“Swing me just a little bit higher!”
Lily Cove swings just a little bit higher, her voice a tremolo. She sings ‘their’ song to quell the nerves flitting in the pit of her womb:
His name isn’t Obadiah. He’s the Captain. Captain of nothing but the balloon above her…and, perhaps, her heart. The balloon rises steadily in the slight breeze of a perfect Edwardian June. She tucks her hanky in her pocket and her legs neatly under the trapeze. Yesterday, ready to sit beneath the silk canopy as it was pumped full of gas but failed to bloom, she felt disappointment, frustration, relief. In those first practice jumps, strapped together, in tandem, duetting, she’d felt so safe. Soaring and swooping; singing sometimes too. “What larks! What larks we are, Lil!”
She had trusted him. Now she wasn’t sure if she was abandoned or liberated. He was determined to go ahead with this second attempt. A clever ruse to get more money for ‘charity’, he said. Their unborn child deserved charity.
“Swing me over the garden wall!”
She looks down at Haworth Gala field and waves her white hanky at the myriad faces turned toward her. Up here, with just the sound of the gas jet, she saw the world as no woman except a lady aerialist could. Her gaze moves across to the unfamiliar patchwork of fields and the stone-stitched hills beyond.
Above Scar Top, beyond it all, as though the landscape has been flattened by a smoothing iron- squashing the nestled villages, unexplored churches, satanic mills and unsettling streams- she pictures, in the filthy confusion of London, just past the scrubland of Mile End Waste, her father sewing leather soles in the brown chiaroscuro gloom of their parlour in the Bow Road.
Beside Scar Top, a dark abyss of brackish water expands, seeping into the soft landing sites of Stanbury.
“‘Swing me so that I never fall!”
Lily Cove is falling. Not in love but head over heels none the less.
Too far from the crowd for them to witness it, she somersaults mid-air.
Was she singing now? Or screaming? A lark feigns a broken wing to protect its chick. She won’t have to.
A few bones broken, maybe. Tibia, fibia. No chick yet. Just an egg.
It would be dislodged in the fall, he’d promised her.
Marsh grasses. Cushiony clumps.
Deb found out about Lily Cove after reading her friend Debra Wallace’s blog about the less unfortunate Dolly Shepherd and so set to speculating why a ‘happy-go-lucky’ young adventurer would release herself from her parachute. After speculating and writing this piece, she did some research!
Lily Cove was born in 1885 in Haggerston, but her birth was registered in Poplar. An only child, her parents never married. She was brought up by her father, a boot-maker, and, because he was in and out of prison, his various relatives. At 16, around the time she met Bidmead, she was a domestic servant in Hackney. At the time of her death, her father was living in a men’s hostel on the Bow Road. It’s no surprise that this vivacious, adventurous girl was attracted to the glamour of aerial stunt performances.
‘Captain’ Fred Bidmead only briefly continued his career after Lily’s death. He received early balloon training from Auguste Gaudron and retired shortly after Lily’s death. He hit the headlines as well as rooftops on his epic flights, having some spectacular mishaps including: Dundee,1895, when he slid down a roof and fell 80 foot, injuring his back; Keighley, 1898, when his parachute would not release from the balloon, he was dragged for a mile. Despite this, at Lily’s inquest he insisted her performance wasn’t risky and that she had misjudged when to jump as she’d panicked at the thought of drowning in the reservoir.
The police report gives Bidmead’s address as 94 Balaam Street, Plaistow. In the 1906 Kelly’s Directory this is listed as a newsagent’s. It is possible that Bidmead lived in a flat above the shop. He claimed to own a parachute factory; there were harness manufacturers in Balaam Street but not in his name. (He may have run a small business in the docks, as he also gave his address as Tidal Basin.) From searching the census records, Deb likes to think that she’s traced the Captain as being born in Islington in 1870 and working as a bus driver in West Ham in 1911- but who knows?!
At the inquest into Lily’s death the jury found a verdict of “Death by Misadventure”. As a consequence of the jury’s recommendation to the Home Secretary that such exhibitions should be made illegal, Parliament considered extending the Dangerous Performances Act to cover not just children, but “all women whatever their age…”, thus outlawing any future exhibitions of daring do by a female. Fortunately, this amendment was not passed.
Lily Cove escaped from tedium and poverty by floating high above it, attached to a trapeze, attached to a parachute, attached to a hot air balloon.