Meet The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce – renowned British racing motorist, speedboat racer, aviatrix and businesswoman who set a record for a double crossing of the Channel in an outboard and went on to fly her own biplane solo to Japan. A fearless adventurer who relied on Ovaltine for strength and vitality!
One sunny day during April 1974 The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce, dressed immaculately in her trademark skirt, blouse and string of pearls, settled herself behind the steering wheel of Ford’s new Gia Capri. Unleashing it around the Thruxton motor circuit, she touched 110mph to set a new personal speed record. She was 78 years old!
So does it come as any surprise that she is believed to be the first girl in Britain to ride a motorcycle on the open road, and to appear before Bow Street Magistrates Court aged 15, facing a charge of speeding at 67mph on her brother’s treasured Matchless motorcycle and side car? Imagine the spectacle – Mary, with her hair in plaits tied with red ribbon and ‘Laddie’ her pet collie dog, complete with red bow, sitting boldly upright in the side car! The forward-thinking Mary, in her quest to lighten the motorcycle and clock up extra hours had removed the baffles out of the silencer – but she still got caught!
There was also the occasion when the young Mary was up before the Magistrate for three consecutive days. Understandably irritated, the Magistrate fined her ten shillings, adding, rather sharply, ‘Young lady, you’re making a career in my court’! It was on this occasion that Mary decided that she should give up her bid to beat the police speed traps and as soon as she was old enough to take up competitive driving.
A FAMILY HISTORY OF DARING
Mildred Mary Petre who is better known by her married name, was born on 10th November 1895. Her father, Lawrence Petre of Copford Hall, Essex, was a descendant of Sir William Petre, a Tudor Secretary to four monarchs including Henry VIII, Edward VI, ‘Bloody Mary’ and Queen Elizabeth. What is more, he survived them all – you could say, ‘he kept his head at a time when many others were losing theirs’! Her mother was an American actress with a passion for Shakespeare and playing the ukelele, who emigrated to Britain. Mary’s courageous and daring exploits can be traced back to her great grandmother who was born in Kentucky and trekked across the plains during the Great Gold Rush of 1849 to California, fighting off aggressors and surviving childbirth!
1927 MONTE CARLO RALLY
Following her marriage to Victor Bruce, whom she had met at the AC Factory and was part of their works team racing for Selwyn Edge, The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce was, after a number of requests, lent an AC to enter in the 1927 Monte Carlo rally.
Other passengers included the editor of The Daily Sketch, a mechanic and her husband Victor who was navigating. Setting off from John O’Groats The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce drove single-handedly to Monte Carlo – fighting a high temperature, overwhelming tiredness and extreme weather conditions; namely blizzards, fog and ice. Seventy hours and twenty minutes later (to be exact) she finished to win the Coupe des Dames. Instead of immediately returning to England, the stalwart Mrs Victor Bruce continued south to Morocco as a publicity stunt; finally ending up at the Montlhery circuit near Paris where she averaged 60mph – clocking up a further thousand miles. A celebratory lunch was given in her honour upon her return to England by Selwyn Edge.
SEVENTEEN RECORDS IN TEN DAYS
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Mrs Victor Bruce was constantly looking for new challenges, determined to break more records. Encouraged by the news that a team driving a Chrysler car had driven around an American track for almost a week, covering 10,000 miles at a speed of just over 60mph, the inevitable happened! Heading for Montlhery with an AC and determined to break the current records held in America and facing snow and black ice, The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce managed to break seventeen world records over a total of ten days, totalling 15,000 miles and averaging 68mph!
THE RECORD GATHERING CONTINUES
There was also the occasion when the Victor Bruces planted a Union Jack 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, having driven an AC through France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and finally through Finland facing blizzards and dense fog. This was the furthest north that any person had previously driven. By now, Selwyn Edge was understandably puffed up with pride!
In 1929 The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce drove a supercharged 4.5 litre Bentley at Montlhery over twenty-four hours, to take the world record for driving single-handedly and averaging just over 89mph.
OF DRESSES AND AEROPLANES
Casually window shopping down Burlington Gardens in London one summer’s day in 1930 The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce spotted, of all things, a full-sized aeroplane for sale and with thoughts turning immediately to her mother who had often despaired of her wayward daughter and who would throw her hands up high saying, ‘You’ve nine lives, like a cat.’ Rather sensibly, she continued walking down the street, noticing a very pretty dress displayed in a shop window. Sadly, but was it fate – the dress was far from flattering!
‘Could it fly around the world,?’ she enquired, having noticed the thoughtfully-written sales ticket which read, ‘Bluebird: Honeymoon model: ready to go anywhere.’ ‘Of course – look, it has folding wings and only five hundred and fifty pounds, Madam,’ the sales assistant smiled, adding thoughtfully, ‘chromium plating on the handles will be only five pounds extra.’! How COULD she refuse?!
ROUND THE WORLD
On 25th September 1930, armed with a small shoulder bag of ‘essentials’ – Victor’s compass, her passport, logbook, bottle of water, sun helmet, several cotton dresses and that all important evening gown and having clocked up only forty hours flying, The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce took off on a round the world solo flight from Heston Aerodrome, flying east with stops in Europe, Syria and Iraq. Surviving monsoons and following a forced landing in a jungle clearing beside the Mekong River The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce contracted malaria and was forced to delay her flight for several days. She finally took off again, heading for India and then flew on to Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul. She eventually reached Tokyo after twenty-five flying days; thus becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Yellow Sea.
When reporters consistently asked Mrs Victor Bruce for her planned itinerary, she flatly refused, replying that if she happened to lose her way then nobody would be any wiser and the press would have to record it as a ‘Mystery Flight.’
OFF TO JOIN THE CIRCUS
Following her epic flight, The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce was invited to join a Flying Circus called British Hospital Air Pageants whose aim was to undertake tours of Britain with pilots and a parachutist, as well as putting on displays for charity and giving joy-rides. She also became instrumental in the first air-to-air refuelling contracts in Britain as well as playing a key role in pre-war commercial aviation which led to the establishing of a number of freight and passenger airlines.
NEVER SLOWING DOWN
At the age of 81, and following a brief refresher course, the sprightly Mrs Victor Bruce had one more crack at adventure – ‘looping the loop’ in a De Havilland Chipmunk Monoplane! After all, she always said that ‘going slow always made her tired!’
The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce died on the 21st May 1990 – a woman who led her life with style and who showed remarkable courage and spirit.
Next time: The remarkable Joy Rainey and her outstanding achievements in motorsport.
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.