Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


I RECENTLY ENJOYED another encounter with Miss Dolly Shepherd, pioneer parachutist and fairground entertainer in the Edwardian era. Our first meeting was in “I ♥ Aviatrices,” here in the SimanaitisSays review of Mary Cadogan’s Women with Wings: Female Flyers in Fact and Fiction. More recently, Dolly reappeared in “When the Fighting Was Finished,” by Peter Hart, in BBC History Magazine, Christmas 2018. And I learned a great deal from Kate Dyson’s memories of her great-great-aunt shared at West Hill Whistler.

There’s also a book co-authored by Dolly Shepherd, her daughter Molly Sedgwick, and Peter Hearn.

When the ‘Chute Went Up: Adventures of a Pioneer Lady Parachutist, by Dolly Shepherd, Molly Sedgwick, and Peter Hearn, Skyline, 1996.

That is, not only did Dolly Shepherd excel at Edwardian parachuting and fairground entertainment, she lived a life full of adventure and familial affection, as described here at SimanaitisSays in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow.

Elizabeth “Dolly” Shepherd, 1886–1983, English parachutist, fairground entertainer, adventuress, and author. Portrait from 1910.

Shepherd was born in Potters Bar, Middlesex, England, in 1886. Her parents had an Ostrich Feather Emporium, a glamorous business in that era. An adventuress even in her teens, Dolly got a job as a waitress in London’s Alexandra Palace entertainment venue. Writes her great-great-niece and English actress Kate Dyson, “Aged 16 Dolly had found herself a job as a waitress at the Ally Pally. Why? Because she was desperate to hear the famous American Sousa Band and she certainly couldn’t afford a ticket.”

“And after the concert,” Dyson continues, “oh what joy, Sousa regularly sat at her table, and it was there that she overheard a conversation he was having with his friend [Samuel F.] Cody, Buffalo Bill’s namesake. Cody was a well-known showman, and part of his act involved shooting an egg from the top of his wife’s head. As his wife was unwell, she could not perform that evening, so Auntie, always loving an adventure, offered to stand in, and, to her astonishment, it was agreed she could.”

Samuel Franklin Cody, 1867–1913, Iowa-born British pioneer aviator and showman. Image c. 1908.

“She admitted,” Dyson recalls, “that had she known that he would be wearing a blindfold, she might have had some misgivings. The performance went well, and as a thank you, Cody, who was also an aeronautical pioneer working with kites, offered to show Auntie the aeronautical workshop at the Ally Pally. This was the beginning.”

Dolly was 17 when she took up ballooning.

And, then, as we’ll see tomorrow in Part 2, her life got really interesting. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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