Britain By Car - A Motoring History

Priory Steps

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The long-time home of the Hon Mrs Victor Bruce, pioneering motorist and aviator. 

Location
Priory Steps, 1 Newtown, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, BA15 1NQ. 

Date
1950 - 1985. 

Commentary
On Wednesday 8th October 1930, the three main stories on the front page the daily Sheffield Independent newspaper concerned the return to London of the bodies of those who had perished in the R101 airship disaster, news of a major speech by Sir Oswald Mosley, and the simple headline, “Mrs Victor Bruce Safe”. 

It probably says a great deal about Mrs Bruce’s fame at the time that no further explanation was required.  During the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Mary Bruce (or the Hon Mrs Victor Bruce, as she was generally known) was probably as famous in Britain as most politicians and film stars. 

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Mary Bruce was born Mildred Mary Petre on the 10th November 1895, probably at Furness House on the Coptfold Hall Estate, near Chelmsford in Essex.  Her mother, Jennie, was an American actress, originally from New Albany, Indiana, who had moved to London as a young woman where she met and married Lawrence Petre, the grandson of the Earl of Wicklow. 

Despite his aristocratic background, Lawrence was beset by financial worries and found it difficult to maintain the Coptfold Estate.  In 1906, the entire property was sold, and the family began a somewhat peripatetic existence, living at various addresses in London and the South East. 

Mary’s entry into the world of high speed motoring began at the age of 15, when she was entrusted with the care of her elder brother’s Matchless motorcycle and sidecar while he was away from home.  Louis asked his sister “to keep it well polished”, which Mary took as a licence to ride the machine, invariably as fast as possible, around the streets of Hounslow in west London. 

Of course, she had no motorcycle licence (a legal requirement in Britain since 1st January 1904) but, to her great delight, found that with some small modifications, she could take the Matchless up to fifty or even sixty miles per hour; three times the national speed limit.  Perhaps inevitably, Mary eventually fell foul of the law, and at the age of 15¾ was summoned to court, where she received a ban from riding the motorcycle until she reached 16, and an order to pay six shillings costs.  

By the time he returned home, Louis had apparently set his sights on a motor car, leaving Mary, much to her delight, with full use of the bike, which she was now legally entitled to ride.  In her autobiography, “Nine Lives Plus”, Mary describes how, for the year or so before the outbreak of war, she made full use of the freedom that this gave her, but not without mishap. 

As well as claiming to be the first girl to appear in a British court on a motoring charge, Mary also stated that she was the first girl to crash a motorcycle when, as she explained, she took her eye off the road at the sight of “a beautiful car parked outside the Metropole Hotel” in Brighton. 

With the outbreak of war in 1914, on her father’s instructions, the Matchless was sold.  He believed that it was inappropriate to ride for pleasure during such difficult times.  Mary seems to have agreed, stating in her typically optimistic fashion, “So instead of fretting … I decided I wanted a car.  From that moment I began saving hard.”  

In 1920, by her own account, Mary became the proud owner of an Enfield-Allday - with a little help from her parents – although some sources suggest the car was a Vauxhall 30/98.  Either way, she seems to have soon returned to her old habit of trying to complete each journey, at the maximum speed, in the minimum time, and once again coming to the attention of the local constabulary.  In a single week she reportedly appeared before Bow Street magistrates' on speeding charges, three days in a row. 

Other details of Mary’s life during the immediate post-War period generally go unrecorded.  However, it is known that shortly after the end of the War, she began a relationship with Stephen Easter, a landowner and developer who, many years later, became Chairman of Worthing Rural District Council.  In March 1920, their son, Anthony, was born.  Stephen was already married, and chose to remain with his wife.  However, he provided financially and maintained contact with his son, and during this early period, Mary and Anthony lived at 368, Finchley Road in north London. 

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According to a newspaper report of their marriage, Mary met the Honourable Victor Bruce, at the London Olympia Motor Show in October 1924, where she was working as a saleswoman on the AC stand.  Victor, the fourth son of Lord Aberdare, also worked for AC Cars, as a competition and test driver.  

In 1925, Victor Bruce, driving a six-cylinder, two-litre AC drophead coupé, was the first Briton to compete in the Monte Carlo Rally in which he came twelfth, out of 32 starters.  A year later, again in a similar AC, he became the first British driver to win the famous French event.  Mary travelled down to Monte Carlo to meet Victor at the finish, and shortly afterwards they were quietly married in the nearby town of Menton. 

