Brooklands rests next to the River Wey between Byfleet and Weybridge, and today there is little here to indicate that this was once where much of the early innovations in motor racing and the aeronautical industry took place. Many of the movers and shakers in both arenas were to show off their prowess on Brookland's banked racetrack and airfield.
click image to enlarge
In Feb to Mar 1908, three Model K Cadillacs (1907 production) were released from the stock of Frederick Bennett (UK agent for Cadillac) at the Heddon Street showroom in London to compete in the annual Royal Automobile Club's Standardization Test.
They were driven 25 miles to the Brooklands race track at Weybridge where they completed another 25 miles (40 km) before being put under lock and key until Monday March 2, 1908 when they were released and disassembled completely. Their 721 component parts were scrambled in one heap; 89 parts requiring extreme accuracy were withdrawn from the heap, locked away at the Brooklands club house and replaced with new parts from the showroom stock.
Using only wrenches and screwdrivers the three cars were re-assembled and on Friday March 13 they completed a mandatory 500 mile (800 km) run. On completion of the test, one of the cars was placed under lock and key where it remained until the start of the 2000 miles (3200 km) Reliability Trials, several months later.
It came out the winner of the R.A.C. Trophy! Parts interchangeability could not have been proven in any other more appropriate way. As a result of these tests, the Cadillac Automobile Company was awarded the Dewar Trophy for 1908 (actual award date was Feb 1909). The Dewar Trophy was an annual award for the most important advancement of the year in the automobile industry." Source: youngwoo2007.blogspot.com 24th June 2007
The journey would prove to be fraught with danger and near-death experiences as the twin-engined Vickers Vimy biplane crossed war-scarred Europe and over the heart of unmapped Africa. Here are some excerpts from contemporary Times newspaper reports:
Captain Broome’s log notes: “Soon ran into mist and clouds near Croydon, and nearly took the towers off Crystal Palace.”
Captain Broome’s co- pilot, Captain Cockerell, recorded this life philosophy. “The art of flying”, he observed, “is in crashing well.”
“Don’t know where the hell we are, but steering 12deg. on compass . . . Saw a large town thro’ clouds”, the log states. “Think it must be Paris.”
South of Khartoum, the Vimy was forced to land on dangerous ground. Chalmers wrote: “We were unable to reach water through the bush and swamps, so lunched on sandwiches and tea while obliging natives fetched water from the Nile.”
“It is to be hoped that storms do not drive the machine far to the west of its course, as a forced landing among the Niam Niams is not to be faced with equanimity, as these folk have been known to eat their visitors.”
In modern-day Tanzania, the aircraft suffered its last crash, losing a wing in the process. Dr Mitchell was in the process of writing a dispatch for the newspaper. He was then struck by malaria, which delayed his return. Perhaps delirious, he had to be talked out of proceeding to Cape Town on a bicycle.
A South African attempt at beating the Times sponsored aircraft was to prove successful, as unencombered by a passenger or the need to undertake scientific observations the rival aircraft could fly at night. Source: timesonline.co.uk 16th June 2008.
"It was late in the afternoon, and I had to rush through the museum, but an extra piece of the jigsaw was put in place, perhaps not all the pieces I would need later. I was impressed by the quality of the car exhibits, the buildings, the people.
"Decommissioned airliners stood at the end of the long runway. Among them a VC10, a BAC 1-11. The VC10 was open to view inside. I could imagine aircraft taking off and landing on that long runway, with a mainline railway, the little stretch of the remaining banked race track, and the museum, all at one end. I felt annoyed at the new encroaching office blocks on the perimeter of the airfield.
ALSO ON THIS PAGE:
Not far from Byfleet is Brooklands (GR: TQ065623) straddling the River Wey proper, and the site of many aeronautical and motoring milestones during the first half of the 20th century.
The Wey Navigation was excavated a mile (1.6 km) to the west of Brooklands effectively making the site an islchittyand. An airfield was constructed on Weybridge Heath at the beginning of Britain’s adventure into flight, and was central to the birth of the British aviation industry.
Brooklands took its name from Robert del Brok who in the 12th century was Lord of the local Manor, and prior to becoming a racetrack had been bought in 1830 by Locke-King’s father from the Duke of York.
