Hoots and Derision did not Worry Lilian Bland

Black and white photo of Lilian bland standing ouside at the doorway to a brick building. She wears a a high-necked collar or scarf, a buttoned to the waist knee=length coat over breeches, and knee high boots. She's holding a riding crop and wears a large flat hat.

A woman in the 1900s was not a person in the eyes of the law. Respectable women wore corsets and petticoats under frilly blouses with tall stiff collars and long skirts. She lived a domestic life, didn’t swear or drink, and rode sidesaddle. Her father or husband had to be named in any lawsuit. When she married, her property became his to use or dispose of as he wished. Her husband was the sole guardian of their children. If she left her husband without getting a divorce, his duty to support her ended and she lost custody of her children. 

Lilian Bland lived in this, the Edwardian period society, but she did not live by her society’s expectations. She wore breeches, smoked cigarettes, rode astride horses, hunted and fished. Artist, journalist, photographer, mechanic, and pilot, Lilian flew true to herself and her interests despite the era she grew up in. 

Early Life

Lilian was born the third child of John Humphrey Bland and his wife Emily Charlotte (née Madden) on September 28, 1878. They lived at Willington House, near Maidstone in Kent, England. 

Lillian’s mother died somewhere between 1900 and 1906. 

In 1906, Lilian (28) and her artist father moved in with her aunt Sarah, his widowed sister, at Tobercorran House in the downland of Carnmoney just north of Belfast. Though the Wright brothers’ made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk in December 1903, no one in Ireland had made a powered flight yet. Lilian had not shown interest in flying. Instead, her dream was to become a jockey and race at the Grand National. She got her license but never raced because her gender disqualified her.

From Journalist to Aviation Enthusiast

By 1908, Lilian worked as a journalist and press photographer for some London newspapers. That summer she stayed with friends on the coast of Scotland. Watching and photographing the seagulls there piqued her interest in flying. 

On July 25, 1909, Louis Bériot made the first powered flight across the English Channel. Lilian’s interest grew. An interest which only increased when her Uncle Robert sent her a postcard of Bériot’s monoplane with its dimensions. 

She pleaded with Bériot, by letter, to be a passenger on his next flight. He refused. 

Undeterred, Lilian researched aviation, including everything about the Wright brothers’ plane. She attended an official aviation meeting in Blackpool. There she took meticulous notes, including measurements and dimensions of the planes. Hoots and derision were all she got when she told the pilots there she planned to build and fly her own plane.

From Enthusiast, to Engineer

In her late uncle’s well-equipped workshop, she set to work designing and building her first glider. It was a biplane with a six-foot wingspan. It flew successfully as a kite. 

Encouraged, she designed a full-sized glider. She steamed ash to shape it like the slight curvature in seagull wing tips. Ash made the skids. The outriggers were bamboo. Unbleached calico soaked in a mix of gelatin and formalin made the glider waterproof. The controls were a bicycle handlebar. It had an open-air seat made of canvas. 

She re-designed the glider to be a powered plane and fashioned an engine compartment out of American elm behind the pilot’s seat. 

Supposedly she named the plane, the Mayfly, as a tongue-in-cheek poke at her detractors because it may or may not fly. (This may be fact or fiction.) 

First Tests

Four six-foot-tall members of Royal Irish Constabulary and a young man, Joe Blain, held onto Mayfly as the wind took it up into the air. When it lifted them, the constables let go, but Joe hung on and brought the glider back down. Lilian figured if her plane could lift five men off the ground, it could carry an engine.

She ordered a two-stroke air-cooled 20hp engine and an adjustable-pitch propeller from the newly founded A.V. Roe Aircraft Company in Manchester.

Delayed Deliveries

When delays snagged the delivery of her parts, she took a ferry to England and brought the parts home by train. She later reported the engine fitted neatly into a railway carriage and an outside car. 

She also did not receive the gas tank before her ideal test flight time. Instead of bemoaning her fate, she fashioned a temporary gas tank out of a whiskey bottle and her aunt’s ear trumpet.

