Not bland and not just a darling
It’s a bit like buses; you hang around waiting for a remarkable woman’s exploits to be properly celebrated, and then you learn of two in the space of a week. I had heard of one but not the other, so will start with the extraordinary Lilian Bland, who was born in Kent in 1918 to an upper-class Anglo-Irish family and who was unknown to me.
Bland went on to become one of the first women in the British Isles, and maybe even in the world, to design, build, and fly an aircraft. She started off working as a sports journalist and press photographer for various London newspapers; for a woman at the beginning of the 20th century her lifestyle would have been described as unconventional. She wore trousers, smoked and enjoyed hunting, shooting and fishing.
After her mother’s death Bland moved with her father to the family house in Northern Ireland. She continued working, photographing seabirds, which fuelled her fascination with flying. She learned to fly and became interested in the design of monoplanes.
Her late uncle, General William James Smythe, an astronomer and member of the Royal Society, provided a house with a workshop. After some background reading on the Wright brothers, Bland successfully built a flyable model biplane with a wingspan of six feet. Her next venture was a full-scale glider which she called ‘the Mayfly’, explaining: ‘It may fly, it may not.’ She managed a successful short hop in it in August 1910, and other experimental flights followed.
Bland’s achievements were quickly forgotten, but all that is about to change; an exhibition, an auction and posts on social media are all shining a light on her life. She is featured in a new exhibition at the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra, Belfast, on Northern Ireland innovators who made a global impact. There is a plaque to Bland in Antrim and Glengormley Park has been renamed the Lilian Bland Community Park.
I had heard of Grace Darling; she was born in Bamburgh, Northumberland in 1815, the daughter of William Darling the lighthouse keeper. In the early hours of September 7th, 1838, she spotted the paddle steamer Forfarshire sinking next to a rocky island nearby. The seas were too rough to launch the lifeboat, so Darling and her father set off in a tiny rowing boat to rescue stranded survivors. Of the 60 passengers and crew, over 40 died at sea.
Darling’s heroic exploits of 1838 are to be commemorated in a multiscreen film by Sophie Dixon. Dixon has created a visual installation, called Grace, which tells her life story from childhood to death from TB in 1842, aged 26. It was commissioned by the RNLI Grace Darling museum and will be unveiled on September 7th. The 183rd anniversary of the rescue mission. The installation was developed using archives from the museum together with letters, records and photographs.
The show will run at the museum until October and can also be seen on the website: https://www.grace-darling.film/
So there you have it: two extraordinary women – one from a privileged background and one from a much more modest one. Their achievements tell us of their courage and tenacity – surely a pair of dames.