22 July - 5 August 1911
Thanks to John
Worsley for many images on this page
following Louis Paulhan's success
in the London to Manchester competition, the
London Daily Mail announced a second £10,000 aviation prize.
This would be awarded to the flyer who could complete a 1,010 miles (1,625
km) circuit in the quickest time. The route would take the competitors
from London north to Edinburgh, then west to Glasgow, south down to Bristol
and finally back to London again [map]. The 'Circuit
of Britain' as it was called would be a huge test for both pilots and machines.
The competition was scheduled for the summer of 1911 - a year when air
races were held for the first time all over Europe. Thirty competitors
registered with the Royal Aero Club to enter.
Postcard depicting (clockwise from top left ) Graham Gilmour, James Radley, Andre Beaumont (Lt. Conneau), Robert Loraine, G. W. Hamel, Maurice Tabuteau, S. F. Cody, Mr O. C. Morison, James Valentine, Pierre Prier, C. T. Weyman and Jules Vedrines
The rules of the race required the course to be completed in 24 hours' flying time. All competing machines were required to carry ten official 'marks' on important components like tail, wings and engine components. Up to six of these parts could be replaced during the race, but at least four had to be in place when the finishing line was crossed. This meant that the machine that finished had to be substantially the same as the one that started. Repairs were allowed, but a complete re-build was not.
Cody with strip-map
competitors were issued with a 22 ft. long strip-map of the route, which
could be unwound on rollers as the race went on. This was one of the first
ever aeronautical charts, and had been designed by Claude
Grahame-White and Alexander Cross. It showed the country on either
side of the route to a depth of seven miles, compass headings for each
leg, spot heights, and a cross-section of the terrain.
The large field of of 30 was soon being reduced. Nine competitors dropped out before the start for various reasons. These were: Brindejonc des Moulinais who was hospitalized after a crash in France; Radley, Tabuteau, Morison and Loraine who were not ready in time; Fenwick who crashed his Handley Page the day before the start; Kemp and Prier who crashed on the morning of the start; and Gilmour whose licence was suspended by the Royal Aero Club for dangerous flying over the Henley Regatta two weeks before. This was just the start of a weeding-out process that would continue over the next two weeks, as the competitors attempted to complete the arduous 1,000 mile course.
Stage One: Brooklands to Hendon
The first stage was more a spectator event than a serious test of endurance. It involved only a flight of some 20 miles (32 km) from Brooklands race track and aerodrome in Surrey to Hendon Aerodrome in north London. It would allow the public to see the entrants close up and build interest in the stages to come. But although the course was not demanding the weather certainly was! Saturday 22 July 1911 saw the heatwave which had been roasting the country reach its peak. At nearby Epsom, a temperature of 36C (96.8F) was recorded - a national record which would not be broken until July 2006. No doubt spectators were glad of the fresh breeze that sprung up from the South, but it would give the less experienced racers even more difficulty as they tried to pilot their light-weight machines through the treacherous swirling, superheated air.
A crowd of several thousands, which included Lord Northcliffe, the Maharaja of Gwalior and Prince Henry of Prussia among the dignitaries, gathered at Brooklands to see the fliers off at the scheduled start time of 3 o'clock. However, due to the conditions, which had already caused several accidents on the aerodrome, the race officials decided to put back the start by one hour to 4 p.m. when the air might be smoother.
Conneau's account of his race taken from his 1912 book "My Three Great Races."
competitors were to depart in order of their race number (see above) at
four minute intervals, and so the pilot calling himself "André Beaumont"
(in reality Lieutenant Jean Conneau
of the French Navy) was under starter's orders first. Swathed in a long
woollen scarf he sat in his Blériot
XI on the north side of the aerodrome facing into wind and eager
to be away. Beaumont was one of the favourites to win the race as he had
already taken part in several European races with considerable success.