The finished biplane had a wingspan of twenty feet, seven inches and weighed 300 pounds.

The Flight of the Mayfly

Image is a black and white Winnepeg Free Press newspaper clipping that shows a photo of Lilian sitting in the cockpit of her biplane, the Mayfly

During a test, the engine was slow to start and vibrated some bolts loose. Lilian replaced the bicycle handle with a T-bar yoke for steering and installed a tricycle undercarriage to strengthen the biplane.

The airfield at Carnmoney was too small for the Mayfly. Fortunately, Lilian and her plane fascinated Lord O’Neill, and he agreed to meet her.  

His Lordship granted her use of his land at the Deerpark for her flying attempts. The land’s only drawback was its sole resident, a bull. One resource stated she thought that the possibility of the bull charging would give her “every inducement to fly.”

With Lilian perched on its canvas seat, the Mayfly took a short 30 yard hop off the ground in late August in 1910. The distance of her flight was impressive, though less than the 120 feet of the Wright brothers’ first flight.

This made her the first woman to fly an aircraft in Ireland and the Mayfly the first powered biplane in Ireland.

Flying Further

Ultimately, Lilian reached a height of about 30 feet in the Mayfly and stayed aloft for a quarter of a mile during her longest flight.

Lilian continued experimenting and tweaking the Mayfly’s design. She even started a business and offered her biplanes for £250 without an engine and gliders for £80.

Sadly, with the engines of the day, the Mayfly could do no more.

Worried about the dangers, Lilian’s father offered to buy her a Model T Ford motor car if she gave up flying. 

A Step Too Far

Lilian gave the Mayfly air-frame to a boy’s gliding club and sold the engine. She taught herself how to drive and take care of the engine. By April 1911, she owned and operated the first Ford dealership in Belfast.

According to some references, this took her behavior to a level beyond the disapproval of the local Protestants and genteel country folk in the area. Her family decided that even for Lilian, a sales job was too unladylike a business.

Married Life

In October 1911, she married her cousin Charles Loftus Bland and emigrated to Vancouver Island, Canada. They built and worked their homestead together. 

Lilian had their first and only child, Patricia Lilian Bland, on April 13, 1913. 

Sadly, Patricia died of tetanus at sixteen.

Lilian and her husband separated shortly after that. 

Later Life

Lilian came back to England and settled in the village of Sennen near Land’s End. 

In 1935, Lilian returned to Kent, where she became a gardener and invested in the stock market. She wrote her memoirs, which remain unpublished. At some point, she took after her artist father and painted. It’s also been said she studied ju-jitsu. 

She retired to Cornwall by 1952, where she continued doing what she pleased: gambling, drinking and painting. The Belfast Telegraph famously quoted her in 1971 that at 92 the only excitement left to her was gambling.

Lilian Bland died on May 11, 1971. They buried her in a churchyard in Sennen, near Land’s End.


Photo of the sign reading Welcome to Lilian Bland COmmunity Park.

There is an Ulster History Circle blue plaque at the family home in Carnmoney, commemorating the life of Lilian Bland. 

In August 2011, they renamed the Glengormley Park in Newtownabbey as the Lilian Bland Community Park. They also unveiled a full-scale, stainless steel replica of the MayFly in the park. 

An auction house in Penzance, Cornwall auctioned four of Lilian’s paintings in July 2021. 

The National Museums of Northern Ireland and the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra, Belfast, featured Lilian’s contributions to Irish aviation as part of the 2021 exhibition on Irish innovators.

At age 19, Zara Rutherford was the world’s youngest woman to fly around the world solo in 2022. On Rutherford’s website, she identifies Lilian Bland as one of her inspirations.

In Conclusion

Lilian Bland was an unconventional Edwardian period woman. She followed her interests and prevailed in ways that were unseemly for her time. That’s what makes her an inspiration and a reminder not to let those who hoot and deride us keep us from our dreams. 

Image Credits

First image is Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Second image by Slowtech2000, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Final image by Slowtech2000, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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