Friday 24 March 2023

Bessie Coleman, pioneering pilot, now has her own Barbie

Well, this is something I never thought I'd be blogging about.  Not that I'm an expert on such things as dolls, you understand (although while we're at it, who else remember Sindy?).  Anyway, this is more a case of the subject within a subject being of interest (hopefully!) to my readers, with the news that Mattel, maker of the Barbie doll, has honoured one of the pioneers of early aviation with the latest addition to their range.

source - Wikimedia Commons

The aviatrix in question is Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, who made history in 1921 when she became the first black person to obtain an international pilot's licence.  Her story is one that frankly deserves more recognition and I can only hope that this acknowledgement by Mattel goes some way towards achieving that.  

Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 Bessie Coleman seemed all set to follow in her parents' footsteps as a cotton picker.  However from an early age she proved to be an academic student, fond of reading and a whizz at maths, such that she was given a scholarship by the local Baptist church that eventually enabled her to attend what is now the Langston University in Oklahoma.  The money did not last, though, and she was only able to complete a single term before she was forced to return to Texas.

source - Wikimedia Commons/NASA
At the age of 23 Bessie found herself living in Chicago with her brothers, working as a manicurist in a local barbershop.  It was here that she was first exposed to the wonders of early flight, listening to the stories returning air force pilots would tell whilst getting a trim.  Inspired by these thrilling stories she took a second job in a chili restaurant to help pay for flying lessons, despite neither black people nor women being allowed to join flying schools.  Fortunately she was able to gain support from the editor of a Chicago-based African-American newspaper, Robert S. Abbott of the Chicago Defender, and prominent African-American banker Jesse Binga, who between them helped publicise and pay for her flying lessons.  To get over the hurdle of the U.S. flying school bans it was recommended that Coleman travel to France, where there were no such restrictions.  In an early example of her strong-minded and intellectual nature, she immediately attended a French language school in Chicago and having learnt the language promptly left the United States for Europe.  Arriving in Paris at the end of November 1920 she spent the next 6 months learning to fly before finally achieving what no black woman had done before - obtaining a pilot's licence.  Determined to be the best flyer she could, Bessie continued to take flying lessons under the tutelage of an unnamed ex-WW1 French ace before returning to America in September 1921.

Bessie and a Pathé cameraman during a visit to Berlin in 1925
source - New York Public Library

Despite widespread media attention in America at her achievement, Bessie was quick to realise that if she were to make a living as a civilian pilot in her home country then barnstorming was pretty much the only way to go.  Again showing remarkable prudence Coleman, still having found no-one in the U.S. willing to teach her the advanced flying skills she would need, returned to France to undertake further lessons.  Touring Europe she met famous Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker and visited his factory in Germany where she was given more training by the chief test pilot.  Now fully versed in all aspects of advanced flight, she once again returned to the U.S.A. where, billed as "Queen Bess", she wowed crowds around the country in various Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes - earning her the well-deserved title of "The World's Greatest Woman Flier".  Resolute in her desire to perform the most difficult stunts and understandably vocal in promoting African-American aviation she toured the country for the next 4 years giving lectures and exhibition flights.  During a visit to Orlando, Florida she befriended a local vicar and his wife, who all but adopted her as a daughter; remaining in Orlando Bessie opened her own beauty parlour with the aim of making enough money to buy her own aeroplane.  

Bessie and one of her Curtiss JN-4's, c.1922
source - Wikimedia Commons

In April 1926 this she finally did, purchasing another Curtiss JN-4 in Dallas, Texas.  Sadly, however, it was this aircraft that would be her downfall.  Bessie was in Jacksonville, Florida, at the time of the purchase so the aeroplane was flown back from Dallas by her 24-year-old mechanic and publicity agent William D. Wills.  He was reportedly forced to land three times along the journey due to the terrible condition the aircraft had been kept in by its previous owner.  Despite its obviously dangerous shortcomings and against all the advice of friends and relatives, Bessie went up (as a passenger) in the Jenny with Wills on the 30th April 1926 to practice for a parachute jump she intended to perform the following day.  At 3,000ft the aircraft suddenly went into an uncontrollable dive and spun into the ground.  Bessie was thrown from the cockpit and sadly died on the ground; Wills was also killed instantly when the Jenny impacted the ground and exploded.  Detailed examination of the wreckage subsequently revealed a wrench for maintaining the engine had been left in the machine, causing the controls to jam.

Bessie Coleman's tragically early death at the age of 34 was, despite her undoubted fame, largely ignored by all but the African-American press.  In spite of this, over ten thousand mourners turned out for her funeral in Chicago and over the many years following she was honoured with several roads, schools and other public buildings being named after her, to say nothing of various museum exhibits, commemorative stamps etc.

Now can be added to that list a Barbie doll designed in her image (I have to admit not seeing much of a likeness, although as I said at the top of this post dolls are not really my metier), with a snappy-looking aviatrix get-up featuring flying suit, boots and initialled cap.  It is splendid to see such a previously-overlooked trailblazer of (black) women's aviation marked in this way and I commend Mattel for choosing to highlight this historically important woman.  If it can also encourage young girls of any colour to take an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) Learning and aviation in particular, then so much the better.

