Thursday, March 3, 2011

Elizabeth "Dolly" Shepherd

MARCH 3 - Today's post provided by Chasing Ray

When I was majoring in Aviation Management and learning to fly back in the late 1980s we used to joke about the pitiful number of female students there were in each course. In a class of twenty I was lucky to have two or three other girls enrolled with me. We all knew each other (how could we not) and we all knew we were completely outnumbered. We learned a lot about aviation history in many different classes but with the exception of Amelia Earhart (who honestly was most remembered for disappearing) we learned nothing about women in aviation history. If you asked that class of new college grads in 1990 to name the female pioneers of the air they all would have stared back blankly. We knew logically that from the earliest years women had flown airplanes and turned wrenches on them and probably even designed some of them but we didn't know any of their names and we certainly didn't know their stories.

I can't begin to tell you how much I'm still frustrated by how easy it was to be that ignorant.

Dolly, circa 1910
Since then I have read about many women involved in aviation; one of the most obscure (and interesting) was early 20th century parachutist Elizabeth Shepherd. "Dolly" was a waitress at the Alexandra Palace in London when she met balloonist Auguste Gaudron who was looking for a girl parachutist for his act. In 1904 being a parachutist meant rising in the balloon basket to at least 2,000 feet then  dropping down over the side and hanging from a trapeze bar to which she was attached with a safety strap. When she was ready to let go (and Dolly liked to go quite high) she would let go of the bar, releasing the strap. At that point all of her weight would be placed on the ropes attaching her to the parachute which hung limp from the balloon. If all was right, the parachute would open and Dolly would fall slowly back down to the ground.

Dolly hanging from her trapeze, July 1911
 Dolly was a very popular entertainer in a period when balloonists drew huge crowds at places like the Alexandra Palace. She learned to launch with only the trapeze, giving up the security of the basket and had more than a few close calls nearly landing on rooftops or being hit by a train or car. On one flight her release cord jammed and she was trapped hanging below the balloon as it rose to more than 12,000 feet. It was three and a half hours before the balloon landed, her hands numb and nearly frozen on the bar.

Her bravest moment came in 1908 when a friend joined her on a dual jump. Her friend's cord jammed however and as the other girl could not get free, Dolly stayed with her beyond 11,000 feet. At that point, as it became clear her friend was going to pass out and thus fall to her death, Dolly pulled her close and they dropped together on the single parachute - the first tandem jump. Dolly landed on the bottom and was paralyzed at the age of twenty-one. A doctor decided to try a radical procedure and jolted her with electricity - it worked and eight weeks later she was back in the air.

Dolly's last jump was in 1912 when she decided she has pushed her luck enough. She wrote an autobiography of her exploits, WHEN THE 'CHUTE WENT UP,  and her daughter followed a bit in her footsteps, jumping with the British Red Devils parachute team in 2004 to celebrate her mother's memory. Molly was eighty-four years old at the time. Like mother, like daughter for sure!

I love how gutsy Dolly was; how she reached out for a career that gave her some money and fame but also required a lot from her. Few people - male or female - could do what she did and she did it all the time. Dolly was as brave as it gets in a time when there were few women willing to even drive a car. She hung from a balloon on a trapeze. I still can't believe it.

You can read about Dolly (and lots of other balloonists) in SKY SAILORS (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux 2010) by David Bristow - a recent title for young teens that includes many "true stories of the balloon era". I hope that someone writes an entire book about her someday and the other women who jumped along with her.


  1. If your post does not inspire someone to write a book about Dolly Shepherd, I’ll be amazed! I love children’s nonfiction because, as I mentioned the other day, the genre often brings these obscure stories to light, and also because great children’s writers entertain and educate in equal amounts with clarity and brevity - not an easy task! Thanks for a great post!

  2. Wouldn't Dolly's story make a great picture book? Too bad I don't have the talent for it or I'd try it myself!

  3. Hooray for Dolly! Let's see a book about her on the shelves.
    The "nobody else but Amelia" problem drives me crazy too. Even though my book's title is SOAR, ELINOR! I can't count the number of times people have pointed to the cover and declared "Oh It's about Amelia Earhart." When I told the archivists at the Smithsonian that I was writing a children's book NOT about Amelia Earhart they literally stood up and cheered.

  4. I totally hope that someone writes more about Dolly - I really only tapped the surface here (she apparently enlisted in the military and drove an ambulance during WWI).

