Books & Gear
Speed-addicted Mildred, RAF technology, and a prop cleaner
A Passion for Speed by Paul Smiddy www.thehistorypress.co.uk £14.99. Paperback, 207 pages, black and white illustrations
This reviewer had not heard of Mildred, the Honourable Mrs Victor Bruce, a fascinating and unconventional character who raced cars for many years and then, having learnt to fly, undertook a round-the-world flight in a Blackburn Bluebird!
A contemporary of better-known aviatrices such as Amelia Earheart, Amy Johnson, and Pauline Gower (of subsequent ATA fame), Mildred’s distant family history was somewhat chequered, the constant being a staunch Catholic faith. Her immediate family was no less exotic; her English aristocrat father went against his family’s wishes to marry her American actress mother. They subsequently parted and her mother later took to drink.
Mildred’s ‘passion for speed’ was ignited at age six by a Shetland pony that was wont to bolt, much to her delight, and later she borrowed her brother’s motorcycle. At 24 she gave birth to a son, following an affair with the wealthy older landlord of the family’s rented accommodation, but maternal obligations did not stop her buying her first car and speeding along local roads. In 1925 she met her husband, Victor, at the 19th Annual Motor Exhibition Motor Show at Olympia, London. With mechanical and engineering expertise from his military service in WWI, Victor was already a keen motor racer. After a low-key wedding, Mildred joined him at the wheel as they took part in endurance races across the UK and abroad, often with a journalist passenger to ensure publicity, something Mildred craved.
Mildred’s story of becoming a pilot is detailed in her own books but she claimed to have walked past a shop window displaying a Bluebird aircraft and asked the assistant if it could be flown around the world. On being assured it could, she went home and studied an atlas, starting to plot a route to include her mother’s American hometown, and then resolved to take flying lessons. It is apparent from this story and the following pages detailing her trip around the world (except for the Atlantic and Pacific, when she crated the aircraft and went by boat) that Mildred was not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story! In fact it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fantasy or exaggeration at the least. But despite only having forty hours in her logbook (her claim) prior to setting off, she did make it around the world – with a lot of help from ground parties and organisations along the way. In fact, with a little more experience, she might have known enough not to try, but – in this case – fortune favoured the brave, or perhaps the foolhardy, given some of the exploits she managed to get away with.
Tasting fame if not fortune, Mildred did not lack admirers along the way. She eventually left husband Victor and went into the aviation charter and repair business with her son and a new lover (who sadly died shortly before she was free to marry) and continued her love of fast cars.