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Falling from the Skies

Spare a thought this weekend for Miss Edith Maud Cook (1878 – 1910). She died on 14th July 1910 following a parachuting accident over Coventry a few days before. She is buried in London Road Cemetery.

Edith Maud Cook

Edith was born in Ipswich. Between 1898 and 1908 Edith had completed well over 300 parachute descents. Her popularity rose and the press reported her many adventures. In keeping with the tradition of her chosen profession, she adopted a number of ''stage names” such as Viola Spencer, Viola Fleet and Viola Kavanagh. During her career she had, by all accounts, fallen into lakes, been lost in the Highlands, attacked by a bull and carried aloft up to 20,000 feet when the parachute release jammed. Famously at the Ramsgate Regatta she parachuted into the sea, wearing a cork lifebelt, as she could not swim. There is no doubt that Edith was a very courageous and inspirational young lady. Her adventurous spirit would lead her to her next conquest of the air.

In December 1909, Edith became Louis Blériot's first female pupil at his newly opened Flying School at Pau, France. Known there as Miss Spencer Kavanagh she made excellent progress and was making practice manoeuvres in a Blériot XI single seater monoplane before the end of the month. French and English journals of the time commented on her achievements. She then joined Claude Grahame-White's newly established British Aviation School also at Pau where, according to a later report attribute to Edith herself, she made her first flight in early January 1910. At around that time the British press reported that:

“Miss Kavanagh has already succeeded in leaving the ground and so becomes the first woman of British nationality to pilot an aeroplane".

Edith is from the time when the parachutist went up in a gas filled balloon and jumped, freefalling, holding on to a limp parachute with her hands via a trapezes bar or ring, and waited for it fill with air and open.

On 9th July Edith took off from the Lillywhite Sports Ground in Foleshill (just behind the Angel Pub). A change in the direction of the wind caused her to land on the roof of the Centaur Cycle Works. Unfortunately another gust of wind caught the parachute and she fell 40 foot from the factory roof sustaining serious injuries.

She was taken by motorcar to Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital. The news or Edith’s accident and later her death was reported throughout the UK reaching overseas to France, Australia and New Zealand.

An inquest at St Mary’s Hall returned a verdict of accidental death, but the coroner concluded that parachuting was a dangerous pursuit that should be suppressed. The Midland Daily Telegraph said at the time: “We have, we trust, heard the last of these adventurous feats in Coventry, if not elsewhere. There is no reason why the public should support and encourage such sensationalism.”

On the 100th anniversary of Edith's death, Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group dedicated a headstone on her previously unmarked grave in the London Road Cemetery.

Aeronaut women of the past have long been mostly forgotten in British and World History and for some their lives have been marginalised into a bracket of a lesser importance, although they were the ‘Sky Stars’ of their day. So spare a thought this weekend for Edith Maud Cook “a brave adventuress and in many ways a woman ahead of her own time.”

We thank Debra Wallace of the Dolly Shepherd Appreciation Society for the inspiration for this article and a significant part of the text. 

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