Dolly Shepherd. The Queen of Parachuting

By Wendy Hughes

I recently came across a remarkable lady, Dolly Shepherd, who in later life settled and spent the last twenty years of her in Eastbourne.  She was christened Elizabeth Miriam, but everyone called her Dolly. At the age of sixteen she took a job as a waitress at Alexandra Palace in London so that she could see the composer John Philip Sousa who she greatly admired. She certainly enjoyed taking risks because while she was working there she volunteered to stand-in on a shooting act for the showman Samuel Franklin Cody, nicknamed the Colonel, who toured England from America.

Cody’s wife was the usual stand-in, but one evening he’d grazed the top of her head and the show had to be cancelled. Cody was the first man to fly an aeroplane in England. Dolly ended up spending a year as his target for his act.  One day Cody took her to see another showman, Austuste Gaudron a French parachutist and balloonist who had a workshop.  Gaudron asked Dolly if she would like to make a parachute jump and within half an hour, Cody had lost his assistant, and Dolly became a trainee parachutist.  At this time it was a dangerous occupation because the safety harness was yet to be invented, and the parachute was no more than a canvas canopy and hanging below a small gas or air filled balloon.  On a separate bar was a trapeze bar that the parachutist would jump off to enable the parachute to open.

Although her ballooning career only last eight years, Dolly packed enough thrilling adventures in to last her a lifetime, until one day in 1912, during a solo ascent, she heard a voice  telling her to stop otherwise she would be killed. Dolly listened and stopped. Dolly took her occupation seriously and even designed her own costume, a navy blue suit with gold trimmings, and  as she sat on her trapeze bar she would wave a ‘Union Jack’ handkerchief to the crowd.

In 1905 in the days before women got the vote, Dolly made her first jump as a performance parachutist with thousands of people watching.   But it wasn’t always an easy ride, and on one occasion both the balloon and the parachute malfunctioned, and she found herself rising to 15,000 feet. The cold and lack of oxygen threatened to make her lose her grip and plummet to the ground, but thankfully the balloon sank to earth some 3½ hours later with Dolly exhausted.

However her luck nearly ran out in July 1908 when a new jumper, Louie May was due to make her first descent from one of Gaudron’s Mammoth balloons. He felt the wind was too strong and refused to let her jump, but promised the crowd she would jump the next day.

That evening Dolly joined them after performing in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and it was decided that they should do a double jump. The next day brought better weather, but the Mammoth balloon developed a fault and collapsed.   Luckily Dolly had brought her small balloon with her, and it was just big enough to lift the two girls.  A pony and trap was brought form the station and it took some time to rig up the two parachutes, one on each side to made sure the balloon was balanced.  At 8pm they were ready , and a roar went up from the jubilant crowd, but it was short-lived. Louie’s parachute would not release.

Dolly used the rope connecting the trapeze to pull them together, but without success, so dolly decided to take charge, and very carefully she released Louie’s harness and told her to wrap her arms and legs around Dolly so that they could descend safely on the one parachute, but the descend was too fast and they fell into a field, a few feet from the road.  Louie’s landing had been cushioned by Dolly and was unhurt, but Dolly had injured her back.  She was taken to a nearby farmhouse where he remained for eight weeks.

A back specialist was sent from London and concluded that Dolly would never walk again, and began to make arrangements for her to be sent to a hospital for incurable, but a local doctor had other ideals. He used a mild electric shock treatment and got her to move her legs again.  With a few weeks, Dolly had learnt to walk again through her determination, and gained her a place as the Guinness World Record Holder for the first mid-air rescue.

Two years later she was planning another jump, but yet again fate intervened on 9 July 1910 when she was due to jump at Coventry. At the last minute Edith Maud Cook another balloonist took her place, but her parachute collapsed after a gust of wind blew her on to a factory roof, and another gust caught the parachute and she fell sustaining serious injuries.

She died on the 14 July from internal injuries and a broken pelvis and arm. According to BBC History magazine Dolly liked to ‘go high because ‘I had it in my head that in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps if I had to be killed, I’d like to be killed completely: good and proper!’ She recalled that on one occasion she almost landed on a steam train, but the driver blew the steam and she landed up in a canal.

Now retired from ballooning and 4 days into World War I Dolly and her sister Wene joined the Women’s Emergency Corps, later to become the Women’s Volunteer Reserve and by the summer of 1915 she was driving munitions in a truck for the War Department.   In 1917, had formed and Dolly volunteered for overseas service as driver/mechanic in France. Women were not welcomed at first, but once they showed their mechanical and driving expertise and were happy to work long hours, they began to be valued.

This was dangerous work and once she carried a live shell in the boot of a car until it could be detonated.  She also suffered frostbite and a thoughtful surgeon had the presence to replace two of her toes on each foot with those from an amputated foot. She was also asked to chauffeur officers, and during this time she met rent and lands officer Captain Sedgwick, who although was one who  first objected to having a woman as a driver  he came to know Dolly better and their friendship grew and she eventually married him.  She again worked on the Home Front in Lewisham during the Second World War and was commended for her war efforts by the New Chronicle in the 1940s.

After the war they moved to the Isle of Wight, but after her husband died in 1956, she moved to Eastbourne in 1963.  In 1976 she was invited to join the Parachute Red Devils, greatly admiring modern techniques in parachuting. At the grand age of ninety she flew with the Red Devils as they gave a display over Worthing. She died in Eastbourne in 1983, just short of her 97th birthday and both the Red Devils and the RAF Falcons were represented at her funeral.  The Eastbourne Herald said of Dolly, she was ‘one of the most intrepid, charming and colourful characters ever to have lived in Eastbourne’.  She has a bench dedicated to her opposite the Grand Hotel.  The dedication reads:  In Loving Memory Of  Elizabeth Sedgwick (1886 – 1983) Dolly Shepherd Pioneer Aeronaut/Balloonist 1904-1912.



  • Wendy Hughes

    About Wendy Hughes Wendy Hughes turned to writing in 1989 when ill health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Between then and her death in January 2019 twenty-six non-fiction books and over 1700 articles, on a variety of subjects were published. Her work appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3 rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British and Guiding. For many years Wendy campaigned and wrote tirelessly on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a disorder from which she suffered. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raised awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession and produced the group’s literature. Additionally she gave talks and instruction on the craft of writing, was membership secretary of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and was a member of the Society of Authors. Her catalogue of History Press publications is still available.

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