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Britain By Car - A Motoring History


Created Date:

02 November 2022

Last Modified:

03 February 2024
Monmouth

Statue of Charles Rolls

A memorial to Charles Rolls - aviation and motoring pioneer, and co-founder of Rolls-Royce Ltd.

Location   
In front of the Shire Hall, Agincourt Square, Monmouth.

Date
1911 - present.

  • The statue of Charles Rolls, in front of the Shire Hall in Monmouth, © Tony Thorpe
    The statue of Charles Rolls, in front of the Shire Hall in Monmouth, © Tony Thorpe
  • Charles Rolls driving his 4 h.p Peugeot Voiturette, c1900, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
    Charles Rolls driving his 4 h.p Peugeot Voiturette, c1900, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
  • Charles Rolls driving a 20 h.p Rolls-Royce on his way to victory in the 1906 Isle of Man TT Race, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
    Charles Rolls driving a 20 h.p Rolls-Royce on his way to victory in the 1906 Isle of Man TT Race, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
  • Two-and-a-half years after Henry Royce produced his first car, Rolls-Royce could claim to be the Best (touring) Car in the World, source: The Daily Telegraph, 15th October 1906
    Two-and-a-half years after Henry Royce produced his first car, Rolls-Royce could claim to be the Best (touring) Car in the World, source: The Daily Telegraph, 15th October 1906
  • Frank Hedges Butler, with his daughter Vera, at the wheel of the 1899 6 h.p Panhard et Levassor in which they entered in the 1900 Thousand Mile Trial, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
    Frank Hedges Butler, with his daughter Vera, at the wheel of the 1899 6 h.p Panhard et Levassor in which they entered in the 1900 Thousand Mile Trial, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
  • From the Bystander, 3rd October 1906, the caption reads: “Motor champion takes the air: The Hon C.S Rolls, hot and dusty from his Tourist Trophy victory in the Isle of Man, ascends in ‘The Britannia’ for the Gordon Bennet Balloon Trophy
    From the Bystander, 3rd October 1906, the caption reads: “Motor champion takes the air: The Hon C.S Rolls, hot and dusty from his Tourist Trophy victory in the Isle of Man, ascends in ‘The Britannia’ for the Gordon Bennet Balloon Trophy
  • Wilbur Wright with his aeroplane in France, source: The Tatler, 19th July 1908
    Wilbur Wright with his aeroplane in France, source: The Tatler, 19th July 1908
  • Source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
    Source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
  • Rolls sold his first Wright biplane to the Army.  Here he is giving details of the plane to officers at Aldershot, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
    Rolls sold his first Wright biplane to the Army. Here he is giving details of the plane to officers at Aldershot, source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
  • Charles Rolls taking off from Dover at the start of his record-breaking flight, source: The Sketch, 8th June 1910
    Charles Rolls taking off from Dover at the start of his record-breaking flight, source: The Sketch, 8th June 1910
  • The Aviation Meeting at Bournemouth was part of a huge sporting and cultural festival celebrating the town’s centenary, source: The Bournemouth Graphic, 7th July 1910
    The Aviation Meeting at Bournemouth was part of a huge sporting and cultural festival celebrating the town’s centenary, source: The Bournemouth Graphic, 7th July 1910
  • Source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
    Source: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
  • Charles Rolls’ plane lay upside down on the airfield, source: The Sphere, 16th July 1910
    Charles Rolls’ plane lay upside down on the airfield, source: The Sphere, 16th July 1910
  • Announcing the closure of the Rolls-Royce showroom in London on the day of the Memorial Service for Charles Rolls, source: The Westminster Gazette, 15th July 1910
    Announcing the closure of the Rolls-Royce showroom in London on the day of the Memorial Service for Charles Rolls, source: The Westminster Gazette, 15th July 1910

Commentary
Although today probably best known for giving his name to one of the most famous motor car manufacturers in the world, Charles Rolls was, during his lifetime, possibly better known for his interest and achievements in aviation.

Born in London in 1877 into a wealthy aristocratic family, he grew up at the Hendre, the family estate situated about five miles north-west of Monmouth.

