WITHIN 30 years of the Montgolfier brothers demonstrating their new contraption to French Royalty, balloonmania swept Europe and when it arrived on English shores, young Margaret Graham was on her way to being one of the most celebrated female aeronauts of the 19th century.
The story of this daring diva of the skies unfolds in a premiere performance at St Peter’s Church, Shipley, on Wednesday as part of Saltaire Festival. Written, directed and performed by Bradford author and actor Irene Lofthouse, Margaret’s story is one of derring-do, and part of the scientific transformation taking place through invention and exploration of flight. “It was a way women could escape the usual way of life expected for them,” says Irene. “Margaret and her husband George were a team; he was a famous balloonist when he met her, but she was a marvellous marketeer, a woman with a mission to show that women of all ages were competent at piloting and flying balloons in their own right.”
Margaret’s flight from Piece Hall was recorded in Anne Lister’s diary. She set solo flight records, cheated death several times and managed to suspend House of Commons business when MPs came out to see her.
Irene came across Margaret when she was commissioned by the Piece Hall to research the Grahams’ visit in 1837. “I’d heard of the Montgolfiers but I’d never heard of Margaret, nor was I aware of the rivalry between balloonists and the lengths they’d go to attract audiences. I was astounded by not only the number of flights she undertook, but also the accidents she had and survived, especially the miscarriage of her eighth child whilst ballooning with the exiled Duke of Brunswick.
“I was in character at Piece Hall when I came across the Balloonmania book written by Bradford writer Sharon Wright. I was entranced by Margaret and decided she needed a ‘show’ of her own. I’m sure, being the diva she was, she’d be delighted.” Visit saltairefestival.co.uk