Women racers at Brooklands

From the very opening meeting in 1907, women competed at the surrey track. While some races were ladies-only, often they raced on equal terms with the men. Bill Boddy recalls some very skilful drivers

If no female driver has ever made it to fame in F1 championship racing, it has to be accepted that almost from the beginning of motor-racing in 1895, those who used to be termed the weaker sex have excelled on the tracks and over rally courses. In fact, at Brooklands they were so numerous that I have space only to recall a few of them.

In Edwardian days it must have been regarded as unseemly that women had made balloon flights and competed in motor races. But it was so, and went on to span the passing of an era when men were not supposed to glance even discreetly at a lady’s ankles, to when girls had bobbed hair or Eton crops, wore make-up, smoked in public and when skirts had crept above knees. When she raced at Brooklands in 1908, Miss Christobel Ellis tied her long skirts down with cord, her long hair coiled up and pinned beneath a discreet cap, to race G Moss’s sparsely-bodied Arrol-Johnston, ‘Guarded Flame’.

It seems odd that, with two exceptions, it took the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club well into the latter period before it permitted ladies to compete in its races, short as these were (the handicap events, not necessarily the girls).

The first of these two Ladies’ Races of 1908 was seen obviously as an attraction to bring spectators to the Weybridge track. The first, the Ladies’ Bracelet Handicap, was over only a lap, and then up the Finishing Straight, a distance of about three miles. Miss Muriel Thompson on the Austin Pobble’ won from Dame Ethel Locke King, wife of the track’s wealthy builder, on her Itala `Bambo’, entered by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the present Lord’s father. The only other competitor, Christobel Ellis, was third, the Arrol-Johnston’s steering wheel level with her face, suggesting an everyday car stripped for the occasion, cornflowers and sweet peas on its bonnet. No speeds were announced, but the finish had been close; perhaps Dame Ethel diplomatically gave way to Muriel. Instead of the jockeys’ silks which drivers wore for identification, it had been thought more discreet to give the intrepid ladies coloured scarves.

The second of these BARC ventures was a Match Race between Muriel and Christobel, won by the former. After which the BARC expected the fair sex to confine themselves to the Brooklands’ tennis courts and tearooms.

Not all that long ago, at a non-motoring lunch, I met a lady in a wheelchair, whose name was Thompson. She knew about Brooldands, having been the secretary of Muriel Thompson’s father, her name a coincidence; but she told me that before the Austin Pobble’ was raced she would drive it for long running-in periods. Small world!

Yet well before this, pioneering women had performed extremely well in racing. The already famous Camille du Gast had competed in the 1901 Paris-Berlin race on a 20hp Panhard, coming in 33rd. She had also been the first woman to make a parachute descent from a balloon, in 1895. She drove a racing de Dietrich in the 1903 Paris-Madrid, the ‘race of death’ that was stopped at Bordeaux, in which she had pulled up to help at the accident in which Stead was killed.

In England, Dorothy Levitt proved herself able to cope with the big Napiers in speed-trials and road events from 1903 onwards. So it was odd that the BARC forbade females to compete on the comparatively safe expanse of their track…

Even more odd that, in spite of this ban, the girls did race there, at other clubs’ meetings, and were also allowed to do so in the long-distance sportscar races at Weybridge. The go-ahead Junior Car Club had a Ladies race at one of its 1920 Meetings at Brooklands, won by Miss Desborough (GN), Miss Addis Price second in her flat-twin Douglas, Mrs Hawkes third in a Horstman. Indeed, Miss Price, who left a considerable fortune to her lady companion, raced the Douglas frequently at such meetings. Mrs Duller, who had a milliners shop in Epsom, hence smart hats, raced an Amilcar, and Mrs A F Nash a GN. Violet Cordery drove an Eric Campbell and won a West Kent race in a 2.7-litre Invicta, and other girl drivers included Miss Pink (Aston-Martin) and Mrs Ringwood (200-Mile Race GN), wife of the owner of France’s postwar ammunition dumps, who had his own private army.

Miss Ivy Cummings won the 1922 Duke of York Trophy race in a 1912 Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeam but preferred seaside sprints, although as a schoolgirl she did do a lap in her father’s SCAR in 1912 when he was away watching the flying. Only a damaged hand, from when she tried to change a puncture, spared her dire punishment when he got home. Mrs Menzies won a 1923 club race in one of the 1912 GP Peugeots, and there were many more who circumvented the BARC ban.

It is odd that the fair but autocratic Clerk of the Course, Col Lindsay Lloyd, retained this mixed racing ban after the Hon Mrs Chetwynd had been co-driver of a supercharged Lea-Francis in the BARC’s own 1930 Six-Hour Sportscar Race, and Mrs Scott and Mrs Victor Bruce had taken part in the JCC 1930 Double Twelve marathon.

