Cars in Books, June 1969

On the recommendation of a reader I have been enjoying “Flanders and Other Fields”, by The Baroness de T’Serclaes, M.M. (Harrap, 1964). There are some unexpected references to motoring in it. For instance, the Baroness recalls buying a Chater-Lea motorcycle before the First World War, to serve as transport when she was living in a remote cottage in the New Forest. An illustration shows this to have been a big vee-twin, with a pointed-nose sidecar in a hoop chassis, with a generator on the running-board for the two acetylene lamps (the Reg. No. was AM 2373). So much did she enjoy motorcycling that the authoress joined the Gypsy Club and took part in trials. She writes of a 12-hour non-stop event to Malvern and back and of being the only competitor, apart from one solo, to get up the Leith Hill footpath to the water-tower. That was in 1912. There is also an account of riding an open-framed Scott in an Exeter-Weston-super-Mare-Exeter trial when, on the return journey between Honiton and Exeter, the throttle-cable broke and, relying on “my brakes and the exhaust valve lever”, the Baroness went past all the other riders at 60 m.p.h., being forced to ignore the 25-m.p.h. time-schedule. (She means, of course, the de-compression lever, because a two-stroke Scott didn’t have an exhaust valve.) Later the Chater-Lea was rigged up with “wooden extensions on the long, curving handlebars” so that it could be ridden, more comfortably, from the sidecar. “Very mystifying to passers-by.”

A three-wheeler was next acquired, its make not revealed, which suffered the collapse of the back wheel in Fordingbridge, throwing the driver on her back. There is also mention of riding an 8-h.p. Scott in Devon to win a bet from her sister that she could not get to Exeter, 15 miles, in 15 minutes. “I set off over Haldon Hill, going both up and down the other side … and phoned through from a post-office in Exeter to announce my arrival—in 14 minutes flat.” This suggests an excellent telephone service in those days; but she does say the Scott “had a top speed of about 80 m.p.h.” When war broke out Baroness Serclaes was about to organise a trial in which many women riders were to compete, having already been up in an aeroplane with Gustav Hamel in the summer of 1914 when he arrived for a local flying display; “. . . being essentially an individualist, I never got mixed up in suffragist politics”.

The main part of this interesting book is about the Baroness’ work with the Red Cross on the Western Front, accompanied by another motorcycle trials rider, Mairi Chisholm. Many ambulances and ex-London ‘buses on active service are mentioned. There are a heavy Napier ambulance, difficult for a woman to manoeuvre, Daimlers, Wolseleys, Mercedes, Pipes, Sunbeams and Fiats, and a trustworthy Mercedes tourer used for sitting cases, “its great speed being a help in times of danger”, a Wolseley ambulance presented by the people of Sutton Coldfield which carried over 1,200 patients, and other wartime vehicles, such as a Talbot (or Mors) tender, and a R.N. tourer, perhaps a Talbot-Darracq, are illustrated. This book brings home the futility and tragedy of war more forcibly than many of the books about the First World War, even if some of the stories therein are difficult to credit, such as the Germans being persuaded to fire harmlessly, at British V.I.P.s visiting the Front, after they had been persuaded to ride on a see-saw at the Baroness’ quarters.

References to stately homes untouched by the war are intermingled with the horror of tending the wounded within sight of the firing line. Women drivers of Crossley tenders, at the W.R.A.F. depot at Hurst Park, are commended for getting off the mark promptly to all parts of the country in vehicles which “stood in the open all night, and in the morning had to be hand-cranked with a clumsy starting-handle”. “A magnificent Daimler” was used to take the authoress to H. G. Tetley’s house at Cranleigh where she acted as supervisor soon after the Armistice, but unfortunately the makes of other cars encountered at country houses at the time are not quoted, nor that of a sports car used for first-aid duties in Poplar during the 1926 General Strike. But soon after that the Baroness bought a “big old Vauxhall” which she used for private hire, driving it herself—could it have been a 23/60? Her son had many cars while in the RAF. and “always drove far too fast”. He rigged up “a 21-h.p. Ford” as a “streamlined V 3-wheeler”, which gave the Baroness her greatest kick, hurtling about sitting on the floorboards. This vehicle went to Devon and back without any trouble, from Ashtead. I suppose it would have been in the late 1920s and that a Model-T is implied, but can someone enlarge on this remarkable vehicle?

