With the arrival of better weather, the Editor recalls the days when people went to Weybridge not only to see the motor racing, but to watch the aeroplane races
CONSIDERING that the first heavier-than-air machine had proved that it could get off the ground only six years previously, the attention given by the Brooklands authorities to aviation in 1909 deserves to be remembered. Moreover, flying took place at Brooklands even earlier. It seems that Mon. Bellamy arrived there with his machine, powered by a modified 50 h.p. Panhard-Levassor car engine, even before the first motor-race meeting in 1907. However, apart from carrying out some tentative experiments to test his propellers, on Mr. H. F. Locke King’s lake – I suspect the one outside the Track, in the loop of the railway lines – he never got off the ground. The now-legendary A. V. Roe did much better. He brought to Brooklands his monoplane, in September 1907, and tried towed-flights with it behind cars, using a 6 h.p. JAP engine while he waited for the 18/24 h.p. Antoinette motor he had ordered from France.
What had attracted Roe to Weybridge may have been the prize of £2,500 offered by the BARC for the first person to fly round the circuit formed by the new Motor Course before the end of 1907. The Club has been criticised for doing what some saw as a publicity ruse, for at the time no-one in this country had a suitable flying-machine to accomplish such a feat, notwithstanding that the distance was less than three miles. It is a fact that this prize was announced after the first Brooklands Race Meeting, which was a financial failure, and Mr. Locke King may have been anxious to see some return for the sum of more than £150,000 he had spent on building Brooklands. Against this, great newspapers were offering huge sums for flights across the Channel and across the Atlantic, with no more expectation of losing their money. Moreover, Roe was at first encouraged, being given a shed at the top of the Finishing-straight, opposite the Paddock. This location was presumably chosen with the publicity factor the aeroplane would possess in mind; Lt.Col. (later Lord) Moore-Brabazon, the first British aviator to obtain his Certificate, was allowed a shed next to Roe’s. When the prize offer expired Roe was told to move his shed to the Paddock side of the course and paint it dark green to blend with the Brooklands scenery. No longer was the impoverished would-be aviator officially permitted to sleep in it, as he had done previously, and he wasn’t to use his aeroplane before 8 a.m., presumably in case of noise complaints. Moreover, he was supposed to use the grass behind the shed, not the Finishing-straight; but he preferred the concrete and used to lift out a section of the spiked railings when the Clerk-of-the-Course, E. de Roclakowski, wasn’t about and push his machine through. On June 8th, 1908 Roe took his machine onto the Track and claimed that it flew some two feet above the ground for a distance of some 75 feet. This should have been a very historic occasion, properly recorded as the first aeroplane flight in Britain. It wasn’t. Only the estate carpenter and head-keeper witnessed it and their confirmation didn’t count. Rodakowski either felt that Brooklands was being ridiculed or that aeroplanes might cause danger to the cars, and in 1908 Roe was ordered to leave. He is said to have sold his shed for £15 and departed to Lea Marshes. This conflicts with a statement that his shed was still there in the 1930s, but that Brabazon’s had gone. I take this to mean that the original shed he used, opposite the Paddock, was put up by the BARC, and that after he moved to the other side of the Finishing-straight he put up his own shed; otherwise, how could he have sold it? If this was so, I can only conclude that this historic shed became the Soda Fountain and Race Card kiosk which remained at the foot of the Test Hill for many years. But if so, it seems odd that when a memorial to Roe’s flight was unveiled in 1954, this was put up in the Paddock and when the then-78-year-old pioneer aviator and famous aeroplane manufacturer, now Sir Alliot Verdon-Roe, tried to find the place where he had taken down the Track railings, he couldn’t locate it. (The memorial is still there; its plaque refers to Roe’s flights of 1907/8 as the first “by the long line of famous pioneers and pilots of many nations who made air history on this flying field at Brooklands” and it is a tragedy of much magnitude that this wasn’t recognised in time to preserve more of it for posterity, overlooking the fact that Roe flew from the Track, not the later aerodrome.)
