At the risk of readers saying “What — more Parry Thomas”, when it became time to attend the VSCC Cadwell Park race meeting I decided to call on Mrs. Easterbrook who, as Mrs. Duke Williams, used to be housekeeper at Brooklands to the famous Welsh racing driver/engineer. This involved some rather interesting motoring in the Editorial Rover 3500, just back from a check-over by Jaguar-Rover-Triumph Ltd. and on a new set of Michelin XVS tyres, because Mrs. Easterbrook lives at Stutton, near the river Stour, in far-away Suffolk, and we were starting from Wales, and going on to Cadwell Park, in Lincolnshire. In fact, this was a fairly easy three-day jaunt of 650 miles, which the Rover accomplished in its usual effortless manner, at 21.8 m.p.g., petrol being surprisingly easy to obtain over this Bank holiday week-end, with no limit, we noticed, being placed on the gallonage you could buy of the previously-unfamiliar RP (Roberts Petroleum) brand.
There was nothing much of motoring note on the road, although as we approached the attractive town of Kimbolton I remembered that it was there that the Inter-Varsity speed-trials had once been run, in the 1920s, unless memory was at fault. I thought it would be fun to look at the course. But this was probably in the grounds of Kimbolton Castle, which is only open on Sundays, and this was Friday. So we had tea instead, at a shop where in the rooms above, perhaps dating back to the 14th-century, the old beams were being uncovered, preparatory to making it a B & B establishment, in this town where the old buildings blend so successfully with the less-aged ones, but where the twisting road round the Castle wall is a hazard to the enormous articulated vehicles that now use the A45.
We put up very comfortably that evening at The Angel Hotel in Bury St. Edmunds. [I have since discovered that in 1926 the CUAC held speed trials in lcworth Park, at Bury St. Edmunds, and regret not remembering this at the time, so that we could have checked to see whether the private-drive where they were timed still exists — Ed.] The next morning I found a fast dual-carriageway road to Ipswich, on my way to meet Mrs. Easterbrook. Incidentally, when I was enquiring about the old speed-trial venue in Kimbolton the nice young ladies who so willingly served us and showed us the old part of the tea-shop building knew only that karts are raced at a nearby airfield, but when, just for fun, I asked the young girl, when paying the bill at the hotel in Bury, if “Brooklands” meant anything to her (it didn’t), the young man behind the reception desk said “Yes, it was an old race track they are trying to restore, where vintage cars run once a year, which he would like to see one day” — and, remember, we were nowhere near Weybridge . . .
The visit to Mrs. Easterbrook turned out very well. I had assumed she was just a person who had looked after Parry Thomas, who might recall a few things about him. Far better than that! She and her husband were motoring enthusiasts who had met Thomas at Brooklands and moved into his bungalow inside the Track, she to look after him, her husband to act as his secretary and to help with simple chores in the works when they were hard-pressed, such as balancing racing-car wheels, etc. This is rather amusing, inasmuch as Thomas’ bungalow was called “The Hermitage” and it was generally thought it was called this because the sometimes dour and lonely bachelor lived there all alone, designing his successful racing cars and working on them. In fact, Capt. and Mrs. Duke Williams and their young daughter Anne also lived there, and their son Rundle when he came home from his school — he must surely have been the envy of his school-friends, spending the “hols” actually within Brooklands Track! Nor was that all, because the children’s governess and Ken Thomson, Thomas’ partner, also lived at “The Hermitage”, as did a woman, with her son, who “did” for them. There were plenty of bedrooms leading off the long passage in the bungalow, which was not so aptly-named after all — which in no way excuses its destruction last year by Bass-Charrington.
Mrs. Easterbrook confirmed Thomas’ well-known love of children when she remarked “It was really Anne whom Tommy wanted there”. He had a swing put up for her and got her the donkey called “Chuka” which, when she rode it over to the Paddock, used to cause quite a stir and which, on one occasion, refused to budge and held up an aeroplane that was about to take-off from the grass aerodrome. Carefree times, when no-one minded such distractions . . . I was told how Thomas used to spoil the little girl and the first photograph I came upon in the family album was one of the great driver sitting in the Leyland-Thomas No. 1 and ready to go out onto the Track, shaking hands with young Anne, who is in her pedal-propelled toy Packard.
I asked Mrs. Easterbrook whether, apart from his Grand Sport Amilcar, Thomas drove a Leyland Eight on the road. “Oh yes”, she said, “he used to go up to London in it — we called him The Terror of the Portsmouth Road.” “Did you have a car at Brooklands?”, I asked. The answer to that was to be seen in the photograph album — a back-braked 3-litre Bentley. They knew W. O. Bentley slightly, but had bought this car through William Bentley, who was not connected with Bentley Motors. It was chassis No. 12, Reg. No. XK 3455. (This is confirmed by Stanley Sedgwick in his book “All The Pre-War Bentleys”, although he does not quote the Reg. No.) It was delivered in December 1921 and had a James Young body. In it the Duke Williams used to go to places where Thomas was racing, including Boulogne, where Dick Howey was killed in the Ballot. “He always said he could not keep it down on the carpet”, said Mrs. Easterbrook. I was shown a picture of this Bentley on a picnic (at the time when a Chummy Austin 7 and a 12/25 Humber were in use) and was told it was sold to someone who ran it into a ‘bus in Southampton and wrecked it.
Mr. Duke Williams was at Pendine when Thomas was killed in “Babs”. After that they left “The Hermitage” and he joined B. S. Marshall, the Bugatti driver. Before that he had raced his own car, an Amilcar I think. We talked of the drivers of those days, Duller, Kaye Don, the Howeys, Gallop, and I learned that it was Mrs. E. who had nicknamed Ken Taylor, Thomas’ mechanic, “Plain” Taylor, when she thought he was getting a bit too boastful. The name stuck. She told me that Thomas didn’t speak with a Welsh accent, that he was not a difficult man but that he could be fussy, especially about food, “nothing between the ribs” being a popular remark, and that after his death, when his will could not be found, his mother called in a spiritualist, who could only see lots of spring flowers — however, this proved helpful, as it led them to Thomas’ London offices in Spring Gardens, where the missing documents were found . . .
After this nostalgic episode I drove quietly away through the fen country after lunch, trying to get the Rover’s fuel thirst above 22 m.p.g. The only place which aroused the memory that afternoon was Mildenhall, now a Service airfield armed with American bombers, but the aerodrome from where, in 1934, the MacRobertson race to Australia had started, won at 158.9 m.p.h. by the DH Comet of C. W. A. Scott and T. Campbell Black. The night before Cadwell we stayed at an hotel in Woodhall Spa, where we were intrigued to find that the dinner-menu commenced with “Drivers”, and included “Good Putters” which seemed to indicate a reference to something like a twin-cylinder Renault. Until, that is, we remembered that we were adjacent to the famous golf-course and, indeed, that the hotel was named “The Golf’ . . . There had been a reminder that we were getting near to the circuit when, between Billinghay and Coningsby, two “Chain Gangsters” overtook the Rover and the rest of the modern traffic in a couple of skilfully-conducted Frazer Nashes running in close convoy.
Next day was on to watch the racing at Cadwell Park; a rather nice finale in this age of trailers happening on the journey home, when we encountered Quartermain driving away in his 30/98 Vauxhall, which had won one race and finished second in another, obviously having turned it from a racer into a road-car by just raising its fold-flat windscreen. — W.B.
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