An Irishman's Diary
FEW INDIVIDUALS matched the action-packed career of John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, who made British aviation history on October 30th, 1909 by flying the first circular mile in an English-built plane on the Isle of Sheppey.
The Anglo-Irishman was the first holder of a British flying licence and he went on to become British minister for transport during the second World War. He raced toboggans on the Cresta Run until he was 75 and lapped a motor racing circuit at over 100 mph at the age of 79. When asked if he regretted having abandoned Cambridge classics for mechanics, he reiterated; “I always felt very privileged to have been one of the first to have been weaned on petrol and fed on nuts and bolts!”
Moore-Brabazon was a descendant of John Moore who in 1788 married Barbara the daughter of William Brabazon of Tara House in Co Meath.
Born in London in 1884, the future flier became interested in cars when he saw the 1,000 Miles Tour of Great Britain in 1900. When his Cambridge college friend, Charles Rolls, swapped his racing cycle for a car, Moore-Brabazon became his mechanic.
The pair contested the Dublin Speed Trials which supported the 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett Cup. After a second place at Phoenix Park, Rolls won the two final races in counties Cork and Kerry. The future Rolls-Royce founder had a parsimonious streak and the pair sometimes slept under their Mors car to save hotel money. Moore-Brabazon noted, “I could sleep, then as now, anywhere, but the droppings of oil and dirt from a racing car during the night do not improve one’s early morning appearance”.
The mechanic soon progressed to the driving seat. He won a silver cup at the Blackpool Speed Trials and led at Brooklands before his Minerva caught fire. His biggest successes were scored on the continent, where he was runner-up in the Coupe de Liederkerke and overcame 11 tyre changes to win the 1907 Belgian Circuit des Ardennes.
Moore-Brabazon saw motor racing as more than a sport. He wrote, “The crucible of competition quickly eliminated the weak and badly prepared machines and soon produced an increasingly effective all-purpose vehicle. It inevitably led to better roadholding, more effective suspension, improved electrical systems, brakes and carburetion, greater all-round reliability, and increased comfort and safety for drivers and passengers of ordinary cars”.
When another driver was killed in front of him during the 1908 French Grand Prix, Moore-Brabazon retired from motor racing. He followed Rolls into flying and, after several ascents in the first spherical balloon made in England, he progressed to powered flight. Despite a near-fatal crash, he quickly proved adept at flying the unwieldy box kites of the period. Early in 1909, on the Isle of Sheppey, he made aviation history when he achieved the first flight by an English-born pilot, before going on to win the prize for the first circular mile on October 30th.
Moore-Brabazon curtailed his flying the following year, when Charles Rolls was killed in an accident at Bournemouth. But his experience and technical intuition were put to good use in the first World War. He virtually invented the art of aerial photography and was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society for his achievements in camera design.
At the end of the war, Moore-Brabazon was elected a Conservative MP.
Five years later, Stanley Baldwin appointed him under-secretary to the minister of transport. Further promotion followed when Winston Churchill made him minister of transport during the second World War, when his planning abilities played a vital role in Battle of Britain success.
But political guile was not Moore-Brabazon’s forte. After some injudicious remarks about leaving Hitler and Stalin to destroy each other, he was relieved of his position. Though describing Churchill as “a man of many moods”, he remained good friends with the war leader who subsequently appointed him to the House of Lords. Accepting the honour, Moore-Brabazon replied; “To be made a Peer is a great privilege because we are still a very snobbish people!”
Lord Brabazon of Tara’s last contribution to flying was to encourage the 1949 construction of the largest airplane ever built in Britain. The giant Bristol Brabazon had a 70-metre wingspan and a double deck. Its engines, however, were not up to the task and, like Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, the underpowered plane was mothballed.
A keen sailor and golfer, Lord Brabazon of Tara was in 1952 elected Captain of the Royal and Ancient St Andrews. But he could never resist the lure of speed. He celebrated his 70th birthday by racing his toboggan at 60mph down the Cresta Run, where he had won the first Curzon Cup competition in 1927.
The Anglo-Irishman was asked once if he never felt fear. He confessed to having been terrified of the dark as a youth. He advised: “If you can train yourself not to worry, you will have done more for yourself than any doctor can do for you. Do not hide today’s sun behind tomorrow’s clouds”.
In the final year of his life, Lord Brabazon drove a Mercedes at 115 mph around a British racing circuit and also completed the annual London-Brighton Veteran Car Run. Far from being satisfied with such an exciting life, the fast-travelling peer believed that further adventures would follow in another world. Before he died in 1964 at the age of 80, he insisted, “I believe so sincerely in the continuity and individuality of the spirit that I put death as but a stepping-stone to more miracles in store for us”.