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It was probably not long after this that Mary began her own competitive motoring career, soon establishing a reputation in her own right.  In the build-up to the two-day Skegness Motor Races at the beginning of June 1926, Mary’s name was mentioned alongside established stars such as Violette Cordery and Winifred Pink, being described as one of the few women “who has had the courage to race around the Brooklands saucer”. 

Entering as the Hon Mrs Victor Bruce, and also driving an AC two-litre, she won her first heat at Skegness in the 1,500-3,000 cc Sports Car class, but came a rather distant third in the final.  She had the same result with her second entry, the Lumley Cup (presented by the local hotel of the same name, which is still open today in 2021).  Her greatest success came in the final race, winning a Gold Medal in the Ladies’ Handicap. 

As far as motoring is concerned, the next major event in Mary’s life was persuading S.F Edge, the then owner of AC Cars, to lend her an AC with which to enter the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally.  As Victor had done the year before, Mary chose to start the rally at John o’Groats, and to carry three passengers: her husband Victor, A.W Pitt, an engineer from the AC works, and Robert Beare, the Daily Sketch motoring editor.

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With Mary at the wheel, the AC pulled away from the John o’Groats Hotel onto an icy road at 8.10am on Monday 17th January.  “Scotland,” Mary reported, “was almost entirely under snow,” and, with news of worsening weather further south, they decided to press on, taking just a few very short breaks.  The original plan had been for Mary and Victor to share the driving, and for Victor to take over when they reached Doncaster.  However, Mary was enjoying the challenge, and said that she would continue to drive, no doubt anticipating the favourable publicity that would be gained from driving the entire distance herself. 

They reached Folkestone on the south coast, almost 750 miles away, at 2.30pm the following afternoon and, after catching the four o’clock boat to Boulogne, continued their journey via Paris, Lyon and Avignon, reaching Monte Carlo on the morning of Thursday 20th January.  

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They had covered a distance of almost 1,700 miles in 70 hours and 20 minutes.  During this time, Mary had driven, and remained awake, for the entire journey.  As officials and reporters gathered round the car, she rested her head on the steering wheel, and fell fast asleep. 

The following day, Mary had recovered sufficiently to take part in the Rally’s regularity test, followed by the Mont de Mules hill climb, in which she won her class.  After the Concours d’Elegance that followed, Mary and Victor were placed sixth overall, and Mary became the first winner of the Coup des Dames, as the highest place female driver. 

In announcing her Monte Carlo entry a few weeks beforehand, Mary had told reporters that once the rally had finished, she and Victor would continue driving south “on a 5,000 mile tour through ten countries … finishing with 1,000 mile high-speed trial at Montlhéry.”  This was to be an official RAC foreign trial; a favoured way for manufacturers to demonstrate the reliability of their cars.    

After a break of less than ten days, Mary, Victor, an RAC observer, and W Harold Johnson, motoring editor of Country Life, began their journey south.  Their route through Italy was at times as beautiful as it was slow, with progress on some roads limited to walking pace.  After crossing to North Africa at Tunis, the roads west were fast and smooth – far better than those they were used to – until their route crossed a railway line, set well above the surface of the road.  Hitting this at right angles, at 40 mph came as something of a shock to both the passengers and the car – but damage was, amazingly, limited to two broken leaves on one of the front springs. 

After travelling through Algeria and Morocco, the party crossed back into Europe, via Gibraltar, to where a replacement front spring had been dispatched.

For some time Mary and Victor had struggled with a perpetual oil leak from the rear axle casing.  At Thiviers in France, about 300 miles north of the Spanish border, it became impossible to drive any further; the entire rear axle needed to be replaced.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, they were committed to begin their time trial at Montlhéry, near Paris, two days later.    

By good fortune, Mary and Victor had already arranged for A.W Pitt, the AC engineer who had accompanied them on the Monte Carlo Rally, to meet them at Montlhéry, prior to the start of their 1,000 mile trial.  “Could he,” Mary asked, “possibly come to Thiviers instead, and bring a rear axle with him?”  By mid-afternoon, the following day, the AC was back on the road, and the journey of just under 300 miles to the outskirts of Paris was completed on time. 