Hugh Locke-King (1856 - 1926) devised and built the world’s first banked motor racing circuit here in 1906 and it became the home of British motor racing until 1939. He was inspired to build the 3.25 mile (5.23 kilometre) long oval banked racetrack by the fact that early attempts at racing motor vehicles on British public roads had been thwarted by officialdom. Locke-King had experienced the excitement of the Targa Florio in Italy and the French Grand Prix, both raced on public roads with the complicit approval of the authorities. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity for British drivers to gain experience because of the strictly imposed 20 mph (32 kph) speed limit he devised the track initially as a testing ground to enable vehicles to be safely driven at speed. The banking provided the camber to keep the cars on the track without having to slow at the turn at each end, and at 100 feet (30 metres) wide and 30 feet (9 metres) high in places also provided a great track for spectators to come and watch. So the first spectator friendly course was built for a cost of £150,000, taking nine months and the labour of 700 workmen to achieve.
Another world first was the construction of a seven-arch bridge of ferro-concrete that carried the track across the river Wey. The bridge was named Hennebique, after the French engineer who designed it, Francois Hennebique (1842 - 1921), a specialist in reinforced concrete construction.
The project involved considerable resources and included:
Locke-King was spurred on by Selwyn Edge (1868 - 1940), an experienced racing driver and car dealer, to complete the project with his highly publicised challenge that he would drive the course in a Napier single-handedly at a constant 60 mph for 24 hours without a rest break. Edge was to complete his remarkable challenge on the finished track without mishap.
The construction method for the track, which involved pouring Portland concrete in sections over a six-inch bed of gravel, over time resulted in the track suffering from uneven settlement along its length for which patchwork repairs never proved completely successful. Racing at speed along the track soon became as much a battle against the violent vibrations caused by crossing the uneven concrete joins as it did in steering a safe course. From 1919 - 1939 the course became well known for its punishing reputation and only the biggest and sturdiest cars were to survive the ordeal. These included the big Bentleys and 1.5-litre Aston Martins who served their appreniceship at Brooklands before going on to take other tracks by storm.
A particularly gruelling feature became known as 'The Bump', this being a section of the Hennebique Bridge where it joined the far bank of the Wey. The bridge at that end had settled slightly into the river bed below and the drop produced a lip that provided the best action vantage point for spectators. Cars hitting the lip at speed were launched into the air, providing spectacular shots for the press photographers who favoured this vantage point.
The early years at Brooklands saw huge prizes and a rather eccentric administration based on Jockey Club rules and horse racing. Races were organised for groups of cars in broadly similar engine sizes and the cars were unnumbered with drivers identified by brightly coloured smocks. In 1914 car colours were substituted and eventually cars were individually numbered. Early prizes for an entry fee of 15 to 50 sovereigns ranged from £250 to £1,400, representing a top prize of £85,000 at today's value. And for races that covered less than 30 miles.
Brooklands, as the world's first purpose-built race track and the birthplace of British motor racing, celebrated it's centenary in 2007 and the 100th anniversary of its first motorcycle race in 2008. In the same year the first use of the site as an airfield 100 years ago was also celebrated.
The vehicle manufacture Mercedes Benz built a ‘brand experience’ centre at Brooklands in 2006. As well as a large showroom Mercedes Benz World has simulator rides, interactive exhibits and a 2.5km handling circuit on which to try out their cars. The company also runs a 10-acre off-road terrain course on site complete with deep water and steep slope hazards.
Roman Finds & Flood Control
An additional benefit of the extensive excavation of this marshy land was the unearthing of Roman coins and pottery dating back to over 1,600 years ago and confirming that the Romans had had a permanent settlement here. These artefacts, and a Bronze Age bucket also found during the construction, are now housed in the British Museum.
The natural course of the River Wey was diverted here to provide enough lateral space on the site.
In February 2009 the flood control measures installed along the River Wey when Mercedes-Benz World was constructed were proven. In a single day half the month’s full rainfall expectation fell in a matter of hours and the area did not experience any flooding. Prior to the flood compensation scheme homes and business had suffered severe flooding under similar conditions when the Wey had burst its banks. Mercedes-Benz World was awarded the Daimler Environmental Leadership award in 2007 for its contribution to the local environment through wildlife and heritage preservation together with the flood scheme.