As a boy, he showed a keen interest in practical and technical matters and, after three years at Eton College, went on to Cambridge University where he obtained a degree in Mechanism and Applied Sciences.

Charles Rolls bought his first car, a Peugeot, in 1895, while still a student at Cambridge and, over the next ten years, became a leading figure in the movement working to gain public acceptance of the motor car.  A founding member of the Automobile Club and winner of a gold medal in the 1900 One Thousand Mile Trial, he wrote and spoke extensively about the virtues of motoring, and was responsible for the entry on automobiles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In 1902, he established his own business, C S Rolls & Co, importing and selling French-made cars.  In 1903, he drove one such French car, an 80 h.p Mors, on the Duke of Portland's estate at Welbeck to claim the kilometre world record of 27 seconds, averaging 82.8 mph.  He first met Henry Royce in Manchester in May 1904; and by December, the two men had reached an agreement to sell cars produced by Royce under the name of Rolls-Royce. 

Over the next two years, Charles Rolls set about publicising the excellence of Royce’s cars – particularly their smoothness and silent running.  Like many involved in the motor industry, both then and now, Rolls realised that success in motor sport often had a positive effect on sales.  With a well-established motoring pedigree of his own he entered and drove a 20 h.p Rolls-Royce in the 1905 and 1906 Tourist Trophy races on the Isle of Man.  Although Rolls was forced to retire in the early stages of the 1905 race, he had more success the following year, winning by a margin of more than 25 minutes. 

In March 1906, the partnership between Charles Rolls and Henry Royce was formally established with the creation of Rolls-Royce Ltd.  (The Rolls car sales business was dissolved at the end of the year.) 

Two months later, Charles Rolls added to the marque’s growing reputation by driving a 20 h.p Rolls-Royce from Monte Carlo to Boulogne in just over 28 hours, beating the record by more than three hours set a monthly earlier by Charles Jarrott, in a more powerful 40 h.p Crossley. 

By late 1906 – just two-and-a-half years after Henry Royce had produced his first car – the new company could claim to be producing “The Best Touring Car in the World”.  Rolls-Royce needed no introduction; the quality of their cars was taken for granted.

It is perhaps surprising, therefore, to learn that it was around this time that Charles Rolls’ began to show perhaps more interest in aviation than motoring.

In September 1898, shortly after leaving university, he had taken his first flight in a balloon, setting off from the Crystal Palace, just outside London.  Three years later, on 24th September 1901, he took a second flight from the same spot, in the company of Frank Butler, his daughter Vera, and Stanley Spencer, a professional balloonist, with whom Rolls had previously flown. 

Frank Hedges Butler, a wine merchant by trade, was also a keen motorist. He was the first treasurer of the new Automobile Club and, like Rolls, he and his daughter Vera had taken part in the Thousand Mile Trial.

It was on this flight, as they passed over Sidcup, that Vera Butler suggested forming a club for the sport and science of ballooning.  Everyone agreed that it was an excellent idea, and the Aero Club, as it became known, was established within a matter of days, initially as part of the Automobile Club.  It was given the “Royal” prefix in 1910, and became the forerunner of the Flying Corps, which, in 1918, merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force.  All the early pioneers in the British Army and Navy learned to fly on machines belonging to the Club.

Until around 1906, ballooning was largely a leisure activity for Rolls, making numerous ascents with his wealthy friends and fellow members of the Aero Club.  He was keen to share the freedom and enjoyment of the sport, and is credited with introducing the game of ‘Hare and Hounds’, the pursuit of a small balloon, either by a number of motor cars or, more difficult still, by several larger balloons.

In parallel with his wish to help develop British motor manufacturing, he also strove for the highest standards in British balloon making, largely to ensure that British companies could compete on equal terms with manufacturers from France and Germany. 

Having driven a Wolseley for the English team to eighth place in the 1905 Gordon Bennett Cup for motor cars, Charles Rolls then competed for Britain, a year later, in the first Gordon Bennett Cup for ballooning.  Although at one stage feared missing, he was placed third overall, and awarded the Aero Club de France’s Gold Medal, for the flight of the greatest duration.  He is probably the only person to have competed for the Gordon Bennett Cup in both a motor car and a balloon. 

After Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the first powered flight, late in 1903, Charles Rolls sought out the two brothers in 1906 during a sales trip to the States for Rolls-Royce.  (He had apparently already met them both ten years earlier.) On his return, Rolls joined members of the Aero Club in funding research into aircraft design at King’s College, London; although reportedly, they had relatively little return on their investment.

In May 1908, Wilbur Wright travelled to France at the start of a series of demonstration flights in Europe.  His base was Camp d’Auvours, a military facility, about six miles east of Le Mans, and it is here where Charles Rolls also spent much of the summer, studying the aircraft and waiting to see it in flight.  Such was his wish to become airborne that in September he placed an unconditional order from Wilbur Wright for an aeroplane that he had never seen fly.

However, this was soon to be remedied.  On the morning of Thursday 8th October 1908, whilst making some adjustments to his aeroplane, Wilbur Wright turned to Charles Rolls, saying in a quiet voice “I guess I’ll take you up this morning”.  Writing about his experience just over a week later, Rolls explained:
“The roar of the engine commenced, the starting weights were released, and off we went with a bound….Before reaching the end of the rail we had left it, and were in the air – we were now flying.”

Later he describes the movement of the aeroplane as it takes its first ‘corner’:
“At the will of the operator, it tilts up gracefully when taking a turn, and is therefore the equivalent of a motor-car tilting up the road in front of it, so that it is always ‘banked’ to just the correct angle to suit the speed at which the curve is taken, all liability to skid being thus avoided.  Those accustomed to motor racing on road or track will appreciate the effect of this”. (The American Register, and other publications, 17th October 1908.)

After a flight of several miles they began to descend, and landed close to their starting pointing, skimming along the ground like a toboggan.

Despite his wish to takes to the skies himself, Charles Rolls’ aircraft, a Short-Wright Flyer, made under licence on the Isle of Sheppey by the Short Bros, was not delivered until 1st October 1909.  In preparation, he made arrangements to learn how to fly, but when these fell through, he decided that he would have to teach himself – in a glider. 

This was duly purchased – again from Shorts, who had previously supplied Rolls with his balloons – and a hill rented, close to their factory.  For three days, commencing on the 31st July, Charles Rolls tried to launch his glider from various positions on the hill, but managed only a flight of five or six feet, followed by a heavy landing.  The fourth day proved to be much more fruitful, with several flights of over 100 feet.  After a three-week break, he resumed his training, but once again with mixed results. 

Rolls’ first powered flight was also a disappointment, ending in a crash, as he apparently tried to climb too quickly, causing the aircraft to stall on its tail.  However, within a month he became the first British aviator to fly more than half a mile and, by the end of the year, he was covering distances of up to 15 miles. 

In March 1910, Charles Rolls obtained his pilot’s certificate, the second to be awarded by the Aero Club, and within a month was the owner of three more aircraft: a Short-Wright, a French-built Wright, and a Sommer – for a total outlay of about a half a million pounds in today’s prices (2022).

A month later, Rolls resigned as Technical Managing Director of Rolls-Royce and, over the next three months, worked with huge enthusiasm to publicise the benefits and opportunities of flying, just as he had done years before with motoring and ballooning.  This, it has to be said, was not a particularly easy task, with widespread public cynicism over what was seen by many as a wildly dangerous and expensive pursuit. 

After competing at the aviation meeting in Nice in April 1910 where he stayed in the air for over an hour, covering a distance of 33 miles, Rolls brought his French-Wright to England where, on the evening of June 2nd, he flew from Dover to Sangatte and back again.  In doing this, he became the first Englishman to cross the Channel by aeroplane, and the first person in the world to make the double crossing by the same means.

Although Louis Blériot had achieved the first powered-flight across the Channel almost a year earlier, and at a greater average speed, Charles Rolls was nevertheless treated as a national hero.  He was awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Aero Club, King George V sent a telegram of congratulations to Rolls’ father, Lord Llangattock, and Madame Tussaud’s decided to commemorate the achievement with a waxwork of the aviator.