This restriction was removed, at BARC meetings at least, in 1928, but only for Ladies-only handicaps. The BARC had cautiously arranged for the first such fixture to be held in June at a mixed evening meeting, and then only for one race, the girls having to get their men to race their cars in the other events. Seven entries came in, and Miss Maconochie’s s/c Salmson won, from Jill Scott’s scratch GP Sunbeam, from which she had been given a 49sec start. On other days she was the Prime Minister’s official driver. Emboldened, a second such race was held, in July, won by Jill, this time in a 2-litre Bugatti. A third race was run on the August Bank Holiday, again over ‘about 6.5 miles’, for a £10 cup (entry fee one sovereign). Maconochie won this one, too, this time in her Amilcar Six, lapping at 102.69mph.

Pressured, the BARC decided in 1932 to let the girls try their skills against the men in its handicaps, from the Inter-club meeting onwards, but also decided that separate Ladies’ races were popular, so those were continued once a year, from 1929 to ’35. The winners were Mrs Scott’s GP Sunbeam, Mrs Wisdom’s Leyland-Thomas, Miss Fay Taylour in a Talbot, and Paddy Naismith in a Salmson.

By 1933, the officials were satisfied that the girls were sufficiently skilled to cope with the tricky Mountain circuit The winners in the final three Ladies’ handicaps on this course were Miss Rita Don in Dixon’s Riley II, Miss Doreen Evans’ MG and Mrs Oxenden — hair permed, in a smart tweed two-piece suit, collar and tie — in her supercharged Alta.

The girls who met the men on equal terms from July 1932 (handicapped by the experienced ‘Ebby) and beat them were: Kay Petre four times, three in a Bugatti (best lap 125.45mph), and one ’round the Mountain’ in a Riley; Miss Allan, three in a Bentley, one in a Frazer Nash, and Miss Dorothy Stanley-Turner (MG), coached by Sammy Davis, two, one in a Mountain race. There were also single victories by Mrs Tolhurst (Riley), Mrs Hedges (Talbot), Mrs Roe (Lea-Francis), Miss Schwedler (Alvis), Miss Evans (MG), Miss Summers (Marendaz Special), which Marendaz claimed as the first such win, Mrs Briggs (Riley) — I recall the joy of her and her husband afterwards — and Miss McOstrich (Frazer Nash). And what about ‘Bill’ Wisdom and cheerful Joan Richmond from Australia winning the very masculine one-day, 1000-mile race of 1932 for Riley at 84.41mph?

These were just some of the Brooklands girls. To pick the greatest of them is not my style, but Kay Petre and Gwenda Stewart were exceedingly competent. The very attractive Kay, immaculate in her tailored racing overalls, BRDC badge on one of the breast pockets, crash hat to match, won the 1935 Ladies Match Race with a lap of 134.75mph in the big 10.5-litre V12 Delage, its pedals extended and seat altered to suit her petite figure. Not exactly a car for the nervous, but the only things that frightened Kay were the Conan Doyles’ cobras! Gwenda then went slightly faster in the 2-litre Derby-Miller she had brought over from Paris, becoming the fastest-ever Weybridge lady, her lap speed being 135.95mph, in spite of not being so familiar with the track:Mese were the only ladies to earn 130mph badges.

Gwenda married Douglas Hawkes, who with Fred Cann looked after her cars. She had started on bikes in the 1920s and resided at Montlhery. Kay started with a Wolseley Hornet given to her by her husband, who was into aviation by 1910. I have a fond memory of going to an important publisher’s lunch at which each guest was supposed to take a person associated with the sport he or she wrote about I took Kay. Announced, I was told by the director that it was a pity I had not brought a racing driver! “I am about to introduce you to one of the fastest and most capable ones you are ever likely to meet,” I replied. Kay was competent in cars from a Jamieson Austin to the great Delage. Afterwards, I dropped her in Regent Street to shop; that was the last time I saw her.

Jill Scott, bobbed hair, good legs, drove any of her husband W B ‘Bummer’ Scott’s varied racing cars, certainly as fast as he did. She was the first girl to get a 120mph badge, in the Sunbeam in 1928. Mrs Elsie (Bill) Wisdom, tall, slim, usually in black overalls, gained hers in 1932, with a Leyland-Thomas shared with husband, newspaperman Tommy, another good all-round driver. Mrs W managed this car easily, another large and difficult one to tame; even its creator Parry Thomas used to say he had to brace his right elbow outside the body for a 130mph dash along the Byffeet banking. Up to 80 or 90mph not much skill was needed at Brooldands, but at 100mph and over it was different. Kay Petre had got her 120mph badge by 1934 in her Bugatti, Mrs Stewart hers by 1935 on that brief visit with the Derby.

Another resolute and successful driver was Margaret Allan, married to Christopher Jennings, editor of The Motor. She won many races in the 6.5-litre Bentley ‘Old Mother Gun’, not an easy car to trifle with. She got her 120mph accolade in 1936, and was good in a single-seater Frazer Nash. Her husband, a Riley enthusiast, had huge models of paddle-steamers and got a bit annoyed if his guests failed to dock them properly! Luckily, when I interviewed Margaret, they were ‘in dock’.

So many more girls to remember, but space has run out They were practically all amateurs, and if they didn’t win they were often well placed, doing it for fun, although perhaps a few, craving excitement, realised that there was only golf or motor racing left.