The conditions gave this hugely experienced pilot no problems as he tore
across the grass in a cloud of dust and fumes, climbed straight ahead and
then banked round to disappear northwards.
Next off was the Englishman Astley, and then, owing to the gaps in the running order before him, came Lieutenant Porte of the Royal Navy. He was flying a new Blackburn monoplane, on which he had little experience. About 50 feet (15 m.) up, his right wing tilted up to vertical and he plunged back to earth wrecking his machine in the ensuing crash. A relieved cheer rose from the crowd when Porte walked away from the smash unhurt. Another withdrawal from the race occurred when Gordon-England's Gnôme powered Bristol Type T refused to get off the ground owing to engine trouble.
A popular character with the crowd was Samuel Cody, an Anglicized American who had been retained by the British Army to develop an aeroplane for them. He brought his creation, a massive heavy biplane named the Cathedral, to the race and, as usual, endeared himself to all with his colourful 'wild-west' personality, so at odds with his employment by the British 'Establishment'. The Cathedral lumbered into the air and headed north at low altitude after Pixton's Bristol.
Another popular entrant was the young American, Charles Weymann, who was forced to return to Brooklands a few moments after taking off in his Nieuport because his map had come loose. He had to wait half an hour while the other entrants got away before he could rejoin the race, but he was undaunted by the delay, saying cheerfully that he would just have to make it up later.
After Lt. Porte's mishap, a number of monoplane pilots decided to voluntarily lose 'official time' in order to wait until the air over the aerodrome became calmer before taking off. Unfortunately, it did Jenkins no good. His Blackburn was as tricky to control as Porte's and he flipped upside down at 20 feet (7 m.) before spectacularly crashing in. Again, the pilot was happily able to walk away from the wreck. B. C. Hucks was another late starter and the Dutchman, Wijnmalen, decided not to start at all for personal reasons.
Lieutenant Bier and his companion Viktor Klobucar, from Austro-Hungary, got away last of all in their large Etrich monoplane; they had had to return to the aerodrome once already to correct a propellor problem which had only become apparent in flight.
At Hendon, an even
larger crowd of about 40,000 was gathered to see the fliers land, with
thousands more watching from outside the aerodrome. First to appear out
of the heat haze to the south was Beaumont.
Wasting no time at all, he cut his engine and came straight into land.
On the ground, an official car whisked him away to the time-keeper's tent
where his record book was written up. Whilst all eyes were still on Beaumont
the stewards announced through megaphones that Astley was now approaching
the field. The entrants then began to appear regularly until Lt. Cammell
of the Royal Engineers failed to appear as expected. However, Cody,
who seemed suddenly to appear out of nowhere (having flown the whole way
at low altitude), reported that he had spotted him on the ground at Hounslow
Heath. Cammell eventually arrived three hours later after he had fixed
a broken valve on his engine. Only seventeen entrants had successfully
completed the first stage of the race and the order was now as follows:-
Beaumont ready to leave Hendon
Two: Hendon to Edinburgh
Already, after the first day's racing, the field had been seriously thinned out. This process would only be accelerated as the remaining competitors attempted the first long distance stage - from Hendon, on the edge of London, to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland. The total distance was 343 miles (552 km). There were two compulsory stops on the way - one at Harrogate in North Yorkshire, 182 miles (293 km) from Hendon, and the other at Newcastle another 68 miles (109 km) further on. At these "control towns" the fliers could re-fuel, rest and have their machines checked by the race officials.
Sunday was a day of rest for the competitors and Stage Two started on schedule at dawn (4 a.m.) on the morning of Monday 24 July. The pilots were to take off in order of their times over the previous stage. Thus Beaumont and Jules Védrines began on the start line together, as Védrines was to be given a fifteen second head start over his rival to take account of his faster performance over Stage One. In the event, though, there was some mix up between the stewards and the mechanics holding the planes back and it was Beaumont who was given the head start by mistake! A furious Védrines set off in his wake determined to put that right.