The track at Montlhéry Autodrome had been completed in 1924.  With steep ferro-concrete bankings linked by two short straights, it was designed to be the fastest track in the world.  Shorter than Brooklands, it had a smoother surface and, unlike the Surrey track, it was not encumbered by night-time driving restrictions.  During the inter-War period Montlhéry became a favourite setting for motor sport and trials. 

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The purpose of the test was demonstrate the AC’s reliability and, to this end, Mary began the trial almost as soon as they arrived at the track, circulating at a steady 50-60 mph.  From the reports that followed, written by Robert Beare who had once again joined the couple, Mary’s overwhelming feeling was one of monotony. 

With the trial completed in 20 hours, Mary and Victor made their way back to London and a reception at the Hotel Cecil in the Strand.  Meeting Mary at the entrance, S.F Edge paid tribute to her great skill and stamina, announcing that the two-litre AC now belonged to her with thanks for all that she had done for the company. 

With a book telling the story of her 9,000 mile journey already underway, Mary and Victor began to plan their next adventure.  On 9th July 1927, again in a two-litre AC, the couple left Britain once more.  This time, heading north aiming, as one newspaper reported, to “penetrate the Arctic by car” and “to go forth into the unknown where motor cars have never been”. 

Despite this pioneering spirit it is noticeable from interviews how casual and relaxed Mary Bruce appeared to be.  Accompanied by her husband and a reporter (once again, the Daily Sketch’s Robert Beare), Mary explained that she was taking neither camping equipment nor blankets - just two frocks, a hat and a very good picnic basket.  “Each passenger,” she added, “may have just one suitcase.” 

Reluctant to outline any kind of pre-arranged schedule, Mrs Bruce indicated that she hoped “to be back in Town within a month” to have her car prepared for the forthcoming Boulogne Motor Races. 

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Their intended destination was the Arctic Ocean, some 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle.  Travelling through Sweden up the western side of the Gulf of Bothnia, they crossed into Finland where the journey grew more difficult.  Often having to clear the boulder-strewn track by hand meant that progress was extraordinarily slow.  Having crossed the Arctic Circle, they were finally compelled to turn back after becoming stuck in a swamp for 24 hours and were, apparently, only just able to retrieve the car. 

Although they failed to reach their ultimate goal, the expedition was nevertheless regarded as a success.  In their AC 16-56 Acedes Saloon, they had averaged 210 miles a day and, reportedly, progressed 20 miles further north than any other motorist at the time.

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Mary’s next major motoring challenge was announced just over three months later, at the beginning of December 1927.  She and Victor would attempt to break 17 world and international class records by covering 15,000 miles in ten days and nights.    

Speed and endurance records, on land, sea, and in the air, were the focus of considerable attention in Britain during the twenties and thirties, and Mary’s early career certainly reflected this.

The location was once again Montlhéry and, as before, the couple chose a six-cylinder AC Acedes in which to make their attempt. 

Although AC provided the car and a small support team, all other costs had to be met by Mary and Victor.  This was one reason for making the record attempt towards the end of the year; the track and facilities were a lot cheaper to rent in December. 

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After a trial lap around the circuit earlier in the day, the ten-day record attempt began on the evening of Friday 9th December.  It was cold and foggy, and with the headlights removed from the car, the track was lit at four-yard intervals by kerosene lamps.  Despite the limited visibility, Mary, who took the first turn at the wheel, managed to average 80 mph during her first three-hour run. 

With three hours on, and three hours off (although they later changed to six-hour shifts), the couple managed to cover almost 4,000 miles in the first 48 hours, and – one-by-one – the records began to fall.  On the sixth day, the 10,000-mile record was broken. 

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Although the fog present at the start of the trial had disappeared, the weather progressively became colder.  As Victor took his turn at the wheel at the evening changeover on the seventh night, Mary shouted “Solid black ice!”  A few hours later, much to her surprise, she was woken by her husband at her bedside.  He was covered in oil and explained that, travelling at about 95 mph, he’d hit a bump on the track, spun the car on the ice, and turned over.  With Victor trapped underneath, it reportedly took the mechanics seven minutes to reach the AC, and then put it back on its wheels.   

Under the rules governing the record attempt, no work could be done on the car other than in the pits, and no one - apart from the drivers - was allowed to move the car onto the track.  Together, therefore, the couple pushed the AC the half-mile or so back to the pits, where the mechanics could go to work.  The windscreen had been shattered in the accident, but the most serious damage was to the car’s steering.  It took a total of 21 hours to recover the car and achieve some sort of repair, by which time their average speed had fallen to nearer 65 mph. 