High Speed Opening
The track was officially opened in June 1907 by a display of racing cars which included circuits by Ethel Locke-King (d1957), wife of the founder, in her Itala. There was also a groundbreaking display of a Darracq hurtling around the top of the banking at 90 mph (145 kph), made more remarkable by the fact that on the public roads a few hundred yards away the speed limit was only 20 mph. Mrs Locke-King is also remembered locally for her considerable efforts in running a Red Cross hospital for injured soldiers at Brooklands House for the duration of the First World War.
Malcolm Campbell & The Bluebird
Malcolm Campbell (1885-1948) built his record breaking Bluebirds here, and which were to go on to shatter world speed records on both land and water. In one of his Bluebirds Campbell reached over 304 miles per hour (489 kph) on the Bonneville Flats in Utah in 1935, the first person to break the 300 mph on land. He also won two Grand Prix in France in 1927 and 1928 driving a Bugatti T39A. It was his son Donald who was to lose his life trying to repeat his father’s achievements. He died attempting to break the 300 mph barrier on Coniston Water in the Lake District in 1967 driving a newly engineered boat, the Bluebird K7.
It was Brooklands that gave inspiration to many of the road vehicle entrepreneurs that started up business along the Wey Valley. These included Blackburne motorcycle engines at Tongham near Farnham, Dennis specialist vehicles in Guildford, crankshaft manufacture at Elstead, vehicle gauges at Bramley near Guildford, bespoke vehicle bodies at Wrecclesham near Farnham, and several in Godalming.
Britain's Early Aviators get an Airfield
Two years after the racecourse was built Locke-King constructed an airfield in the centre of the site providing the opportunity for Britain’s earliest aviators to hone their skills.
These were pioneering days, and egged on by a challenge laid down by the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club Committee who offered a prize of £2,500 for the first aviator to successfly overfly the full road circuit by the end of 1907, aspiring pilots sought out ways to take to the skies. Perhaps the Frenchman Monsieur Bellamy considered himself as having the best chance having built an aeroplane shed at the course in April of that year, but despite attempts he never succeeded.
Long after the deadline expired, in June 1908 Alliot Verdon Roe (1877 - 1958), a pioneering aviator, had been experimenting with his craft and became airborne off the race track banking reportedly staying off the ground for 100 yards (91 m). Unfortunately as this had not been an official attempt there were no officials to witness the event, and so it was never recognised as a powered and controlled flight.
It wasn't until 1909 that sustained flight at Brooklands became a reality. Another Frenchman, Louis Paulhan led the way in his Farman biplane and quite quickly the airfield held public flying demonstrations.
The film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) was based around an event held at Brooklands in July 1911 - The Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Air Race - which was one of the greatest British aeronautical events of those years. The newspaper's proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, put up a prize of £10,000 (representing over half a million pounds today) for the first aviator to complete the 1,000 mile (1,609 km) route. Twenty pilots took part with the prize being won by a frenchman named Conneau flying a Bleriot.
Brooklands was renowned at the time for the hardcore of wealthy young men who had encamped at the airfield in what had become known as the Brooklands Flying Village.
By the time the First World War had broken out there were 10 flying schools at Brooklands and these had already trained 300 pilots, more than any other country in the world. The first of these, the Hewlett and Blondeau School, was founded by Hilda Hewlett in 1911, who was also the first woman to gain a pilot's licence. In the same year Brooklands claimed another first when the world's first flight ticket office was built at the airfield. Flights at the time cost a pound.
Tom Sopwith opened a flying school here in early 1912, and later in the same year launched the Sopwith Aviation Company which was to go on and build pioneering aircraft. An armaments manufacturer Vickers also chose 1912 to open a flying school at Brooklands, and it was Vickers who were to dominate much of Brooklands history over the next 50 years with their aircraft manufacturing business.