The competitors who followed him were also plagued by bad luck or mechanical difficulties. Hamel, Valentine, Astley, Cody, and Hucks were among the minority to get away cleanly without picking up extra time.
The Grantham Journal reports the landing of Pixton, de Montalent, Hamel and Pizey at Melton Mowbray
Warning: contains race result in first paragraph! Come back later if you don't want to know yet.
(Via John McQuaid)
the air the pilots discovered that a thick blanket of early morning fog
obscured the ground north from the edge of the Chiltern Hills almost as far as Harrogate.
Subsequently, I fly over some low hills and then, without warning, the earth disappears from my view: I pass into the dense cotton wool of morning fog. I am forced to make a manoeuvre which is essential in this sort of situation. It is dangerous from the point of view of flying, but certain with regard to direction. I glide down to just 30 metres above the ground, where at last I am able to pick up contours and some landmarks. Alas, the blanket of fog descends ever lower! So low and so thick that I become unable to make out the white ribbon of the road. Forced to climb back up straight away, I resign myself to practising aerial navigation by means of compass, watch and an estimation of my speed. (Beaumont)
Beaumont could employ his naval skills to navigate by 'dead reckoning' but most of the other competitors had to manage as best they could with the few landmarks that could be glimpsed through the fog. Smoke rising from large towns, staining the fog black, also provided Beaumont with an unusual clue to position: A strange phenomenon helps me find my way. Great plumes of smoke appear, piercing the fog bank below me and blooming out over the clear, sunlit surface. Evidently, there are the chimneys of some factory below, of an industrial town. My map provides me with its name.
As the sun warmed the countryside the fog dispersed between 6 - 7 am. Those pilots who did not have long-range tanks headed for Melton Mowbray where the Bristol Aeroplane Company had set up a petrol dump on a local polo pitch. Huge crowds of spectators greeted Pizey, Pixton and de Montalent as they landed there to refuel. Unfortunately Pizey damaged his machine when it collided with the board marking the polo touchline after a brief engine test. Meanwhile Gustav Hamel also made an unplanned stop just to the north of Melton Mowbray suffering from engine trouble. After motoring over to the polo field and being given a replacement inlet valve he returned with Collyns Pizey to make repairs. Assisted by this generous help from the rival Bristol team Hamel took off again from what he described to the Grantham Journal as a tiny "two foot field" and set course again for Harrogate.
At Harrogate another huge crowd was present to see the racers pass through on their way to Scotland. First to arrive was Védrines, at 7:03 a.m., who had succeeded in overtaking Beaumont and building up a lead of some 4 minutes over his rival. He was averaging a speed of 61 mph (98 kph). As Valentine came into view half an hour later, Védrines took off again for the next control at Newcastle. Beaumont was unable to make up the difference on this next leg and so Védrines arrived first again at Gosforth Park, on the edge of the city, to wild applause at 8:45 a.m. Beaumont was still not far behind. The morning was turning into another fine summer's day with blue sky and no wind so the two Frenchmen pushed on after another break of just half an hour to take full advantage of the conditions. The only other pilot to have nearly kept up with the cracking pace set by Védrines and Beaumont was James Valentine. At Harrogate he had been about half an hour behind the leaders and at Newcastle that gap widened as the exhausted Valentine became lost two miles from the control point in the moors around Newcastle. When he finally did arrive, Valentine slept soundly for three hours before going any further.
The final leg of Stage Two took the pilots across the Scottish border country. Here the combination of hilly terrain and deteriorating weather gave them some difficulty, and Beaumont for was forced down to 300 ft. (100 m.) in order to stay on course and to avoid rain drops which hit his face like "grains of salt." Afterwards he wryly noted, "I do not advise any tourist to sample the charms of the Cheviot’s Hills by aeroplane."