If the first Clerk-of-the-Course was very hostile to aviation in general and Roe in particular, a complete change took place when Major (later Col.) Lindsay Lloyd succeeded him. He saw that aeroplanes would attract big crowds to Brooklands, of which he satisfied himself after the famous French pilot Louis Paulhan had been invited from the Blackpool flying meeting to come there and give flying displays with his Gnome-engined Henri Farmann pusher biplane. Presumably Mr. Locke King made this worthwhile, and both Mrs. Paulhan and Mrs. (later Dame) Ethel Locke King ascended with him. Eventually Paulhan was able to stay up for nearly 53 minutes and only came down then for more petrol.
A hangar had been put up for Paulhan and about 30 or 40 acres of ground cleared for him at the Byfleet side of the Track “the other side of Brooklands”. After a favourable report from the French aviator Lindsay Lloyd went ahead with a proper flying ground within the Track. C. G. Grey, celebrated Editor of The Aeroplane, likened the removal of farms and cottages and trees with the laying waste of the New Forest for Williams’ hunting parties but thought that those farm-labourers who lost employment had found new jobs appertaining to the Track. It is said that a loop of the River Wey was straightened out to improve the aerodrome – one wonders if this was a change in the river’s intentions, additional to those said to have been necessary two-and-a-half years earlier when building the Motor Course?
Anyway, the aerodrome came into being and developed steadily into becoming the centre of British Aviation, in a way that Hendon never did. It was a valuable asset in both World Wars. Here, though, I am only concerned with the sporting flying that went on there. Lindsay Lloyd believed in the potential of both kinds of flying and by November 1909 was offering to erect sheds at a charge of £10 per month, or £100 per annum, possession of which would give the occupant the right to use the flying ground when it wasn’t expedient to close it because of motor racing or other reasons. It is a measure of the efficiency of those times that a shed was promised within four weeks, the first three having been put up in about half that time. I believe that Paulhan’s shed was occupied in 1909 by Handasyde, when he moved his 8 h.p. JAP-engined Martinsydc monoplane from Hendon, and that it became the well-known “Blue Bird” tea-rooms and cafe after Martin-Handasyde had moved to a line of six sheds close to the original two, as their business expanded. It seems that adjoining this first shed were those of Alcock and others, which formed an L with the Martin-Handasyde sheds and those of the ABC works. In 1914 Martin-Handasydc moved again, into premises that constituted a large workshop, but their fitter’s shop remained in the shed they had used after vacating the Paulhan shed, this works eventually having added at right angles to it a big erecting shop and a further shop parallel to it. These sheds were different from the line running alongside ithe Byfleet banking, and formed the flying village. The line of sheds by Oyster Lane, that survived until 1934, had as tenants Vickers, Bristol, Flanders, Sopwith etc., probably in that order. The “Blue Bird” became a great institution. It was run by Mr. and Mrs. Erdsley Billing, who provided excellent shilling-teas; whether it was named after an aeroplane or to persuade Malcolm Campbell to sample it, I do not know. . . . . .
Apparently much revenue was lost at the time of Paulhan’s flights because people watched from outside but from 1910 they would flock in considerable numbers to see the flying from inside the Track. No doubt the bankings, cutting off the view within, helped to induce them to enter; they were charged 1/- (5p) and if the weather was too gusty for pilots to venture out a black flag was flown, if there was a chance they might appear, a white flag was shown, but when the weather was good this became a red flag. By 1911 the number of sheds had increased to 36, in seven rows, and the telegraph wires at this part of the Track were lowered to the level of a fence, so that, as C.G.G. observed, “should a machine run too far it will be brought up standing at the edge of the track instead of running out onto the track and being ‘cut over’ by one of the big racing cars, which is always liable to happen so long as it is possible for a machine to run out under the wires”.