Brooklands is associated with many famous aviation faces including Louis Blériot (1872 - 1936) the first aviator to fly the Channel, Louis Paulhan (1883 - 1963) first flight between London and Manchester and Adolphe Pègoud (1889- 1918) who was the first pilot to ever loop-the-loop which he did above the Wey at the airfield in 1913, and who also became a flying ace in WWI shooting down five German aircraft. Others to regularly fly at Brooklands were Howard Pixton (d1972), Avros first test pilot; Claude Grahame-White (1879 - 1959) who reputedly learned to fly at Blériot’s factory in 20 minutes, Noel Pemberton Billing (1881 - 1948) who pioneered flying boats; Tom Sopwith (1888 - 1989) who founded the aviation company of the same name and whose planes including the Sopwith Camel and Pup ruled the skies in WW1; and the Australian Harry Hawker (1889 - 1921) who designed the Hurricane which was responsible for shooting down four-fifths of enemy aircraft in the Battle of Britain.
During World War I the aviation manufacturers Vickers, Avro, Martin & Handasyde; Sopwith, Blériot and the British & Colonial Aircraft Company all operated from Brooklands, and 20,000 aircraft were flown out during that time.
Having been taken over by the government during the Second World War, the airfield was sold to Vickers after the close of the war, who were to go on and pioneer many aviation firsts here. Vickers had designed and built the Vimy, a bomber used in the First World War, and it was the Vickers Vimy that became the first aeroplane to cross the Atlantic.
The single-seater Hawker Hurricane fighters were also built here during the Second World War, with production reaching two a day by June 1939, as were Wellington bombers that became the mainstay of bomber command. By the time Hawker moved production to Langley near Slough in 1942 the assembly sheds at Brooklands had manufactured 2,800 Hurricanes.
Vickers airliners broke new ground with the Viscount being the world’s first commercially successful turbo-prop airliner, and the VC-10 as the first four-engined intercontinental jetliner powered from the rear.
The British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) took over Vickers and the Brooklands airfield, and in turn British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) produced parts for jet liners here. Fittingly it was at Brooklands that the British and French governments signed the agreement to jointly build Concorde on the 10th July 1961.
The airfield eventually closed in 1982.
Only part of the track banking remains today with the airfield now built over with the swishy new Weybridge Business Park now hiding the history of the place. An informative museum is housed in the old clubhouse which has been fully restored, and parts of the original racing pits (GR: TQ070623) have been preserved next to the road running up to The Heights business park. The oldest air booking office is preserved at the museum.
In October 2006 the German automobile manufacturer Mercedes Benz opened a 'brand experience site' at Brooklands. The site has historical connections to the company as Mercedes-Benz won on the opening race day at the circuit in 1907.
Mercedes-Benz World enables the public to drive vehicles around a 1.5 mile (2.5km) handling circuit and across a 10 acre off-road terrain course. The company is predicting that 300,000 visitors will visit the centre every year.
The 155 acre site includes stretches of the original Brooklands track, which is a listed Ancient Monument. Sections of the original circuit have been renovated and the famous Railway Straight has been re-opened for the first time in 50 years.
Mercedes-Benz in developing the site were also committed to providing a flood compensation scheme to homes and businesses along the River Wey, and have regenerated a 60 acre community park which has been handed over to Elmbridge Borough Council for the benefit of local people.
Bridge over Wey to Provide
Brooklands Museum is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2007 and as part of the celebrations it is planning to construct a temporary bridge over the River Wey to reconnect part of the original racetrack for racing enthusiasts.
The Hennibique Bridge with its famous bump was washed away in a storm in 1969 and cut off the original Start / Finish straight from the Members'Banking and Railway Straight. The new bridge will allow parading of two, three and four wheeled Brooklands vehicles along a two and a half mile stretch of the original three and a half mile circuit in June 2007. This is particularly exciting for motorcycling enthusiasts who have not been able to participate in motorcycle events along the Railway Straight and Byfleet Banking sections of the track since 1939.
The 4/10 scale model of a British Airway's Concorde that has had pride of place at the tunnel entrance to Heathrow Airport for the last 16 years has been removed (March 2007) by British Airways and shipped to Brooklands. The move, which will save the airline the £1.5m annual advertising rent for the key advertising site follows the retirement of the plane in 2003.
