The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce
|The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce|
|Died||21 May 1990
Camden, London, England
|Other names||Mildred Mary Petre|
|Known for||Car racer, speedboat racer and aviator|
The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce (10 November 1895 – 21 May 1990) was a British record-breaking racing motorist, speedboat racer, aviator in the 1920s and 1930s, and later, successful businesswoman. She is less-commonly referred to as Mary Petre Bruce, Mildred Bruce, Mildred Mary Bruce, or Mary Victor Bruce, in contemporary references.
Mildred Mary Petre was born at Coptfold Hall, Chelmsford, Essex, England on 10 November 1895, the daughter of Jennie Williams, an American actress, and Lawrence Petre, a descendant of Sir William Petre. She was educated at the Convent of Notre Dame de Sion, in Bayswater, London. In 1911, aged 15, she began her passion for motor vehicles by riding her brother's Matchless motorcycle, travelling around Osterley, west London, with her collie dog in the sidecar. She was cited for a motoring offence and appeared in Hounslow police court, where the magistrate dismissed the charges, fined her court costs of 6 shillings, and banned her from riding the motorcycle until she was 16.:28–31 In 1920, she purchased her first car, an Enfield-Allday, and was prosecuted many times for speeding, including three days running at Bow Street Magistrates' Court.:34–35
In 1926, she married the Honourable Victor Austin Bruce, son of Henry Bruce, 2nd Baron Aberdare. He was a works driver for AC Cars Ltd, and he won the 1926 Monte Carlo Rally in an AC car. She and her husband divorced in 1941.:36 They had no children.
Motor racing record breaking
She borrowed an AC Six car (PF6465) from Selwyn Edge, and started the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally from John O'Groats. After travelling 1,700 miles (2736 km) and 72 hours without sleeping, she finished sixth overall, and won the Coupe des Dames, for the women's class. On 28 January 1927, she departed Monte Carlo on an 8,000 miles (12,875 km) endurance trial through Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, and France. There, she drove the car 1,000 miles (1609 km) around the Montlhéry oval circuit near Paris, then finally returned to England.:41–51 On 9 July 1927, she departed from London in the same car (PF6465), once again accompanied by her husband plus a journalist and an engineer. They drove through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and finally planted a Union Jack flag about 250 miles (400 km) north of the Arctic Circle. It was farther north than anyone had previously driven, a record that remained unbroken until the 21st century.:52–57 On 9 December 1927, she and her husband, assisted by J.A. Joyce, started a 10-day endurance record in fog at Montlhéry, driving an AC Six fitted with a racing screen but minus roof, mudguards and lights. The average speed was 68 mph (109 km/h) over about 15,000 miles (24,140 km).:58–73 On 6 June 1929, she drove a Bentley 4½ Litre at Montlhéry for 24 hours, to capture the world record for single-handed driving, averaging over 89 mph (142 km/h).:81–94
In 1929, she purchased an outboard speedboat, named it Mosquito, and raced it at events at the Welsh Harp reservoir. On 15 September 1929, she drove the boat from Dover across the English Channel to Calais, then decided to make it a non-stop double crossing back to Dover. The record-breaking round trip took 1 hr 47 min, and the manufacturer gave her a new boat to replace Mosquito that had almost destroyed itself. In October 1929, she borrowed a 23-foot boat named British Power Boats, and broke the 24-hours distance record by travelling 694 nautical miles in a course around a lightship and a yacht moored in the Solent.:95–101
Having set records on land and water, Mary looked to the skies. As early as 1928 she joined the Mayfair Flying Club [ref Lang, Elsie M; British Women in the Twentieth Century; Kessinger Publishing, 2003] and by January 1930 was the owner of a Gipsy Moth [ref Jehu; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 4 Jan 1930]. She did not take her first flying lesson until 25 May 1930 [ref Bruce, Hon. Victor A; personal diary] the day after Amy Johnson [q.v.] completed her record-setting flight to Australia. Mary learned to fly at the Brooklands School of Flying; her instructors were G.E. Lowdell and Capt. H. Duncan Davis [ref. The Aeroplane, 24 Sep 1930, pg. 736]. Mary soloed on 22 June 1930 [ref. diary of Victor A Bruce] and received her A license #2855 on 26 July. She purchased a Blackburn Bluebird IV with a deHavilland Gipsy II engine from Auto-Auctions Ltd in Burlington Gardens, London [ref The Aeroplane, 24 Sep 1930, pg.735]. It was sent to the Blackburn factory in Brough, East Yorkshire, for modifications in preparation for her flight. It was designated G-ABDS. On 25 September 1930, she named the aircraft "Bluebird" and took off on a round the world solo flight from Heston Aerodrome. She flew east with stops in Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. An oil leak caused a forced landing on the shore of the Persian Gulf, where she was sheltered for two days by Baluchi tribesmen before a British rescue party reached her. Repairs delayed her onward flight for days, but she flew on to India, Burma, Siam (Thailand), and French Indo-China (Vietnam). Torrential monsoon rains forced a landing in a jungle clearing beside the Mekong River; she contracted malaria and her flight was further delayed. She flew on to Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul, making the first flight across the Yellow Sea. On 24 November 1930, having covered 10,330 miles (16,625 km) in 25 flying days, she reached Tokyo. She crossed the Pacific by ship to Vancouver. Her flight across North America was not without incident: a crash landing in Medford (Oregon) caused another week's delay. She reached her announced destination of her mother's birthplace, New Albany, Indiana, by way of San Francisco, San Diego, St Louis and Chicago. A one-week delay followed another crash in Baltimore, and she finally reached New York City in early February, 1931. She sailed on the Ile de France to LeHavre, and flew on 19 February 1931 to Lympne Airport, having flown about 19,000 miles (30,577 km).On 20 February 1931, she was given an aerial escort by Amy Johnson, Winifred Spooner and others to Croydon Airport, where a reception of press and celebrities awaited her.:102–149 She was the first person to fly from England to Japan, the first to fly across the Yellow Sea, and the first woman to fly around the world alone (crossing the oceans by ship).
