Sir Alastair Miller made his name as an enthusiastic Brooklands racer, but in 1922 his private affairs reached the newspapers. Bill Boddy explains why
When I wrote about Sir Alastair Miller some time ago, I described him as ‘Mr Brooklands’, based on the fact that he had raced at the Surrey Track regularly from 1912 until 1931, competing pre-war on big Matchless and Martin motorcycles. He was third in a first heat of an Old Public School Boys’ race on the latter and second in a 1000cc Scratch Race, and with a smaller Martin machine rode in the 1921 500-mile race, and drove and broke records with so many successes.
His tally of cars raced includes AC, Alvis, 200hp Benz, Bianchi, Buick, Delage I and II, sports GL Delage, Donnet-Zedel, Lombard, Leyland-Thomas, Mercedes-Benz 36/120hp , Miller-Napier, 1914 GP Nazzaro, 1914 GP Opel, Sunbeam, Talbot, Voisin and the Wolseleys, including the huge 11.7-litre aero-engined Viper of his own devising, and finally a works Riley with which, aged 38, he won the 1100cc class of the BRDC 500-mile race. He was also the entrant in 1939 of a V12 Lagonda. After which he achieved more prizes breeding rare poultry when living in Sussex.
My choice caused some unrest among those who thought I should have given my title to Sir Henry Birkin, Bt, or to John Cobb, and among others who felt the accolade belonged to them, including those who had “nearly beaten Malcolm Campbell” and a person who said she was the first lady ever to race in the rain and on beaded-edge tyres!
Some years before WWI, Miller had ridden bikes on the Southwold cycletrack and shared a primitive aeroplane with a fellow pilot. An ex-Guards officer, he transferred to the RFC during the war, taking his pilot’s licence on a Maurice Farman in 1915; his younger brother was killed on the Somme.
As a Flight Lieutenant and then a Captain he flew most types of fighter aeroplane, and he took up luckless air-mechanics in dubious machines. He flew to St Omer from England in BE2c No4100, experiencing a forced landing at Dorking on the way. He looked for a country mansion at which to land, as pilots did, as usually they would be invited to dinner and given a bed; in Miller’s case it was lunch. The next day he returned by train, the lady sending her car to fetch him, the mechanics having been wired to rectify the trouble. Resuming the flight involved cutting a hole in a centuries-old hedge to provide take-off space with the lady’s permission — “the gallant airman is serving his country”.
Soon Miller was invalided home and made Inspector of all RFC aerodromes, which must have made it easy to obtain petrol, rationed from 1916, for his very frequent short and long journeys, both military and private! His RFC driver Corporal Tollerton helped both when on and off duty.
I liked this remarkable character because he was so keen on cars that he noted the make of every one he drove. His lifestyle was also fascinating, as he met very important people such as Count Louis Zborowski, Colonel Charles Jarrott, Sir Henry Segrave, actoraviator Robert Lorraine, George Newman, Sydney Cummings, General Higgins, the son of General Henderson, Commander of the RFC, and many other top-rankers, always in the very best hotels, theatres and night-spots.
I wrote of this under the heading ‘The Wartime Diaries of Flying Officer X’, which appeared first in Lord Montagu’s car magazine Veteran and Vintage and, after that had folded, in MotorSport from October 1979 to March 1981, with a final instalment, covering 1919, in a VSCC Bulletin.
(While I was writing this, by a quite remarkable coincidence, during an episode of BBC2’s University Challenge programme, one question, unanswered by the team, was ‘Which novelist used the name Flying Officer X for a nom-deplume?’. I didn’t know either that it was HE Bates.)
By 1922 the newspapers were engrossed with the ‘Racing Driver and Girl-Bride’ case, arising from Miller having become married to a schoolgirl of 14, who falsified her age as 16 or 17, without the knowledge of her parents, Major Howard, MP and his wife. They wanted a divorce for the couple and to take custody of the baby son.
