Sophie Peirce-Evans was born the 10th of November in 1896, from humble origins in Knockaderry, Ireland. She was a high achiever both in sports and academia but it was her flying achievements that gave her worldwide renown achievements. This is her story.
Sophie was brought up by her grandfather after her father beat her mother to death and was imprisoned in a lunatic asylum for the criminally insane. Her traumatic childhood and boarding in various schools didn’t stop her from becoming a brilliant student and accomplished sportswoman.
She then married British army captain William Davies Elliot-Lynn through an arrangement made by her aunt. He was twenty years older than her, which was partly the reason it eventually ended up calamitous. Elliot-Lynn returned to the army soon after their marriage and Sophie signed up as a dispatch rider for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.
Sophie then returned to Dublin to finish her scientific studies, which was heavily opposed because of her being a married woman and therefore not needing an education. During her studies, she became Britain’s first women's champion in javelin and represented Britain at the Women’s Olympiad. She also set a high jump unofficial world record before returning to her husband in East Africa. She soon divorced him after claiming that he beat her regularly.
Sophia took her first flight in May 1925 to address a conference of the Olympic Congress. It was here that she became ‘intoxicated with the whole concept of flight’ and by August she had become one of the first members of the London Light Aeroplane Club. She took her first solo flight in October and obtained a pilot’s licence the following month.
Being a woman pilot back then meant that even though Sophie set numerous altitude records, was the first woman to take a parachute jump and competed in air races often beating men, she still wasn’t allowed to take on passengers. This came from the official viewpoint that women were naturally weaker than men and that this position was compounded during a menstrual cycle putting passengers lives at risk. Sophie lobbied for women to be allowed to get their full licence, which paid off in 1926 when she became the first woman in Britain and Ireland to hold a commercial pilot’s licence.
Now that she had the means to make a living, she needed a plane. The resourceful Sophie then set out to marry one of the wealthiest bachelors in the British Empire, to fund her flying. She married Sir James Heath, who was forty years older than her. She then became known as Lady Mary Heath. He bought her a plane and had it shipped to be reassembled in South Africa where they were on honeymoon. Mary decided to fly the tiny Avian back to London, which was a flight no-one had yet made.
Mary flew out of Cape Town in January 1928 and encountered many obstacles along the way, which caused her to force land many times and even crash land. She wasn’t well accepted by all the locals but spent many evenings being royally entertained in British ruled territory. Mary then landed her historic flight at London’s main airport on 17th May 1928 in style. Most pilots landed in oil stained overalls. Mary landed like a lady, dressed like a model.
Her second marriage ended shortly after she landed, however. She then began competing in air races and in 1929 she clipped a chimney on a factory roof and her plane went straight through the roof. The destroyed plane led people to believe that she was dead. She survived and was in a coma and had a metal plate inserted into her fractured skull. A plane crash was never the end of her life though. After numerous unfortunate incidents and a few bad life choices, Lady Mary Heath suffered from a tramcar fall in London, where she died from head injuries without regaining consciousness.
In the golden age of pioneer flying, many women lost their lives. They willingly risked everything for the love of flight. Mary Heath’s pioneering flying achievements made her brave, determined, resourceful, and praise worthy. She deserves a place amongst the great names we speak of today and deserves a mention during Women’s month, having done so much to uplift the role of women in aviation.