Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY here at SimanaitisSays, Dolly Shepherd got her show business start having a blindfolded Samuel F. Cody shoot an egg off her head. Cody was also a pioneer aviator, he introduced Dolly to ballooning, and her life got really interesting.

Dolly would soar, sometimes with others aboard, in the balloon’s basket several thousand feet above the crowd. Then she’d jump out of the basket and plummet to earth—until her parachute billowed out and brought her safely to the ground. Other times, she would swing on a trapeze beneath the balloon before her drop.

Dolly Shepherd, Pickering Gala, July 26, 1911. This and other images from West Hill Whistler.

Once, Dolly found herself stranded with a malfunctioning parachute as her balloon soared uncontrollably to 15,000 ft. Threatened by the cold and lack of oxygen, she was saved only when the errant balloon returned to earth on its own accord.

In 1908, Dolly and another girl ascended for a two-parachute drop, only to find the accomplice’s parachute failing to function. The other girl wrapped her arms and legs around Shepherd, and they both descended at an overly rapid rate. The hard landing on a farmer’s field left Shepherd paralyzed at age 22.

Dolly’s great-great-niece Kate Dyson notes that there’s now an oak tree planted in the field onto which the pair fell.

According to Wikipedia, Dolly lay in bed for weeks, unable to move, until a doctor experimented with electric shock treatments. One of the electric shocks was overly strong. It ejected Dolly from the bed and, miraculously, her vertebrae were realigned in the fall. Dolly soon returned to her ballooning/parachuting act, this time in the market town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in the English Midlands.

These days in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, there’s a Dolly Shepherd Close, about 0.6 mile west of the town center.

“During the war,” Peter Hart writes in BBC History Magazine, “she served with women’s units in London and Calais.” Her WWI military service included being a WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) driver and mechanic in Britain and France.

A lovely portrait of Dolly Shepherd c. WWI, described by her great-great-niece Kate Dyson as “a handsome six footer, sallying forth in full sail like a magnificent galleon.”

“It was during the First World War,” Dyson says, “that she became Uncle Percy’s driver. Their love blossomed, and so began another episode of her life.”

Dolly and Officer Percy Sedgwick were married in 1919. Years later, their daughter Molly made her first parachute jump, at the age of 83, in 2003. Good breeding there.

Dolly Shepherd with the Red Arrows in 1976.

Dyson recalls, “Auntie died in 1983 at the age of 97, but not before being invited to fly with the Red Arrows at the age of 83, and as a tribute to her, they did a fly past at her funeral.

Kate Dyson at the Dolly Shepherd mural at Alexandra Palace.

Special thanks to Kate Dyson for sharing her memories of Auntie’s life. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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