We have to go back to the year of 1906 for the Lily Cove incident, strangely, although this incident was not unique, it seems to be the one that keeps being retold -and now being retold by me :-). I found quite a lot of information on the Internet for this post, and I must mention a couple of books that I purchased ( for different reasons). Now I am not a book critic , but I will give you a personal opinion with no bias.
Bought on line (used) in new condition for about £3.00 +p / p – I found this to be an excellent book – full of short stories about the area ( including Lily Cove) – I have found only one error so far – so I have got a lot of my information from here. Then I also took delivery of this one.
This cost me 1p ( yes one penny) in new condition , and I’ve got to say it was worth that penny – JUST. Apparently the Author talks with the ghost of Lily Cove, – this book is so full of cliches, coincidences, and conspiracies – Sorry Mr Burns – it is going straight to a charity shop – where the customers carry Barge poles. Now I’ve digressed- I should give you a bit of background history. In the second half of the 19th century , and the very beginning of the 20th century – the Victorian and Edwardian era, Balloons (as in hot air balloons – but they were mainly balloons filled with coal gas) were seen as ” the future”, almost like Sinclair C 5 in the 1980s – but longer lasting. One such balloon maker/operator was a ” Captain Frederick Bidmead “, I have not been able to find out much about his background, or where the captain title came from , could be a former military captain, or even a self given title, or maybe a captain of a cricket team. Someone somewhere will have him in a family tree – please let me know if you do.
This is an image I borrowed (!) from a postcard. I have also borrowed a few more images – some from the postcard – well it is mine – it cost me 30p, and some from on line – I will mention when I use them, the rest of the images are down to my own legwork and Mrs W’s driving.
Now the idea with the ballooning, was to appear at galas, and fetes etc throughout the country and to give displays, to add drama for a number of years balloonists had been going up in the balloon and parachuting down . In 1898 Captain Bidmead appeared at Keighley Hospital Gala,went up in the balloon, and when trying to parachute down, the parachute ropes entangled with the balloon ropes. The balloon, with Captain Bidmead lashed underneath landed in Pontefract 27 miles away. At the time Captain Bidmead said that the jump would have been his 48th jump had he been successful. This was not the only incident with Captain Bidmead – he certainly lived life on the edge – but it is Lily we are looking at . Lily – or to give her , her correct name – Elizabeth Mary Cove was born in the Poplar area of London in 1886, and at some point finds employment with Captain Bidmead, – did she see him performing at a gala ? Did she find work in the balloon manufacture workshop ? Or was Captain Bidmead looking for a young woman to join the show, we will probably never know, but what we do know is that young women, for some time had been going up in balloons (more like under balloons ) and parachuting to earth – definitely a better crowd puller to see a woman do it – rather than a man.
Lily lived in East London, a poor area, her father was a boot maker, in the 1901 census , he is a lodger in Bow road, and a widower. In 1903 I have found Thomas Cove, ( a Shoe maker) in prison , I am pretty sure that it is the same person (Lily’s father) . Strangely I cannot find Lily at all 1n the 1901 census, but haven’t spent too much time looking , because she was here somewhere.
As I have previously stated, I could not find out how Lily began working with Captain Bidmead, but Captain Bidmead must have seen some potential in her and decided to train her as an “aeronaut, ” I.E to ascend in the balloon , then to parachute down to the ground; they first of all did it as a duo , using a double harness, then Lily started to do it alone, it must have been an exciting life for a young woman, almost like “running away with the circus “, the opportunities for young single women were very limited – either going into service and working very long hours, or working long hours in a factory – lily was traveling the country and being the centre of attention – you can see the attraction can’t you ?. I have got a picture of Lily (again from the postcard) – Lets have a look.
It has to be said at this point that older members of the public thought that ” A young woman should not be traveling around the country with a man that was not her Husband”; and even worse – just before going up with the balloon she would whip her skirt off , probably with a bit of drama, to reveal her legs (shocking !!) covered by tights and/ or long bloomers tied with ribbon. The reason for the skirt coming off was so that it wouldn’t interfere with the parachute descent, but it was all part of the show and you can just imagine all the young men drooling ( like young men do when a young woman starts to disrobe), and all the older women gossiping with each other and saying things like ” Has she no shame ? ” ” Shocking ” ” These young uns today – what must her mother think !” etc . You get the idea don’t you ? Lily was described as ” A good looking, well proportioned young woman”[ Peggy Hewitt – Bronte Country] . There is no suggestion at all, that the relationship between Lily and Captain Bidmead was anything other than a platonic employee – employer relationship, but he must have got to know her quite well.
In the year 1906 it was decided that the Haworth (West Yorkshire) Gala would raise money for ” The Victorian Nurses Fund”, and as previous galas in the town had been ” hit and miss affairs”, the committee thought that a special attraction – Captain Bidmead , should be invited to perform, I am sure that some people would remember him from his appearance in neighbouring Keighley. Handbills were given out and displayed in windows advertising the gala and all its attractions.
Captain Bidmead and Lily arrived in Haworth on Friday 8th June 1906, the gala was to held the following day, they had booked into the “Old White Lion Hotel” , at the top of Main Street, Haworth . Lily had room 7, and soon made friends with the young daughters of the proprietor, who saw her as a glamorous, adventurous, exciting, modern young woman. Lily loved life, she was an outgoing girl, and in the evening would often sit and chat with the other guests, and customers of the hotel where they were staying.
Saturday 9th June 1906 was gala day, the gala was being held in the football field on West Lane , ( now the site of the cricket field ?).
