Saturday, 11 March 2017

Hon Charles Stewart Rolls

In my fourth Edwardian Cosy Mystery, my heroine Flora, is taken ballooning by her father who introduces her to a fascinating young man who lived a fast and adventurous life which was to be cut short tragically soon.
Charles Stewart Rolls was an archetypal upper class young man whose name most people have heard of but about whom we know very little, and yet his name graces the radiators of some of the most exclusive cars in the world.

Born in 1877, the Hon Charles Stewart Rolls was an impressive 6ft 5ins tall, handsome and from a wealthy family, the third son of John Allan Rolls, 1st Baron Llangattock, an Army officer, Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire. Their country home was The Hendre, [Welsh for Winter Dwelling or main house] near Monmouth.

His eldest brother, John Maclean Rolls was destined to be the 2nd Baron Llangattock but died of wounds received at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The second son, Henry Allen Rolls, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) who was wounded in WWI and died in 1916. A daughter, Eleanor Georgiana Rolls married Sir John Edward Shelley, the sixth Baronet Shelley and died in 1961.

Fascinated with engines and electronics, he installed a dynamo at The Hendre while in his teens, and wired part of the house before entering Trinity College, Cambridge. At 18, Charles went to Paris, where, with his father's assistance he bought a 3 3/4 hp Peugeot Paris-Bordeaux Phaeton for £225 - the first ever car based in Cambridge and one of the most powerful available at the time. When he took the 140mile trip home to Monmouth in his new motor car, the townspeople waited two days and nights to catch a glimpse of him as he drove over Monnow Bridge - only the third car owned in Wales.
Charles left university in 1898 with a degree in Mechanism and Applied Science, earning the nicknames "Dirty Rolls" and "Petrolls" because of his love of messing with engines. He worked on his father’s  steam yacht ‘Santa Maria’, after which he obtained a third engineer's (marine) certificate. He worked at the London and North Western Railway at their main locomotive engineering workshops.

In 1896, he joined and a group of auto enthusiasts, and campaigned against the 4mph speed limit, helping it's increase to 12 mph. A founding member of the Automobile Club of Great Britain in 1897 where he served until his death, Rolls was an enthusiastic racing driver. His first race was in France in 1899, finishing fourth in his class, driving an 8hp Panhard and Levassor.

Despite the inaugural London to Brighton Run in November 1896 there were still few automotive vehicles on the roads of Britain, so in 1900, Lord Northcliffe organised a ‘Reliability Run' over 1,000 miles from London to Edinburgh and back. This was intended to show detractors of the ‘horseless-carriage’ that the internal combustion engine could replace horse power.

Run on bumpy, unmade roads with no signposts and in open cars whatever the weather, no windscreen, the drivers wore 'autocoats', hats and goggles. Charles drove his Panhard Levassor and won the gold medal for best car in any class. Frank Hedges Butler, wine merchant and 1st hon. Treasurer of the RAC, took part, accompanied by his daughter, Vera, who became Charles Roll’s girlfriend. In 1902, the pair were on a drive when they collided with a horse-drawn trap in traffic from the Barnet Fair.
That same year, Charles started one of the first car dealerships in Britain. With £6,600 of financial backing provided by his father, C.S. Rolls and Co imported high-class French Peugeot and Belgian Minerva cars which they sold  through their ‘showroom’ premises in Fulham, London.

In June 1902, Charles entered the  Paris-Vienna three-day race covering 990km - legendary as being one of the toughest because it included the Arlberg Pass, a 6000ft climb up a wagon road, crossed by drainage ditches; and a dangerous decent which burnt out brakes and caused more than a dozen accidents.

In February 1903 Rolls competed in the fateful Paris to Madrid town-to-town race which claimed the lives of thirty-four drivers and spectators. He held the unofficial land speed record in 1903 piloting his 80hp Mors, a French car which he imported and distributed, to nearly 83 mph along the course in the Duke of Portland’s Clipstone Park.

After a slow start, Rolls’ business was doing well and he opened a showroom in Brook Street, West London and wrote for ‘Car Illustrated’, owned by a friend.

In May 1903, Charles entered the 800 mile race from Paris to Madrid in May which was intended to be a triumph of speed but ended at Bordeaux in chaos and disaster. 
Despite starting the faster vehicles first, the disparity of speeds meant there was over-taking on the road. Due to a lack of rain, the first cars raised huge clouds of dust which hampered the vision of following drivers as well as the crowd, some of whom strayed onto the roads trying to get a better view of the oncoming cars and several were run down.

