Throughout history there have been many brave and courageous women. Many have proved that women are capable of taking on a number of challenging roles including those usually taken on by men. In the 21st century attitudes have changed and it is not unusual to see women driving trucks, engineering or joining the armed forces. Women also play football and take part in extreme and dangerous sports. But in 1906 it was a time when the woman’s place was in the home, caring for a family and husband. By the Great War of 1914-18 women turned their hand to keeping the country going by driving buses and working in the factories, while keeping the home fires burning.
However, in 1906 when the Pleasure Ground opened at Mount Cottage Farm, Cheswick Green, visitors flocked to see a dare-devil parachute leap from a hot air balloon. Madame Nellie Neill was prepared to brave death to entertain the crowds. There were no safety nets or precautions. Nellie would rise up on a trapeze attached to a hot air balloon with folded parachute, which she hooked onto the trapeze bar. When she reached the dizzy height of 8,000 feet, she would unhook the parachute and jump in the hope that the parachute would open.
Nellie gave an interview to a reporter from the Birmingham Owl on the 6th July 1906. She was due to make the ascent at 5.00 on the 14th July 1906 at Mount Cottage Farm near Shirley. Conveyances were to run from High Street Birmingham from morning until afternoon and the grounds could be reached by an easy walk from Solihull Station on the G.W.R.
Nellie was described by the reporter as a prepossessing, intrepid young woman. During the interview, Nellie was asked if the risk would be reduced by jumping from a passenger balloon Nellie replied:
“No, I feel much more capable of undergoing my leap into space when entirely unattended”
When asked if it would be safer from a captive balloon she pointed out that there is a limit to which, the height of a captive balloon can ascend. She explained:
“Sometimes I find that it is necessary to wait until my aneroid barometer records from 4,000 feet to 8,000 feet from Mother Earth, in fact in case of the geat becoming entangled, the greater the distance, the greater probability of it becoming righted”.
Asked how she made ascents where gas was scarce, she replied:
“Hot air is my medium and answers quite as well, certainly better than indifferent gas.”
Nellie was then questioned about a fatal descent that had recently been made by Miss Cove in Yorkshire and became quite irate when it was suggested that dangerous performances could be stopped by legislation. She said that she loved her profession and found that the excitement stimulated rather than depressed her. She deplored the interference adding;
“Where will our Waterloo and Crimean heroes of the future come from if we stamp out the element of danger from all our sports and pastimes?”
Nellie was also a good swimmer and on one occasion when the parachute carried her out to sea she was able to stay afloat in a strong tide for nearly an our until the boat came.
In six years Nellie had made over 100 ascents. Describing her experience she said:
“Sometimes it is 300 feet before the parachute opens. I love the sensation and feel more at home taking a bird’s eye view of the earth than I do on the ground. The world from above looks delightful. The people seem like marbles moving about in the slowest way. Even the Houses of Parliament impress me with their littleness when viewed from above. Donkeys braying, cocks crowing and motor hooting, are all sound that can be plainly heard in my rambles among the clouds.”
We might think that Madame Nellie Neill was a very unusual woman, well ahead of her time. She was by no means the first woman parachutists. She was one of a number of young women known as the Parachute Queens who performed for crowds of onlookers at special events. Many died or suffered serious injury. The tragic accident referred to in the interview took place in the same year when pioneering Lily Cove died from multiple injuries and shock when her parachute failed to open. After her funeral Parliament tried to introduce an amendment to the Dangerous Performances Act which, covered females up to the age of 18. The intended bill was to extend the Act to all women regardless of their age. At this time Lily cove was the fourth woman to be killed this way. The cause of her accident was not discovered even after inspection of the equipment.
The most famous lady parachutist was Dolly Shepherd, Born in 1886 she made her first ascent when she was 17. In her lifetime she made over 200 ascents almost losing her life on one occasion. She retired after her final jump in 1912. Dolly died at the age of 97 in 1983. She wrote her biography with the help of her daughter when she was 90. Her daughter Molly Sedgwick became a parachutist with the Red Devils. Dolly’s story is told by her daughter Molly “When the Chute Went Up”.
One can’t but admire the courage of these women in these fragile contraptions, daringly dressed in breeches, high boots and a jaunty little cap. It must have excited many a male admirer when the glimpse of an ankle would titillate the most respectable of gentlemen. No doubt these women inspired the Music Hall song “Up in a Balloon Girls.”
By Val Tonks