The 1936 King’s Cup Race
A Personal Recollection
IN May 1981 this feature dealt with the first post-war Aerial Derby, held in 1919 and won by Capt. Gerald Gathergood’s DH 4R, at 129.34 m.p.h. In subsequent years the winners included Capt. Courtney’s Martinsyde Semiquaver, at 151.45 m.p.h., and for two years in succession Jimmy James flying the formidable Gloucestershire Mars I, respectively at 163.34 m.p.h. and 177.85 m.p.h. That brings us to 1922, the year in which the first King’s Cup Race, for a trophy presented annually by HM King George V, was held, the first, a two-day event, being won by Capt. Barnard with a DH 4A, at 123.6 m.p.h. This became the most famous of British air races and it was held without a break up to the war, although not quite so regularly thereafter.
In the 1930s I was an avid reader of C. G. Grey’s outspoken weekly The Aeroplane and occasionally wrote for it, including one long technical discourse about how air racing could be improved, which I now find I can only understand by concentrating hard! This led the celebrated Editor, Charles Grey, to summon me to his Piccadilly offices one day in 1936. I had no idea what he wanted but, ever anxious to earn a meagre crust by writing (as I still am), I hastened there by ‘bus. I was asked if I would report part of the forthcoming King’s Cup Race. I told the monacled Mr. Grey that I had reported plenty of motor races but had never seen an aeroplane race. “Neyer mind”, he replied, “that will prevent you from being biased. Have you a motor-car?” I hadn’t at the time, but knowing I could borrow one from friends, I said yes. Grey then called his secretary and laid on Press passes and petrol money.
The night before I was due at the Bristol race control found me driving across Salisbury Plain, very earie in the darkness, in an early Austin 7 box-saloon, lent by Leslie Ballamy if my recollections are correct. On arrival I presented my credentials shyly and was immediately given VIP treatment, so influential was The Aeroplane of those days. The race was a two-day handicap starting from Hatfield and soon competitors began to arrive from the Nottingham direction, for the landing at Whitchurch aerodrome. There had been 26 entries, divided into various classes, and the week beforehand The Aeroplane had devoted many pages and a wealth of photographs and drawings to describing how the competing machines had been “tuned” in an endeavour to beat the handicappers. Two BA Double Eagles with Gipsy his engines and the Percival Vega Gull were in their first King’s Cup, and among the over 150 h.p. Single-engined entries were the exciting Mew Gulls, Miles Speed Hawks, and Miles Falcon Six. The de Havillands, father and son, were sportingly flying a DH 90 Dragonfly and the DH Technical School’s little TK2 (Waight up) finished in dark green Titanine Satin paint polished to a high gloss by the students to reduce drag to a minimum, was much fancied. The Percival Gulls and Vega Gulls had extra tanks, so that they could do the circuit Hatfield, Norwich, Nottingham, Bristol, High Post, Shoreham, Hatfield without refuelling.
Somewhat bewildered, I noted the gathering cloud and brisk wind. At 11.40 a.m. Capt. Edgar Percival appeared in the Mew Gull and had an argument with the Shell people because they had no 81-Octane fuel for him. I made some play in my story of the leisurely refuelling, compared to the frenzied activity to be seen in the pits during a motor race, and the seeming lack of proper fire-precautions. Percival was, for instance, served with coffee by a waiter in full-rig, before taking off again. Next in was Tommy Rose in the Miles Hawk built for the slimmer Miss Ruth Fonties, and he did call for speed from the Shell chaps, but still had time to smoke a cigarette (in the cockpit!) and have a drink while his machine was refuelled. . .