    And kudos to you, Tami - as much as we love Amelia we are waaaaay past due for celebrating the many other ladies in aviation!

  5. Do you ladies know the pilot Iris Critchell? She lives in my town, Claremont, and was one of the WASP pilots during WWII. Just turned 90--maybe she'd be a good subject for a children's book too! She was also an Olympic swimmer and has received a Congressional Gold Medal for her military service.

    Check out this article about her 90th birthday celebration:

  6. I am pretty sure it was frowned upon for women not to wear dresses in 1910, but it doesn't look like Dolly cared. Good us and history.

    Margo is Iris Critchell well known in your hometown?

  7. Although they are few and have been slow in coming, there are a few children's biographies on other women pilots: Sky High by Marissa Moss about Maggie Gee, the first Asian American female pilot; The Daring Miss Quimby by Suzanne George Whitaker on Harriet Quimby, the first woman to fly the English channel solo; Fly Bessie Fly by Lynn Joseph or Nobody Owns the Sky by Reeve Lindbergh on Bessie Coleman, first African American female pilot. But we definitely need more! Shepherd sounds like a fascinating individual, so I'm interesting in learning more--thanks for the post about her.

  8. I think Iris Critchell is well known in Claremont, at least among the people who've lived here a while. She's been profiled in the local newspapers, certainly, but I don't think anyone's done a book on her (or maybe someone has but it hasn't been published!)

  9. The fantastic Leo Dickinson and his lovely wife have made a fantastic video depiction of Dolly's midair parachute rescue available on DVD titled 'dead men's tales - parachuting mishaps'. My name is Ian clark, dolly shepherd was my great great Aunty. I am very proud that she held me as a baby. I can confirm she was indeed a driver during the war, I am even lucky to be benefactor of some of her personal items, which I treasure, including 2 silk 'escape map' head scarfs with detailed maps of France and Germany and key info from the relevant historical times. I also have her bible, her treasured st Christopher, but best of all I have the knowledge that great people like you are keeping her story alive for others to hopefully draw much needed inspiration from. Thank You.

    1. Hello Ian- we are featuring Dolly in an exhibition and project about the women of Hertfordshire and wondered if we could discuss your family involvement in some way? Please email us at

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hello! So glad to see this Blog Post as since finding out about Dolly Shepherd (Born: 19th November 1886 – Died: 21st September 1983) on the 15th August 2015, it has been as if I have taken on a mantel to get this Edwardian Lady Parachutist, remembered again in the public psyche esp. as Dolly is a Daughter of Potters Bar, formally Middlesex, now in Hertfordshire and was a resident of New Southgate now in Enfield. UK.
      What started for me as some light hearted research has now somewhat taken the forefront. When I found out that Dolly Shepherd through investigation, although known of to some, is not celebrated in Hertfordshire, seemly through the hands of time and the housing development of Potters Bar back in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, her existence has fluttered away. Not far from Potters Bar, there is a museum dedicated to the work of Geoffrey de Havilland who as stated in her book Dolly came into contact with due to her parachuting aeronaut displays and work as she was accepted and able to move freely amongst these early aviators, other such remembered names she met include Charles Rolls.
      In Enfield it was only until I started to make enquires about Dolly Shepherd I found out she was little remembered or not known about, although I was told she is on the Census for the area of New Southgate. Dolly is also in the Guinness World Records for her first mid air rescue. I recently booked a place and spent the day at the Research Room at the Imperial War Museum in London, listening to recordings of Dolly, talking about her Entertainment Parachutists life and work during the First World War in France. I have visited the Alexandra Palace where she performed her first and last parachuting accent and descent, hoping to glimpse the painted mural of her; unfortunately it is in an area not open to the general public on non event days.
      Personally I would like to see her name at least to be official noted, would it seem a step too far to say maybe a plaque on a wall, like a named room in an official Hertfordshire Building like a theatre, which would be rather fitting considering her entertainment career or a Council Office room or even a Library. Yes I know a bit far-fetched, but why not?

      Until then I say let US Come One & All and Celebrate: Dolly Shepherd, her life as an Edwardian Lady Parachutist and work as a Female Driver and Mechanic in the WW1 in France, from Hertfordshire, Enfield, Around the UK, and Around the World and back again. Thank You 4 Your Blog Post! :)

  11. I'm so surprised someone wrote something... honestly I'd been trying to find more about her. Although, in another book I learned something said "Don't come back up or else you'll die"... I wonder what it was. Does anyone know?