NOSTALGIA: Eastbourne’s pioneering female parachutist was an inspiration

Edwardian heroine ... Dolly Shepherd
Edwardian heroine ... Dolly Shepherd

I wanted to write and say thank you to the people of Eastbourne that have been in contact with me and to the ones I have met since the publication of my letter regarding Mrs Elizabeth Sedgwick, writes Debra Wallace.

Mrs Sedgwick lived in Eastbourne and was known as Dolly Shepherd, who in her younger days was an Edwardian lady parachutist.

Since my letter to the Herald in August and its publication I have since visited Eastbourne in September and had a lovely visit and met wonderful people who had contacted me through reading my letter, which was also republished in the nostalgia pages in October.

A lot has happened since my visit to Eastbourne as in St Albans there had been a project called the Hertfordshire Hidden Heroines which started in December 2015.

It ran for a year and Dolly Shepherd was one of the heroines celebrated.

I am rather indebted to this project as last month the Hertfordshire Hidden Heroines Project Book was published and launched where Dolly Shepherd takes her place alongside well known figures including Queen Boudicca, Queen Elizabeth I, and suffragette campaigner Lady Constance Lytton of Knebworth House alongside present day modern heroines.

It really has only been through this project that the name Dolly Shepherd and her life as an Edwardian lady parachutist has been celebrated again and remembered in Hertfordshire, where she was of course born in 1886 at Potters Bar.

It has been such an honour for me to be part of and volunteer for this project that has produced four short films (one where I talk about my interest in Dolly Shepherd).

There has also been a HHH Theatre Show with a cast of 65 celebrating the Hertfordshire heroines which included Dolly Shepherd, played by myself, and a published book which includes the story of how I found out about Miss Shepherd both in paperback and in audio.

This project has truly produced a legacy to this county.

Outside my own personal research, which I still continue to do, I do hope that one day the name Dolly Shepherd will be officially celebrated and remembered again in the UK just as she was in her younger days.

I say this as her mentor and colleague, the Edwardian lady parachutist Viola Spencer-Kavanagh (Edith Maud Cook) will be remembered and honoured once her statue is mounted and unveiled in Ipswich where she was from.

Just before her death in 1910, Viola was the first British woman to hold a pilot’s licence in the United Kingdom and sadly died during a parachute jump in Coventry where she is buried. This was a jump that Dolly was booked for and was not able to make so Viola took her place.

From my personal research it seems to me that the people of Eastbourne and East Sussex have a lot to be proud of in Dolly Shepherd.

This former Eastbourne resident, who died in 1983, was a true British heroine saving the life of her fellow parachutist Miss Louie-May in 1908, for her work as a driver and mechanic in the UK and France near the Western Front during World War One and again for her work on the Home Front in Lewisham during the Second World War where she was commended for her war effort by the News Chronicle newspaper in the 1940s.

I do hope one day that Hertfordshire, especially Potters Bar where I live now and the birthplace of Dolly Shepherd, and the town of Eastbourne will come together and celebrate the life of this most remarkable woman, a true inspiration to both young and old like myself.

My journey continues as I look forward to 2017 with this growing adventure that I am on, to have this ordinary woman with the most extraordinary past officially celebrated again in this country.

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