This is the where the gala was held in 1906 – currently the cricket club . Gala day was a hot still day and about six thousand people turned up, – a good turn out, there were all sorts of acts, displays, music, brass bands , punch and judy etc ;[ Peggy Hewitt] – but the star attraction was of course Lily Cove . Lily readied herself and sat on the Trapeze type seat under the inflated balloon, but the balloon would not rise into the air, six attempts were made before it was decided to postpone the attempt and it was announced that another attempt would be made Monday evening, Captain Bidmead said it was due to the Impure gas supplied by the local gas company, and the stillness of the air on the day. The following day, Sunday, Captain Bidmead repaired the damage caused by the manual deflating of the balloon , then they both went into Haworth for tea at the home of Albert Best, secretary of the Gala committee, Albert had become unnerved by failure and tried to persuade Lily to call off the following day’s attempt, but Lily would hear none of it.[ Peggy Hewitt] Perhaps Albert had a premonition about it.
The following Monday Evening Lily and Captain Bidmead went back to the Gala field, and no doubt , a smaller crowd than Saturday, the balloon was inflated , Lily got on the seat, Captain Bidmead checked the parachute harness, fastenings etc, and away Lily floated.
This is an actual picture of Lily , though from an earlier performance.
This was the gala field, and Lily took off from somewhere on this field, the balloon floated off up the valley ( over the modern cricket club building to the extreme left of the photo, towards Stanbury.
The people in the gala field lost sight of the balloon , under the shadow of the hill, She floated past Stanbury towards Ponden reaching the hamlet of Scar Top, which lies beside Ponden Reservoir.
We will look now at what a witness – Mr Cowling Heaton , of the Scar Top refreshment rooms, said at the inquest. “ He saw the balloon at a quarter to eight, on Monday night as it passed over the back of his house. He saw no one sitting until the thing ” exploded” (!) . It opened out and the deceased came down head first. She fell like a cart-wheel turning over once or twice. She and the parachute had parted company. When he first saw the balloon it was sailing steadily across the next field not very far from him – about 100 foot high. The balloon went onto the Lancashire moor. The parachute opened out , but then the deceased was falling, having let loose of the lot, as if she had been clinging onto something , then released her hold. He thought she was just alive when he got to her. he raised her up and said “My good woman if you can speak, do ” there was no answer, though her eyes were wide open. Lily’s address is given as 170 Bow road , London- more than 200 miles away. Bow Road has changed beyond all recognition, with the blitz , and post war modernisation, but with the help of Google Earth lets look at 170 Bow Road today.
So a tragic end to a young life, Captain Bidmead , who had followed the course of the balloon in a horse and trap was the next person to arrive, then Charles Merrall , the local mill owners son in his ” new fangled motor car ” [ Peggy Hewitt] – It appears that Charles Merrall might have had a bit of an infatuation with Lily. When Dr Thomson arrived . lily was already dead, at the inquest the Dr Robert Thomson stated – “ There was a fracture of the left tibia and of the right thigh, and a large effusion of blood on the right side of the head. There was also signs of fracture of the base of the skull. Death would be the result of shock.. Lily’s body was put in a covered cart and taken through Stanbury , back to Haworth. The cheering crowd in Gala field, expecting the triumphant return of Lily, fell silent when informed of the accident, some crying as Lily’s battered body passed by. So why did Lily fall ? Unfortunately only Lily would be able to tell us for sure, but I have a theory. – Lily, being a non swimmer, had a great fear of water ( per Captain Bidmead’s testimony at the inquest) , and when it looked like she would have to parachute over Ponden reservoir , she decided to unhook herself from the parachute, prior to jumping, and to just hold onto the parachute hoop, so she could let go before the parachute dropped into the water. Unfortunately when the parachute opened fully ( Cowling Heaton’s “the thing exploded” ) the upward thrust was far too strong for Lily to keep hold of the parachute hoop, so it was torn from her grasp. Lily landed about 50 yards from the reservoir in a field with the parachute some yards away. here are a few shots of the reservoir.
Lily’s body was taken back into Haworth , some say back to The Old White Lion, but The Kings Arms across the street claims that their cellar was used as a mortuary by the local undertaker, and the truth is that it makes no difference. Lily’s father was brought up from London, and Captain Bidmead bought him a decent black suit for the funeral.[Peggy Hewitt] . A short service was held at The Old White Lion, all the curtains and window shutters were closed in Haworth ( as was traditional with mourning in those days) The coffin was carried up to Haworth Cemetery ( the churchyard was no longer used for internments), followed by a carriage carrying Captain Bidmead, Thomas Cove, – Lily’s Father, and a few friends . Behind them was the private coach of the Merrall family, plus hundreds of people from the village followed the funeral procession.
Here is a Funeral card for Lily. I feel like I almost know the girl now so I think we should go up to the cemetery and pay our respects.
Through the gate.
Up the path.
If you wish to visit the grave, ( please do if you are in the area ) go to the cemetery entrance , look to your right about 1 o’clock on a clock face and 20 yards away there she is.
A closer look
Lets have a quiet five minutes.
As Charles Merrall reputedly said ” She gave her life for charity” – how much charity ? the Gala raised the grand total of £17 / 6s (£ 17.30) – Approx £5000 – £6000 today.
As I said at the beginning Lily was not the first or last lady balloonist / aeronaut to come to grief , but she seems to be the one that just won’t lie down. I will give you a few more names – Adelaide Bassett , 1895, Edith Brookes, 1902, Jeanette van Tassel 1892, Sophie Blanchard 1819, Edith maud cook 1910.
Peggy Hewitt tells he story better than me in her book – Bronte Country lives & landscapes – I have used some of her information and recommend the book. If you get Chance to visit the area please do – it is a beautiful part of the world , I hope the pictures give you a very small taste of this part of west Yorkshire:-)