On 16th February 1909, intrepid Australian suffragette, Muriel Mathers, devised a unique way to attract attention to the cause of womens’ suffrage by engaging the services of Henry Spencer, from the famous family of balloonists and parachutists, to fly her over Westminster during the opening of parliament by King Edward VII.
Spencer’s airship was kept aloft by 40,000 cubic feet of coal gas, but its motor only produced 6 horsepower, giving a speed of 8mph in calm weather. The flight was scheduled to commence at 1pm, but engine trouble delayed take-off until just before 2pm, when they ascended amid loud cheers.
I had already won my spurs by chaining myself to the grille of the ladies gallery in the House of Commons. As a result, I was entrusted with the aerial demonstration on the day of the opening of parliament. That morning I went to Hendon and met Mr. Henry Spencer who had his airship all ready near the Welsh Harp*. It was quite a little airship, 80ft long, and written in large letters on the gas bag were three words, Votes For Women.
Muriel’s grand plans to address the parliamentarians below using a megaphone, went awry when air currents took the ‘airship’ up to 3,500ft and way off course. She did, however, manage to ‘bomb’ Londoners with 56lbs of leaflets, which, “floated down to the people below like beautifully coloured birds.” The flight, which lasted an hour and a half, took them over Wormwood Scrubs, Kensington, Tooting and finally came to an end in Coulsdon, where they first touched down in a prickly hedge before ascending again. The second attempt to land was brought to a successful conclusion a little after 4pm, when a farm labourer took their rope and assisted them in avoiding three large trees.
Despite failing to reach Westminster, Muriel’s aerial exploits made headlines all over the world. This was also the first powered flight from what would eventually become Hendon aerodrome. However, some contemporary commentators were less than impressed:
Open letter to Miss Muriel Mathers published in ‘John Bull’ magazine 27th February, 1909.
……But really, Muriel dear, doesn’t it strike you that such fantastic ideas of advertising yourself and the dear sisters strike other people as rather silly? Votes for women will not come a day sooner because you go up in a balloon, or even because you go down in a coal mine. Do exercise a little restraint, my dear. Why don’t you all go and get married? I can assure you that marriage is a much more interesting and varied entertainment than you are having now, especially for the long winter evenings. Marry an M.P. and see that he votes straight on the big question. JOHN BULL
The Inflations and Deflations of the Spencer Family (Balloons, Bikes and Electric Camels) by Nick Peacey.