During the Second World War this versatile woman was in charge of W.A.A.F. welfare at radar sites and used to ride out to them on her Ariel Square Four sidecar outfit, which had replaced her car when petrol became scarce. A woman to admire!

Another reader, George Rutledge, OSR.J., M.B., B.CH., B.A.O., M.R.C.P., D.C.H., of Fiji, sends the following extracts from “A Doctor Remembers”, by Dr. E. A. Barton (Seeley, Service & Co., 1950), remarking that although the book was written only a little over 50 years ago it might well be the medieval period when compared to motoring today. The excerpt comes from the chapter called “A Night Adventure”:—

“In the early days of motoring when cars were much more liable to break down than in the present day I was looked on as a kind of Jonah if I was included in a party travelling by car. Hardly ever did I go for a run in one of the then new machines but some crisis developed. Thus it was that though doctors in my neighbourhood thought it was rather up-to-date to visit their patients in a car, it was not for many years after the introduction of petrol as a motive agent that I gave up my little brougham for a car.

“On August the 8th, 1911, at 10 p.m. I was called to Eastbourne to see a patient at the Grand Hotel.

“I rang up the Daimler people in Knightsbridge, telling them to send me at once a car with a chauffeur who knew his way to Eastbourne, and after putting a cap into my big coat pocket to take the place of my top hat in case I got the chance of a nap in the car—for one cannot sleep in a top hat—I threw what I knew I would want into my bag and was ready. Only a few minutes later the car arrived, a large limousine driven by what I thought was a rather young chauffeur, who declared he knew the way.

“It was a hot sultry night and we were soon running south, and as we left the suburbs the mist became very thick. But the chauffeur seemed to me to be stimulated by the mist, and plunged through it at what seemed to me a most risky speed, for it was impossible to see twenty yards ahead of the car. It is a curious and well-known impression, experienced by many travelling by night, that the apparent speed is so much higher than that recorded by the speedometer. I tapped the window between me and the chauffeur and called out to him “Not so fast. If you kill me you kill two people”, referring in my mind to my patient at Eastbourne.

“At last we drew up at some cross-roads where a ghostly signpost stood with outstretched arms. My chauffeur said he was a little doubtful of his correct direction and asked me to get down and when he had backed and pointed the headlights on to the arms, to tell him the readings on the boards. I was asleep but stepped down into the road, read the directions to him, and returned to the car.

“Somewhere near East Hoathly at another road junction the car stopped and, knowing what was wanted, without a word I stepped out of the car by the left-hand door. In getting out of the car I accidently knocked my top hat off the seat into the road. As I bent down to recover it I felt the open door brush my back as the chauffeur move, the car, as I supposed, to throw the headlights on to the signpost. Suddenly I heard him accelerate and with a whirr he had started in earnest. At once I realised that a mistake had been made and that he never expected me to get out, had never heard me do so, and was unaware that I was not in the car. I gave a great yell but of course he could not hear with the car between me and him and his engine on low gear, and in a few seconds I saw the last of his rear lamp fade round bend in the road.”

Here the author goes into great details about his predicament at 3 a.m. walking round the middle of Sussex in a frock coat, topper, etc. However he walked to East Hoathly, where he saw the “trail of but one car going south”. He reaches Eastbourne, where he has been reported dead by the chauffeur. “The chauffeur turned up with my bag at last, and I asked him to tell me his side of the story. He seemed nervous, and appeared to resent the fact my being alive at all. His tale was as follows.

‘The first thing that I knew that anything was wrong was when I was driving across the crossing at Polegate. Here the signalman from his box shouted something to me. I pulled up, when he said “Your door’s open”. I got down and, taking the headlamp, found the door open and the car empty. Then at once I saw what must have happened. you had gone to sleep, you had fallen against the door, and you had fallen out into the road, to be run over by the next car coming along.’

‘You have a most prolific imagination. Why on earth did you not come back and search for me ?’

‘I did come back.’

`No my boy, you did not. There were marks of only one car through East Hoathly at five o’clock this morning.’

‘Well, sir, to tell the truth I couldn’t.’


‘Well it was like this. You said if I killed you I should kill two people. I thought that meant me too: and I was afraid of running over you in the dark. So I came straight in and told the police. Here is your bag. At what time would you like me to fetch you?’

‘No my lad, not again. I return by train this time. You get home.”‘—W. B.