On 4 May 1904, Charles met Frederick Henry Royce at the Midland Hotel in Manchester to discuss selling Royce motor cars. Royce was fifteen years older and had worked hard all his life, unlike the wealthy Charles, though despite this they became friends. Royce wanted to build the best cars, Charles wanted to sell the best, and both wanted them to be British.

Legend has it that when Royce showed Charles his motor car, he climbed aboard and asked Royce to go ahead and start her up, Royce replied, “My dear fellow, she’s already running!”  Charles borrowed one of Royce’s cars for his return journey to London; where he announced he had:-“...found the greatest motor engineer in the world”.

Thus Rolls-Royce was born; the first cars offered to the public in December 1904, with Charles as Technical Director. 
In 1906 Rolls won the Tourist Trophy and also broke the Monte Carlo-to-London record. When the staff at the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby heard the news, they hoisted Henry Royce aloft in triumph. That same year, Rolls exhibited Rolls-Royce cars at the New York Motor Show and was introduced to the Wright Brothers.


Charles’ first ascent aboard a balloon, was on the ‘Wulfruna’  in 1896 on a sixteen mile flight from Crystal Palace to Epping Forest.

Charles Rolls and Vera Hedges Butler
In 1901, Vera Hedges Butler had arranged a trip for her father, Frank,but before they were due to set out, Vera’s Renault 4.5 caught fire and the trip was cancelled. Instead, Charles suggested a trip with their friend Stanley Spencer in Spencer’s balloon, ‘City of New York’. They took off from Crystal Palace and whilst sipping champagne over Sidcup, Kent, discussed starting an Aero Club along the lines of the Royal Automobile Club, but allowing women as equal members. They leased a clubhouse at 119 Piccadilly, which it retained until 1961 and in 1910 became the Royal Aero Club.

Every weekend, weather permitting, he and his friends, and his girlfriend, Vera, could be seen at The Hurlingham Club at Ranelagh, or the Crystal Palace to ascend in balloons.

The Club membership quickly grew to nearly three hundred, The Hon. Lady Shelley – Charles Roll’s sister, Eleanor, was a member as well as being a keen motorist. The club owned three balloons where trips were charged at two guineas each. Races, contests, and exhibitions of aeronautic subjects and machines were held in the Club grounds.

Charles’ friend, Leslie Bucknall, invented a sport where balloons were chased by motor cars; originally intended to show the military that dispatches could be moved more quickly by balloon.
 Charles made over 170 balloon ascents and in 1903 won the Gordon Bennett Gold Medal for the longest single flight time and held the record for the Paris to Berlin flight.

His interest turned from balloons to powered flight, and in April 1910, he purchased the French Wright with a Wright Bariquand engine - not Rolls-Royce powered because Royce was yet to design a Rolls-Royce aero engine.

Together with the Wright brothers in America and the Short brothers, balloon makers to the Club, Charles acquired a Wright license for the first aircraft production line in the world at Leysdown and later at nearby Eastchurch.

From 1910 the Royal Aero Club, issued Aviators Certificates, Charles Rolls was issued with Certificate No 1. The Club trained most military pilots up to 1915, when military schools took over.

On June 2nd, 1910, Rolls flew his Wright biplane across the English Channel to France, was spotted over French territory without permission, and returned to England without landing. The trip was the third Channel crossing by air, Bleriot having made the first, and Jacques de Lesseps the second. Charles became the first man to fly non-stop across the English Channel both ways.

On the 12 July 1910, around twenty of the world’s most famous aviators travelled to Hengistbury Head, at Christchurch, Dorset which attracted approximately 2,000 visitors.

With a gusting wing speed of 20 to 25 mph, Charles came in to land. He shut off his engine, intending to glide in a broad circle down onto the target spot. He saw he would undershoot, so pulled back the controls to lift the nose and began a turn, when a stiff wind hit his plane beam-on. The 
two rear rudders broke loose from the tail plane which bent upwards, crumpled and snapped off. The tail boom broke away and the plane overturned and nose-dived into the ground.

Although Rolls fell only 20 feet, he fractured his skull, and died in the arms of a distraught friend, US colonel and aviator Sam Cody.

He was 32 years old

Charles was Britain`s first aircraft fatality in a powered aircraft, and the eleventh internationally. Lord Montague of Beaulieu interrupted his speech in the House of Lords to announce his death. Charles was buried at St. Cadoc's Church on 16 July 1910. He had a philosophical outlook towards the danger he courted, saying:

“All good engineering calls for casualties—so why not?”

As a symbol of mourning, the intertwined “RR” logo on the Rolls-Royce radiator plate was changed from red to black and his name retained as a mark of respect.



1 comment:

Petrea Burchard said...

Such an interesting story. In a way it's not tragic that he died so young, because of the choices he made. It's sad, though.