It is estimated that over 400 million people travelling by road to Terminals One, Two and Three will have seen the model over the 16 years it was on display. The Brooklands Museum already has one of the retired full-size Concordes on site.
Emirates Airways has signed a six-year deal for the site and will replace the Concorde model with an Airbus A380 Superjumbo.
The track's Byfleet banking continues to deteriorate and local residents are hoping sponsorship may save the remaining historic track. The banking, which is opposite Marks £ Spencer and Tesco superstores between Byfleet and Weybridge, was further damaged by some repair work reportedly carried out incorrectly by an electricity utilities company after a power installation in the area. The track is a scheduled monument and English Heritage is demanding that the repair be put right, replacing rubble infill with a special concrete formula that is required for the Edwardian track. A further complication is that ownership if this part of the track is currently (2007) unclear. Brooklands Museum, which owns much of the site, has said that it does not have ownership or responsibility for this section.
A local resident has suggested that local businesses could sponsor the track to keep it from totally disintegrating.
WWII Bomber Crew Reunited
The world's last remaining Wellington Bomber aircraft that saw active service has been restored at the Brooklands Museum, and surviving members of the crew were reunited at a ceremony at the museum in September 2007.
The aircraft, which had been ditched by the crew when it had experienced engine trouble in 1940 whilst flying over Loch Ness in Scotland, had been discovered by a team searching for the Loch Ness monster. The plane was well preserved by the fresh water of the loch with restorers at the museum labouring over a 15 year period to bring her back to her original glory. The staff involved have been presented with an award by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers for their restorative work.
Of the 11,000 Wellingtons built to aid in Britain's wartime efforts only two have been recovered and restored. The other, which was found buried 4ft (1.2m) beneath the sands of a beach in the Western Isles, is at RAF Hendon.
1940 Air Raid
A successful raid by 14 Messerschmitt Me 110s on the Vickers and Hawkers factories at Brooklands on September 4th 1940 marked the start of an offensive by the Luftwaffe on aircraft manufacturing facilities in England. At the time Vickers were building Wellington bombers and Hawkers their Hurricane fighters.
The daylight raid resulted in the deaths of 83 people and injury to a further 419, with the high casualties caused by a lack of warning and the fact that employees at both factories were either sitting outside on their break or were waiting to clock-on for their afternoon shift. One of the bombs had crashed through a stairwell landing on top of a press in the machine-shop alongside the time clock the workers were using. One of the site's air raid shelters also suffered a direct hit. Such was the lack of anticipation that none of the anti aircraft guns at the airfield had opened fire before the bombs had fallen.
This account by Marjorie Moran, a 14-year-old worker at the Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory, gives graphic detail about the attack.
Nine-year-old Jim Burrell was at school two miles away:
After the raid two Messerschmitt Me110s were downed by Hurricanes, with one crashing at Green Dene in Horsley and the other near Ockham. Three Luftwaffe airmen from these aircraft lost their lives.
Local paper The Surrey Times reported the raid in their 6th September edition under the headline 'Villagers see air battle - wounded pilot taken to doctor's surgery' but for security reasons were unable to name the location:
Two days later barrage balloons were installed, which along with more alert gun crews managed the same day to drive off a new bombing run with few casualties and little damage. Buildings at the airfield had some time previously been camouflaged and the distinctive race track disguised by netting, but the site was in reality difficult to hide given its high profile and the distinctive triangulation of the adjacent railway junction.
The Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge and the museum at Brooklands both have displays on the raid.
A huge underground air raid shelter was built by at Brooklands to offer protection to the Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory workers.
The shelter was tunnelled into the side of a disused sandstone quarry near to one of the factories and provided a gas-tight retreat in case of attack. Seventeen tunnels dug in parallel, each with their own entrance fronted by an airlock, gave access to 180 foot (55m) long bomb-proof rooms. The facility is still preserved today but does not have public access being located on private land.
Plan of Brooklands Air Raid Shelter
Additional smaller air raid shelters have been preserved on land owned by the Brooklands Museum together with a pill box and an anti-aircraft gun tower.
© Wey River 2005 - 2012