The Editor recalls the days when fast racing boats and well-known racing drivers contested International events on London’s River
The Thames fascinates me and it has long been my intention to discover something of how motor-boat racing was permitted thereon in vintage times. The first step seemed to be to write to the Thames Conservancy Board. They replied quickly and courteously but explained that while there is no speed-limit for launches on their part of the river (although they advise a top speed of not more than seven knots), power-boat racing has never been permitted on the Thames above Teddington Lock. Incidentally, they kindly sent me a book about safety precautions which apply to this reach of the river, from which I perceive that about as much safety-equipment is required on a small boat proceeding at a few knots as that specified for drivers of 120 m.p.h. Club racing cars. No doubt this is all very sensible and worthwhile and it is only my age which makes me comment on the matter. . . .
As the motor-boat races in which I was interested took place over a course from Putney to Mortlake the next move was to direct my enquiries to the Port of London Authority. After some delay I received an equally courteous reply, telling me there is a speed-limit of eight knots upstream of Wandsworth Bridge but—and I thought this rather splendid—”because rowing craft and their accompanying coaching launches frequently exceed this limit, it is not strictly enforced unless construed in conjunction with dangerous or hazardous navigation”. How much better is the Thames policed than our roads—and this explains why I heard of a Calais-London outboard power-boat race shooting Putney Bridge recently, and why craft of the vintage years, powered with racing-car engines, were able to contest their races on the Thames.
The Chief River Manager of the Port of London Authority suggested that The Motor Boat & Yachting might help with information, so off we went to Bowling Green Lane to browse, with their Editor’s willing permission, over those excellent reports of what were the Duke of York’s Trophy Races and eliminating trials, which graced The Motor Boat at about the time motor-car and motorcycle speed events had only just been banned from public roads and there was something happening almost every week-end at Brooklands Track.
From this study some interesting facts emerged. For instance, I had always assumed that these races must have taken place on weekdays, perhaps in the evenings, so as to delay other river traffic as little as possible. Not a bit of it! In 1925, for instance (which is the year I propose to deal with, for two well-known racing drivers were competing on this occasion), the eliminating trials occupied a Saturday afternoon, starting at 1.30 p.m., although the Final for the Trophy took place on the afternoons of a Thursday and a Friday. The following year racing began on a Wednesday afternoon and was scheduled to continue on Monday and Wednesday evenings if results called for this, so tides rather than public convenience were presumably the governing factors. There was an off-shore Final at Hythe.
In my innocence I imagined that part of the river was closed to other craft while the racing took place. Again, not a bit of it! One report speaks of back-markers having difficulty with tugs and barges which, were by then passing up-river: “Tug-boat skippers seemed to delight in getting in the way, and once we observed three tugs with tows, almost abreast.” Nor does the river appear to have been cleared for most of the race, for we read of one driver cutting very close between the Putney mark-boat and a passing barge on the second lap. As there was a turn-at each end of the course and as boats belonging to members of the Motor Boat Club patrolled the river, a busy time was ensured for all! The public was encouraged to attend, being told that admission to Duke’s Meadows, which was opposite the start and finish of the 1926 race, cost 2s. and that a No. 55 ‘bus ran almost to the gates, from Dunham Green Station, or it was possible to walk there in two minutes from Chiswick Station.
Reverting to the 1925 Duke of York’s Trophy Races, for International-class 1½-litre boats, the start and finish points were opposite the grounds of Cromwell House, Mortlake, from which Pemberton Billing’s guests watched, and the turns were round marker-buoys opposite Frank Maynard’s yard at Chiswick, and at Putney. Arthur Bray was responsible for the organisation and he was in telephonic link with Putney, and told those at Cromwell House the position there through a loudspeaker. The course had to be covered four times, a total distance of 31.6 sea-miles.
In 1923 Capt. G. E. T. Eyston had driven a twin-o.h.c. Aston-Martin in the J.C.C. 200-Mile Race at Brooklands and, delayed by plug trouble, finished fourth, behind Harvey’s Alvis, Cushman’s Bugatti, and Joyce’s A.C. He then got married and decided to give up motor racing, although later Mrs. Eyston must have relented, for no-one has had a more varied and exciting racing and record-breaking career than George Eyston. But while he was under the self-imposed ban, he decided to get the Walton Launch Co. to build him a hydro-plane hull, to take the Aston-Martin engine from the racing car. This was a twin-cam power unit giving about 49 b.h.p. The boat was duly completed and named “Miss Olga”.
Eyston tried some turns in the narrow part of the river at Walton, which proved difficult, another boat sinking while on the same exercise. This was “Pampero”, driven by C. W. Burnard, which had a Benson-Aston-Martin twin-o.h.c. engine.
Arrived at the start Eyston found eight other boats to race against. All-night work had partially restored “Pampero”. Johnston-Noad had an Aston-Martin engine in a Camper & Nicholsons hull. Betty Carstairs was there with her Sunbeam-engined Saunders craft “Newg”. Capt. Woolf Barnato, the other racing driver, was running “Ardenrun Minor”, which was another Sunbeam-Saunders boat, his “Ardenrun” having a 3-litre Bentley engine and thus not being eligible. These Sunbeam marine engines were like the racing-car engines known here as the invincible Talbot Darracq and the Carstair’s one turned up near Birmingham a few years ago. Mrs. Johnston-Noad was piloting a Sunbeam-powered Chester, Harcourt-Smith and Hugh Trevis were in “Bulldog II”, their very fast Brooke boat, Fred May had a Green engine in his Maynard-built “2L0”, and Major Weber’s “Miss Pat” was another Brooke boat.