So the day wore on. W. Humble’s Miles Hawk and the TK2, its pilot in his first race, arrived in close company, the former resuming first, and the celebrated C. W. A. Scott urged quick refuelling of his Falcon Six by the National Benzoic team who, when Ft. Lt. Wilson’s BA Double Eagle taxied up, had two men ready on the petrol-pump handles and two in reserve, but no step ladders on which to reach the fillers; the pilot, in soft hat and raincoat, watched these antics from his cabin window. The other Double Eagle, Capt. Hope’s, checked in and immediately took off again. Landing varied from wing tips almost touching the ground to skilled three-pointers. T. H. O. Richardson leap-frogged alarmingly in the Comper Swift (like the TK, a proper single-seater racer) and could profitably have used a motor-racing splash-sheet while the fuel was going in. . . Amy Mollison had a saloon car to lead her BA Eagle-2 to the control, after she had made a model landing. The only prang was that of John Kirwen, whose Hendy Heck broke the port leg of its undercart under braking as he was taxi-ing out after refuelling, causing the machine to fall onto its nose. The pilot was unhurt and seemingly unmoved, but a definite retirement. Alex Henshaw, flying a DH Leopard Moth, said he had been “flat-out” as a navigation check for Flt. Lt. Bonham-Carter’s Miles Hawk, but later low oil-pressure caused him to retire. So fast were these prewar aeroplanes that the Friday’s 612-mile course had to be covered twice and soon Percival’s Mew Gull was back again, disappearing into the murk before any other aeroplane had appeared. Humble said he would “Just hope about oil”, after a hammer and tyre-lever had been needed to shift the fuel-tank fillers of his Miles Hawk.
The TK2 was a minute after him, followed another minute later by Rose. Some, like Charles Gardner, pulled up in a sharp climbing turn, S. W. Sparkes (Gull Six) did a real shoot-up, but P. H. Maxwell’s Sparrow Hawk, with little fuel in hand, came In very fast and low, while Scott took his time in dropping in from high up. Rain returned after lunch and, mindful of the slow gait of the even-then-elderly Austin 7 and weary from a night on the road, I called it a day at 4.45 p.m., while some competitors were still coming in on their second circuits. I wrote my impressions in longhand and was delighted when they occupied nearly a page of The Aeroplane’s report, completely unedited, especially as I was in impressive journalistic company, Thurston James, Grey’s Technical Editor, having covered the start, and F. D. Bradbrooke, the paper, famous test-pilot, the day’s racing. — I wonder who “C.D.P.” was, who (like me) did a control point, in this case Shoreham? (With hindsight still cannot decide whether I was a better aviation writer at the age of 23 than I thought I was, or whether it was the casual journalism of the 1930s that got my story in unaltered).
There was still the Final to be flown on the Saturday, round a 26-mile circuit Hatfield, H. End, Sacombe Farm, which Bradbrooke covered. The winner was Charles Gardner’s Percival Vega Gull G-AEKE, with two 200 hp engines, at 164.5 m.p.h. He took the Cup and Viscount Wakefield’s (of Castrol) £800. The runners up, if you can say that of aeroplanes, were Rose’s Miles Hawk Speed-Six G-ADOD and Flt. Lt. J. B. Wilson’s BA Double Eagle. G-AEIN both using Gipsy Six motors — I note that The Aeroplane called them this although Grey had once said to me “Boddy, never use ‘motor’, which is an Americanism, always ‘engine”! As this was a handicap, Percival’s Mew Gull was quicker than the winner, at 203 m.p.h. By then even racing aeroplanes were pretty reliable, obviating the forced-landings that gave a thrill to the public but anxiety to pilots. Apart from Kirwen’s mishap the only other reported casualties were a bent propeller, also while taxi-ing, on Peter Reiss’ Vega Gull, and Matthew’s who ran into a ditch after landing Mr. Battye’s Hawk Motor at Shoreham, although Hope had fuel-feed mix-ups that led to much just one-motor (sorry, engine) aviating (he used Germ oil, kept hot in thermos-flasks, and retired when it leaked) and Mrs. Mollison when the undercart of her BA Eagle wouldn’t retract properly.
The Aeroplane which then cost sixpence and had its own sales-van at Hatfield, devoted 18 pages to reporting this 1936 King’s Cup Race, including three pages by C. G. G. himself with 38 illustrations, and, to make our Advertising manager jealous, I will add that it netted 11 1/4 pages of race-orientated ads. The King’s Cup race is still held and is due to take place this year on September 4th / 5th based in Leicester. — W.B.