Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fast Lady in Pearls -- Zephirine

When Mildred Mary Petre was 15, her elder brother went away for a few months, telling her to look after his new motorbike. Naturally she tried riding it, and was soon charging round the country lanes at ever-increasing speeds with her collie dog in the side-car. She then discovered she could go faster by taking the baffles out of the exhaust, and as a result found herself in court for noise nuisance and speeding. When asked if she had a licence for the bike, she said: no, but she did have a licence for the dog. The year was 1911.

By the time the First World War ended, she had grown up, saved up enough to buy her first car and was determined to become a racing driver. A woman driver was no longer a novelty, but there were very few women in the cutting-edge world of motor racing, where Mary quickly became outstanding for her skill, daring and endurance.

In 1926 she married Victor Bruce, an excellent racing driver himself who in the same year became the first Briton to win the Monte Carlo Rally. Keeping to the nineteenth-century tradition of adopting the husband’s entire name, she became known as Mrs Victor Bruce, and this is the name she goes by in the record books - though very few people now have even heard of her. In 1927 she won the Coupe des Dames at the Monte Carlo Rally, and together the couple embarked on a series of racing and record-breaking adventures.

(If you’re about to flip over to Google to see if this is a true story or I’ve made it all up, let me save you the trouble: it’s all true.)

It was a time when many wealthy amateurs paid their own way in their chosen sports, but neither of the Bruces was rich. They were seriously good drivers, though, and they funded their driving careers by forming relationships with car and tyre manufacturers who sponsored them in order to test and improve new products. So that when they took a car up into the Arctic Circle, it wasn’t purely for fun, they were able to prove that the vehicle could function well in those conditions; though along the way Mary also found a wonderful hairdresser in northern Finland.

Perhaps their most astonishing achievement was a ten-days-and-ten-nights endurance drive round the Montlhéry circuit in France. They did this in December 1927, in an open AC sports car, covering more than 15,000 miles, at first driving for three hours each but later having to extend it to six hours each as the lack of sleep was too punishing; the six-hour stints, however, presented a serious risk of frostbite in the below-zero conditions. The few other women racing drivers of the day wore trousers or overalls for driving, but Mary Bruce always drove dressed in a jacket and skirt and, invariably, her pearls. For the Montlhéry drive she added a fur rug from her hotel bedroom. She said later that the ten-day record left her with a lasting dislike of sandwiches, as all they ate while driving were ham sandwiches, kept in the glove compartment and tasting of petrol.

Now backed by the AC company, Mary Bruce spent much of 1928 racing at the famous Brooklands circuit, and in June 1929 she returned to Montlhéry to attempt a 24-hour solo drive, in a borrowed 4.5 litre Bentley as AC didn’t have a suitable car . At least this time it was summer, but the weather was still terrible. (The photo shows the Bentley being refuelled at Montlhéry.) She covered 2,164 miles in 24 hours, at an average speed of 89.57 mph - a record which was unbeaten by any solo driver for over fifty years, and has never been surpassed by another woman.

And then, after a brief flirtation with speedboats, Mary Bruce discovered aeroplanes.

She saw a plane for sale in a shop in London. According to her own account: “I thought, ‘What are we coming to now, when we can buy aeroplanes out of shop windows? Soon I shall be so old-fashioned nobody will want to talk to me unless I learn to fly.’” It was a small light aircraft with wings which could be folded back, intended to be transported around and used for short pleasure flights. Mary Bruce decided to buy it and take it round the world.

And so she did, in 1930, having rapidly learned how to fly and navigate. She went on her own: the aircraft was a two-seater, but she couldn’t take a co-pilot as the spare seat had to accommodate a petrol tank. Planes tended to fall apart quite easily in those days, so such things as a spare propeller were essential, and the spares threatened to overload the little plane. She wanted to take a dictaphone to record her impressions of the flight, and refused to leave it behind when the mechanic said it was too heavy. Her husband said: ‘Don’t stop her taking the dictaphone, she’ll never be happy unless she’s talking,’ and in order to lighten the load she threw out the parachute.

She didn’t actually fly the plane all round the world, it couldn’t carry enough fuel to cross the oceans, so she put it on ships for the sea crossings and flew it across the land masses - it would be another two years before Amelia Earhart flew non-stop across the Atlantic. Going round the world with her little plane took Mary Bruce five months and numerous adventures, some frightening, some farcical, before she arrived safely back at Croydon Aerodrome. Her small son Anthony was clearly a chip off the old block, as all he said when his mother got back was, ‘ Mummy, you’re an hour late.’