In July 1932, she purchased a Saro Windhover amphibious aircraft (G-ABJP), named it City of Portsmouth, and had the undercarriage temporarily removed. She also purchased a Bristol F.2 (G-ACXA), and had it converted as a refuelling tanker. During August 1932, over the Solent, she used the two aircraft in three failed attempts to break the world flight-refuelled endurance record. Her co-pilot was Flt Lt John B.W. Pugh AFC, later employed by Luxury Air Tours and Air Dispatch.:150–156
In early 1933, she was invited to join the British Hospital Air Pageants flying circus, and purchased the sole Miles Satyr (G-ABVG) in the name of her company Luxury Air Tours Ltd, for use in aerobatic displays. She also purchased a Fairey Fox (G-ACAS) from a scrapyard for £2 10s, plus £10 for an engine, then had it modified at Hanworth Aerodrome for passenger-carrying duties. She then trained and qualified for her commercial pilot's 'B' licence. The Fox crashed in July 1933, and she left the flying circus.:157–164
Cape Town autogiro attempt
On 25 November 1934, she took off from Lympne Airport in a Cierva C.30A autogiro (G-ACVX), headed for Cape Town, in an attempt on the record for the longest autogiro flight, but the aircraft was damaged at Nîmes in France after 610 miles, and no further attempt followed.
Commercial aviation 1934–1939
On 7 August 1934, she founded Commercial Air Hire Ltd, that immediately started newspaper delivery flights between Croydon and Paris, using two DH.84 Dragons. In 1935, Air Dispatch Ltd, that she had founded on 9 July 1934, started operating weekend freight (later also passenger) services from its base at Croydon Airport to Le Touquet and Paris - Le Bourget Airport. In April 1935, Commercial Air Hire started passenger shuttle services between Croydon and Heston airports, under the name Inner Circle Air Lines, using GAL Monospar ST-4s. In 1935, Commercial Air Hire purchased an Avro 642 Eighteen 16-seat airliner (G-ACFV) for newspaper delivery contracts, and Air Dispatch shared its use for bullion-carrying, excursions, joy-riding flights and scheduled passenger services, until mid-1936.:165–167 She was co-managing director, with Eric E. Noddings, of both closely linked companies, that were merged in 1936 as Air Dispatch Ltd. During this period, the combined fleets of Air Dispatch and Commercial Air Hire, plus those of associated companies International Air Freight Ltd and Anglo European Airways, included GAL Monospar ST-4s, DH.84 Dragons, DH.89 Dragon Rapides, DH.90 Dragonflies, Airspeed AS.6 Envoys, plus other aircraft on lease, such as an Avro 618 Ten.
