Every so often a news story includes the sentence, ‘she was the first woman to ….’, rarely can you say, ‘she was the first person to …’
“Is it because I’m a girl!” Martha looked at her father with a furious expression.
“No it’s too dangerous. We will have to try again another day.” He looked across at the old wooden chair wrapped in rope, and the men standing around it nervously.
“It’s not dangerous, you have tried it out several times with heavy weights, every time it worked perfectly. If these workmen don’t have confidence in it, it is because they haven’t seen all the experiments.”
“I should do it.’
“And who would operate the control lines, there is only one other person here who knows how to do that, and that is me.” She paused, “and I don’t think I have the strength or experience to do it.”
He was nervous now, he knew he was losing the argument, he always did with Martha, she had a way of persuading everybody, ‘indomitable’ someone had called her.
“But you are only fourteen. You are too young to do it”
“And what is the right age to do something no one has ever done before?”
She turned and walked towards the chair, one young man stepped in front of her.
“No Miss, don’t, I will do it.”
She stepped round him, “You had your chance.” She snapped, then seeing how crestfallen he looked.
“Jim, you have launched the sail before, I need someone experienced there. Launch it properly for me.”
Relieved he ran to stand by the mass of quivering canvas. Martha sat in the wooden chair, she made sure her bonnet was tied tightly under her chin, tucked in her skirts, wrapped her arms around the ropes that led behind the chair and shouted to her father.
“I’m ready, are you?”
“I’m just going to lift it off the ground, no need to go too high.”
Martha turned her head, behind two men lifted the guide kite. He father gently tugged the control line as they tossed the kite up. It soared into the sky, a small blue diamond, it took him a few moments before he had it perfectly controlled, and hovering almost over the massive sail.
“Now lift.” Her father shouted to the men on the massive kite, the buoyant sail. It was nearly thirty feet long. They gently lifted the top of the kite to catch the wind, the guide kite now added its lift to its massive companion. Suddenly, without a sound, the huge sail rose into the air. Her father held the guide cords tightly in his hand, stabilised by the guide kite the sail gently rose, the lines below it tightened.
Martha took a firm hold on the ropes, above her she could hear the gentle flap of the canvas, the chair rocked, she gripped tighter, then she was off, she was flying. The chair stopped rocking and hung below the massive sail.
She was only a few feet off the ground, it felt strange and wonderful.
“I’m fine.” She called to her father, “let me go higher.”
He eased on the control line and let the kites rise, Martha looked around her as the ground dropped away, she was now higher than the small tree to which the kites were firmly tied. Looking down she saw the amazed men looking up at her. As she rose higher she saw beyond the edge of the field, there was the road, a coach had stopped and a man on horseback, they were all looking up at her. There was a slight gust of wind, the chair rocked. She gripped harder as she was swung round.
In the distance she could see Bristol, the city dominated by St Mary Redcliffe, unmistakable even from this distance with its curious truncated spire. She was admiring the view when she felt her shoe slip off her foot, she bent forward, the chair rocked. Below she heard someone scream. As she settled back in the chair she felt the sail behind her move, her father was bringing her down. Looking down she saw that her father and the workman had been joined by several people, including the person who had screamed.
As the kites descended she felt she was moving forward, for a moment she wondered if it might be possible to free the kites from the cords and glide through the air, however the ground was approaching fast. She held on tight, she wanted to step elegantly from the chair as it touched the ground, she eased forward. But the chair hit hard, there was a crack as a leg broke.
Martha fell forward, in the small crowd that had been watching her, a woman screamed and fainted. Her companions looked at her now, ignoring Martha. Her father was finally bringing the sail and kite down, a young man ran up to her.
“Are you all right miss?” he asked.
“Only muddy,” she replied, stumbling to her feet, she slipped and would had fallen if he hadn’t grabbed her.
“Are you sure you haven’t hurt your ankle?”
“No, I have lost a shoe, could you find it for me?”
He looked around one of the men was walking towards them with her shoe in his hand. He held his hand out, the workman said.
“Hello sir, I didn’t recognise you.”
The gentleman knelt and eased the shoe onto Martha’s foot, she felt embarrassed now.
“Thank you sir,” then added, “So you know Jim.”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “excellent bowler and not a bad bat.”
“Oh Cricket.” She smiled, she rather liked this sporting gentleman.
An hour later, as their carriage slid silently over the grass, her father said;
“I wonder what your mother will think of me sending you up on a kite?”
“She won’t mind that, though she will be more cross with you about breaking the chair.” Martha replied, he laughed.
Martha was right, Mrs Pocock was very cross about the chair, as it was the cook’s favourite and she burnt the dinner. Later that evening, he desperately tried to change the subject, by saying;
“There was an interesting young man there, Martha seemed quite taken with him.”
Her mother was immediately interested, her father continued.
“He is called Henry Grace, he is training to be a doctor and likes cricket.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter at the moment, she is much too young to be thinking of anything like that. Now you will have to see about that chair first thing in the morning.”
The Kite carriage was faster than anything else on the road.
This story is true, in the 1820’s George Pocock, a Bristol schoolmaster, developed a series of linked kites that he used to pull carriages and boats. They could achieve very high speeds for the period, and he carried out some amazing journeys to demonstrate the powers of his new machine. These he described in his wonderfully named book; A Treatise on the Aeropleustic Art, or navigation in the Air, by means of Kites, or Buoyant Sails: with a description of the Chairvolant, or Kite Carriage. Towards the end of the work he described other experiments he made with his kites;
While on this subject, we must not omit to observe, that the first person who soared aloft in the air, by this invention, was a lady, whose courage would not be denied this test of its strength. An arm chair was brought on the ground; then, lowering the cordage of the Kite, by slackening the lower brace, the chair was firmly lashed to the main line, and the lady took her seat. The main-brace being hauled taut, the huge Buoyant Sail rose aloft with its fair burden, continuing to ascend to the height of one hundred yards. On descending, she expressed herself much pleased at the easy motion of the Kite, and the delightful prospect she had enjoyed.
The Lady was his daughter Martha Pocock she was 14.
Man carrying kites were probably invented in China or Japan, though the stories are strangely hard to pin down. However there can be no doubt that the first person in the west, and possibly the first named person, to fly on a kite was Martha Pocock a remarkable lady, who was later remembered as having a magnificent physique and indomitable will.
The only real invention in my story was the meeting with Henry Grace, though she must have met him around this time. Five years later, in 1831 she married her cricket loving doctor (she was 19, her mother thought she was too young, she thought otherwise and you didn’t argue with Martha Grace). They had a long and happy marriage, in a village near Bristol, where he was the doctor and founded a cricket club. Her children, she had nine, were all fit healthy and sports loving, especially her fourth son. She called him William, the rest of his family called him Gilbert, and the world called him W. G. Grace arguably the greatest cricketer who ever lived.