Northern Ireland has a rich history of transport engineering. Belfast is one of the few places in the UK and the only place on the island of Ireland where boat, aircraft and car manufacturing took place simultaneously.
That rich history stems from the local engineering pioneers. Harry Ferguson, of Massey Ferguson tractor fame, was the first person in Ireland to both build and fly a plane, doing so in County Down in 1909.
In 1910, Lilian Bland did the same and not only became the first woman in Ireland and Britain to design, build and fly her own aircraft but possibly the first woman in the world to do so.
Lilian Emily Bland was born in 1878 in Kent, England. Her father was an artist from Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, but travelled around Europe for work. From a young age, Lilian experienced living in France, Italy, and Switzerland as well as spells in Ireland and Britain. This international experience possibly contributed to her sense of adventure and pioneering spirit.
Bland became a sports journalist and press photographer in Ireland and Britain, focusing on horse racing and motor sports. She also had an interest in wildlife photography.
Bland was one of the first women in Ireland to obtain a jockey’s licence. She caused a scandal in conservative Victorian and Edwardian society by riding horses astride as opposed to the more socially accepted side-saddle method for women.
Following the death of her mother, Lilian and her father moved to Carnmoney in Northern Ireland. It was during this period Lilian developed an interest in aviation. She was incredibly observant and was a keen learner, taking notes of aircraft specifications she saw at airshows.
She wrote articles on aircraft construction for Flight magazine while working on the construction of her own plane which she named the Mayfly. The Mayfly initially began life as an engineless glider made from various types of wood. After numerous test flights in early 1910, Bland fitted it with a 20 horsepower engine and propeller.
On 31st August 1910, in the park adjoining Shane’s Castle in Randalstown, the engine-powered Mayfly carried Bland 30 feet in the air. History had been made. Bland tweaked the Mayfly and subsequently improved on this distance in the following months.
Bland gave up aviation in 1911 having been successfully persuaded to do so by her father. The bribe was a Ford Model T and this inspired Lilian to become a Ford dealer in Belfast.
In the same year, her cousin Charles Loftus Bland returned from Canada and asked her to marry him, which she did. She sold the Mayfly to cover the cost of her trip to Canada. She made that trip in 1912, one week after the Titanic sank.
Life with Charles on Quatsino Island near Vancouver was a tough existence as pioneering farmers. Their daughter, Patricia, was born in 1913. They listed themselves as Canadian citizens in the 1921 census.
Later that year, they moved to California but returned to the Vancouver region in 1925. During that time, Lilian’s husband had a son with Mary Madden (Lilian’s cousin) but Lilian and Charles raised the boy with Patricia.
Marital difficulties followed Patricia’s death from tetanus in 1929. Lilian returned to Kent in 1935 and became a gardener. She died in 1971 and is buried in Cornwall where she moved to when she retired.
LILIAN BLAND: LEGACY
The Lilian Bland Memorial Park in Newtownabbey, County Antrim, has a full-scale stainless steel replica of the Mayfly.
The Ulster Transport Museum near Belfast has a space dedicated to Lilian in their Museum of Innovation exhibition celebrating Northern Ireland’s engineering pioneers and inventors.
The University of British Columbia in Vancouver holds a collection of her celluloid prints and negatives.
The achievements of Lilian Bland are extraordinary for a number of reasons. Firstly, aviation was an industry in its infancy at the time yet Lilian was at its forefront. Bear in mind that the Wright Brothers took their first flight only seven years prior to Bland’s endeavour.
But most significantly, Lilian Bland carved out an extraordinary life of pioneering feats in the socially restrictive Victorian and Edwardian eras where women couldn’t even vote. We can only speculate on what else she could have achieved had she remained in aviation.
For more reading on another aviation pioneer, check out my post on Lady Mary Heath.