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Vintage loco comes to the rescue after popular Snowdonia path washed away by floods


Another welcome return to this blog for one of my favourite sort of happenings - the "vintage machinery comes to the rescue" story.  We have seen it before, mainly with steam traction engines and road rollers but sometimes with steam trains and here is another instance of the latter.

On this occasion the engine in question is Lilla, a feisty mid-sized 0-4-0 quarry locomotive originally built in 1891 for hauling slate from the Nantile Valley near Gwynedd in North Wales.  This she continued to do for the next sixty-four years, moving a few miles northeast to the Penrhyn quarry at Bethesda in 1928, before finally being retired in 1955 following a failed boiler test.  Purchased by a private individual in 1963 Lilla spent the following 9 years undergoing restoration before returning to the heritage railway network in 1972.  Moving around the country she finally found herself in her current home at the Ffestiniog & West Highland Railway in 1993 where she has been well cared-for over the intervening three decades.  This has included numerous overhauls and replacement of worn parts, with a brand new boiler being fitted in 2004. 

source - Wikimedia Commons/Hefin Owen

It is no doubt this high level of preservation that allowed Lilla to step up and come to the aid of the National Trust when recent flooding caused part of a nearby tourist trail to be washed away.  Already a common sight on the F&WHR line pulling everything from quarry wagons to carriages full of children, Lilla seemed the obvious choice to haul the 30 tons of aggregate needed to repair the damaged path and I am delighted to see that she performed the task as though she'd never been away, proving once again how - provided they are maintained in good condition - vintage machines can still fulfil their original purpose.  Kudos must also go to the National Trust Cymru for approaching the F&WHR with the idea of using Lilla to help out - the sort of thinking one is glad to see in a heritage (or indeed any) organisation and one which I hope we will continue to see more of, as people realise that machines like Lilla still have a lot left to give.

Saturday 18 March 2023

Hull’s cream-coloured phone boxes given Grade II-listed status

source - Wikimedia Commons/kitmasterbloke

Well here we go, straight back in the saddle with this latest article about a rare variant of an already-endangered piece of technology - the public call box.

In this instance the phone boxes in question are not the earlier, more famous Giles Gilbert Scott-designed glass-and-metal K2 to K6 series of red boxes but rather the later K8 design from the pen of architect Bruce Martin, which were introduced across Great Britain in the late 1960s to supplement the existing 50,000-odd K2 and K6 boxes that were still prevalent at the time.

source - Wikimedia Commons/Oxyman
Markedly different from the designs that had come before it, the K8 boasted a modern light and airy Sixties feel thanks to large single panes of glass bereft of any intricate metalwork.  Intended to be easier to repair and maintain, over 11,000 K8s were installed up and down the country - only replacing existing K2s and K6s where absolutely necessary.  While many continued in service over the next 20 years or so, the design ultimately never gained as much appeal as the iconic red boxes that came before it.  It's only really lasting claim to fame is that it sported a slightly different shade of crimson - "Poppy Red" - one which went on to become the standard colour and was retrospectively applied to all existing boxes throughout the country.  However, the design's supposed strength over its predecessors - its ease of maintenance - was ultimately outweighed by the frequency of repairs as a result of vandalism.  Allied to the fact that it actually cost more to manufacture than the older models, a great number were subsequently replaced by the (rightly) unloved KX-series following the creation of British Telecom after the privatisation of the GPO in the 1980s.   As of 2023, a mere fifty-odd K8s still exist around Britain - some, I'm pleased to note, already with listed status.

Unusual among these few remaining K8s are the handful still to be found in the city of Hull, which was (and still is) the only place in England where the telephone network was run by either the local council or a private provider and not the GPO/ BT.  As a result, all Hull's phone boxes were painted not the traditional red but a rather fetching shade of cream to reflect their independence from the national network.  Now I am pleased to see that nine of these surviving boxes have been given Grade-II listed status by Historic England, hopefully preserving them for future generations to at least see what we used - and sometimes still use - before the advent of the mobile telephone (for, I am delighted to note, these particular boxes continue to fulfil their original function, containing as they do working telephones which must also now be preserved in working order).  

I join with the Twentieth Century Society and the people of Hull in celebrating this decision, which gives me great hopes for the future of all the remaining 10,000 or so phone boxes in this country, that there will never come a time when we have none left. 

Thursday 2 March 2023


I say, it's been a while, hasn't it (where have we heard that before)?!  Crikey, even the Blogger interface has changed since my last post!  I've almost forgotten how all this works.  I fancy I shall also have to do a bit of Spring cleaning around the old thing.  Has it really been nearly 3 years?!  Does anyone still do this blogging malarkey any more or has everyone moved on to InstaTwitFaceWhatsTok, wearing funny goggles and waving to each other over the aether?  Anyway, do feel free to say "What ho!" in the comments if you are still following this cobwebbed corner of the Internet and although I won't threaten promise anything it is my intention to start posting again (in the same vein as before) as time, sources and health allows.  In the meantime, it's good to be back!


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