The designated landing
ground at Edinburgh was the Redford Cavalry Barracks at Colinton on the
south of the city. Here the crowd was considerably smaller (perhaps owing
to the steep one shilling admission charge) and the organization not quite
so efficient. A handful of officials and policemen, aided by three Boy
Scouts, struggled in vain to keep the spectators and journalists from mobbing
Védrines when he touched down at 11 a.m. For many people his
was the first aeroplane they had ever seen. Beaumont arrived 20 minutes
later and, after an interval of several hours (on account of his nap),
Valentine finally appeared, heading straight for the smoke of the marker
fire which had been set up to guide pilots in. He cut his engine and glided
in for a perfect landing on the large white cross in the centre of the
field. Although it was late in the afternoon Valentine was still in contention
because it was time between controls that determined the race positions,
not total time taken. The three pilots who had completed Stage Two in one
day had the following times:
Of the other pilots
who had not been able to match this pace, two, Compton-Paterson and Pixton
were out of the race. Compton-Paterson had been unable to start from Hendon,
while Pixton had seriously damaged his Bristol in a bad landing
at Spofforth, six miles short of Harrogate. Fortunately he only sustained
minor injuries. The positions of the rest of the field at the end of 24
The difference between the experienced Frenchmen and the rest could not have been clearer. Thanks to taking part in European races, Beaumont and Védrines had the stamina, skill and attention to detail to cover hundreds of miles in a few hours. By contrast the majority of other competitors struggled to cope with mechanical failures, difficult weather, or just sheer fatigue. It was a pattern that that would become more pronounced the following day as the competition resolved into a two horse race.
Tuesday 25 July 1911 dawned unsettled with a strong westerly wind, which promised that the Third Stage of 383 miles (613 km) from Edinburgh to Bristol, in south west England, would prove more difficult still. There were four Controls on the way, at Stirling, Glasgow, Carlisle and Manchester. The weather persuaded Valentine to wait for calmer conditions before he followed Beaumont and Védrines to Stirling. But the two Frenchman left at the crack of dawn, shortly after 3 a.m., watched by hundreds of hardy spectators. Beaumont had had no sleep at all the previous night. He arrived at the first Control in the centre of Kings Park, Stirling, at 3:56. Védrines was not far behind. The Frenchmen rested for some hours at Stirling, waiting for the wind to abate, but both had departed for the next Control at Glasgow before Valentine took off from Edinburgh at 7:40 a.m.
Control was situated on Paisley racecourse, and by 8:10 a.m., when Beaumont
arrived, there were 20,000 cheering people there to greet him. It had now
started to drizzle and Beaumont complained that he had had so much rain
on his goggles that he had not noticed crossing the River Clyde. When Védrines'
monoplane appeared in the distance he appeared lost and a large bonfire
was lit to attract his attention - to no avail. He only found the racecourse
some 50 minutes later - wasting valuable time.
Beaumont and Védrines pressed on South to Carlisle after about an hour each to refuel and rest. Meanwhile, James Valentine had reached Stirling but was forced to land with engine trouble on his way to Paisley. His Deperdussin's propeller was smashed in a bad landing near Falkirk. A replacement was sent out to him, but he did not finally reach Paisley until 8:16 that evening.
Beaumont leaves Carlisle
a difficult flight over the Scottish Borders in wind and rain, Beaumont
reached Carlisle safely at 11:16 a.m., where he snatched a few minutes
sleep. Védrines arrived at 11:58 also suffering from fatigue: on
climbing from the cockpit, he collapsed on the grass beside his Morane-Borel.
Nevertheless, both pilots wanted to reach Bristol before nightfall and
drove themselves on. After a brief rest Beaumont disappeared South over
the hills of the Lake District, while Védrines elected to take the
longer but less turbulent route down the coast to Morecombe Bay.
