Lilian Bland, who was born in Kent, England in 1878, was known as “the flying feminist.”
In 1900, after the death of her mother, Bland and her father moved back to his homeplace of Carnmoney, north of Belfast, to live with her aunt Sarah.
In Northern Ireland, Bland stood out as a visibly unconventional woman for the time. She wore trousers, openly smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol. She rode horses like a man, that is, astride, rather than side-saddle, and was also proficient at the traditionally male-dominated sports of hunting, shooting and fishing.
As a keen photographer, she was drawn to the sports she loved as her subject, and her pictures appeared in various London publications. “When taking photographs of racing, polo, etc the best plan is to use your camera like a gun, sight the object at a distance, and follow it along, when you can ‘pull the trigger’ at the right moment,” as Bland wrote herself in The Badminton Magazine of Sports and Pastimes in 1905.
In early 1910, she spent much of her time constructing a home-made biplane glider, which she named Mayfly. The controls were apparently the recycled handles of a bike. Her first test flights were short glides from Carnmoney Hill.
Bland became more ambitious, and ordered a two-stroke engine from Manchester. It arrived before the fuel tank did, and so keen was Bland to get airborne, that she improvised. She created a temporary fuel tank from an empty whiskey bottle, decanting petrol into it via her deaf aunt Sarah’s ear trumpet. Mayfly did not become airborne that day.
It was in August 1910, on parkland at Lord O’Neill’s estate at Randalstown that Mayfly, complete with a real fuel tank, finally lifted off. Bland took her biplane some 30 feet off the ground for a series of short flights, making her the first woman to fly an aircraft in Ireland.
Alarmed by his daughter’s daring endeavours in the air, Bland’s father promised to buy her a car if she would stop flying. She taught herself to drive, then collected the Model T Ford car in Dublin, and drove it back to Belfast. By the following year, Bland was running a car dealership in Belfast, where she was Ford’s first agent in Northern Ireland.
In 1911, she married her cousin Charles Loftus Bland. He had become a lumberjack in Canada, and she emigrated there with him, to Vancouver Island, where they established a farm. They had one child, a daughter, who died of tetanus at the age of 16.
In 1935, Bland returned to England. She became interested in gardening and painting, and apparently retained her unconventional spirit by partaking in some gambling. Lilian Bland died in Cornwall in 1971, aged 92.