She continued flying until the Second World War, taking part in early experiments in mid-air refuelling as well as stunt flying for public entertainment, and gradually becoming more of an entrepreneur (though she diversified by going back to riding horses and doing a little competitive show-jumping). She built up a small fleet of aircraft doing passenger and cargo runs out of Croydon, and during the war her company provided aircraft maintenance and repairs. The Bruces were divorced in 1941 and Mary continued on her own in the post-war years as a successful businesswoman in aviation. It was during this period that her fame died away, associated as it was with another and very different world.

This probably didn’t bother her - she doesn’t seem ever to have courted publicity. There’s no doubt she was thrilled each time she won a race or broke a record, but she was motivated by the love of speed and competition, rather than the desire to be famous.

During the 1970s, when she was 78, she had a go at test-driving the new Ford Ghia Capri and took it up to 110 mph, though she objected to wearing a crash helmet, having never worn one before, and initially put it on back to front. At 81, she went up in a Chipmunk and looped the loop for the last time. And although by this time she was pretty much a forgotten name, she did appear on the Russell Harty TV show (sharing the bill with Oliver Reed), before she died in 1990 at the age of 94.

She wrote: ”Speed has always fascinated me since my first pony bolted. Going slowly always made me tired.” Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, and other early women aviators achieved great things and had their own personal glamour and mystique, but none of them also broke records in racing cars and powerboats. And surely none matches Mildred Mary Bruce for sheer panache.

[more photos, and film clips, at ]


BlueinBetis said...


I believe every word. Just because otherwise the bit about the hairdresser in Finland wouldn't make sense.

I wonder, did the press of the day treat her well, or was she misunderstood too?

Thanks for this, just the tonic needed after the last couple of days.

Zephirine said...

Well, BinB, glad to cheer you up :) We only have her word for it about what she thought when she bought the aeroplane, but, yes, she was really real and she really did all those things, what a gal.

The press were fine with her as far as I know, but it looks like she kept them at arm's length - she never told them she was planning to go round the world, so that she wouldn't look silly if she didn't make it!

file said...

an aunt told me that in Finland the hairdressers/barbers put your head in a bucket of ice water and let you stand outside for half an hour, then they snap your hair to the appropriate length rather than having to cut it.

But she goes through gallons of turpentine daily so you can't always trust what she says...

great piece Zeph, full of character and very funny, what a lady eh? You know we run around in circles all day and think we're busy but people like Mrs. Bruce should make us realize what it takes to really make things happen no?

it's bloody typical of kids tho; you go all the way around the world in a 'she'll be right' little airplane and they moan when you're an hour late!

btw, you don't say what model plane it was, was it a Tiger Moth like in the ace video?

mimi said...

A great read, Zeph. What a woman! Makes me want to go and read up on some of the other pioneering woman of speed in the early and inter-war years of the 20th century.

Zephirine said...

It was a Blackburn Bluebird, File, even smaller I believe. The folding wings being its main selling point.

The cars weren't much better, the AC one they used for the ten-day drive looks like a tin can with wheels on the corners.

Mimi, there weren't many women drivers but they all seem to have been fairly amazing!

btw sorry, the link to the Pscenes page doesn't work, you need to use the one at the top of the page...

mimi said...

On a fictional note, Zeph - did you ever come across the works of Kathleen Peyton? Flambards? Plenty of stuff there about women making a mark in hill climbs and such.

guitougoal said...

"after midnight the moon set and I was alone with the stars. I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty, and I need no other flight to convince me that the reason flyers fly, wether they know it or not, is the esthetic appeal of flying.
-"Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it worth the price"
Amelia Earhart, few days before she left for Howland islands and disappeared.I thought her last words wouldn't be off topic on this thread.
Thank you for Mary Bruce fantastic story.

offsideintahiti said...

Welcome back, Zeph.

Top stuff.

Did you know that the name of the pigeon in the French version of Dick Dastardly and Muttley in their flying machines was Zéphirin?

Zephirine said...

Offside, that piece of information has made my evening:) I can't remember what the pigeon's called in English but I bet some Pseud will tell me.

I presume you've noticed the return of a much-longer-absent prodigal child, one Andrewm? So obviously your Tahitian war canoe did reach Scotland and the crew erm, reasoned with him.