Soon after leaving Carlisle, Beaumont noticed that his engine was not developing full power. Some of the cylinders were failing to fire. Near Langdale Fell he had a worrying moment when the engine cut-out altogether for several seconds. Then, when he was unable to climb above 2,500 ft. (800 m.) to clear rising ground near Settle, in North Yorkshire, a decision was forced upon him. He had to land to make repairs. Beaumont selected a promising field and landed safely. With the assistance of the locals, spark plugs were checked, fresh petrol obtained and telegrams dispatched to summon mechanics from Manchester. However, Beaumont evidently decided the mechanics were unnecessary and took off again for the Manchester Control, at Stafford Park,after 1 hour, 45 minutes on the ground.
Beaumont arrived at 4:47 p.m., where he was delighted to learn that Védrines had lost this golden opportunity to take the lead. Beaumont made hurried repairs to his engine, with the help of the one mechanic who had not set out for Settle, and departed after a quick nap. (Due to the rules of the contest, he could not simply change engines but had to persevere with the one which had started.) Védrines had in fact become lost near Liverpool and did not land at Manchester until 5:20, having flown via St. Helens, 20 miles (35 km) to the South West.
Worse luck was to follow for Védrines at Bristol. Beaumont arrived at the landing ground, a large field near Filton, at 8:37 that evening after another flight plagued by engine trouble. He was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd and by Sir George White, the chairman of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Védrines followed only 20 minutes behind. However, he mistook the nearby premises of the Bristol Aeroplane Co. for the official landing ground, and only arrived breathlessly at the correct venue some minutes later by taxi! The two aerodromes were only half a mile apart. Védrines was distraught when he saw Beaumont's machine already there. The consequences of his mistake were all the more serious as he had broken a bracing wire on landing. By the time this had been repaired, and acetylene lamps had been set up to light his way, it was 10:10 p.m. before Védrines' wheels finally touched the correct field and his 'official time' stopped running.
had lost the race - unless Beaumont slipped up on the final major stage
With an unbridgeable
gap opening up between the leaders and the rest of the field, Weymann,
Audemars, Pizey, Pixton and Blanchet
officially announced their retirement from the race. The position of the
other competitors at nighfall on 25 July was:
The final major stage of the race was between Bristol and Brighton, via compulsory stops at Exeter and Salisbury Plain, covering a total of 224 miles (358 km). Beaumont and Védrines left Bristol just before 5 a.m. within a few minutes of each other and flew South in tandem, following the Great Western Railway line until just north of Exeter. At Exeter they were still neck and neck, with Védrines beating Beaumont to the touch down by just two minutes. Twelve thousand people were present even at 6 o' clock in the morning to witness the duel between the two rivals.
The race won
conditions were better than on the previous day, and the fliers pushed
on to the Salisbury Plain Control, reaching Larkhill outside Salisbury,
at 8:10 (Védrines) and 8:32 (Beaumont). There the crowd was largely
made up of soldiers from the nearby Army camps, and two military Bristol
aeroplanes escorted Védrines down to the ground. While the airmen
were resting they were visited by Major-General Sir Henry Rawlinson, and
Beaumont was handed back his 'lucky' cap, which had been stolen by a souvenir-hunter
at Brooklands on Saturday.
From Salisbury, Beaumont headed straight for the English Channel and then followed the coast to Brighton. The Control was situated at Shoreham Aerodrome (run by the appropriately named Mr A. Wingfield). On the way, both competitors ran into heavy rain showers, soaking their maps. However, nothing could dampen Beaumont's spirits. When he landed, he learnt that Védrines had only made up seven minutes over Stage Four. Barring exceptionally bad luck over the final 40 miles (64 km) to Brooklands, Beaumont would win the race and the £10,000 prize. Védrines wearily collpased onto a camp bed to sleep. Beaumont was too excited to rest. While his machine was serviced, he enjoyed a massage to restore the circulation in his arms and arranged for recovery vehicles to be posted along the route to Brooklands.
