Parachute Tragedy at Haworth Gala
Lily Cove was a happy go lucky twenty one year old from East London who made a name for herself as a fearless and daredevil parachutist. She travelled the country with Captain Frederick Bidmead a stunt balloonist who was her manager, performing at fetes and gala’s where she jumped from a balloon and parachuted to the ground. Bidmead is reputed to have made 83 parachute descents in his career, and had already appeared at Keighley fund raising events for the local hospital in 1898 and 1900.
By 1906 Lily had made twenty one ascents by balloon and six descents by parachute without accident (Recks, 1983) Who’s Who of Ballooning) In that year she was asked by Haworth and Oxenhope United Friendly Societies and Tradesmen’s Association to perform as the main feature at the local Gala, to raise money for the Haworth and Oxenhope District
Nurses Association. She and Bidmead arrived in Haworth the day before the planned event and stayed at the White Lion Hotel.
The balloon ascent and parachute jump were fixed for the Gala Day on Saturday 9th June 1906 and the balloon was filled with gas from the local gas works. However, after six or seven attempts at launching over a period of ninety minutes the balloon failed to rise into the air. This was thought to be due to the heavy atmosphere and poor “lifting” qualities of the local gas.
In order not to disappoint the large crowd estimated at 6,000, Bidmead and Lily agreed to attempt the balloon flight and parachute jump early the following week. This event took place from West Lane Football Field on Monday 11th June 1906 which was a warm summers evening, perfect for the attempt.
The sequence of events of that evening are recorded by Campbell (2001) in The Strange World of the Brontes. For the purposes of this chapter I have supplemented some of this information with local, national and international newspaper reports and will summarise events as they happened.
The balloon was successfully inflated there was little breeze, the light was good and all the conditions were favourable fora successful performance in front of seven thousand spectators. Prior to the flight Lily and Bidmead checked the condition of the balloon. Lily then stepped on to the launch platform before taking her seat and fastened herself to a trapeze hanging underneath the balloon.
At precisely 7.40pm the balloon was released and rose steadily into the air with Lily waving to the crowd with a white handkerchief, whilst they watched the balloon drift towards Stanbury.
The plan was that once she reached sufficient altitude, Lily would detach herself from the trapeze and in doing so a line attached to the balloon would release and open her parachute. She would then hopefully float safely to earth.
In the event, the balloon ascended to 700 feet and at about 7.45pm, Lily jumped. Her parachute opened as planned and she descended to one hundred feet. It was at this stage that Robert Rushworth of Stanbury who was monitoring her progress, observed her shrugging her shoulders out of the safety harness for no apparent reason, as she neared Ponden reservoir. In doing so she detached herself from her parachute and plummeted to the ground head first, landing in a field near the reservoir.
Cowling Heaton who ran the nearby Scar Top Refreshment Rooms was first on the scene followed by Bidmead and a local mill owner C E Merrall who had been tracking the balloon in a pony and trap. Although Lily was breathing slightly she died within moments of their arrival. Her body was placed in the back of the pony and trap and taken back to Haworth where it was laid out in her room at the White Lion Hotel until a coffin could be made for her.
At approximately 9pm that evening, a local doctor Robert Thompson examined Lily’s body and found fractures of both legs and her right thigh and severe bleeding caused by a skull fracture. At the subsequent inquest at Haworth, a number of reasons for her death were speculated on including the fact that she had taken her own life. No evidence was presented that affirmed a reason for this.
Captain Bidmead gave the inquiry his opinion that Lily had deliberately separated herself from the parachute because she was drifting towards Ponden reservoir and as a non-swimmer had an absolute fear of water. Consequently she decided to escape the possibility of drowning by loosening herself from her parachute, whilst also possibly misjudging that she was nearer the ground than she was.
Cowling Heaton who had witnessed the accident at close quarters, said that had Lily remained in her parachute (which landed partially open twenty yards from her body), she would have lived. Campbell (2001) observes “Whatever the truth of the matter, it died with Lily.”
The inquest jury found a verdict of “Death by Misadventure” and decided to recommend to the Home Secretary that such exhibitions should be made illegal.
On 14th June 1906 after a short service attended by Lily’s father Thomas Cove and friends, the funeral cortege made its way to the cemetery from the Old White Lion. The whole village turned out to mourn her and members of the Haworth Gala Committee carried her coffin. The District Nurses Association took up a collection which paid for the granite gravestone which bore the inscription below.
On the day of Lily’s funeral Parliament was already preparing a Dangerous Performance Bill supported by Mr Gladstone the Home Secretary.
The Dangerous Performance Bill
Lily was the fourth woman to die in this manner since the first lady balloonist took to the air in Paris in 1784. In the UK the notable fatalities were:
1895 – Adelaide Bassett died at Peterborough when she descended through telegraph lines that destroyed her parachute and caused her to fall sixty feet to her death.
1902 – Edith Brookes died at Hillsborough Park, Sheffield when her parachute failed to open on descent.
Hansard (Volume 158) 14th June 1906 records the following exchange between Arthur Fell, MP for Great Yarmouth and Herbert Gladstone (Leeds West) the Home Secretary, in the House of Commons:
Fell: “I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been called to the death of Miss Cove when descending from a balloon in a parachute on June 11th; and whether he proposes to take any steps to prohibit such exhibitions in the future.”
Gladstone: “My attention has been called to this shocking case. I have prepared, and hope to introduce shortly, a Bill extending the Dangerous Performances Acts to all women whatever their age may be.”
The tragedy was also reported internationally as was captured by the following headline and comment in the New York Times of July 1 1906:
Dangerous Turns by Women May Be Stopped in England
“A recent announcement was made by Mr Herbert Gladstone the English Home Secretary that the Government proposed to initiate legislation with a view to stopping dangerous performances by women. The tragic death of Miss Cove by the failure of her parachute has brought the question forward in the most urgent manner.”
Two months after the Haworth Gala, the Hawera and Normanby Star (27 August 1906) in New Zealand carried the story Dashed to Death – Parachute Descent Ends in Disaster giving a full account of what had happened to Lily at Haworth.
So, Haworth is not just a stop on the tourist trail, a nice place to visit at weekends, or solely the home of the Bronte family. As this chapter has hopefully shown it has other history which in this case had an effect on the local, the national and the international scene, from what at first might appear to be a local event only.
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