“The greatest motor-racing hoax of all time took place at Brooklands and the novelist Barbara Cartland and a group of her friends very nearly pulled it off. As women drivers became more successful, some wildly exaggerated claims were made about them in the media. Some, like Victoria Worsley, complained that they were continually being accused of ‘flirting with death’ and ‘dicing with their lives’. Even the least glamorous of them were described as “ravishing”, or they were ‘dark-haired, blue eyed beauties’ and everything they said or did was blown up out of all proportions. Victoria told one interviewer, ‘Actually, we are a modest, unassuming group of women, who just like driving fast cars and want to get on quietly with the job of doing so. Most of us are highly embarrassed about all the fuss being made about us. Their popularity, however, was looked upon with a certain amount of envy by some women, who longed to be like them and were envious of their celebrity status.”
Victoria Worsley in MG
“That was why in 1931 a group of ten society women arranged to be filmed taking part in their own private race at Brooklands, but without actually putting themselves at any risk. Barbara Cartland planned the event following a remark a male guest had foolishly made at one of her house parties. She persuaded some of her friends to take part in the event to show off their driving skills and even suggested that the Society Ladies’ Private Handicap might become a regular event at Brooklands. Ten MGs had been borrowed for the occasion, which was filmed by British Movietone News. Princess Imeretinsky was to be announced as the winner with Lady de Clifford acting as her racing mechanic, and they were filmed crossing the finishing line a few feet ahead of the Hon. Mrs Joan Chetwynd, who it was claimed was heavily handicapped because she was the only driver taking part who had previously raced at Brooklands. Third place went to Miss Paddy Naismith, who claimed the distinction of having driven the prime minister on several occasions.”
“Barbara Cartland and her friends got the publicity they were seeking and their hour or two of glory, until Motor magazine in its issue of 1 December 1931 revealed what had really happened. According to the Motor report, when each competitor arrived at the track she was issued with some white overalls and asked to pose in front of a row of MG Midgets borrowed specially for the occasion.
The scene was then ‘shot’ several times by the newsreel cameramen and Barbara Cartland announced over the microphone that they were there to prove that women drivers were every bit as good as men. It was then decided that more still photographs should be taken of the competitors before they got into their MGs and drove off to the Railway Straight, where they were again filmed lining up on the starting grid. The handful of onlookers who happened to be there were rather puzzled that there didn’t seem to be any effort to handicap the cars if it was meant to be a proper women’s handicap, particularly as three of the MG’s, including the one driven by the Hon. Mrs Joan Chetwynd, were supercharged and at least one other was brand-new and one of the latest models.”
Mrs. Joan Chetwynd
“They were even more surprised when the starter’s flag fell and all the cars, with the exception of one, which stalled because its handbrake was still on, tore down the finishing straight and began cutting each other up in a most alarming fashion for the benefit of the cameras. Since a large section of the Members’ Banking was being repaired and there was barely enough room for one car to pass, even slowly, as soon as the cars reached that point they were forced to brake rather quickly. Princess Imeretinsky managed to get into a skid in doing so spun her MG completely round, giving her what she reported later to be ‘a delicious thrill’. Her passenger’s verdict when asked about the spin was that it was ‘too, too marvellous, my dear !’”
Dorothy, Lady De Clifford
“The first part of the filming being over, it was suggested that the race needed a close finish and so everyone returned to the Railway Straight, where they were restarted, and, with the cameras whirring away, shot across the finishing line bonnet to bonnet. Princes Imeretinsky was then hoisted onto the back of her car while the other drivers gathered round. A microphone was produced and she proclaimed to an imaginary crowd that she had ‘derived infinite satisfaction from winning the contest’.
The Motor’s report resulted in a spate of letters condemning the event.. Some blamed the Brooklands authorities for allowing it to take place, while others complained that it made women look foolish and was an insult to the genuine women racing drivers. One reader asked whether the ‘ so called society ladies’ had expressed shame over their silly Brooklands escapade.”
from John Bullock, Fast Women. The Drivers who Changed the Face of Motor Racing Robson Books ( 2002 )
There are still sources which dispute that this was a hoax, but, whatever the truth, the episode did not help the image of women racers of whom there were many and who had a keen following , not least among female sports fans such as Elvira.
Elvira had, of course, a more personal interest in this event as the “winner” of the race was her sister, Avril ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/elviras-little-sister/ ). Not only that, Princess Imeretinsky’s partner, Lady De Clifford, was Dorothy Meyrick, the daughter of “The Queen of The Night Clubs” and regular Holloway inmate, Kate Meyrick. I”m not sure if Elvira had much to do with the Meyrick clubs but she would have,at least, been an occasional visitor and was possibly acquainted with some of the daughters, all of whom seem to have married into “Society”.
Dorothy’s husband was a keen racing-driver and was the last person to be tried “by his Peers” in the House of Lords – after he had been involved in a head-on collision and the other motorist died. He was acquitted, but it rather ruined his public profile as the leading campaigner for the imposition of speed limits on the public highway. For more see http://everything2.com/title/Edward+Southwell+Russell%252C+26th+Baron+de+Clifford.
Kate Meyrick, daughters and friends, celebrate her release from Holloway
Brooklands, with its banked track was one of the iconic places of inter-war modernity. Women racing drivers who competed there epitomised everything associated with the changes in gender roles, actual and perceived, that is such a feature of the Bright Young Era. Here are a couple of Britis Pathe newsreels from the time. The Movietone film of the Barbara Cartland stunt is still in existence but does not appear to be on-line.
Brooklands Ladies Race 1931
Women Speed Queens 1932
Eve at the wheel
a good blog on the history of women racers is this one