Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Sometimes the manner in which we die is as time and place specific as the manner in which we live. We can see that most clearly in the tombstones and monuments that mark the end of a life. This summer I wandered among the graves of Concord’s 18th century residents and was intrigued by the macabre skulls and crossbones that decorated their headstones. Later that day I escaped the heat of the mid-afternoon sun to explore the plots of some of Massachusetts’s most prominent families under the shade of the trees in Sleepy Hollow cemetery. More recently I was back among the headstones, this time on a crisp autumnal day in Leicester’s Welford Road cemetery. Somehow the driving wind and ominous dark skies were the perfect setting for the ornate gothic spires and sprawling grandeur of the 19th century tombs that overlook the city centre. In death as in life, money buys you a room with a view. Wander down the hill and you leave the Victorian civic worthies and prosperous commercial bourgeoisie behind. As you descend both the headstones and the lives they mark become increasingly simple.
Welford Road cemetery confronts you with the visible traces of Victorianism. Yet I was most struck by a simple family grave—a very 1920s demise, marked for us in white marble and gravel. Dorothy Cain died on the evening of 9 September 1926. She was only 25 years old. Together with her husband, Dorothy managed the Empire Hotel, on Fosse Road in Leicester. If her life was ordinary, the manner of her death was certainly not. Newspaper headlines reported ‘Woman’s 1000 Feet Drop From Plane.’ The ‘terrible parachute tragedy’ was witnessed by a crowd of 20,000 people at the city’s old show ground—and by thousands more who subsequently read of it on the front pages of newspapers in Britain and Australia.
That news of Dorothy’s death travelled so far was, in itself, symptomatic of the growing speed of global communications and the technological networks that bound Britain and its Empire ever closer in the decade after the Great War. Yet here in microcosm we can also see the convergence of many of the social, cultural and economic changes that were transforming Britain in this period. Like so many others, Dorothy was apparently captivated by the ‘modern wonders’ of flight and air travel. This was, after all, the era of the flying circus, the celebrity pilot and the heroic feats of endurance and bravery associated with the glamorous figures of Amy Johnson and Jim Mollinson. For several days in the autumn of 1926, Captain Muir had ‘been giving passenger and exhibition flights’ in Leicester—pilot and plane alike decommissioned remnants of the wartime Royal Flying Corps now seeking a peacetime role.
After watching ‘an expert parachutist’ employed by the Surrey Flying Services make a ‘successful descent’, newspapers reported that ‘several girls and women’ had followed suit. Dorothy, too, had jumped at the chance to take to the skies. While her anxious husband and relatives tried to change her mind, she was ‘eager to go.’ As the plane took off she ‘waved gaily to the crowd, which cheered her lustily.’ Photographs showed her smiling and excited. Still wearing her ordinary clothes, she peered out from underneath a cloche hat—incongruous next to the straps and buckles of her parachute. Adventurous, active and unafraid, Dorothy perhaps embodied young women’s changing position in public life. During the Great War they had moved into paid employment and national service in growing numbers. After the war the iconic image of the flapper bespoke a growing confidence and independence—product of new opportunities to work, socialize and relish the pleasures of new consumer culture. In the 1929 election women were able to vote on exactly the same terms as men. Jumping from a plane might have been a rare occurrence, but in all these ways Dorothy Cain was a characteristic new woman of the 1920s.
Of course, this story had a tragic ending. While Captain Muir checked and rechecked the workings of the parachute—known ironically as the ‘Guardian Angel’—Dorothy’s leap went badly wrong. High above the ground and the assembled mass of upturned faces, she ‘jumped boldly from the wing of the plane.’ The cheers of onlookers quickly turned to gasps of fear: Dorothy ‘immediately turned several summersaults and then fell straight to the ground, while the parachute remained attached to the aeroplane.’ Newspapers described how she ‘dropped like a stone from a height of 1000 feet, and, striking the turf, her body rebounded 6ft into the air, falling into a hedge.’ Such horrific scenes mean that the pleasures that prompted Dorothy to take to the skies are now barely visible. In life as in death, however, this was entirely of its time. The death of an adventurous young woman falling from a tiny biplane is reported on the front page of the Daily Mirror: what could be more 1920s than that?