The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
BALLOONOMANIA BELLES: DAREDEVIL DIVAS WHO FIRST TOOK TO THE SKY
Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword History, 2018 www.pen-and-sword.co.uk hardcover & ebook 175pp; illus; biblio; index ISBN:1526708345 £19.99 hardcover & 14.39 ebook
Have you ever “flown” in a hot air balloon? What you notice most is the silence. There’s no engine noise. Nothing. Just the occasional noise of hot air filling the balloon above your head.
Lily Cove sat on a trapeze. It dangled below the balloon as it rose heavenward. Lily waved at the crowd of spectators far below, then jumped. A cord would then jerk open a parachute and Lily would safely drift to the ground, much to the awe and relief of the crowd. But on one Monday in June 1906, high above the Yorkshire Moors, near the Brontes’ home of Haworth, the parachute didn’t open and Lily fell to her death, just another name on the list of intrepid balloonists who died.
Elizabeth Mary Cove, who was just twenty years old, was an East Ender, born in Hackney on 7 November 1885, the daughter of Thomas Charles Cove, a bootmaker and serial sex offender. On 8 September 1903, he was sentenced to twelve months hard labour for indecently assaulting Mabel Trenerry, a girl under the age of thirteen years. He did time for the same offence in 1911 and 1912. We don’t know if Elizabeth was abused, but she left home when she was thirteen years old and in due course became a daring fairground balloonist, “Leaping Lily”.
The tragedy of Lily Cove is just one of the stories of the female pioneers of balloon flight told by award-winning journalist and playwright Sharon Wright in Balloonomania Belles. Balloon flights were hugely popular entertainments in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, attracting large audiences and they were usually among the attractions available at places such as Alexandra Palace on Bank Holidays, and, of course, “Ripper Street” Reid was an award-winning balloonist, but women were in the vanguard of the ballooning craze.
Women may have had second-class status on the ground, but up in the sky they were daredevils whose perilous ascents in all manner of balloons brought them fame and in many cases, like “Leaping Lily” premature death.
Balloonomania Belles proved to be an engrossing read and I think I’ll always recall the story of Dolly Shepherd, probably the most famous lady balloonist of the Edwardian age. In 1903, at the age of sixteen, Dolly was eager to see John Philip Sousa, the marching band composer perhaps best-known today for “The Liberty Bell”, used as the theme for the TV comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Ticket prices were well beyond her means, but she managed to get a job as a waitress that would let her see and hear Sousa for free. Imagine, then, what it must have been like when at one of the tables on which she was waiting sat the great man himself, joined by famed balloonist August Gaudron and Buffalo Bill Cody. It was a meeting that would lead to Dolly enjoying a ballooning career, fortunately a long and successful one. Just imagine if, as a teenager, you’d got a waiting job in order to see a favourite entertainer and then found them sitting at you table with a bunch of other luminaries!
There always seems to be a surprise book, one that doesn’t appeal for some reason, but which turns out to be a really good read. Balloonomania Belles was that surprise book. Warmly recommended.
Review by Paul Begg.