The case was heard in the High Court of Justice, Divorce Division, in London, under Mr Justice Hill. Leading barrister for the Howards was Mr Clifford Mortimer, for Miller Sir Ellis Hume-Williams and his junior Mr Talbot Ponsonby. I refer to the case only for the motoring items and I have no idea of the outcome. The witnesses included the Howards, Lady Miller, H J Line who had been works-manager at A J Miller & Co and then in charge of the Wolseley racing cars at Brooklands, J W Line, Miller’s secretary, now chief clerk in Wolseley’s Competition Department, Sidney Cleophas Cull, who looked after Miller’s two Delage racing cars when working for T Gardner & Sons of Highgate, Captain Eliot de Pass, Flt Lt J W Woodhouse, DSO, MC and two bars, and George Newman, soon to race Salmsons and who went on his honeymoon in an Avro 504.
When Miller requested an adjournment of the trial for a day as he had to be at Brooklands the Judge allowed it, presumably because he knew the status of the Surrey Track — or did this enable him to get in a round of golf? When Miller made a similar request because he was competing in a hillclimb, the Judge asked whether it was important. “Yes, my Lord,” was the answer. “I am riding a motorcycle of our manufacture.” The event was obviously the 1922 Kop public-road speed-hillclimb; Miller seems to have had charge of the Martin works in Stubbs Lane, London. Zborowski’s Ballot made FTD of the cars, but how did Miller fare?
Later the Judge said he knew nothing of such things but enquired whether, with due respect, Miller was like a jockey riding owners’ horses to earn money. Miller was quick to explain that he raced here and all over the continent for one company, Vickers-Maxim (in which Wolseley was presumably incorporated). The reference to continental races was rather rich!
The charges against Miller included that of neglecting his young wife by dashing off to the Track and to parties even when she was very seriously ill at her parents’ place, ‘The Moat House’ at Upend near Newmarket. (Years later I went to see this; the moat had dried up but I was shown the field behind the house used by RFC pilots visiting the Howards’ daughters.) It was alleged that Miller refused to pay doctors’ and nurses’ bills for his wife, or to find a house.
Mr Mortimer had access to the profit made by Miller’s business, the AG Miller & Co firm, started with capital of £40,000 in 1919 of which £23,100 was issued for cash and £10,000 to Capt Miller and 300 shares to employees, and said that Miller’s father made him an allowance. The Judge: “You do not consider yourself a poor man, do you, Capt Miller?” But it was disclosed that the company lost £20,000 in 1920 and was liquidated and wound up by 1921. Miller explained about not keeping promises to see his wife by saying that he was very busy restoring wartime RFC Crossley tenders for the Irish Government’s Police Force and that during the railway strike many of his lorries were commandeered. He certainly had raced a Shelsley Crossley at Brooklands in 1920.
Miller told also how he had given his wife before they were engaged a present of a Baby Peugeot on which he taught her how to drive, when she was too young to have a driving licence, for her to use on the drives at her father’s estate. But it would not work until Corporal Tollerton, Miller’s RFC driver, and the Major’s man had worked on it. There were four cars in the Major’s garage for which “he couldn’t obtain petrol” which was not a problem for AGM, and his man had welded a broken crankshaft on what was described in Court as an “Austin-Daimler”, obviously an Austro-Daimler, after which the Peugeot was taken away by Miller and sold. Miller explained that he had then given the girl another car, a rare Herbert, made in London only from 1916/17, but this he also soon took away. When his wife was ill he sent a Daimler ambulance and a Crossley tender to take the baby’s cot and pram to London, but she refused to go.
When the Judge thought matters were going better after mention of a party in Bournemouth he said, “I suppose you drove your wife back up to London?” “No, my Lord,” replied Miller, “I couldn’t, because the car was a single-seater. We had had its engine down and wanted to free it up as it was due to race at Brooklands.” I had assumed that the racing Wolseleys, apart from the Viper, were assembled at the Birmingham factory and taken to Miller’s shed at the Track on lorries. Yet it seems that one of the two Moths was thus road-tested.
The Millers’ family house was in London’s fashionable Ennismore Gardens (where, much later, the 1½-litre GP Delage rebuilt by Ramponi was kept in one of the mews garages). Miller had Nos 1 and 15 lock-ups there, in which he kept “all sorts of kinds of crocks”, but when it was suggested that he used one of these for a dubious purpose he replied indignantly, and maybe ingeniously, that his Daimler was at the coachbuilders and that what was implied would have been impossible in his De Dion van and the small car which were there at that time. The last time I met Miller was a sad occasion on which I have no intention of enlarging.