To report the race lap by lap at this length of time is unnecessary. Suffice it to say that “Bulldog II” won, at 30.8 knots (so much for the eight-knot speed-limit!) from Barnato’s “Ardenrun Minor”, which had performed irregularly but made fastest lap, at 32.7 knots, with Johnston-Noad’s “Miss Betty” third. “Pampero” retired, Eystnn was 7th, behind “Miss Empire”, “Newg”, and “2LO”, which twice caught fire. The winner had a 17 ft. 6 in. hull. “Lady Pat” which caught fire twice, was 8th. The Brooke engine, with redesigned heads and valve gear for this race, drove forward to a reduction gear, then back to a 90-ton steel propeller, the engine doing 3,500 r.p.m. at 36½ knots, the top speed claimed being 39 knots. Not bad for a 1½-litre boat over 40 years ago. (No reflection on the magnificent victory of Tommy Sopwith and Charles de Selincourt in the Cowes-Torquay Offshore Race this year, in which their 600-h.p. Daytona-Scarab-powered “Telstar” averaged 33.06 knots.)
That day’s racing concluded with a rather feeble scratch race, only three competing, the winner being Mrs. Johnston-Noad’s “Miss Empire”, at 29 knots, and a race for outboards, won by a boat using a 2½ h.p. Archimedes motor, from two 3 h.p. Watermota-powered craft.
The next round, over four laps of 7½-mile course, making a race of 30 sea-miles, was the occasion of much trouble developing. “Bulldog II” broke its tailshaft within a few minutes and had to be towed in. “Newg” lost much time before Miss Carstairs could resume and Barnato suffered from a shorting coil, although making fastest lap, at nearly 30 knots. The thing was a procession, “Miss Empire II”, a Sunbeam-powered Chester-built boat, winning at 32.6 knots from “Miss Betty” and “Lady Pat”. Barnato was 4th, Eyston 5th. Incidentally, Eyston used an electric starter, and crossed the line 14 seconds in arrears, whereas the winner, “Miss Empire II”, was the last to get off, 29 seconds late.
Light relief came in the form of a dice for outboards, with dead engines at the 5-min. gun. Alas, after the well-known J. W. Shillan had been declared the winner, in a 3-h.p. Elto twin “Silvel II”, there was a protest over the times. But no-one doubted that Bloxham’s “Aurora” had won the handicap for river launches unable to exceed 10 knots (and where do you find these, today?), his 10-h.p. Aster engine sufficing to beat Noad’s Gaines-engined “Baby” and a launch with a 20/25-h.p. White & Poppe motor.
Serious racing was resumed the next day. Six started but after a lap the race was between the two racing drivers, Barnato and Eyston. “Newg” retired after lapping at 35.1 knots, fastest in the race, and on this first lap “Lady Pat” dropped out when the centre web broke away from the Brooke engine as it was running at some 4,700 r.p.m. The race went to Barnato’s Sunbeam-powered “Ardenrun Minor”, which averaged 32.7 knots, to Eyston’s 28.8 knots. The Trophy was finally won in the race at Hythe, but I am concerned here with river racing.
His appetite for power-boat racing whetted, Eyston fitted “Miss Olga” with a plain-bearing Anzani engine supercharged with one of the first of his Powerplus compressors. This engine gave approximately 84 b.h.p. at 4,800 r.p.m. Incidentally, the Port of London Authority says that the speed-limit aforesaid was always eight knots but cannot say when this was introduced. I think it must have been in force in Eyston’s time, or at any rate the Thames Conservancy’s preference for a maximum of seven knots, because in his autobiography Eyston mentions being late for the start of a race and, the locks having been warned, driving the supercharged-Anzani-engined “Miss Olga” rather quickly, on the step, from Walton to Duke’s Meadows, at speeds “not entirely in accordance with the laws of the Thames Conservancy”!
Segrave did some motor-boat racing later and he, Cobb and Donald Campbell were killed on Water Speed Record runs. But after 1925 racing motorists seem to have abandoned racing for the Duke of York’s Trophy. Perhaps the sport was getting too intense. For instance, the nine boats entered in 1926 represented Great Britain, the U.S.A., France, Canada and Germany. “Newg” and “Miss Betty” had been given new supercharged Sunbeam engines. “Bulldog” had a supercharged Brooke engine. The two American boats were 18 ft. long and each was powered by a straight-eight 1½-litre Miller racing engine capable of 7,000 r.p.m. but driving the propeller direct at the restrained rate of some 6,000 r.p.m.
The Canadian entry was a heavy well-equipped launch with a unique four-step hull. But it used as an engine a Miller racing-car unit slightly altered and with a reduction gearbox. The German Albatros-Atlantikwerke boat had a blown Mercedes power unit. Of the French contestants, one had a car-type 68 x 103-mm. C.I.M.E. engine with a Cozette supercharger and carburetter, and a friction reversing gear, and the other had a turtle-deck Picker-built hull powered by an unusual 59.8 x 132.6-mm. horizontal two-stroke engine with four cylinders but eight pistons and two crankshafts on opposite sides geared to a central shaft, a layout made familiar here by Gobron-Brillié. This one, too, was supercharged, with a Roots blower and Solex carburetter.
Speeds were approaching 40 knots or more and with supercharged engines essential, the amateur element seems to have faded out. But I should love to be able to get into my 12/50 Alvis or Lancia Lambda or whatever and drive on a summer evening to Duke’s Meadows or Cromwell House to see a spot of real power-boat racing on the normally quiet reaches of Old Father Thames.—W. B.