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Women in Motorsport & Social History: Eleanor Thornton

Alluring and captivating...the sylph-like Spirit of Ecstasy mascot has adorned the bonnet of Rolls-Royce cars since 1911.  This graceful little Goddess, sometimes referred to as The Flying Lady, is synonymous with silent speed, supreme comfort and superior automotive design... and is based upon a very special woman….


FAMILY LIFE

Born in London on 15th April 1880, Eleanor Velasco Thornton was born into a humble family. Her mother, Sarah Anne (nee Rooke) was Spanish and her father, Frederick Thornton worked as a telegraph engineer with L. Clark, Muirhead and Company - although his role is somewhat unclear with no actual record of him within the Muirhead Group.

A BEAUTIFUL ‘THORN’

Upon leaving school aged sixteen, Eleanor was hired as a secretary at The Royal Automobile Club in London, coming into contact with many motoring pioneers and enthusiasts; including John Walter Edward Montagu-Douglas-Scott. Eleanor was a charming, graceful, immensely loyal and talented young lady, possessed of striking good looks and the attraction they felt for one another from the very beginning was to herald the onset of a love affair lasting thirteen years. Rather poignantly, John often referred to Eleanor as Thorn, which was his special name for her.

Eleanor Thornton

INDISPENSIBLE

In 1902 John, encouraged by Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), launched his own motoring magazine, The Car Illustrated – A Journal of Travel by Land, Sea and Air, and invited Eleanor to join him as his Personal Assistant. This she did, carrying out an increasing number of duties especially when, in 1905 on the death of his father, Henry John Montagu Douglas-Scott, Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, John inherited the title becoming the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu; subsequently moving from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. According to his personal diaries, Eleanor proved indispensable in assisting with his wide-ranging activities as politician, landowner, editor, publisher and political writer.

Eleanor Thornton with Charles Sykes, Jessica Sykes

Rolls Royce Silver Ghost 1909 mascot

A SCULPTURE IS BORN

Among John’s many connections was sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes. The son of a marine painter, Sykes was educated at the Royal College of Art in London and by the 1920s had become a renowned designer and sculptor. Eleanor would become one of his favourite models.

When John introduced Sykes to Claude Johnson, Managing Director of Rolls-Royce Limited, motoring history was made… An invitation was extended to Sykes to design an appropriate mascot, namely the Spirit of Ecstasy – a woman leaning forwards, arms outstretched behind and above her. That same woman was Eleanor and there is no doubt that the love affair was truly the inspiration behind the mascot.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

During this time the dark foreboding storm clouds of World War One were gathering pace and in 1915, having already spent some time in India, it was arranged for John, 2nd Baron Montagu to return to India, taking up his post of Inspector of Mechanical Transport. Eleanor would accompany him as far as Port Said, Egypt and then make the return journey.

The couple set sail on the P&O Steam Navigation Company's SS Persia from Marseille but twelve days into the voyage, on December 30th off Cape Martello, Crete, a German U-boat fired a torpedo at the ship's hull. To make matters even more devastating, the massive blast was repeated due to one of the ship's boilers exploding. The ship sank in minutes with loss of life of over three hundred people, including John's beloved Thorn.

After a total of three days drifting in a badly damaged lifeboat with only a handful of other passengers, devoid of food and water and suffering from severe exposure, they were picked up by a steamship and John spent several months convalescing in Malta. It is certain that his life was saved by him wearing the latest safety device – a Gieve inflatable waistcoat that his cousin, Admiral Mark Kerr had recommended.

So, next time you see a Rolls Royce purr by, look for the graceful figurehead that is the Spirit of Ecstasy, with her arms outstretched and her sight fixed on the road ahead and think of Eleanor who was an inspiration to so many...


A plaque in Beaulieu Parish Church reads thus:

'This tablet was erected by John, 2nd Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in thankfulness for his miraculous escape from drowning after the sinking of the P and O SS Persia, torpedoed by a German submarine near Crete. And in memory of Eleanor Velasco Thornton, who served him devotedly for fifteen years. Drowned December 30th, 1915.'

Visitors can learn more about the sinking of the SS Persia at Buckler’s Hard, near Beaulieu, Hampshire.


Next time: read about the seductive, dazzling and fast-paced life of Helle Nice, 1920s racing legend known as The Bugatti Queen.


Sarah Crofts has been sharing her passion for motorsport with Beaulieu's visitors since she first joined as a volunteer in 2007. Now a Museum Attendant, she has grown to love her role more and more and can't imagine doing anything else! Sarah's popular Women in Motorsport tour is one of several daily tours on offer in the National Motor Museum.


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