How a pioneer from Limerick helped women take flight in the Olympics
DEFINING MOMENTS:AS SHE circled at such terrifyingly low heights over the brand new Olympic Stadium, few of the 31,000 spectators below could have known who was flying the light DH Moth two-seater with such nimbleness, and nerve.
Had they known it was a woman from Limerick they would probably have evacuated the stadium in uncontrollable panic.
The 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam were historic on a few counts, including the first modern Olympic flame, or cauldron, which burned constantly throughout the Games.
But in the wider context they are best remembered for introducing women’s track and field events, even if there were only five of them – the 100 metres, 800 metres, 4x100 metres relay, high jump and discus – and thanks in no small part to the woman flying that plane.
She was born Sophie Peirce-Evans, on November 17th, 1896, at Knockaderry House, close to Newcastle West – and was better known in her later years as Lady Heath.
Indeed, she would ultimately be better known for her aviation exploits rather than her sporting prowess, but without Peirce-Evans, the old five-ringed circus mightn’t have been so quick to welcome women, the likes of Fanny Blankers-Koen, Betty Cuthbert, Mary Peters, Zola Budd, and, perhaps, even the likes of Katie Taylor.
What is certain is Peirce-Evans played a vital role in the progress of women’s athletics – especially when it came to the Olympics, and which will later explain why she was flying over the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam in 1928.
She seemed destined to leave her mark in some way, judging by her upbringing.
Her father, John Peirce-Evans, owned a farm of 350 acres at Knockaderry, most of it in thick apple orchards, but it seems the pressure got to him: in 1897, he was found guilty of murdering his wife Kate, after bludgeoning her with a heavy stick.
He was sent to the Dundrum Mental Asylum, in Dublin, while the one-year old Sophie was raised by two maiden aunts, who were evidently opposed to anything remotely sporting.
Only when attending secondary school in St Margaret’s Hall on Dublin’s Mespil Road did she discover sport, first hockey, and then tennis. She was still steering towards a life in agriculture, studying at the Royal College of Science, then in 1916 she married a British army officer, Elliott Lynn, and although they divorced just a few years later, her life took an extraordinarily new direction.
By 1921 she was one of the most regular faces at sporting events across England, and while based at Aberdeen University, was elected chairwomen of the new British Women’s Amateur Athletic Association, set up in 1922. In the beginning it had one athletics club, and 25 women – yet within three years Peirce-Evans helped grow its membership to 500 clubs and 25,000 women.
Her first speciality was the high jump, and in 1923 she cleared a height of 1.48 metres at a meeting in Brentwood, recorded as an official world record. She twice competed at the Women’s World Games, in Monte Carlo, her best placing being fourth in the javelin, and in 1924, at Stamford Bridge, she threw the javelin, with the “two-handed” technique, 52.78 metres, which also stood as a world record.
She had an all-round athletic physique to go with her enthusiasm: standing six feet tall, weighing 11 stone, well-muscled, she was as fierce a physical competitor as she was a mental one, and her fast-growing trophy and medal collection reflected it.
Her interest and knowledge of women’s sport meant she frequently gave talks on BBC radio and in 1925 she wrote and self-published the first known coaching manual for women – entitled Athletics for Women and Girls.
That same year, as one of the leading figures in the campaign to give women’s sport greater recognition, she was invited by the IAAF to address the 1925 IOC Congress in Prague, on May 30th. Since its foundation in 1894, the IOC saw itself as a purely gentlemanly organisation, with little time for women in sport: in fact, Baron de Coubertin was vehemently opposed to woman playing any role in the Olympics, sporting or otherwise, and it effectively remained that way until his retirement in 1925.
After successfully convincing the IOC to allow women’s athletics into the 1928 Olympics, Peirce-Evans was flown home from Prague by Capt Reid, of the Royal Air Force, and inquisitive and typically fascinated, she quizzed him so thoroughly on the technical aspects of flying that he eventually turned around and asked: “Why don’t you learn to fly?”
She instantly agreed, and Capt Reid thus arranged for her to have lessons at the Light Aeroplane Club in London – and the rest is women’s aviation history.
In 1928 she married Lord James Heath, earning her the title Lady Heath, and she started that year by becoming the first women to fly solo from Cape Town to London.
But she also had a date at the Amsterdam Olympics, not as an athlete – as flying was now her greater passion – but as an athletics judge, selected to represent the Great British team.
As it happened, the British team had actually withdrawn their women from the track and field events, a minor boycott of sorts, in protest over the precious few women’s events that had actually been scheduled.
In any case, Lady Heath, as she now preferred to be called, flew her newly purchased DH Moth to Amsterdam, determined to carry out her duties, given the lengths she had gone to in securing proper recognition for women’s sport.
Landing at a nearby airfield, she then presented herself at the stadium gates, only to be refused entry, as one of the Dutch officials claimed she was not properly accredited.
Typically unperturbed by this, and as a woman who wouldn’t easily take no for an answer when the dignity and rights of women’s athletics was at stake, she ordered a motor car to take her back to the airfield, where she boarded her DH Moth, and promptly took off.
Soon she was circling dramatically over the Olympic Stadium, making one particularly low, sweeping pass, during which she dropped a large sheet of white note paper.
It fluttered to the ground inside the stadium, landing almost directly in front of the official judging box.
One of the judges picked up the note, and read aloud the two paragraphs: “I shall continue circling until tickets of admission are left at the front office.”
“Once these arrangements are made, place coats in the shape of a cross in the centre of the stadium and I will immediately make a landing and come along.”
Realising this was a woman not to be messed with, stadium officials promptly called for the tickets, then laid out the signal of agreement, as suggested.
Lady Heath circled a couple more times then veered back towards the airfield, landed, got back into the motor car, and returned to the stadium. She was quickly ushered in and took her place in the judges’ box.
The rest of her days are equally fascinating, although her flying career was never quite the same after a near-fatal crash in Cleveland, Ohio, just a year later. She divorced Lord Heath in 1930, then returned to Ireland in 1931, with her third husband, Jack Williams, buying the old Iona National Airways and Dublin Air Ferries.
When these went bankrupt, in 1935, she returned once more to London, where a combination of her old flying injuries, a fondness for alcohol, and then a fatal fall down the steps of a London tramcar finally ended her adventure, aged just 42 – and perhaps not appreciating how women’s track and field would be forever grateful for her courage.