memory to him and she was doubtful when, if ever she would see her son again.The life of wretchedness and desolation had crushed Betty's spirit further leaving her cold and emotionless and slightly insane.

One stormy November night, a tall bearded stranger speaking in a strange accent came to Betty's door asking for shelter for the night.She cautiously let him in, perceiving from his attire that he seemed wealthy. He insisted on sleeping in Betty's hovel for the night, telling her that the nearby inn was full. Betty had no food to give him so he gave her a golf coin from his money pouch, which she noticed was full.

She offered the stranger her bed for the night, which he accepted, while she sat by the fire contemplating her situation. After the many years of sorrow, hardship and destitution, she thought it very unfair that the stranger should have so much money while she had none, so whilst he slept she took a knife and killed him, then grabbed his money pouch full of more money than she'd ever dreamed of.

Her joy of being rich only lasted a short while, as she searched the pockets of the stranger's coat and discovered to her dismay some letters addressed to her and after recognising the handwriting, she realised to her horror, that she had murdered her own beloved son! After having spent so many years apart she had failed to recognise him. In his writings, Sir William Wilde suggests that Betty's son did not reveal his true identity to his mother straight away because he wanted to see if she had mellowed over the years, but unfortunately for him she had not.

One of her neighbours, hearing her wails of pain and anguish, rushed to her hovel and saw the cause of her screams. She was arrested and imprisoned in Roscommon Jail, to await trial for murder, of which the sentence was public hanging.

Roscommon Jail

On the day of the execution, Betty was led out to the gallows in chains, along with twenty-five other prisoners, receiving the same sentence, but for less serious crimes. The crowds had gathered and were eagerly awaiting the entertainment. Betty was met with curses and hisses, which escalated to the verge of rioting. The commanding officer fired his pistol to calm the crowd.

The sheriff received the news that the hangman had been taken ill and so there was no one to perform the executions. Word rapidly spread around the crowd, who were becoming impatient and the sheriff was worried at the unrest that was growing amongst the people. Betty called out to the sheriff, offering to be a substitute for the hangman. The astonished sheriff agreed, intending to dispose of her afterwards.

Betty was freed of her shackles and to the amazement of the sheriff and the crowd, she carried out the hangman's work on the waiting remaining convicts, in a cold detached manner. Afterwards she was escorted back to the jail, her expression grim and unemotional.

In the meantime the hangman's health deteriorated and he subsequently died. Betty was chosen by the sheriff as the replacement and was allowed secure lodgings in the jail, with permanent employment and a salary. For her own safety, she was unable to venture out into the town, so she spent her days in her quarters of the prison, wandering the damp grey passages.

She worked proficiently and swiftly at her duties, gaining the reputation of  'the woman from hell.' She suggested to the sheriff that it would be safer to install gallows inside the prison and with his permission, she supervised the workmen to complete the new improved gallows, where the public could still spectate, but not intervene. Betty also had the task of flogging the prisoners, which she undertook with great enthusiasm, inspiring fear in her name.

There was a significant drop in the executions in Roscommon Jail, even during the year of the 1798 Rising and Betty's request at semi-retirement was accepted. Eventually her death sentence was lifted in 1802, after a visit with the sheriff to Dublin Castle, in recognition of her service to the safety of the public in Roscommon.

Betty was allowed to retire and spent her last remaining years tending her little garden inside the jail precincts. She died in 1807 and on the sheriffs orders, was buried at night in an unmarked secret place.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Colours of the Suffragettes

In 1908, the Women's Social and Political Union or WSPU, adopted the colour scheme of purple, white and green, that would not only distinguish them in their political movement, but would also prove to be a huge marketing success.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, editor of the weekly newspaper, Votes for Women, wrote, 'Purple as everyone knows is the royal colour, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity...white stands for purity in private and public life...green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.'

One of the intentions of the colours was to promote public awareness of the depth of the belief for suffrage in England. Women were encouraged to 'wear the colours' to show support for the movement and to stand out in the crowds during public demonstrations. They particularly wanted the men that were opposed to the movement, to be aware of the connection of the colours to the suffrage, in this they succeeded. The characters on many anti-suffrage postcards drawn by male artists of that period, were often draped in sashes and banners of purple white and green, presuming that a suffragette would be recognised by her colours, even by the opposition of the movement.

The head of the WSPU was Emmeline Pankhurst, and her daughter Sylvia was their official artist. She was a painter and designer of very high quality and her imaginative artwork was an invaluable contribution to the WSPU. She designed banners, flags, gifts and memorabilia, including badges and tea sets. The badges and buttons usually had the initials 'WSPU' or 'Votes for Women' and proved to be very popular, often worn on dresses and other clothing.

Portrait badge of Emmeline Pankhurst
source http://wikipedia

Large fashionable stores in London's West End, such as Dickens and Jones, Swan and Edgar, Derry and Toms, Lilley and Skinner, Burberry and Peter Robinson, were among the shops that advertised frequently in Votes for Women, often taking a full-page advertisement. This greatly increased the paper's profits, selling at its peak, forty thousand copies weekly. Votes for Women would support the shops by encouraging readers to wear clothes in the official colours for public processions and so a good business relationship formed between the two.

It was important to the women to be feminine in their appearance and not to appear mannish, as the opposition like to render them. They would often wear dresses of white delicate fabrics, with purple and green sashes. Christabel Pankhurst implored, 'Suffragettes must not be dowdy.' Selfridges in particular stocked a wide range of stylish clothes in delicate fabrics, to accentuate their femininity.

The shoe shop, Lilley and Skinner, displayed in their window, shoes in the WSPU colours and Derry and Toms even sold tricolour underwear in purple, white and green!  The Elswick Cycle Company in Newcastle, marketed the Elswick bicycle for ladies, enamelled in the WSPU colours. Mappen and Webb, the London jewellers, issued a catalogue of suffragette jewellery for Christmas in 1908. Brooches and badges were also worn in support of the movement, with many commissioned in honour of the suffragettes who were imprisoned for the cause, notably the Holloway brooch, which is now one of a collection in the London Museum.

Expensive dresses, coats, hats, furs and drapery were sold in the West End stores, while other merchandise such as household items, including china, tablecloths, confectionery and birthday cakes, could be bought in other retail outlets.

In addition to individual donations, merchandise in the tricolours proved to be a major factor in the financial success of the WSPU and gained them a stronger political advantage.