“I have never met anyone with such a zest for enjoyment”

Thus wrote Gertrude Caton-Thompson of the frankly amazing Lady Mary Bailey. During two weeks in February 1931, Mary surveyed and photographed archaeological remains at Kharga Oasis,  in the Egyptian Western Desert, from her D.H.80a Puss Moth aeroplane, one of the highest performance private aircraft of its day. She had been asked by Gertrude Caton-Thompson to assist in the first fieldwork season of a pioneering interdisciplinary archaeological landscape survey, looking for sites in the desert, alongside another trowelblazer, Elinor Wight Gardner. This may make her the first woman to have taken aerial photographs for archaeological research.

Mornings flying over the Egyptian Desert, afternoon visits by camel to sites revealed from the air. What a contrast to the endurance trial of her first aerial desert experience! In 1928, Mary had been alone as she faced a epic and gruelling journey from London to Cape Town, stage after stage across the Mediterranean, south to Cairo and on to South Africa. A lonely figure in a tiny black speck of an aircraft, with its 80 horse power engine and inadequate compass. On her return in 1929, she was an aviation star with multiple records: longest ever solo flight (18,000 miles), the first woman to fly from London to Capetown, and the first to cross the Sahara and Congo. Later, in 1931, she was part of a team of women pioneering for science – its members just as tough, determined and adventurous, although probably not as famous, as “the Irish Aviatrix”.

Born on 1 December 1890, Mary was came from an aristocratic background. Mary spent most of her childhood at Rossmore Castle in Ireland, living the outdoors life and being home-educated by a pair of governesses after she ran away from school in 1906. Her adventurous nature prompted her to buy an early motorbike, and from 1914 she was earning a reputation for speeding in her car. Mary volunteered for service during the First World War initially as a driver-mechanic, and served in Britain and France, attached to the Royal Flying Corps. She had married Abe Bailey, a mining magnate, politician and newspaper proprietor whose interests lay in South Africa, in 1911. After the war Mary carried out the role of mother and society hostess, entertaining her husband’s business and political colleagues and looking after her growing family, her life divided between England and South Africa.

Come 1926 Mary’s four eldest children were at boarding school, with the fifth soon to follow. Seeking a new challenge she joined the London Aeroplane Club to take flying lessons, and her Royal Aero Club certificate, number 8067, was awarded on 26 January 1927. Very soon Mary was described as flying “nearly every day” and she became a familiar face at prestigious race events around the country, building a record-breaking reputation. July 1927; the world altitude record and the first woman to qualify for a “blind” (i.e. using navigation instruments-only) flying certificate. August 1927; the first solo flight by a woman from England to Ireland via the ‘long’ route from Chester to Dublin (with a hastily purchased motor-cycle inner tube around her midriff, inflated, in case she had to ditch in the Irish Sea). January 1928; the International League of Aviators’ Harmon Trophy for champion airwoman of the world. And then on 9 March 1928, she took her Moth G-EBSF for a spin from the Stag Lane aerodrome to visit her husband. He was in Cape Town.

The flight to Cape Town down the eastern African route, and her phenomenal return journey via the mostly uncharted air route up the west of Africa, were incredible feats of courage and endurance totalling some 18,000 flying miles. Mary faced bureaucratic obstruction from the British authorities in Egypt, a forced landing in the desert of northern Sudan, a crash at Tabora, considerable privations and days without food, Spartan conditions at some stops and luxurious colonial hospitality at others. It was the all-time distance flying record, and on her return in January 1929 Mary was fêted by the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Royal Aero Club, and the Air League of the British Empire.

Satellite image of Kharga Oasis and surrounding desert; source Google Maps, used for non-profit educational purposes.

Satellite image of Kharga Oasis and surrounding desert; source Google Maps, used for non-profit educational purposes.


In 1929, as Mary continued to attend flying meetings and events to promote aviation in Britain, Gertrude Caton-Thompson had in her mind the possibilties for aerial survey in Egpyt, having previously used the technique in her work at Great Zimbabwe (after being inspired by O.G.S Crawford’s pioneering approach). She had actually been previously disappointed the by RAF during her 1927-8 excavation of the Fayum region in Egypt, in particular their reluctance to to allow her to fly with them, without which “more than half the value is lost.” The South African Air Force had not only taken photographs for Gertrude over Great Zimbabwe – she had flown with Major Wynne-Eyton and observed new archaeological details herself.

Gertrude met and propositioned Lady Mary Bailey at a chance meeting in 1930. To her surprise, Mary promised two weeks in 1931 to the Kharga Oasis project. Her biographer suggests that Mary was influenced to agree to Gertrude’s request by her experience visiting the Tombs of the Kings at Luxor, for which she broke her England-South Africa flight in 1928. Gertrude was delighted by Mary’s enthusiasm as she  “landed in a halo of dust beside our desert camp” on 17 February 1931. Unbeknownst to Mary, Gertrude’s team had spent a frantic two days trying to prepare a landing strip. They tried to harden an open area of sand by pouring water over the ground, and then marked it out by walking the camels around the edges. Gertrude remembered,

As she dropped to landing level I was more petrified by fright than I have ever been. My heart was thumping. Then we lost sight of her in the dust-storm as she touched down. We all raced towards her….Her first words were ‘It was a poor landing.’ The wheels had ploughed through the watered sand, but mercifully the plane did not somersault.

Starting at dawn and finishing before air conditions deteriorated around 10am, Mary made observations over the research area, taking aerial photographs herself with a special camera. Both Gertrude and her Elinor Wight Gardner flew alongside Mary, taking turns to occupy the Moth’s single passenger seat. Gertrude noted this as the first expedition in Egypt to benefit from dedicated aircraft cover. In just two weeks, they had achieved a broad geological and archaeological overview of an area that would have taken many weeks to traverse by foot. She also provided targets for the next year’s work, as new sites were revealed from the air.

Were these the first aerial photographs taken for archaeological purposes by a woman? While Gertrude Bacon, ballooning with her father, is likely to have been the first woman to take general aerial photographs around the beginning of the twentieth-century, Mary Bailey in 1931 is the best candidate for the first, specifically archaeological, aerial photographer, taken in collaboration with Gertrude Caton-Thompson. She was a trowelblazer, and a genuine pioneering aviatrix, one of few women who learnt to fly aircraft in the years after early ballooning. Many were celebrated at the time for their achievements, but Mary’s involvement as a team member on the Kharga Oasis expedition stands out. Lady Mary Bailey died in Cape Town in 1960, with a DBE.

Note: you can read about new work at the 1930s Kharga sites here (pdf), plus there is further information about survey work in North Kharga.

Submitted by Katy Whitaker @artefactual_KW (www.artefactual.co.uk)

Editing and additional material by Becky


Barber, M. (2011) A History of Aerial Photography and Archaeology Swindon: English Heritage

Caton-Thompson, G. (1931) “Kharga Oasis” Antiquity 5: 221-226

Caton-Thompson, G. (1983) Mixed Memoirs Gateshead: The Paradigm Press

Falloon, J. (1999) Throttle Full Open. A Life of Lady Bailey, Irish Aviatrix Dublin:

Lilliput Press [e-book, 2012 edition]

Flight magazine is available online at the Flight Global Archive http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/ Lady Mary Bailey’s aviation career is

followed in some detail in the pages of this popular weekly publication.



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One thought on “Lady Mary Bailey

  1. Marnie Turnell says:

    I am trying to find a picture of Elinor Wight Gardner who was with Caton-Thompson on the Karga survey with Lady Bailey. Can you help?

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