Bailey, Mary (‘Lady Bailey’) (née Westenra) (1890–1960), aviator, was born on 1 December 1890 at 30 Grosvenor Square, London, to Derrick (Derry) Warner William Westenra (1853–1921), the fifth Baron Rossmore, and his wife Mittie (née Naylor) (d. 1953), the daughter of a wealthy English banker.
EARLY LIFE AND MARRIAGE
The eldest of three children and the only girl, Bailey spent most of her childhood at Rossmore Castle, Co. Monaghan, her paternal family home. She enjoyed a privileged childhood, spending much time riding, hunting and fishing with her father and younger brothers. Bailey attended Heathfield School in Ascot for only one term in 1906. She ran away from the school and was not made to return. Thereafter she was educated by governesses at Rossmore, including two Franco-Russian sisters. In 1909, aged nineteen, she was elected to the mastership of the Monaghan Harriers hunt – a remarkable achievement in terms of both age and gender at the time. Also that year, she was presented at the court of Edward VII.
On 5 September 1911, Bailey married South African widower Sir Abraham (Abe) Bailey (1864–1940), at the Holy Trinity church, Sloane Street, London. A wealthy politician, financier and diamond and gold mine owner with major interests in horses and horse racing, Abe Bailey had a son and daughter from his previous marriage; together they had a further three daughters and two sons. Generally, the family divided their time between South Africa, England and Ireland, though the couple frequently spent long periods apart and were often away from their children too, who were raised largely by nurses and governesses before attending boarding school.
Abe Bailey, who had previously served as a British army intelligence officer in the Boer war (1899–1902), served with the rank of major during the first world war (1914–18) with the Union of South Africa forces, on behalf of the British imperial government, to conquer and occupy German South West Africa (Namibia). He was created a baronet in 1919 for his military services. Mary Bailey had joined her husband for the first year of the war in South Africa, but on her return to England in 1916 joined the Women’s Legion, and later the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, working on Royal Flying Corps bases as a driver and mechanic, and served in both England and France.
EARNING HER WINGS
In 1926, reportedly bored with her post-war years spent as a reluctant society hostess, and with four of her five children then in boarding school, Bailey undertook pilot training at Stag Lane Aerodrome in north London. She received instruction from fellow Irishwoman Sophie Eliott-Lynn, in Eliott-Lynn’s own two-seater de Havilland DH.60 Moth biplane – a brand new aircraft then revolutionising amateur aviation. Eliott-Lynn remarried in 1927 and thereafter styled herself Lady Mary Heath (qv). The women would enjoy a friendly rivalry in their flying careers.
Bailey was awarded her Royal Aero Club certificate in January 1927 and flew almost daily in her own newly purchased Moth, quickly becoming a familiar face at aviation events. She had her first serious accident in April 1927, in which she was hit in the head and partially scalped by a propeller. (Her children would later attribute her increasingly foul-tempered outbursts to this early head injury.) Undeterred, she continued to fly with her head bound in a turban, and in June 1927 she participated in the ladies’ race at Bournemouth against Lady Heath and another Irish pilot, Sicele O’Brien. In July 1927 she broke the women’s altitude record in a light aircraft, set two months previous by Lady Heath while Bailey was her passenger, climbing to 17,283ft. Heath reclaimed the record in October 1927, flying to 19,200ft. Also in 1927, Bailey was the first woman to receive a certificate in ‘blind flying’ (using navigation instruments only) and in August 1927 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Irish Sea. She was the only woman to participate in the King’s Cup air race around England in August 1927, after Lady Heath declined due to gusty conditions, and would also compete in this gruelling race again in 1929–31 and 1933. She was the first woman to be awarded a Harmon Aviatrix Trophy (1927), an international award established the previous year by wealthy American balloonist and aviator Clifford B. Harmon, and in January 1928 was named Champion Lady Aviator by the International Union of Aviators.
On 9 March 1928, Bailey embarked on a solo flight from London to South Africa in a customised new X-type DH.60 Moth, fitted with an extra fuel tank. (A month previous Lady Heath had set off in the opposite direction, on the first solo flight by a woman from South Africa to London). Foreign Office officials attempted to prevent Bailey’s flight to South Africa, citing a rule that stated: ‘in no circumstances will a flight be allowed if the sole occupant of the machine be a lady unless there is a second escorting machine containing a qualified male pilot’ (‘Mary Bailey’, The National Archives website). Bailey argued that she was happy to proceed at her own risk and did not want to endanger anyone else, while her husband also used his considerable influence to persuade the Foreign Office to sanction the flight. Bailey charted a course that would take her via Italy, Malta, Libya, Egypt and Sudan, and organised her trip as secretly as possible to avoid much-loathed publicity.
Her journey was beset with challenges. Sitting in the exposed rear cockpit (the front one contained the extra fuel tank), her English Channel crossing and flight across France were hampered by snow, strong winds and fog. In Egypt, the British authorities refused to allow Bailey to fly over Sudan by herself and seized her plane until she agreed to be escorted by her famed aviator friend Dick Bentley and his wife in a separate aircraft. This leg of the journey included a forced landing in the Nubian desert, and a four-day stop in Khartoum where they were met by Lady Heath for a gala dinner in honour of the two lady aviators.