Zephirine said...

Guitou, those are beautiful quotes.
I'm not a pilot myself but a member of my family was, and I've heard similar thoughts, though not so well put, from them... and of course in those small lightweight early planes they were so much nearer to the elements.

MotM said...

Thanks for such a wonderfully written piece about a neglected hero(ine) of British sport.

Whether on the racetrack or dicing in planes in wartime or endurance flying in peacetime, people seemed to be made of different stuff in those days. Understated glamour appears to be the only way to go as these pictures of a flawed genius show:

Zephirine said...

Mimi, no, I never read the Flmbards books.. women were useful in early aviation (it was handy to have a pilot who didn't weigh much) but that all changed with WWII and then bigger and faster planes.

MotM, I don't think you can underestimate the effect of WWI and the Depression on people's mentality - if they had a chance to do something, they seized it. Plus of course, the new technology of the time was transport, whereas nowadays we're pioneering by erm, sitting at a desk blogging with people in Thailand and Tahiti.

Are you going to write something for us about Hawthorn? Shame about that beard though:)

paulita said...


'Going slowly always made me tired'


and here I was, thinking there was something heroic about me getting up early to clean up this place... somehow it pales in comparison :)

such a great piece to wake up to on a sunday morning.


Zephirine said...

Of course, Paulita, how heroic you are depends on what state your place is in :)

guitougoal said...

there are also these who find a way to be heroes in slow motion....RIP Mime Marceau

mimi said...

I asked Mouth to write on Mike Hawthorn. He provided me with some info that I used in my Four British Heroes. Hill, Hawthorn, Hailwood and Hislop. To which roster now, sadly is added McRae.

He, that is Mouth, really should write a proper piece.

MotM said...

The Hs, of whom Mimi wrote so well here, are poorly served by writers. See for the prices offered for my ten yera old Hailwood biog (it's good but not that good).

The Hawthorn website is excellent but there doesn't appear to be a proper biog of the man never mind a biopic which would be fantastic! I'm touched to be cajoled by pseuds into writing something - I'll have to bike over the Hogsback to Farnham for inspiration!

For those interested in a world as distant of the one of which Zeph writes (and gets me back on topic), this is superb It's not a work of literature, but a labour of love by a fan and an evocation of a time when speedsters would win a race, have a tryst in a caravan, then jump in the Aston to dice through the night on the roads of France or Germany, before another race, another girl and another dice. There's a "The Right Stuff" book in Stirling and Ago, Hawthorn and Hailwood, von Trips and Ascari - and if I inherit £500k from an unknown uncle, I'll write it!

wilsonna said...

Thanks for a very good piece about my heroine, Mary Petre Bruce; she certainly was one of a kind. I have to disagree on a couple of small points, though. She retained her husband's name for nearly 50 years after their divorce not because of tradition, but because she loved the cachet of the title "The Honourable Mrs Victor Bruce." This was a source of some irritation to Victor's second wife, who rightfully used the same title, and sometimes had to explain to new acquaintances that it was not she who had flown around the world, but her husband's first wife.
You are correct that Mary's 24-hour solo record has never been broken by a woman, but it was only four years before it was shattered by David Abbot "Ab" Jenkins driving a Pierce Arrow on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (see:
As for her not courting publicity: on the contrary, she adored it! She employed a clipping service for many years, and kept hundreds and hundreds of press clippings about herself. Product endorsements, publicity stunts, newspaper columns she wrote on automotive and aviation topics, a lecture tour after her world flight, all documented in clippings that filled three large cardboard cartons. This was a lady who, when asked what she had enjoyed most in such an extraordinary life, replied without hesitation: “The fuss! Oh I did love the fuss everyone’s made of me!”
She wrote five books, four of which are quite hard to find. The most accessible is her autobiography, "Nine Lives Plus," Pelham Books 1977. It is rather a selective retelling of her life: she leaves out many potentially embarrasing details and rearranges some facts. She justified this by claiming “That is the beauty of writing a book. You can say whatever you like without being corrected at every turn by people who will be so painfully precise.”
Highly selective or not, it is a fine introduction to this extraordinary woman!

Zephirine said...

Wilsonna - welcome! Thank you so much for your input. Apart from some personal reminiscences from others who were around at the time, I've relied almost entirely on her book Nine Lives Plus, so I certainly wrote from her own judgement of herself! She doesn't mention the divorce at all, for instance, and the claim that her record still stood was made by her in that book, ie in 1977.

