From triumph in the skies to a forgotten tragedy

SHE was one of the original magnificent women in their flying machines.

Now, a century this month after an aerial feat in the skies of South Tyneside almost cost her life, efforts are being made to commemorate the borough's links with an early aviation pioneer, Madame Mathilde Franck.

In August 1910, she thrilled spectators when she took off in a bi-plane from Boldon Flats.

But it was a flight that ended in tragedy, when she crashed and killed a young boy.

She herself escaped, albeit injured, and the incident effectively ended her ambition to be on a par with some of aviation's earliest male pioneers.

Yet today, her feat is virtually forgotten locally. The location from which she took off is an everyday field where cows graze.

"It's such a shame. There is absolutely no evidence that it ever happened," said Joan Atkinson.

"It's not known about in local schools, there's no plaque – unless something is done, it will all get forgotten about."

Joan and fellow East Boldon resident Peter Skevington recently set about trying to find out more about Madame Franck, but it has been an uphill struggle.

Peter, an air enthusiast since boyhood, has even written to aviation-linked agencies in France, but did not receive a single acknowledgement.

"I had hoped that they might have had more information on her life, given that she actually lived for a long time afterwards, being around 90 when she died," he said.

"It would be even better, though, if we could find a relative of her's or a descendant.

"It's important because she was one of the really, really early people who flew aeroplanes, at a time when women were not known for doing that kind of thing."

He and Joan even wonder if there are folk in South Tyneside who remember hearing family stories of Madame Franck's flight from Boldon.

"Perhaps there are children or grandchildren of people who witnessed the flight," said Peter.

Said Joan: "Perhaps people can also come up with ideas as to how it should be marked. Should there be a plaque, for instance? We'd like to hear from them."

Rosalind Mathilde Franck had been born in France in 1866.

By the end of the Edwardian era – by then married to a British journalist – she was one of only four or five women held in serious regard in the world of early aviation.

She had learned to fly at the French plant of Farnham's, manufacturers of the bi-plane in which she would take to the skies over Boldon.

On July 20, 1910, having already established a record by flying, non-stop, for 14 miles at Mourmelon, north-east of Paris, she planned a cross-Channel flight.

Her aim was to emulate Louis Bleriot, who'd been the first man to fly across the English Channel the year before.

In the end, bad weather prevented her making what would have also been the longest flight by a female aviator hitherto.

By the end of July, she was on her way to Tyneside. Richard Thornton, manager of the Sunderland Empire theatre, had offered to sponsor her to fly from Boldon Flats which, at the time, were the location of the Boldon Races, held every Easter, Whitsun and August Bank Holiday.

Her Maurice Farman bi-plane was transported to Boldon station on a special train, arriving on the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend.

That evening, she took off in the plane after a 100-yard run and, after a short spin, landed safely a mile and a half away.

It was a triumph – the first significant powered flight by a woman anywhere in the UK. But fate would quickly turn against her.

On August 1, 1910, she again took off, but this time deciding to fly very low, out of fear of hitting the tower at Fulwell waterworks.

In the event, it was a flagstaff that she clipped. The collision caused the flimsy aircraft to turn over at a height of 25ft, crashing to the ground.

She herself was lucky, although she did suffer internal injuries and a broken leg.

A young boy on the ground, called Wood, was less fortunate.

He was struck by the aircraft's engine and died, entering the history books as only the second person to be killed on the ground by an aeroplane. The previous autumn, a woman in France had been the first.

Bits of the shattered plane also struck other spectators, causing lesser injuries.

Gamely, Madame Franck subsequently appeared at the Sunderland Empire – pushed on stage in a wheelchair by her manager.

Before the tragedy, she had expressed hopes of entering the Chicago to New York air race, sponsored by the New York Times.

But the accident effectively ended her flying career and she was unable to obtain a licence. She died in 1956.

* If you can offer any help or suggestions, give Peter a ring on 536 3543, or e-mail: maureen.skevington@btinternet.com