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The stress, anxiety, and extreme cold were now beginning to take their toll and, probably wisely, the couple invited A.J Joyce from the AC factory team to join them as a third driver. 

On Monday 19th December 1927, the marathon was completed.  Despite the track being covered in snow for the final two hours, the three drivers had managed to raise their overall average speed to 68.1 mph; covering 15,000 miles in 220 hours, 32 minutes, and 54 seconds, beating the previous record by 48 hours. 

Less than a month later, Mary and Victor were back on the road, competing in the 1928 Monte Carlo Rally.  Departing off from Stockholm, they were once again driving an AC – although, this time, it was a four-cylinder, one-and-a-half-litre model. 

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They completed the 1,900-mile journey south within the prescribed time despite difficult driving conditions and stopping to help two injured motorists.  Winning the reliability trial, Mary and Victor were placed fifth overall. 

They continued their involvement in motor sport during the remainder of the year, and were one of two British entries in the Coupe des Alpes; a five-day reliability trial (more accurately described as a race) over 1,000 miles between Milan and Munich, although their AC was unfortunately eliminated after a collision with a car driven by a competition official.  In recompense, the couple were given an honorary award as a special prize.  

Earlier in the year, Mary had taken up motor-boat racing, at the Welsh Harp reservoir in Hendon, north-west London.  Shortly after returning to England from the trial, she set herself the challenge of recording the fastest time for crossing the English Channel.  On 8th September 1928, Mary crossed, and then re-crossed the Channel in her outboard motor-boat in one hour forty seven minutes – a record time for the two-way crossing. 

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At the beginning of 1929, Mary was once again competing in the Monte Carlo Rally but, this time in a six-cylinder Arrol-Aster.  The AC that she and Victor had planned to use was damaged in a car park just before they were due to set out, and an Arrol-Aster found as a replacement - possibly through the couple’s friendship with Malcolm Campbell who had hired Arrol-Aster to re-body ‘Bluebird’ in preparation for his attempt on the world land-speed record.   

This time, Mary and Victor chose to start their rally in Riga to gain extra marks for distance travelled.  But the deep snow that they encountered as they drove north through Germany, en route to the Latvian capital, made progress very difficult, and just short of the Polish border, they slid into a ditch.  With help from a local farmer, the Arrol-Aster was recovered and pulled behind two horses to the nearest railway station, from where it was taken to Berlin for repair.  It was from here that they eventually started the rally as the rules at the time allowed competitors unable to reach their scheduled starting point to start from the nearest town where a rally official could see them off.

Although now back on the road, there was a problem with the car’s electrical system, almost certainly caused by their accident.  Feeling that they couldn’t spare any time to deal with it, they sped south, but ran into further trouble, just short of Avignon, when the lights went out, and smoke appeared from beneath the bonnet.  Although they managed to extinguish the fire, Mary and Victor's rally was over. 

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Despite this setback, Mary’s competitive instincts remained as strong as ever, and later in 1929, she undertook her final major motoring challenge.  In 1907, Mary’s friend and patron, S F Edge, had attempted “to cover the greatest distance within twenty-four hours, which had ever been covered by man.”  Driving a six-cylinder Napier around the Brooklands Circuit, he had travelled almost 1,582 miles at an average speed of just under 66 mph.  The single-handed record stood until 1925, when it was finally beaten by Thomas Gillett, fittingly in an AC, who drove around the Montlhéry track averaging more than 82 mph. 

Mary’s initially hoped to be at the wheel of an AC for her own solo record attempt, but seems to have doubted whether the six-cylinder engine could provide the extra speed required.  Never one to give up, she immediately contacted Walter Bentley whose cars were at the peak of their long-distance racing success.  One car was available, a 4½-litre model, which had been entered for the forthcoming Le Mans 24-hour race in the middle of June.   Promising to return the car to Bentley by the seventh of the month, Mary probably had little more than a week for preparation. 

She booked the track at Montlhéry for two days, and found somewhere to stay nearby.  On the 5th June, she travelled alone to Paris, and arrived at the Autodrome the following morning where the car and a team of Bentley mechanics were waiting.   