Competition flying commenced at Brooklands in 1910. In April, “weather permitting”, James Radley was to be examined by the Royal Aero Club officials for his Aviator’s Certificate and the flying tenants were to try for a cup offered to any of them for a complete circular flight – this at a time when C.G.G. said that Alan Boyle on his Avis was the only man there who could fly. By Whitsun Radley was due to demonstrate his Bleriot and those in the Paddock were permitted to walk to the flying ground and sheds by keeping a line of white flags on their right. Immediately after the racing all access from the Track, for cars, except to the exits, was closed oft by barriers, to stop vehicles encroaching on the flying ground. Even so, those who disobeyed the order and left the path were in danger of being beheaded, not realising that few of the aeroplanes could so much as hop over them, and some onlookers tended to crowd too closely round machines that stopped some 40 or 50 yards from the hangers. Admission to the ground was free but enclosure spectators had to walk there from the Paddock.
By June 1910, when passenger flights in Grahame-White’s Farman biplane were auctioned, Graham-Gilmour demonstrated his Bleriot monoplane and Lt. Launcelot Gibbs, RFA, his Sommer biplane, the aforesaid rules were relaxed slightly, cars being allowed to drive slowly round the Track after the last race, following arrows on the notice boards to park behind the sheds, entering the Flying Ground at a point indicated by a large notice board, but warnings were issued that flying would be held up if cars went in front of the sheds, stopped on the Track, or people walked about the interior of the ground. On August Bank Holiday, 1910, the Aggregate Time of Flight competition was introduced, for all classes of aeroplanes. With a total of 100 sov. in prize money, or cups to the value, and no entrance fee, this attracted an entry of five machines. Flying was allowed from 2 p.m. to 7.30 p.m., but no-one was allowed up after 7 p.m. Three prizes were offered, for flights of over 30 minutes, 15 minutes and five minutes, respectively. Starts were to be made from thc southward to a line drawn to the NE of the Aviation sheds, but it seems astonishing that this was permitted while motor racing was in progress.
The competing aeroplanes were A. C. Thomas’ Hanriot monoplane with 40 h.p. Clerget engine flown by Cordonnier, Mrs. Grace Bird’s 50 h.p. Gnome-powered Farman biplane piloted by Blondeau, H. G. Burford’s 35 h.p. Humber monoplane with Humber motor, Gibbs with his 40 h.p. Gnome-Sommer biplane, and the dashing Graham Gilmore on his Bleriot monoplane, with 40 h.p. JAP engine. Considering that it was only a year since Bleriot had conquered the Channel and eight since anyone had flown in such contraptions, the excitement was understandable. In the end, Mr. Straight, the time-keeper, found that Blondeau had flown an aggregate of 3 min. 47.2 sec., and Cordonnier 0 min. 33.4 sec. The others either failed to appear, or to take-off! This was the first round towards the N. C. Neill Cup.
The second Aggregate Time of Flight Competition took place at the October race meeting. This time Thomas flew his Hanriot monoplane himself, with an ENV engine, Graham Gilmour had a Gnome engine in his Bleriot, and Gibbs had changed to a Farman biplane. Mrs. Bird’s entry was in again but Burford had dropped out (not literally one hopes). New contestants were the Stirling-Spencer biplane with RH engine, flown by Herbert Spencer, the Gnome-engined Macfie biplane, J. H. Spottiswoode’s Avis-ENV monoplane, and G. H. Handasyde with a JAP engine in his Martin-Handasyde monoplane. Thus did flying before the public come to Brooklands, although I have never discovered who won the N. C. Neill Cup awarded for Brooklands’ longest flight.
