Sew much history
The Telegram (St. John’s)14 Jun 2019 by ROSIE MULLALEY
She wasn’t on the plane that made the first transatlantic flight 100 years ago, but Mary Jackman’s contribution to that momentous flight is sewn into the fabric of Newfoundland history.
In flying the modified First World War Vickers Vimy bomber from here on June 14, 1919, across the Atlantic Ocean before landing in Clifden, Ireland, 16 hours and 12 minutes later — the first non-stop flight from North American to Europe — British aviators Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown of the Royal Air Force took aboard a bag full of mail.
A skilful seamstress, Jackman was the one who made that bag.
“She was a wizard. She could do anything,” Jackman’s granddaughter, Shirley Birmingham, told The Telegram Thursday. “She was a magnificent seamstress, a magnificent cook, a magnificent housekeeper.
“I found out way too late that I should have appreciated my grandmother.”
Birmingham, 95, was raised by her grandmother and grandfather, Capt. John Jackman, after her mother died in 1930, when Birmingham was just six years old.
Her grandmother — who was born Mary Ann Deally in 1863 — died in 1946, but Birmingham will always have happy memories of her making clothes for the family in their home at 206 Lemarchant Rd. in St. John’s.
“She made my clothes, my (St. Patrick’s) school uniform and my two older sisters’ clothes, and it was all so marvelous,” said Birmingham, adding that the fabric her grandmother used came from the English merchants back in those days.
“There were many things she made — men’s gloves with stitches made so finely in the back. My daughter even wore a coat that she made.”
Birmingham said her grandmother likely got to make the bag because her brother, Jim, worked at the post office at the time.
She had known for years that her grandmother had made the mailbag that was aboard the flight with Alcock and Brown. She wanted to ensure her grandmother was recognized for it this year during the centennial celebrations.
Birmingham mentioned it to several people when she attended the Field of Flights exhibit, held at Admiralty House Communications Museum in Mount Pearl last month to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight. While sifting through albums with historic photos, one featured a photo of Alcock and Brown with the mailbag.
“I think people would find that of interest,” said Birmingham, who lives in St. John’s with her 86-year-old husband, Gerald. “It’s history. It’s Newfoundland history. Many people will forget it, but not me.”
One of the organizers of the exhibit suggested she call Larry Dohey, Director of Programming and Public Engagement at The Rooms, which houses much of this province’s archives.
Dohey working with Museum curators investigated the claim and checked the bag, which is on display at The Rooms, and found Mary Jackman’s name on the inside seam.
“One of the big reasons for the transatlantic flight was to provide better communication around the world,” Dohey explained. “As a result, mail that took weeks before that took a much shorter period of time. It was a very significant accomplishment for many reasons.”
The mailbag is part of a self-guided aviation tour of the Rooms that allows visitors to see the mail bag in the context of related aviation photographs. The Rooms also opened an aviation exhibit ‘Second to None: The History of Aviation in Newfoundland and Labrador. Through documents, images, artifacts and artwork from The Rooms collections, this exhibition features highlights from the storied aviation history of our Province.
The centennial celebrations will also feature several private and public events, including a commemorative flight to Ireland, an aviators’ ball, a garden party, a downtown concert, a commemorative sculpture, a city reception, a historic stage production and a commemorative print.