Towards the end of June, Rolls travelled north to the Midlands Aviation Meeting at Dunstall Park racecourse, on the northern outskirts of Wolverhampton.  Entry was open to British flyers only, but high winds made flying very difficult for much of the week, and only a few events could be run as planned.  However, they did manage to squeeze in a speed race over three laps late on the final day.  It was won by Charles Rolls who, in the more manoeuvrable French-Wright (the same aircraft he used in his double Channel crossing), was able to make tighter turns than his competitors.

The next event on the calendar was the Bournemouth International Aviation Meeting, part of a ten-day celebration marking the town’s centenary.  It was held on a site just over three miles east of the town, on land between Southbourne and Hengistbury Head.

The Meeting began on the 11th July, with a field of 20 aviators.  There appears to have been relatively little structure to the day, with competitors beginning with a trial flight and then putting in a time or distance for one of the three prizes on offer: for speed, distance, and altitude.  By the end of the day, Charles Rolls was not amongst the leaders, although he had managed a climb of almost 1,000 ft, followed by a display of slow flying, covering a lap of the circuit at an average speed of just 26 mph.

The day previously, as the planes were being set up, he had replaced the standard fixed tailplane on his aircraft with a movable rear plane, coupled to the front elevator.  This was not an official design, but Rolls believed that it would give the plane greater manoeuvrability.  Using it on the first day of the Meeting did not indicate that anything was amiss.

The first event on the following day, Tuesday 12th July, was the spot-landing contest where competitors aimed to land as close as they could to a one-hundred-yard diameter circle marked out in chalk in front of the main grandstand.  The first competitor overshot the target by about 25 yards, and the second had a forced landing some distance away.  The next attempt was made by Charles Rolls, who got down safely enough, but at some distance from the circle.

About an hour or so later, he made a second attempt, this time, taking a slightly different line, approaching the target into a strong wind and flying directly over the grandstand.  He was seen to approach the circle in a steep dive, but at a height of about 70 feet he appeared to move the elevator control over to put the aircraft into a steep climb.

There was a sharp crack, and the plane suddenly nose-dived, hitting the ground almost vertically.  Charles Rolls was thrown from his seat, as one account suggests, falling on to the top wing as it hit the ground.  It was first hoped that he might not be badly hurt, but it appears that he died almost instantly; the first British pilot to be killed in an air accident. The rest of the day's programme was immediately cancelled, although the Meeting did continue the following day.

An examination of Charles’ plane concluded that the sudden load on the moving rear tailplane had distorted the outriggers, causing the tail to break off from the rear of the aircraft.  It was also later suggested that the way in which the new tail had been fitted did not allow for the stresses that this new design engendered and that the accident probably wouldn’t have happened had the original fixed tailplane been in place. 

Charles Rolls’ funeral took place on Saturday, 16th July at St Cadoc’s Church, at Llangattock-Vibon-Avel, on the Rolls family estate.  Newspapers reported: “an immense crowd watched the passage of the cortege … the gathering included numerous representatives of automobile clubs and associations and several distinguished aviators”.   Shops and public houses in Monmouth remained closed, and almost 2,000 employees of Rolls-Royce attended a memorial service in Derby on the following day. 

The statue of Charles Rolls in Agincourt Square in Monmouth was financed by public subscription and unveiled on 19th October 1911.  Ironically, a month before the aviator’s death, the Mayor of Dover had suggested creating a memorial to commemorate the historic double cross-Channel flight.  This, designed by Kathleen Scott, the wife of the Antarctic explorer Capt. Robert Scott, was erected in 1912 and is now located in the Gateway Gardens, on Marine Parade, in Dover.

Other locations
Manchester, Lancashire

Further details   
• Rolls of Rolls-Royce, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Cassell, 1966.
•.CS Rolls, Pioneer Aviator, Gordon Bruce, Monmouth District Museum Service, 1978.
•.www.thefirstairraces.net: a website covering ‘the first golden age of air racing’.