By this time much progress had been made. Aeroplanes had flown the Channel four times, the Irish sea had almost been conquered, and A. V. Ebblewhite had timed Radley’s Bleriot Xl at 77.67 m.p.h. over a straight kilometre. Longer and longer distances were being flown and aeroplanes were not quite such a novelty as they had been in 1909. Nevertheless, at Brooklands the Aggregate Time of Flight Contests remained the chief aviation events of 1911. Commencing in March, a dozen aeroplanes were entered for the first round. Pixton was to fly A. V. Roe’s 30 h.p. Gnome-powered Avro triplane, the pioneer aviator having returned to his former haunt. Claude Grahame-White had a Baby biplane for Martin to pilot. A. R. Low was in charge of the controls of the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company’s Bristol biplane. Macfie, Blondeau, and Graham Gilmour were there, the last-named with a works-entered Bristol biplane, and Gibbs had formed a Company of his own, with Astley and Smith piloting, respectively, his two-seater and single-seater Bleriots. Monsieur Ducrocq entrusted himself to a Farman biplane, the celebrated Gustav Hamel took part with his Bleriot rnonoposto, Snowden-Smith flew a Hewlett & Blondeau British Farman, and Captain Maitland had Watkins flying the most powerful entry, a 60 h.p. Howard-Wright-ENV.
As added attractions, at Easter Hamel was to attempt to break the Height Record of 6,595 feet and the World’s Height Record of 10,499 feet (he didn’t) and S. F. Cody was to fly over from Farnborough and demonstrate his all-British Cody biplane. In July 1911, the Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Race started from Brooklands (there were 30 entries) and during the season the spectators saw Herbert Latham arrive late for the Whitsun Meeting on the machine that had carried him to Oxford some time previously. He was the “lion of the day”, said The Autocar, and following in the footsteps (shouldn’t they have said “slipstream”?) of other previous lions, it wasn’t until 5 o’clock that he was ready to go up. His machine dipped a wing that struck one of the sheds beside the Track when he was making a very low pass and the Antoinette ploughed through the roof. Latham was unhurt and later he took up another machine. A telephone message conveyed his good fortune to the Paddock, where the notice “Latham Unhurt” was displayed on the Telegraph Board. Cody had arrived early that day to put in more time for the Manville Prize, timed by Major Lloyd, but even earlier, whilst the mists still hung over the Thames Valley, Barber had set off for Brooklands in his Valkyrie racer. He was feeling unwell, but nevertheless gave some fine demonstrations “with both hands off his controlling lever”, before flying back to Hendon that evening. Entries for the Aggregate Flight Competition rose to 16 before the year was out, most of the aeroplanes using 50 h.p. Gnome rotary engines, although the Flanders monoplane had a 60 h.p. Green engine, and Humber, Anzani, ABC, and Green engines were seen, the Deperdussin two-seater using a 60 h.p. Anzani. The winner, Howard Pixton, had led for most of the season and by October had flown for 344 min. 53 sec., against Raynam’s 195 min. 49 sec. and Chevalier’s 45 min. 0 sec. Gordon England had done just 20 min. and Gilmour only 1 min. 49 sec.
It was clear by now that the public preferred racing, indeed, it was said that by 1911 more interest was being displayed in the motor-racing than in the endeavours of a few aviators to remain aloft in their flimsy machines. Except, that is, for the Round Britain Race, when on a scorchingly hot day 30,000 to 40,000 spectators ringed the Track to watch the 21 starters take off and to see Lt. de Vaisseau Conneau in a Bleriot win at 45 m.p.h., from the Deperdussins of Verdines and Valentine. The race had lasted for 22 hr. 28 min, and it would be interesting to know if any of the landing grounds used en route, before the machines arrived back at Brooklands, still exist. During 1911 there was a race from Brooklands to Brighton, with four contestants, the winner being Gustav Hamel in (or on) his Gnome-Bleriot XI, perhaps as the “30/98” or “Prince Henry” of the air, at that time. More lighthearted was Gordon Watney’s challenge to Latham’s Antoinette with his Sixty Mercedes, for a lap of the Track …
For 1912 the Brooklands authorities decided that aeroplane racing was needed, within the vicinity of the Track, to maintain spectator interest. The first such Aeroplane Handicap was flown at the end of the Easter Monday Meeting with lawn tennis as a rival attraction! It had an entry of 11 aeroplanes, Herbert Spencer’s 50 h.p. Gnome-engined Spencer biplane receiving a start of 9 min. 12 sec. from Tommy Sopwith’s scratch Bleriot powered with a 70 h.p. Gnome engine. The distance was about 10 miles and the course was from the Aviation Ground to a turn about five miles westward of the Track at Chobham to a flying finish over the landing area. By this time the new road alongside the Byfleet banking, with a paling fence on the inside and the ditch and stream dividing it from the Byfleet banking, gave more security to those who wanted to visit the Aerodrome. The aeroplanes could have been seen from the Hill throughout the race but unfortunately a high wind caused its cancellation. The frustrated pilots organised an impromptu race on the following Saturday, to Chertsey Bridge and back, won by Pizey’s Bristol Boxkite, by 34 yards from Sopwith’s Gnome-Bristol racer.
