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.

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.