Dolly Shepherd

'Dolly' Shepherd was born Elizabeth Shepherd in Potters Bar on 19 November 1886. While working as a 16-year-old waitress at Alexandra Palace in north London, she rashly volunteered to act as a stand-in for a shooting act where an apple would be shot from her head by 'Buffalo Bill'. She became a regular feature of the act and then moved on to become 'The Parachute Queen' making balloon ascents before parachuting down to the amazement of large crowds across the country, leaping from balloons from a height of 4,000 feet. She finally 'retired' in 1913, but not before suffering injuries that affected her all her life.

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October 1914

The outbreak of the war led many suffragettes to establish organisations designed to create a positive role for women. Among these was the Women’s Emergency Corps of which one of the senior commanders was Honorary Colonel Winifred Charlesworth. This was a very determined group as was demonstrated when they began serious training in the autumn of 1914. Among them was Dolly Shepherd.

 

"Mrs Charlesworth said: “Well now, you people, this is not a picnic. You’re going to really work and you’re going to show people that you can do something! And so we intend in future to put you into khaki. You’ll have to buy your own uniforms. You’re going to be soldiers, but you’ve got to work hard!” So we started the training. She said: “We can’t do anything without discipline!”

It must have been with the permission of the War Office, because a grenadier guardsman came to give us drill. Form fours, real square bashing! He would say: “About turn!” and of course us all in hobble skirts! He’d say: “Do you know what you look like? A lot of jelly bags!” It was so funny really. We had to have discipline – you can’t do anything without discipline. Then we had first aid and home nursing. And then signalling – Morse and semaphore – we had to do that. We had to be proficient so that whatever we were called upon to do, in any emergency, we had to be able to do it! We couldn’t say: “I can’t do it!” No such a word as ‘can’t’!"

This would be a total war. 

 

All Updates

 

October 1914

The outbreak of the war led many suffragettes to establish organisations designed to create a positive role for women. Among these was the Women’s Emergency Corps of which one of the senior commanders was Honorary Colonel Winifred Charlesworth. This was a very determined group as was demonstrated when they began serious training in the autumn of 1914. Among them was Dolly Shepherd.

 

"Mrs Charlesworth said: “Well now, you people, this is not a picnic. You’re going to really work and you’re going to show people that you can do something! And so we intend in future to put you into khaki. You’ll have to buy your own uniforms. You’re going to be soldiers, but you’ve got to work hard!” So we started the training. She said: “We can’t do anything without discipline!”

It must have been with the permission of the War Office, because a grenadier guardsman came to give us drill. Form fours, real square bashing! He would say: “About turn!” and of course us all in hobble skirts! He’d say: “Do you know what you look like? A lot of jelly bags!” It was so funny really. We had to have discipline – you can’t do anything without discipline. Then we had first aid and home nursing. And then signalling – Morse and semaphore – we had to do that. We had to be proficient so that whatever we were called upon to do, in any emergency, we had to be able to do it! We couldn’t say: “I can’t do it!” No such a word as ‘can’t’!"

This would be a total war. 

 

July 1914

 
In July 1914, war suddenly became a topic of conversation for 27-year-old Elizabeth ‘Dolly’ Shepherd – a recently retired professional parachutist.
 
There was little immediate apprehension in Britain of a possible involvement in a war following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. But slowly, day by day, the tension ratcheted up. Dolly Shepherd recalled a conversation with her aunt and a German friend of the family.
 
"My aunt had married a German. He was dead a long time before, about eight or nine years before the war. I had
a boy who was in the Yeomanry. My boyfriend was there – and auntie was there with this German friend of hers. She said ‘There’s talk of war. Do you think we’ll have a war?’ So the German said: ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes. Oh, we shall capture your country! You will all be Germans!’ I think my boyfriend boxed his ears!
 
Afterwards she had to register because she’d married a German and when the police said to her: ‘Why did you marry a German?’ she said: ‘Well, why did Queen Victoria marry a German?’"
June 1914:
 

 

Click this button to listen to an
interview with Dolly' Shepherd

Dolly Shepherd was known as the ‘Parachute Queen’. She had spent her summer months touring around the Midlands and London performing at shows and fetes, giving daredevil displays. She made balloon ascents – sometimes perched on a trapeze hanging beneath the balloon – before leaping out and parachuting to the ground. As she remembers here, parachutes were new and there was little margin for error – indeed several early female parachutists died in accidents:
 
"I was the most daring of the family, you see. As a child I saw a balloon once up in the air and I thought: ‘I shall do that one day.’ As a matter of fact I jumped off our roof with an umbrella – why I didn’t break my neck I don’t know!
 
The balloon ascent and parachute descent were the chief attractions of the day. Once I couldn’t get out of the station because there were so many crowds. They got the band to play me into the grounds. You rise to three or four thousand feet at most and you come away otherwise it would get cold and you’d collapse. I used to like to go high because I had it in my head that if I had to be killed, I’d like to be killed completely: good and proper!
 
If it was a clear day, the people used to love to see you going high. It gave me pleasure too. You exclaimed to yourself: ‘Oh, isn’t it lovely here. Isn’t it lovely and silent! Beautiful.’ No one knows unless they’ve been – that calm sereneness. You just slip off the edge of the basket. He’d say: ‘Go,’ and away you go.
 
You could kind of turn your hand round the ropes, according to the wind, to try and guide the parachute whichever way you wanted to go. You could control it to a certain extent but you couldn’t come down on a certain spot. You had to go where the wind took you.
 
I’ve been on top of a chimney on top of a house, over trees, nearly on an express train. That driver, he had some forethought: he blew the steam and just blew me off into the canal at Grantham. There was usually a bandstand and I had to stand on the bandstand for everyone to see that I was back safe and sound.
 
I was young you see and I never worried over anything. People always asked: ‘Supposing it didn’t open?’ You just took your life in your hands every time. The only time I was really frightened was when I fell on a housetop and fell six feet down from the chimney pot to the guttering – I was scared stiff!"
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