Alexandra Palace's archivist Kirsten Forrest shares the stories of the remarkable women who've made history in this north London institution.
The Edwardian lady parachutist
One of the unexpected pleasures of my role at the Palace, which involves researching and developing exhibitions on the heritage of Ally Pally, is discovering more about the lives of some of our history's most amazing characters. For me, a top-drawer star of our entertainment heritage is Dolly Shepherd, 'the Edwardian Lady Parachutist'. Dolly, christened Elizabeth, but nicknamed as a baby because of her doll-like look, became famous for jumping out of balloons and floating back to earth in front of crowds of admirers.
Shepherd actually started her career at Ally Pally as a waitress, but ended up performing her first (in 1904) and last (in 1912) balloon jumps here in the park at Alexandra Palace. Unlike many of her aerial pioneer friends, she survived this career and went on to serve in the first and second world wars as a driver and mechanic. She was a tour de force of a woman who knew no fear, and continues to be a huge inspiration to all who come across her story.
I was lucky enough to track down the archive of Dolly Shepherd in Ashby de la Zouch following a lead from a fan blog about seeing 100 year old, original artefacts and memorabilia which have been preserved by trustee Ken Hilliard. I am enormously grateful that Ken allowed me to borrow and digitise these precious items including audio recordings of Dolly's memoirs — snippets of which can now be heard in the display at the East Court of the Palace.
The first song ever performed on TV
The Palace's history of broadcast, particularly BBC television, is peppered with female firsts. On 2 November 1936, the first song ever performed on the brand new medium of television was sung by well-known radio and musical theatre star Adele Dixon. First-hand accounts of this historic moment relate to how wardrobe had to come up with a floral addition to Adele's dress to conceal the décolletage — how times have changed!
Here are the evocative opening lyrics of the song, in case you are curious:
A mighty maze of mystic, magic rays
Is all about us in the blue,
And in sight and sound they trace
Living pictures out of space
To bring a new wonder to you
The first show recorded for repeat
Sadly for us, very little early television survives. When it launched, television went out live and there was no way to record shows. Even when, later on, it was recorded, it was not necessarily saved forever. More like theatre, if a show was to be repeated the cast had to perform again. However, by 1947 technology had progressed enough to capture the television signal on film and Adelaide Hall an American Jazz singer, who was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance with a successful career in the US and UK was the first performer to be 'telerecorded'. Adelaide performed on Variety in Sepia, a television special dedicated to black talent, which was the first show recorded for repeat broadcast.
The privilege of the few extended to the many
One of my favourite behind the scenes personalities from Ally Pally's television history is pioneering producer, Grace Wyndham Goldie — an early devotee of television who revolutionised the electoral process in 1950 by broadcasting results in real time, as they came in. Controversially, for the first time in British history, the public learned the results at the same time as the politicians: "The privilege of the few had once again been extended to the many," said Goldie. A hugely influential producer, and formidable woman, she went on to create the current affairs television format. Her thoughts on witnessing early television broadcast tests in 1936 sum up her spirit and foresight: "the whole thing was terrible, the reception was awful ...and I was convinced this was going to become one of the most influential things that had ever been created."
Fallon Sherrock makes history
Tuesday 17 December marked one of the most talked-about nights in recent Ally Pally history. Fallon Sherrock became the first woman to beat a man at the PDC World Darts Championship, with a 3-2 victory in the first round over Ted Evetts. She didn't stop there, progressing through her next round a few days later. Her every dart was cheered to the rafters by the raucous 3,000 crowd and the aftermath saw her become a national celebrity. Fallon's achievements have sent shockwaves around sport and the country as a whole, and along with a number of female contemporaries she is continuing to push the boundaries in a once male-dominated sport. She joins an ever-growing list of incredible women to shape the history of Ally Pally.