An odd thing about the hamlet of Ponden, is that, although tiny, it seems to have been involved in one way or another with many of the major happenings of the area. Most people, of course, think of Haworth in the context of the Brontës, but there are other fascinating histories connected with this old-fashioned Yorkshire village, not the least of which is the story of balloonist Lily Cove, which has a tragic Ponden connection.
Lily was one of a sad and little-known group of women who lost their lives in the pursuit of aeronautic display. Most seem to have been managed and their careers masterminded by a variety of shadowy men sporting military titles, some dubiously earned. But ballooning was all the rage, and the thrill of witnessing a woman ascend, then parachute to the ground, drew thousands of paying spectators. Imperilled women were big business.
- Adelaide Bassett died in 1895 at Peterborough, aged 36, when forced to jump from an ascending balloon without her parachute after it was damaged by a telegraph wire
- Edith Brookes died in 1902 in Sheffield, aged 23, while jumping from a balloon using a parachute damaged the day before in a jump by her older sister Maude
- American Jeanette van Tassel was about 28 when she landed in a tree during a descent near Dhaka, India, in 1892, and, upon being rescued by a bamboo pole, crashed to the ground and died a few days later from her injuries
- Frenchwoman Sophie Blanchard, first woman to fly solo in a balloon, was 42 in 1819 when fireworks attached to her balloon to illuminate it during a night-time ascent set fire to hydrogen in the balloon, leading to a rapid descent and death on a roof top above Paris
- And Edith Maud Cook, first woman to pilot a plane, and veteran of over 300 parachute jumps, died aged 31 when a gust of wind blew her parachute on to a factory roof in Coventry in 1910, then dashed her to the ground.
Then there was Lily, born ‘Elizabeth Mary Cove’ to a working-class family in London’s east end in 1886, who threw in her lot with so-called ‘Captain’ Frederick Bidmead (although nothing is known of his military connections), and ended up dying a dramatic death behind our house, here at Ponden.
Lily was scheduled to appear at the Haworth Gala, rising in a trapeze attached to a balloon from what was then the football field (now the cricket ground) on West Lane, Haworth. The first time she tried to make the ascent the balloon would not rise. Captain Bidmead announced that the coal gas – from a local factory – was not high-quality enough to raise the balloon, but on inspection a tiny tear was found in the fabric. The descent was postponed until two days later – Monday June 11, 1906 – when once more Lily prepared to ascend from the same field.
This time the balloon was able to lift. As she usually did, Lily theatrically tore off her skirt, revealing bloomers beneath, then strapped herself into her harness, and began to ascend on the trapeze.
The wind began to blow her towards Ponden, while Captain Bidmead followed along below by road in a horse and cart. But as Lily neared the vast expanse of Ponden Reservoir, she was seen to shrug out of her harness and plummet – not into the water, but to the ground – in a field behind Ponden Hall. Although there was sensational speculation that Lily may have committed suicide, it is likely that her known fear of water and drowning prompted her to try to escape before she was over the water.
A Mr Cowling Heaton, who ran the Scar Top Refreshment Rooms, in a now vanished building adjacent to Scar Top Chapel, gave evidence at Lily’s inquest that he had seen her falling body, rushed to the spot and gathered her dying body into his arms, saying, ‘My good woman, if you can speak, do’. But, though, Lily’s eyes were open, there was no answer, and she died immediately from multiple fractures and internal injuries. She was just 21.
Lily’s body was laid out in the room she’d been staying at in Haworth – room 7 at the White Lion Hotel – and hundreds attended the funeral, with her father brought from London to attend by Captain Bidmead, who also bought him a black suit for the occasion.
When I walk to the edge of the reservoir and glance over towards Scar Top Chapel, I often think of Lily, and how terror drove her to make a jump she surely could never have believed she would survive. This house has stood so many centuries that it’s no stranger to death, but Lily’s is surely the most dramatic death associated with this spot. Her ghost is said to walk at room 7, at the White Lion, but I do sometimes wonder if she ever pops back to Ponden.