I'm sure she had a press cuttings service, most well-known people did then, I think, and she did have a fuss made of her and no doubt enjoyed her public appearances - but it was on her own terms, and she seems to me to have been far less a creature of the media than Amy Johnson, who was sponsored by a national paper and had to do lecture tours etc at their bidding, to pay for her keep. And this, plus her mysterious death, has kept Amy Johnson's name in the public mind, while sadly there's very little awareness of Mary Bruce now.

The whole business of the 'Honourable' is quite amusing, I left it out of the article as I didn't think most of the readers here would be interested, but I would love some expert on such things to explain - was it a correct title anyway? I didn't think a spouse could use the 'Honourable' tag: shouldn't it have been 'the Hon. Victor Bruce and Mrs Bruce'? She must have liked it though, she seems to have kept on using it as you say.

According to Wikipedia a new biography of her is being written - do you know anything about this?

gg said...

Zeph -

a great tale!

You just couldn't make this up, not unless you were Spike Milligan.

I find it hard to understand Mr. Bruce: I could understand a man meeting a woman like this, falling in love with her and marrying her, then quickly realising he'd made a mistake.

It's hard for me, however, to understand him going off her after 15 years.

Sad to say, I've never had a haircut in Northern Finland. Having been there, I'm glad I never had to.

marcela said...

what a treat on pseud's i find after ever such a brief absence!

zeph, i knew you were thinking about this but i had no idea there was such a story to tell.

really lovely story about someone, as you correctly foretold, i had never heard of.

has the docu-drama been made yet? :)

Zephirine said...

GG, Marcela, glad you enjoyed it. I'm hoping for the new book about Mary Bruce which might explain a bit about Mr Bruce, he's only a somewhat shadowy figure in her autobiography :)

I do want to do a film about women aviators, but Mary Bruce would probably not be a central character - there are a lot of stories to tell about that era.

wilsonna said...

Not sure where my last two posts have gone: maybe I am not pushing the right button? In any case, the book has been written, and will be rewritten and buffed when our agent finds a publisher who wants it. In the meantime, a couple of answers:
Mary Petre was an unknown when she met and married Victor Bruce, already a hero (as the first Brit to win the Monte Carlo). He was a very well known racing driver, a member of the AC factory team. His publicity feats for AC were well known . . such things as driving a car up the railroad tracks to the summit of Mt Snowdon. The glue that held their marriage together was their mutual love of automobiles. Victor was Mary's way into racing circles, although she quickly eclipsed him as headline material, winning the Monte Carlo Coupe des Dames the year after his victory. The Arctic and Mediterranean tours and the ten days at Montlhery were joint efforts; the 24-hour record was hers alone. When she branched out into speedboat racing and flying, the diverging interests signalled the beginning of the end for the marriage. Victor followed her lead, first in boats and later in the air, but she was the pace-setter. Eventually they both met other loves, but it was years before they divorced.

Zephirine said...

Wilsonna, thanks for coming back and for the extra info - sorry about the posts disappearing, Blogger can do that sometimes. Do let me know how you get on with the book, you can contact me on

duncan23 said...

Bloody Hell Zeph. Now I'm completely ashamed to be fretting cos I have to fly at the weekend (It do maketh me nervous though).

Zephirine said...

Will it be a long flight, Duncan? Personally I like being in little planes, but I really hate being stuck in a big plane for a long time.

But they do usually stay up in the air, you know, unlikely as it seems.

wilsonna said...

Just noticed the date, September 25th. It was exactly 77 years ago today that Mary Bruce took off from Heston on her world flight. She had a 100 horsepower engine,no parachute, and no radio other than a device that could send pre-set messages but not receive anything. But she did have maps from the auto association, a string of pearls, and an evening gown. I trust that duncan23 is better equipped, and will come home safely too.

guitougoal said...

don't leave home without it (parachute).

offsideintahiti said...

The thought of Duncan flying (by night) in an evening gown and a string of pearls has definitely made my day.


duncan23 said...

It's just from Dallas to Salt Lake City. But then I have to fly back too. I mean come on, Salt Lake City, who wants to feel any stress about going there, it's just not worth it! (I still have a few days to make my boss feel guilty and wriggle out of it).