The Brooklands Aero Club was formed on April 27th, 1912, and the postponed First Aeroplane Handicap was scheduled to be run in May, now with three additional entrants, over a two miles longer course, with the turning point three miles northwards, and two laps to be covered. Again, bad weather washed it out. By this time quite a number of aeroplane races were taking place at Brooklands, but I will concentrate on describing only those which embellished the big car meetings. The Second Aeroplane Handicap, for a 75 sov. first prize, was run at Whitsun, with some preliminary Heats, take-offs being marshalled by Walter H. Weguelin and the handicapping being done by Handasyde and Harold Perrin. Raynham was the winner, with his Sopwith-Wright, from Rhodes-Moorhouse in a Bleriot and Lt. Hotchkiss in a Bristol biplane. With Relay Races, Get-off-the-Ground contests, a continuation of the Aggregate Time-of-Flight contests the aviation fraternity at Brooklands was now very well catered for.
At the Summer Meeting of 1912, the third of the Handicaps took place, over a 12-mile course, using the northward turn and going round markers on the Aviation Ground for the next two laps, these markers being at the corner of the centre block of sheds, opposite the sheds, opposite the Paddock, and at the L & SW signal-post, the finish being between the Judge’s Box on the aerodrome and the Fork, This time Pashley in Cody’s Austrian-Daimler-powered monoplane was on scratch, giving Spencer in the Gnome-Spencer 11 min, start, and Cody flew his Green-engined biplane. The race had to be postponed until July, when on a sweltering day, guaranteed to make the best of the smell of burnt castor-oil and crushed grass, Lt. Perry won on the Sopwith-Wright. The fourth of these Handicaps having been flown on a non-car day, the fifth was billed for the Autumn BARC Meeting. It was the medicine as before, but for a 50 sov. first prize, against an entry fee of one sovereign. The machines now had their individual numbers, retained all the season, although for a time No. 13 had been used, until hastily dropped. Once again the weather caused abandonment.
Nothing much had changed by 1913, except that the prize money was declared in guineas, and entries were smaller, the Easter Aeroplane Handicap having only eight. The era of “stick-and-string” was to some extent over and more exciting machines were to be seen in action, such as Harry Hawker’s Sopwith biplane, and Barnwell’s Vickers monoplane. Alcock’s Farman (50 h.p. Gnome) won from Knight in the Vickers monoplane, third place going to Hawker in the 3-seater Sopwith tractor-biplane with an ABC motor of only 40 h.p. The Whitsun Handicap was again won by Hawker in this new machine, on a day of strong winds and rain which forced down Alcock in Ducrocq’s Henri Farman, but which did not prevent Gordon Bell in the exciting new military Martin-Handasyde monoplane with 120 h.p. Austrian-Daimler engine from coming in 39 sec. after Hawker, having given the famous racing-driver-to-be a start of 78 sec. Those were the only starters. The June Handicap was a victory for Lt. Mitchell’s Henri Farman, some skilful diving at the first turn to avoid collisions being noted.
