GB Napiers at Castle Rheban



Bob Montgomery of Co Meath, motoring journalist and former saloon-car champion, is writing a book about the 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett race and Jenatzy who won it for Mercedes, and is also compiling a script for a TV documentary on this historic event. Below he recalls some interesting links with that occasion, which became evident when Lord Montagu returned to the Napier team’s HQ with the National Motor Museum’s surviving 1903 GB Napier during last year’s 90th anniversary of the race, organised by the Irish Veteran & Vintage CC. W B

Last July, the Irish Veteran and Vintage CC assembled a superb gathering of cars to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett Race. The gathering was made particularly significant by the presence of two Napiers, each with its own direct link to the 1903 race.

The first of these was the reassembled 1902 Napier of Johnny Thomas from Wales. This was the car driven by SF Edge to victory in the 1902 Gordon Bennett Race from Paris-Innsbruck. That victory — so well described in Anthony Heal’s landmark articles in Motor Sport (Vol 27) — led to the 1903 event being run in Ireland, over a figure-of-eight course, for a total distance of 327.5 miles. It was the second Napier, entered in the IVVCC Commemoration Rally by Lord Montagu and John Bentley, that had participated in this Irish race, driven by Charles Jarrott and his mechanicien Cecil Bianchi. They had the misfortune to crash heavily during the race, fortunately without serious injury.

This 1903 Napier was thus returning, after a gap of 90 years, to the scene of the event for which it was brought into being and where its crash is still remembered. In conjunction with a book and television documentary I am preparing, arrangements were made for Lord Montagu and John Bentley to bring the Napier to Castle Rheban, near Athy, Co Kildare, where the Napier Team had been based in 1903. Castle Rheban is a fascinating place. Set in rolling countryside, Rheban is marked on Ptolemy’s map of Ireland and was clearly the site of an extensive settlement at some point in ancient history. The present Castle Rheban dates from Medieval times and has been in a ruined state for several hundred years. The present owner, David Young, is directly related to the Large Family, who lived at Rheban at the time of the Napier Team’s stay. How the team came to be guests at Rheban is an interesting story. . .

Harry Large, who then lived at Rheban, had been a cycle racer in England for Dunlop and was acquainted with Edge and JW Stocks (who with Jarrott made up the team’s drivers) through Sir Arthur du Cros. When it was decided to run the 1903 Race in Ireland, Harry Large immediately offered to put his house at Castle Rheban at the disposal of the British team. The offer was made through Sir Arthur and was duly accepted. Rheban had a whole range of attractions for the team. On the one hand, its mile-long avenue would provide a site for test runs away from the public; additionally, lock-up garages could be provided for the cars; and Harry Large’s mansion had six bedrooms and all other modern amenities. Not least of those, it seems, was an indoor flush lavatory — rare in Ireland at that time!

The Napiers arrived at Rheban some weeks before the race, the three drivers being Montagu Napier, Cecil Bianchi (Jarrott’s mechanic) and Cecil Edge, cousin of SF Edge, whom he would accompany in the race. The team were determined to retain the trophy for Britain and set about learning the course with a rare dedication. It would appear from contemporary reports that they also ‘practised’ the course at racing speeds, Indeed, Edge alone was reported as having traversed the course some 40 times, wearing out in the process almost 100 tyres. It would seem that the home team were somewhat favoured in this respect, as practice at racing speeds was expressly prohibited. Indeed, the American team was censured for its — by comparison — feeble attempts to practise. Whatever, the Napier drivers were much liked by the locals and endeared themselves to the Large family. Napier caused daily consternation amongst the farm hands by rising at an early hour, stripping naked and sitting in the granite pump trough in the farmyard while ice-cold water was pumped over him! This trough is still called Napier’s Bath. Jarrott, in particular, was well regarded and great distress was caused by reports of his and Bianchi’s death in the race. Happily, the reports were untrue.

A notable visitor to Castle Rheban at this time was the Irish artist and song writer, Percy French. During race week he spent a day with the team and while Edge, Stocks, Jarrott and the others sat outside on the lawn having tea, he regaled them with a selection of his songs, including “Jim Wheelehan’s Automobeel”, which was published at the time of the race. The mention of Edge in the last verse brought roars of laughter from the assembly on the lawn of Castle Rheban.

This then was the site to which the ex-Jarrott Napier returned last summer. The house of the Large family, located beside the ruins, looks just as did in photographs taken at the time of the team’s stay. In fact, the house was burned in “The Troubles” and today its thatched roof has been replaced by one of slate. That apart, it’s astonishing to view places such as the railings where Jarrott, Edge and Stocks (and Edge’s terrier) were photographed. Today all that has changed is the size of the trees! The lock-up garages, created for the team in the dungeons of the castle, are still in use, although today they house a boat for fishing on the nearby canal.

The visit of Lord Montagu, John Bentley and the 1903 GB Napier provided the occasion for the Young family to display several mementos of the 1903 visit, including the photo of the team and their cars reproduced with this article. Sadly, it appears that although up to quite recent times many of the team’s tyres, both new and used, were still in the old castle dungeons, together with spare parts, a bucket seat, tools and a motoring coat, reputed to have belonged to Edge, these have all now disappeared — without trace it seems. B M