After lunch, at 1:20, Beaumont took to the air again on the final short leg back to Brooklands, where he had started the race four days earlier. The route lay over the South Downs, across the Weald, and then over the North Downs to the unmistakable white racing track. Compared to the marathon stages he had already completed, it was an easy step for a pilot with the experience of Beaumont. Sure enough, at 2:08 p.m. on Wednesday 26 July 1911, Beaumont's wheels touched the Brooklands grass once more. He had won the Daily Mail 'Circuit of Britain'.
Beaumont was chaired to the Blériot sheds, where he was handed a glass of champagne and congratulated by his mechanics and Lord Northcliffe. He then made a short speech of thanks in English:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, - It is the first time I have been on a little travel through England, the first time I have made this travel through the air. I am very glad to say to you now that I have been received everywhere with the greatest sympathy and friendship because I am French. (Cheers). I am very glad to remark once more that it is a proof of the unalterable friendship between England and France. (Cheers). Well, now, I must - how do you say it? (suggestions from the crowd) - thank you for the sympathy, friendship and welcome you have make to me here. (Loud cheers). As reported by The Times, 27 July 1911
arrived to claim second place at 3:18, very tired and somewhat irritated.
However, he mellowed somewhat when Lord Northcliffe announced a £200
consolation prize for the runner up. Claude
Grahame-White also announced his intention to hold a 'benefit' flying
display to honour Védrines as soon as possible. The two rivals'
overall official times were:
On 27 July Beaumont was invited to meet the King at Buckingham Palace to discuss the race (the conversation took place in French), and the next day he was officially presented with his prize at a Daily Mail luncheon at the Savoy Hotel. Present were Lt. Bier, Herr Etrich, Compton-Paterson, Gordon-England, de Montalent and Astley, just arrived form the race. On 29 July, Beaumont flew with Védrines in the air display organised by Grahame-White at Hendon to honour his rival. The event succeeded in raising £800 for Védrines, who amused the crowd by wearing a dinner jacket beneath his overalls in reference to the dinner to be held that evening at the Crystal Palace.
With the main prize
now won, most competitors announced their retirement from the race. However,
there were still a number of minor prizes (such as 100 guineas offered
by the Brighton Hoteliers' Association for the first British pilot to reach
their town) and a sense of sportsmanship to keep others going. At nightfall
on 26 July, those pilots still officially in the race for third place were
Valentine at Bristol
|However, in the following days all except Valentine and Cody dropped out of the competition, and their progress was made painfully slow by poor weather. Valentine claimed the 100 guinea prize by reaching Brighton on 3 August (while Cody was making repairs on Weston-super-Mare beach, near Bristol) and finally reached Brooklands the following evening. He had been forced to land at Horsham in Sussex with a broken wire, and had motored to Brooklands for a replacement before returning to his Deperdussin and completing the Stage by air. Cody and his Cathedral doggedly completed the course on 5 August. It had taken him two weeks, but it was more than most other competitors had achieved. Moreover, his was the only British aeroplane to finish.|
Cody showed great determination in completing the 1,000 mile course after the race was won
The 'Great Air Race' had captured the imagination of the British public and created an awareness in the country of what the aeroplane could do. Immense crowds waited patiently for hours for a glimpse of the competitors. Although the British aircraft industry had made great strides since 1910, it had also shown up the feebleness of British aviation. The Bristol Aeroplane Company, for instance, had entered four of its best machines and none had even reached Harrogate, the first real test of endurance. Cody, by making the best flight on a British machine, had shown that the industry was still not out of the age of the pilot-inventor.
As regards pilot skills, Beaumont had demonstrated that a scientific approach to navigation paid dividends. After leaving Hendon, he had flown blind for many miles above the fog by compass alone, confident in his naval training. It was because he made fewer navigation mistakes than Védrines, that he was ultimately able to beat him in a slower aircraft.
Above all, the Circuit
of Britain, like the Circuit of Europe and the Paris-Madrid Race of 1911,
had shown that aviation's serious potential was matched by its capacity
to entertain and amaze
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