Why did alpha-female from Essex punch man in Ipswich hotel?
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Mildred lived and loved in the fast lane... and always wore pearls. A book from The History Press
Mildred was one of a kind: a record-breaking racing driver and aviation pioneer. A charismatic whirlwind of a woman who, just a few months after learning to pilot a plane, became the first person to fly solo from the UK to Japan.
She was captured by bandits, and crashed, but lived to tell the tale, and became a celebrity and our first female airline entrepreneur. Oh, and she had a love life as turbulent.
How could writer Paul Smiddy, himself a pilot and aviation obsessive, refuse the chance to piece together her story once his curiosity had been aroused? And, of course, he didn’t. As he says, “Separating the fact from the fiction was better than doing any crossword.”
There’s something of a Wolf Hall slant. Ancestor Sir William Petre became a tutor of George Boleyn, brother of Anne. He caught the eye of Thomas Cromwell, who put him to use.
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Petre was responsible for the surrendering of more than 30 monasteries... and got his reward when he was given land in Essex.
Skip forward and Mildred’s aristocratic grandparents are living at Coptfold Hall, near Chelmsford. Stand there now and, at the right time of year, you might hear the roar of the A12 and music from the V Festival.
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Mildred’s father Lawrence “was slightly reclusive and particularly interested in meteorology, which gives you a flavour of the man”.
Somewhat out of character, he went to the theatre “and was overcome with lust or love for this American 20-year-old song and dance artist, Jennie”. They got married within three or four months, after an engagement of 17 days.
Mildred was born in November, 1895. As a girl, she liked riding horses – fast – and as a teenager took care of her brother’s Matchless motorbike and sidecar when he went abroad, tuning it to make it faster. Which is how she came to be stopped in 1911 by a policeman, banned from the road and fined six shillings... when still only 15.
After her parents split up, Mildred went with her mother to live on the south coast, in a glorified mobile home. She had an affair with their landlord, married and 21 years older, and had son Anthony in 1920.
Five years later she met The Honourable Victor Bruce, an aristocrat with a similar passion for speed, at October’s 19th Annual Motor Exhibition Motor Show at Olympia. It wasn’t long before he proposed – but, before that, he became the first Englishman to win the Monte Carlo Rally, in January, 1926. In February, he and Mildred married at the British consulate up the coast.
The following year, the rally offered a ladies’ prize. Guess who won. The Bruces began racing together at the Brooklands circuit in Surrey, drove a car 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and took on endurance challenges, including doing 15,000 miles in three-hour shifts.
Paul says that in Mildred’s autobiography “she comes up with complete rubbish (he actually uses a B-word) about how she decided to learn to fly”. The truth is, he insists, that as soon as Mildred saw the public acclaim Amy Johnson was getting for her solo flight from England to Australia in 1930 (the first female pilot to do it) she rang up the flying school at Brooklands and scheduled her first lesson.
The autobiography says she took off on her round-the-world flight four weeks later. “It wasn’t. It was more like three months. But, nonetheless, it was an exceedingly short timescale.”
There were all sorts of adventures on the way – such as landing in the Syrian desert and fending off brigands, and having a major crash on the north side of the Persian Gulf. When she reached Japan, she was treated like a superstar.”
What next after the solo flight to Japan? How about trying to beat the world endurance record of 23 days aloft?
“They pioneered some rather crude methods of aerial refuelling and bought this old flying boat and flew around in circles over Suffolk for three days I think – which was less than they’d targeted but still a good effort. And landed at Felixstowe, which was the big seaplane base at that time.”
That was in 1932. Things didn’t go as well as hoped, but they still beat the British record by three and a half hours.
“They were trying at one point to reduce the weight of the aircraft and junked a thing called a barograph, which measures height and was the primary means of verifying their record. Some journalists gave her a bit of a hard time about that.
“She was staying in a hotel in Ipswich and a guest came up to her and also gave her a hard time. Her nerves were clearly on edge and she thumped him – which for a lady of 5ft 2in was a brave but foolish thing to do.”
Later, the Bruces separated and she set up aviation companies, and started a relationship with one of her pilots. In 1936, Air Dispatch was flying to Plymouth, Torquay and Bournemouth.
In the spring of 1974, then 78, she drove her 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III (fast!) to the Thruxton circuit in Hampshire, and test-drove the new Capri Ghia, courtesy of Ford Europe. She got it up to about 110mph...
Mildred died in 1990, aged 94.
Paul says that at times she’d exaggerated some of her achievements, “but she didn’t need to – they were extraordinary to start with”.
A Passion for Speed is published by The History Press at £14.99