Record-breaking aviator and athlete / Campaigner for women’s rights

Limerick / London

1896 - 1939

This pioneering aviator’s early life was marked by tragic circumstances that, in all likelihood, shaped her character as a person who always resisted gender inequality.

Sophie Peirce-Evans was born in Limerick to violent alcoholic John Peirce-Evans, and his housekeeper, Teresa Dooling. When Sophie was 13 months old, Evans brutally murdered Dooling. He spent the rest of his life in Dublin’s Central Mental Hospital, while Sophie was raised by her grandparents.

In 1914, Sophie enrolled in Dublin’s Royal College of Science. She was an excellent student, active in the hockey club and the Agricultural Debating Club, and edited the school magazine, The Torch.

In 1916, she met and married Captain William Davies Eliott-Lynn. She postponed her studies to become a motor dispatch rider in France in 1917–19, while her husband recovered from malaria contracted on service in South Africa.

In 1919, she returned to Dublin to complete her studies while her husband established a farm in east Africa. He ordered her to find paid employment, so she worked briefly as a zoology demonstrator in Aberdeen before moving to London. She visited east Africa for several months in 1922–3 and 1924.

In London, she became involved in athletics and by 1921 was ranked 2nd in Britain and Ireland in the high jump. In 1922, she became a founding member of the British Women’s Amateur Athletic Association; by 1924, it had 23,000 members, and Sophie was its president. She represented Britain in the Women’s Modern Olympic Games in Paris in 1922, competing in front of over 30,000 spectators.

By late 1923, Sophie shared the women’s world record for high jump (1.485m) with American Elizabeth Stine. She published articles on athletics and, in 1925, read the preface to her book, Athletics for Girls and Women in a BBC radio broadcast. She presented papers on women’s sport at the 8th Olympic Congress in Prague, citing childbearing as evidence of the capabilities of women’s bodies.

A turning-point came in August 1925, when she became one of the first members of the London Aeroplane Club. She persisted with flying lessons despite financial difficulties, and received her private pilot’s licence on 4 November.

Lady Mary Heath by Séan Branigan of Storyboard Workshop

Lady Mary Heath by Séan Branigan of Storyboard Workshop

However, in April 1924 the International Commission for Air Navigation had passed a resolution banning women from operating commercial aircraft, treating menstruation as a disability. Sophie joined forces with journalist Stella Wolfe Murray to win a difficult campaign against the resolution, detailed in their book, Women and Flying (1929). Sophie thereby became Britain’s first officially recognised female commercial pilot, paving the way for other women to follow and performing public flight demonstrations and stunts. She was elected a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, but as a woman was not permitted to attend meetings. The Society brushed off her letters of complaint.

After the death of her first husband, she married 75-year-old Sir James Heath, a wealthy collier owner and MP. She was henceforth known as Lady Mary Heath.

In autumn 1927, the pair set off by steam liner for Cape Town with her brand new Avro Avian safely stowed in the hold. She launched her famous south–north flyover of Africa on 5 Jan 1928, landing in Croydon on 18 May. For this feat she was elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, an honour reserved for the most intrepid explorers.

Thereafter, her star went into decline. In 1931, she divorced Sir James and married her Jamaican lover Reginald ‘Jack’ Williams, who she met in America; the marriage lasted only four years.

In August 1929, Lady Mary was seriously injured when her plane crashed through a factory roof in Ohio. She never fully recovered, and it was probably as a result of long-term head injury that she died after falling from a London tram in May 1939. The tenacity of her early victories for women in athletics and aviation remain, however, to secure her pioneering legacy.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Lindie Naughton, Lady Icarus: The Life of Irish Aviator Lady Mary Heath (Ashfield Press, 2004).

The Queen of the Skies will be celebrated in a new play entitled ‘I see you’, written and performed by Amy De Bhrún as part of the Herstory programme. 

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  

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