On 10 April at Tabora in Tanganyika (Tanzania), her plane was wrecked when it turned upside down at landing. Bailey was uninjured and, undeterred, she telegrammed her husband who organised another plane to be delivered by the South African Air Force within two weeks. She pushed on to Broken Hill in northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) only to fall ill with a fever for four days. She completed her fifty-two-day journey on 30 April 1928 at Cape Town. Though not officially a race, it was noted that Bailey’s journey from London to Cape Town was completed one-week faster than Lady Heath’s from Cape Town to London, but having embarked the earlier of the two, Lady Heath earned the title of first woman to fly across the equator. Bailey was declared the best female aviator of 1928 by the Paris-based International League of Aviators in recognition of her trans-continental achievement, as well as winning that year’s Harmon Aviatrix Trophy, her second in a row.
By mid-May 1928 Bailey was ready to make a return flight, against the advice of fellow pilots due to the then-hostile situation in Sudan. Her aircraft was again damaged, and she ultimately delayed her journey until 21 September. To avoid the necessity of an escort, she decided to take a longer and potentially more dangerous route on her return: via the Sahara desert, Nigeria and French West Africa. Writing to Lord Lloyd, High Commissioner for Egypt, in advance of his wife’s journey, Abe Bailey argued for a relaxation of the rules, without success, declaring: ‘I am so worried about my wife … unless she receives your permission to fly back without an escort she is coming via the West Coast which means almost certain death. … she has the determination and obstinacy of forty devils.’ (‘Mary Bailey’, The National Archives website).
Bailey arrived safely back at Croydon on 16 January 1929, becoming the first woman pilot to complete the round trip to South Africa, as well as the first to fly over the Congo and Sahara. In total she had flown 18,000 miles (8,000 on the first leg, 10,000 on the return), the longest solo distance of any aviator at the time. She found the media’s interest in her overwhelming and did her best to avoid it – a difficult task when she was showered with aviation accolades. The day after her return a grand luncheon was held in her honour at the Savoy Hotel by the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Royal Aero Club and the Air League of the British Empire. Bailey was then elected chair of the Ladies Committee of the Air League, appointed president of the aviation branch of the Forum Club (a ‘ladies only’ club in Grosvenor Place, London, established in 1919 by the Women’s Institute), and awarded the Royal Aero Club’s 1929 Britannia Trophy. She was awarded a damehood (DBE) in the 1930 New Year’s honours list for her services to aviation, the first woman to be so honoured.
She learned to overcome some of her media and public-speaking shyness by writing articles for various publications, giving speeches and becoming an advocate of commercial aviation. In particular she championed the establishment of a British service between England and South Africa, and, with Lady Heath, of establishing aerodromes and flying clubs in Ireland, both in Northern Ireland and in the Free State.
She continued to participate in aviation events regularly. In July 1930 she took part in the International Tour of Europe, a gruelling 4,700-mile course. The following February, at the invitation of pioneering archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson, Bailey spent two weeks conducting an aerial survey of the remains at Kharga Oasis in the Egyptian Western Desert from her de Havilland DH.80A Puss Moth. From her aerial vantage point, Bailey was also able to identify new sites for excavation and is likely the first woman to have taken such aerial photographs.
In January 1933, against the advice of aviation experts and just two days after the death of her friend and fellow aviator Winifred Spooner in Kenya, Bailey set out from Croydon to make her second flight to the Cape and back, this time focused on speed and intent on blind flying during hours of darkness to hasten her journey. The extra fuel tank in her new Puss Moth would allow her to fly for up to twenty hours without stopping, and to save weight she carried no radio or navigation lights. The first leg of her journey was incident-free and having refuelled in Oran in north-west Algeria, she continued to fly for 1,500 miles until her tank was nearly empty. She was then forced to land near the southern edge of the Sahara desert, and was missing for four days until she was discovered by a French reconnaissance plane. Shaken, she decided not to continue and returned to London. The return flight was blighted with poor conditions, and by the time she got home she was seriously ill with typhoid fever. She undertook no further long-distance solo flights and also pulled back on competitive flying, effectively retiring.
RETIREMENT AND LATER LIFE
At the outbreak of the second world war, Bailey was living at Bletchington Park, a large country house in Oxfordshire, with two of her five children. She joined the war effort, flying in the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation established to deliver new or repaired aircraft to Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons. She was forced to give up her role, however, under accusations that her wealth and influence had allowed her to flout the rule that serving women must be under forty-five (she was fifty). Instead she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a non-flyer and remained with them for the duration of the war. Both of her sons followed in her footsteps, with James (Jim, 1919–2000) and Derrick (1918–2009) each earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during the second world war.
Abe Bailey had both legs amputated (1937–8) due to a vascular disease and died in South Africa in August 1940. At the end of the war Mary Bailey joined her son Jim in Cape Town, ostensibly to help him sort out Abe’s affairs. She decided to stay, settling in Kenilworth near Cape Town in the 1940s.
Long a disinterested mother, Bailey spent more time with her children in later life and was very supportive of her son Jim when he established the African Drum in 1951, an English-language magazine for black South Africans. After an unpromising start, he hired a staff directly from the townships, and under the title Drum it became an important publication which celebrated black culture during the early years of the apartheid system, as well as including investigative journalism highlighting the mistreatment of black convicts and farm labourers.
A life-long heavy smoker, Bailey was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1958 and died from the disease on 29 August 1960. She was buried next to her husband on a cliff-top above his former Rust-en-Vrede estate in Stellenbosch, and a memorial service was held for her in London at St Clement Danes church on the Strand.