Hamel was now giving special demonstrations every summer Sunday afternoon and races were being flown from Brooklands to other aerodromes, the average between there and Hendon being not far short of 60 m.p.h. High winds interfered with the August flying at the Track but already the officials had been worried lest a racing aeroplane fall on the crowd, so a new circuit was now used, the turns being made near the Fork, near the Paddock, then out to Coxes Lock Mills, about a mile distant, thence to the end of the Railway straight, and back, the distance being nine miles for two laps. When I was researching my “History of Brooklands” I talked to a Weybridge chemist who recalled how people used to run out of their houses to watch the aeroplanes take the turn above the mills. This course was also visible all the way round from the Hill. Incidentally, after the car racing was over, public-enclosure onlookers were allowed to cross the Track at the Fork end of the Finishing straight and go through a gate, and presumably over a bridge over the stream, onto the aerodrome road. The 1913 racing season concluded with the Autumn Aeroplane Handicap, which had 16 entries, from Merriam’s “limit” Bristol flown by Halford to Barnwell in the Handasyde monoplane, on scratch. Merriam, flying his own Bristol Boxkite, came in first out of only six starters, but he had missed a pylon, so the race went to Hawker’s 3-seater Sopwith, from Barnwell’s Handasyde and Knight’s Vickers No. 5 monoplane.
The 1914 season was curtailed by the war, but not before the Easter Handicap, with Capt. Wood entering six machines, had been organised. By now Brooklands was the centre of more serious aviation and had given place to Hendon so far as racing to entertain the public was concerned, although large crowds had been attracted to Weybridge in 1913 when Pegoud came to Brooklands to perform an epoch-making demonstration of looping-the-loop in his only-slightly-modified Bleriot. By August 1914 Hawker was demonstrating this manoeuvre with the 100 h.p. Sopwith Scout and the racing was enlivened when Sopwith Tabloid met Avro Scout and Bristol Scout, the first encounter between the Sopwith and Bristol ending in a win for the former. The power outputs of the various aero-engines had not increased much but better streamlining of the airframes had greatly improved performance.
Ironically, at that final August Bank Holiday Meeting at Brooklands that marked the end of an era, for war had almost been declared and the lights were soon to go out all over Europe, with petrol in short supply, Aeroplane Handicaps in the programme were called the Shell Handicap and the Pratt’s Handicap, because the prizes had been given by the Shell Motor Spirit and Anglo-American Oil Companies. As many people left to join their regiments, Hawker got a fine ovation for aerobatics in the Sopwith.
So Brooklands, with its important flying-schools, its serious record attempts, and its growing Aviation Industry, was then handed over to the War Office “for the duration”. Incidentally, in 1913, the last full racing season, five aeroplane races were held there, against 29 car races and 13 motorcycle races; 26 aeroplanes starting, against 339 cars and 270 motorcycles; the respective prize-monies were £1,980 for the Track races, £380 for the aeroplane races. When Brooklands closed, the duration record had been established there, at 8 hr. 23 min., by H. G. Hawker in the ABC-engined Sopwith-Wright biplane, and the aeroplane speed-record stood at 100.6 m.p.h. to the credit of Lord Carbery’s Bristol Scout, at Hendon.
After the war Brooklands became once again a great centre of sporting flying, especially after Col. Henderson had brought his Flying School there from Croydon in 1927, an organisation which soon became the Brooklands School of Flying and was very much the hub of “the other side of Brooklands”. Aeroplane racing was no longer the norm although one King’s Cup Race took in Brooklands, but there was the annual Flying Display, at which the latest light aeroplanes were demonstrated and various displays, parachute descents, aerobatics and other stunts were indulged in, and at other times pilots like Dudley Watt in his SE5 and Joe King in his Sopwith Grasshopper would bravely fly under the Byfleet bridge — but that is another story.