In late 1936, she sold two of the DH.84 Dragons for a large amount of cash to a mystery man, and they were covertly exported for use in the Spanish Civil War. From 1936, Commercial Air Hire operated many of its DH.84 Dragons on Territorial Army co-operation exercises under contract to the British Army, involving night flying and searchlights.:168–174
In about 1938, she renewed her childhood interest in horses, and purchased a show jumper named Grand Manor. She rode him in shows at Olympia and Windsor.:175–179
World War II
On the outbreak of war on 2 September 1939, her companies Commercial Air Hire Ltd and Air Dispatch Ltd moved with their fleets to Cardiff Municipal Airport, where, between September 1939 and April 1940, they operated under the control of National Air Communications. Subsequently, as part of the Civilian Repair Organisation, Air Dispatch rebuilt damaged RAF aircraft wings and whole aircraft at Cardiff, eventually employing about 700 people.:180–184
In 1945, the company attempted to return to commercial air services, but was thwarted by the dominance of the nationalised airlines: "So far only the more powerful of the independent operators have been approached, hoping that they will give away and so weaken our case," said the Hon. Mrs. Victor Bruce, of Air Dispatch. And somewhat dramatically she commented: "It is tantamount to going around with a cheque book and a hammer. I shall fight for our rights and independence to the end." Air Dispatch Ltd turned to repair and then manufacture of bus and trolley bodies, changing its name in 1947 to Air Dispatch (Coachbuilders) Ltd. In 1948, under the management of Mrs. Bruce's son Anthony, the company was renamed Bruce Coach Works Ltd., and continued until its closure in 1952. Mrs Bruce's fortunes subsequently increased further via property investments.:184–187
In April 1974, at age 78, she test-drove a Ford Capri Ghia at 110 mph (176 km/h) at Thruxton circuit. At age 81, after a brief refresher course in flying, she "looped the loop" in a De Havilland Chipmunk. Mildred Bruce died in 1990, at age 94.:13–19 She was survived by her son, Anthony Easter-Bruce (1920–1997) and one grandson, Michael Easter-Bruce (1952–).
- The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce. 1927. Nine Thousand Miles in Eight Weeks – Being an Account of an Epic Journey by Motor-Car through Eleven Countries and Two Continents. Heath Cranton Limited.
- The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce. 1928. The Woman Owner-Driver. Collection of 14 essays on motoring for women. Iliffe and Sons.
- The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce. 1930. The Peregrinations of Penelope, with 40 drawings by Joyce Dennys. Heath Cranton Limited.
- The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce. 1931. The Bluebird's Flight. Chapman & Hall Ltd. 1931.
- The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce. 1977. Nine Lives Plus – Record Breaking on Land, Sea and in the Air: an autobiographical account. Pelham Books ISBN 0-7207-0974-1
- The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce. 1928. Where Evening Joins the Dawn. (An account of her drive north of the Arctic Circle). The Oxford Annual for Girls, Tenth Year. Humphrey Milford; Oxford University Press. p. 9ff.
- Mrs Victor Bruce. Motoring in the Arctic: An adventurous trip through Sweden and Finland into Lappland and the Arctic circle.
- General Register Office index of deaths registered in May 1990 – Name: Bruce, Mildred Mary Date of Birth:10 November 1895 District: Camden Volume: 14 Page: 1570.
- General Register Office index of births registered in January, February and March 1896 – Name: Pete, Mildred Mary District: Chelmsford Volume: 4A Page: 509.
- Aitken 1991
- Bruce (1977)
- Bouzanquet (2009), pp. 33–35
- Boddy (2007)
- The Manchester Guardian, 7 June 1929, p. 1
- The Observer, 9 June 1929, p. 15
- Lewis (1970)
- Flight, 27 February 1931, pp. 182–184 flightglobal.com
- Cluett (1980)
- Monk, D.E. (April 1963). "The Avro Eighteen". Air-Britain's Aviation Review (Air-Britain) 0 (1): 4–5
- Sherwood, Tim (1999)
- Havers (1996)
- Flight, 29 March 1945, p. 346
- Aitken, Kenneth. 1991. "The Speed Seekers", Aeroplane Monthly, September 1991, p. 553
- Boddy, William. 2007. Montlhéry: The Story of the Paris Autodrome ISBN 1-84584-052-6
- Bowen, Glyn et al. 2002. A Brief History of Air Dispatch (Coachbuilders) Ltd. and Bruce Coach Works Ltd. Cardiff Transport Preservation Group.
- Bruce, Hon. Victor A. Personal diaries.
- Bouzanquet, Jean Francois. 2009. Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers 1888 to 1970 ISBN 1-84584-225-1
- Cluett, Douglas; Nash, Joanna; Learmonth, Bob. 1980. Croydon Airport 1928–1939, The Great Days. London Borough of Sutton ISBN 0-9503224-8-2
- Havers, John. 1996. National Air Communications September 1939 – April 1940. Air-Britain Digest (journal) Winter 1996.
- Lang, Elsie M. 2003. 'British Women in the Twentieth Century.' Kessenger Publishing.
- Lewis, Peter. 1970. British Racing and Record-Breaking Aircraft. Putnam ISBN 0-370-00067-6
- Robinson, Jane. 2001. Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers. OUP ISBN 0-19-280233-X
- Sherwood, Tim. 1999. Coming in to Land: A Short History of Hounslow, Hanworth and Heston Aerodromes 1911–1946. Heritage Publications (Hounslow Library) ISBN 1-899144-30-7
- Wilson, Nancy R. 2012. Queen of Speed: The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce. Ex Libris Press/ELSP ISBN 978-1-906641-42-9