Preparation for the record attempt remained minimal.  The first time Mary sat in the car, her feet couldn’t touch the pedals and she could barely see over the top of the dashboard.  One of the Bentley mechanics borrowed three cushions from the timekeeper’s hut, which at least enabled her to see where she was going.  The weather was extremely wet.  Wallace Hassan, Bentley’s chief engineer, suggested a 24-hour delay, which unsurprisingly Mary resisted.  “Don’t worry,” she said, “Last time I was here I drove on black ice.” 

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After one practice lap, on which she reached 105 mph, Mary began her record attempt circulating round the track every 57 seconds at about 107 mph.  Every three hours she stopped for fuel, water and tyre checks.  Her biggest enemy was tiredness and one small section of the track that was particularly bumpy, causing her a great deal of pain each time she crossed it. 

Although there was one moment when she nodded off for a fraction of second, touching the hoarding at the top of the banked track, her progress was remarkably consistent.  In an interview after the event she said that the smooth and regular running of the engine was “the greatest incentive to continued effort”.  For whole hours together, her lap speed did not vary by more the a fifth of a second.   

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Counted down by the mechanics over her last ten laps, Mary drew into the pits for the final time at midday on the 7th June.  She had covered 2,164 miles in 24 hours, at an average speed of 89.57 mph; the furthest distance ever travelled within the time by a single-handed driver. 

A few days later, in recognition of her achievement, Mary was invited by the Automobile Club d’Ouest, organisers of the forthcoming race at Le Mans, to drive round the ten-mile Sarthe circuit to formally close the course 24 hours before the race was due to start; a tradition normally undertaken by the winners of the previous year’s race.  She was also given Honorary Life Membership of the British Racing Drivers’ Club.  

Two months after her Montlhéry triumph, Mary broke the 24-hour long distance record on water, covering a total of 694 nautical miles, circulating backwards and forwards over a mile-and-a-half course on Southampton Water. 

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In January 1930, she entered her fourth Monte Carlo Rally, driving a Hillman Straight Eight, coming 21st from 114 entrants.  Later in the year, she competed in a number of events at Brooklands, together with the Bournemouth Rally, but by then, her focus had moved to the air.   

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In February 1931, after a four-month journey, Mary became the first woman to fly solo around the world; a remarkable adventure, and the subject of a book (The Bluebird’s Flight) in its own right.  After obtaining a commercial pilot’s licence, she established her own airline, Air Dispatch, in 1934, and is credited with introducing the first air hostess service on a British airline. 

During the Second World War, Air Dispatch undertook the repair and reconstruction of damaged RAF aircraft at Cardiff Airport.  However, when the airline industry in Britain was nationalised at the end of the War, Air Dispatch could not be returned to commercial service.  In response, the company began refurbishing and building buses – a vital task, given the state of the country’s dilapidated transport network.  Later renamed Bruce Coachworks, and managed by Mary’s son, Anthony, the company closed in December 1951. 

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By this time Mary had become a property developer, buying and renovating war-damaged housing in London.  In 1950, she bought Priory Steps in Bradford-on-Avon, converting seven weavers’ cottages into a single three-storey home.  Here she lived for the next 35 years, where at least one part of her former motoring life was retained – her two Rolls-Royce saloons.

In 1985, Mary left Priory Steps, to move closer to her son and his family in London.  She died on the 21st May 1990, at the age of 94.

Postscript: During the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Mary and Victor were at the height of their fame, they lived in Surrey at The Woodbines, 18 West End Lane, Esher.  Today (2021), Priory Steps, her home in Bradford-on-Avon, is a guesthouse with bed-and-breakfast and self-catering accommodation. 

With many thanks to Carey Chapman and Nancy Wilson for their help in the preparation of this article. 

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Further details   
• Queen of Speed, Nancy R Wilson, ELSP, 2012.
• A Passion for Speed, Paul Smiddy, The History Press, 2017
• Nine Lives Plus, The Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce, Pelham Books, 1977.
• Nine Thousand Miles in Eight Weeks, The Hon. Mrs Victor A Bruce, Heath Cranton Ltd, 1927.
• A Short History of Air Dispatch Ltd and Bruce Coach Works Ltd, Cardiff Transport Preservation Group, 2002.  


Priory Steps, 1 Newtown, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, BA15 1NQ.

The long-time home of the Hon Mrs Victor Bruce, pioneering motorist and aviator.