Charles Rolls’ influence on motoring is legendary, but he was also an aviation pioneer
As this issue of Motor Sport comes out, the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club is celebrating the centenary of the Hon Charles Spencer Rolls’ victory in the 1906 Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man, with a run of pre-war Rolls-Royces following the original route around the island amongst other events. The solid gold Tourist Trophy itself, the most valuable trophy in the world when it was first presented, has been sent over from its usual home in the RAC club to form part of the RREC display in the Manx heritage museum, and the well-known motoring artist Peter Hearsey, an Isle of Man resident, is holding an exhibition of his work to coincide. It is especially interesting that the grandson of Eric Platford, Charles Rolls’ riding mechanic, has made his grandfather’s photograph albums available, as these include rarely seen pictures of that 1906 epic.
These celebrations are a reminder of Rolls’ great achievement which proved both the quality of the Rolls-Royce car and the driver’s skills at the wheel. Rolls, however, was also an extremely important figure in the aviation world, as some new information confirms.
It is well known that Charles Rolls was tragically killed when the Wright monoplane he was flying crashed during a landing competition into a 100-yard diameter circle, engines off, at Bournemouth in July 1910.
This cut short what would surely have continued to be a brilliant career, following his collaboration with Henry Royce in the production of Rolls-Royce cars and his activity as a pioneer racing driver, as marked by his Tourist Trophy victory with a 20hp R-R.
What is not, I think, generally known has been revealed to me in some rare documents made available by a thoughtful Motor Sport reader. These show that before the meeting at which Rolls died, he was the subject of discussion by the Aerial League of the British Empire.
This was a very important organisation with a most impressive list of patrons and council, which declared itself non-political but which was concerned about the fact that Germany could build 185 airships and some 5000 aeroplanes for the price of one dreadnought, that France was actively developing aircraft, and that Russia, Austria, Italy, the USA and Japan were doing likewise with considerable energy while Britain was lagging behind. The League had appreciated “the unassuming efforts of Rolls as one of the chief exponents of aeronautical advancement”. It proposed to award him its first Grand Gold Medal at a reception and concert at the Grand Hotel in Bournemouth on July 15, 1910. Dame Nellie Melba and Clara Butt were to have performed. It also intended that a national memorial to Rolls should take the form of a fund devoted to the establishment of aeronautical science. Our correspondent wonders if this was accomplished?
This Aerial League had the most impressive complement of highly influential supporters, including the Prime Ministers of all of the leading Commonwealth countries and motoring celebrities such as Sir Charles Wakefield, Arthur du Cros and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Kt, DL, LLD.
Because of the accident to Rolls, the medal presentation and concert were cancelled, but Bournemouth’s Lord Mayor presided at a public meeting to discuss the memorial scheme.
The aerodrome where the tragedy happened was close to the London & South Western railway, nearest station Christchurch; it had a circumference of 2½km, but it is probably now a housing estate. But there is a statue to Rolls, holding a biplane, at Monmouth and the one of Royce at Derby.