To make myself feel better --believe it or not-- many times when traveling across the Atlantic I would imagine how easy and safe it was compared to earlier planes containing just one person who was trying to stay awake etc.
Good job offside reminded me what to pack. Duncana23 intrepid explorer, not-so-bravely going where millions go every week!

Zephirine said...

I'm sure planes are safe flying into Salt Lake City, all those saintly Mormon ancestors must be hovering about watching over them.
Just wear the pearls, Duncan, you'll be fine!

guitougoal said...

Salt Lake, you better take your liquor if you spend the week-end there cause of the mormon rules.
Even with your evening gown on they won't open the door.

duncan23 said...

Yeah I am rather worried about that aspect, because I am NOT going 72 hours without a bloody drink. No wonder some of them demand more than one available woman in the house! (Said he in a very enlightened late 19th century fashion ;) )

Zephirine said...

So it's going to be Duncan, in evening gown and pearls, swigging liquor out of a bottle hidden in a paper bag?

Then you get arrested by Mormon morality police and interrogated for hours about the decadent bloggers who suggested such a thing and the way you were inspired by some 1930s aviatrix in a black leather flying helmet... they send you to a reform ranch out in the desert where you have to sing hymns and pray to be cleansed... you only escape by trekking across the desert (ruining the dress)....

And you think getting on the plane is going to be the problem?

file said...


best stay at home mate

wilsonna said...

On the other hand, the image of an inebriated cross-dressing blogger, singing hymns and wandering in the desert as he fingers his string of pearls like a rosary -- that's the stuff of prophets and messiahs. This could be a turning point.

guitougoal said...

we just have a movie script made:
-duncan and the mormons-
the cross dressing blogger wandering in the desert is dehydrated, starts hallucinating ,has visions of Mary Bruce ghost,,,and fall in love....may be they get married in las vegas (but that could kill the mystic)
you girls have to work out the ending, i'll pitch the story to Hbo..but don't let File in the picture please he'll ruin the movie.
It's ging hard to keep him quiet though
(btw file thanks for posting the M.Marceau on Pscenes for me..)

file said... the Fast Ladyboy in Pearls (Dunc-Ann)lost in the Utah desert for 23 days and 23 nights, battling with a flying she-devil and overcoming all temptation, singing 'Love is a many splendoured thing' and 'Abide with me', predicting the coming of the Auntie-Christ and an immaculate girth, shouting 'THE ENID IS NIGH' and turning water into whiskey chasers, getting his foot caught in the eye of the needle and throwing up on stony ground, only to be spoken to by Lisa Minelli as the Metatron about the floods, the floods and how s/he has to build a Nark on top of a Nill. Dunc-Ann is confused but happily skips in the first drops of rain...

G, you should know better than to tell me 'not' to get involved

lovely tribute to the Quiet Artist is here, thanks muchly for putting it together

file said...

oops, should by Liza Minelli or Lisa Simpson or...a strange singing-dancing yellow hybrid, who's doing the casting?

guitougoal said...

Didn't I tell ya.. he'll ruin the movie.
I suggest this clip as an opening scene, dunc at the airport.

offsideintahiti said...

I like it so far, but we need a rattle-snake dance.

guitougoal said...

thanks dog you showed up, file's X rated stuff needed some rewriting, and he probably offended the ladies once again.

mimi said...

Surely our Dunc is just leaving on a jet plane?

guitougoal said...

Thanks for providing some space to the the Quiet Artist who left us quietly for ever.

offsideintahiti said...


did you know "Marcel" personally?

guitougoal said...

his daughter and her husband, very talented painter, were my friends and during the 70s while in Paris, I used to be a regular at their diner parties-Marcel was always traveling around the world, I met him at the wedding though.

offsideintahiti said...

I saw a couple of interviews on the news the other day. I was almost shocked that he could speak. Made sense too. Amazing character.

Is Duncan in the air already?

gg said...

Duncan -

you might meet that Bilardo bloke there, chirping "Who put the salt in the Salt Lake City..." and chipping salt from the lake in order to demonstrate the 3-5-2 system for the locals.

If you're short of a frock, have a word with the vicar.

Have to sign off now: Elvis gig tonight, and my white overall needs adjusting.

Cathy Berryman said...

I well remember the Honourable Mrs Bruce, especially when she used to collect her pension at the sub-post office on the Trowbridge Road, in Bradford on Avon during the 1970's and '80's, when she was dressed in her large fur coat. She was well known, even then, for her exploits.

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