Flying Duchess

09 26 mary russellToday is the birthday of Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford. She was born Mary Du Caurroy Tribe in Stockbridge, Hampshire in 1865. She grew up in England but at sixteen moved to Lahore in India where her father was an Archdeacon. There she found life a lot more free than it had been in Victorian England. She could ride for miles across the Indian countryside and even sit astride the horse when no one was looking. Ladies were expected to sit side-saddle in England. She met and married Lord Herbrand Russell in 1888 in Barrackpore. Afterwards they moved to Scotland where their only child, a son named Hastings, was born.

There has been some speculation that Mary suffered from post-natal depression. No one knows for sure because she never wrote or talked about it, but her relationship with her son was very distant. Instead she threw herself into other activities. She climbed mountains, sailed to remote areas of Scotland, enjoyed skating, photography and painting. She also learned about mechanics and how to build radios.

In 1891 her husband inherited the title of Duke of Bedford after his brother died childless. They moved to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. Her husband ran the estate on military lines and once again she found herself with nothing much to do. Mary was very interested in medicine and nursing, but had been unable to pursue either as a career as they weren’t suitable occupations for a lady. With her husband’s support she opened a cottage hospital in 1903. At the beginning of the First World War she had another hospital built in the Abbey grounds where wounded soldiers were treated. She employed a surgeon called Bridon Glendenning who encouraged her to study radiography and radiology. At the hospital, Mary didn’t expect any of her staff to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. She would be up at 5.45 every morning scrubbing floors and preparing the operating theatre. She became an excellent theatre nurse and even performed some minor operations.

Mary was also a member of the Women’s Freedom League, a militant suffrage movement who refused to pay their taxes or cooperate in the 1911 census. When she refused to pay her taxes in 1913 she had some of her property seized. She later pointed out in a newspaper article that the seizure had been illegal because, as a married woman, she wasn’t even liable for tax. She had allowed it to happen because she wanted to use the incompetence of the authorities to highlight the cause of women’s suffrage. As she said: “Obviously it is not my business to point out the law to those whose duty it should be to understand it.”

At the age of 61 she discovered the joys of aviation. It was a hobby she took up after finding that it helped with her tinnitus. Even though she was twice the age of most of the people flying at the time, she threw herself into her new hobby with enthusiasm. She employed a pilot, Lt Barnard, who appears to have shared her sense of adventure. In 1929 they flew 10,000 miles from Lympne airport in Kent to Karachi and back to Croydon airport in the record time of only eight days. The following year, they broke another record, flying the 9,000 miles to Cape Town and back. On these journeys they would have had to make frequent stops to refuel, often on runways made from sand. If anything went wrong with the plane, they would have to wait days for a new part to arrive. It could also be dangerous. On one occasion, they landed in the desert to find a couple of bullet holes in their plane. Unknown to them, someone had shot at them from the ground.

At the age of 71, she had 199 hours and 4 minutes of flying time under her belt. She wanted to renew her pilots licence and needed another 56 minutes to bring her up to 200 hours. In March 1937 she set out on a solo flight over Cambridgeshire. It was a clear day when she set off but the weather quickly changed for the worse. When, after an hour and a half, she hadn’t returned, her husband became concerned and called the police. A search was made, but neither she or her plane were ever seen again.

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