The Tomboy Beginnings
If you’ve read about my relationship with Wicket, my gorgeous owl, you may have gathered I’m not the most feminine of women.
From a young age, my parents tried their hardest to create the perfect girlie. It didn’t really work out that way. My personal interpretation was that when you have a Catholic grandfather who has nine brothers and almost all those brothers have sons (only one daughter among them), and those sons have sons, it’s a scheme that’s bound to fail.
So there I was, four years old, stealing my brother’s Transformers, stashing them in a Barbie satchel, and heading out to find the nearest climbable tree so I could sit in its branches and play for a while without my brother moaning that I’ve nicked his stuff again. And, of course, before my mother could start shrieking about either her missing daughter, or the daughter up the tree who was about to kill herself. The latter is always foresight, in her case. It would go something like this: “She’s going to die! I can see it, it’s going to happen!”
I was young and the only thing I could think was, “Oh my god, why didn’t they tell me this morning I was going to die? I would have taken Starscream too!”
I loved planes. Hated Starscream – I was (okay, I remain) a strict Autobot girl – but things that fly were exciting.
Even more exciting were my Sunday afternoons, largely spent at my grandparents’ house as my grandad’s shadow. I followed him everywhere. I’d sit there with him watching old movies. Gone With The Wind was my favourite (although it took until my teenage years to understand it), followed by Doctor Zhivago. At that sort of age, I didn’t even know what an army was, let alone an entire war, but gradually I was introduced to the black and white war movies. That John Wayne… I don’t know what America would have done without him.
One afternoon, we were watching that film with “that wimp Ashley Wilkes and that Raffles man”. While “Ashley” studied a bird, he started to doodle a plane. I was hooked.
The First Of The Few, or Spitfire for those across the pond, was my first introduction to both sea planes and, far more importantly, the most beautiful aeroplane I’d ever seen. But again, I didn’t have a clue what it was all about.
Movies Almost Lie
The more I watched this amazing film, it struck me – here was a man who was clearly incredibly stupid, putting his plane before his life. That emotion changed after my grandad explained war and sacrifice to me, and I let “Mitch” (by then Leslie Howard had ceased to be “that wimp”) off the proverbial hook.
R.J. Mitchell was very little like the character so well portrayed on the screen. At the tender age of 24, he was appointed as the chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works, a name that survived until the parent company became part of the British Aircraft Corporation in 1960.According to the film, the company was reluctant to take a chance on Mitchell’s designs. At my young age, I screamed at the screen: “Are you mad? They’re amazing!” What would I know, though; I couldn’t draw and my only feat of blue-print engineering was a car with a rhinoceros head on the bonnet.
Arguably, some of the most significant things about that film include otherwise lost footage of one of the Spitfire’s actual test pilots in action for filming purposes as well as the S.4 taking off, but also that Howard himself was shot down and killed by the Luftwaffe, apparently due to the belief that Winston Churchill was on that flight.
I have no idea why, but a hot-tempered working-class man was portrayed as a middle-class gent. Mitchell also never went to Germany therefore never met Willy Messerschmidt so was unable to predict a war. But fear not; I’m not having a spot-the-goof geek-out session!
A Man’s World – Use Them Well
Truth be known, I thought for probably about fifteen years that Lady Lucy Houston was just a fictitious character thrown in to a good movie as the overcoming to an obstacle, like in any good story.
She was never mentioned in history lessons, but neither was R.J. Mitchell so that didn’t really mean a thing. Luckily, some fantastic chap had invented the internet. With the arrival of the time when, “I don’t have an email address,” received a look similar to the one given upon hearing, “I don’t have a television,” I could finally find out about this woman. (You don’t want to trust certain libraries if you want to know about relatively unknown people!)
Fanny Lucy Houston was born in Lambeth, April 8, 1857, and was a stereotypical Aries. Before anyone across the pond starts laughing at her first name, look up the English definition.
Ninth child of ten children, she was the daughter of a warehouseman and draper. She had a mother too, but in these days, unless Ma’s famous, nobody cares what she does. As a child, she was assertive and very soon realised that, to get anywhere in life, you need to have money.
She started out as a “professional dancer”. Basically, a chorus girl. I have the image in my head of her doing the Can-Can but I might be pushing things a little. Even getting to this point was testament to her strength as, when she turned up at Drury Lane theatre and asked to see the manager, she was told where to go. After several attempts, she obviously decided that their consistent rejection actually meant, “please go straight in,” and so she did. She brushed the gatekeepers off.
I’ve tried this tactic before, but security’s far too tight these days.
You know how people always want what they can’t have? That was her. The ‘darling’, she avoided getting a ‘reputation’. In these days, the only ‘reputation’ women could have was ‘putting it about’. Our little Poppy, as she was known then, wasn’t going to do that – she had goals, and some men just weren’t rich enough.
That same year, she hopped it across the Channel to Paris with Frederick Gretton. He had been brought in as a partner with the Bass brewery and was double her age. And married. And had known her at that point for a week.
Some women have all the luck.
After jetting off to Gay Paris, haven to fun, frivolity and ‘whateverness’, Poppy and Frederick – living as Mr and Mrs Gretton – made enough of an impression to warrant friendships with people established enough to introduce them to the likes of Edward, Prince of Wales. The lovers lived a pretty good life.
Depending where you read it, Frederick died eight or nine years later, leaving Poppy £6,000 or £7,000 pounds a month for life.
On her return to England, she bought a house in one of the most fashionable parts of London, Portland Place, and all the essentials. Essentials, in this case, were a butler, a maid, a coachman and a carriage. She was the best dressed lady to attend any party – possibly down to having lived in Paris – and was even said to have designed her own clothes.
Rumour has it that she had her sights set on marrying Winston Churchill, but changed her mind. Obviously it didn’t happen, but the man was said to have held an immense admiration for her for the rest of her life.
The Importance of Being Married
Although she had loved Gretton, status was important to Poppy, and she went on the hunt for a husband.
She found a handsome little devil by the name of Theodore Brinckman, who was soon to be bestowed with a knighthood. Although she adored him, he wasn’t the most faithful of husbands. She soon found out about another “wife” he had stowed away somewhere, and made her way over to this woman to offer her a horse-whipping. No, really – she did! She changed her mind, however, deciding instead to divorce him. After all, she’d now tasted aristocracy with him, but Sirs really are a little low-end, aren’t they?
Luckily, some Lords are unmarried, and she managed to snag herself one.
She found the Ninth Lord Byron, also known as Red Nosed George. If you weren’t invited for dinner, you were clearly not important. She was fascinated by the stories of the British Empire told to her by the likes of Rudyard Kipling. She understood the turmoil facing the Empire, and that a woman of good social standing was in a very powerful position.
She had great admiration for Suffragettes, despite being in no way a feminist, and did all she could to support them. According to records, this included buying over 600 parrots, popping them in red, white and blue cages and teaching them to say, “Votes for women.”
This hair-brained scheme didn’t work out the way she had hoped. Obviously she had previously never owned a parrot and was therefore unaware they say what they want when they want to say it. She was hoping for a parrot chorus, and she got quite a bit less. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and she still managed to make her point by putting hecklers in their place when attending rallies before getting back in her carriage and going home.
I can’t help thinking that Poppy was a little too much for Byron though, as he was declared bankrupt in 1899. He died in 1917, a detail possibly overlooked by his wife. By this point, the war was at its height, and Poppy had been going around the hospitals to visit the wounded.
Amazed by the doctors and nurses, she threw all her support behind those caring so much for their patients that they themselves bordered on breakdowns. She set up a Rest Home for Nurses in Hampstead. Once Kipling heard about it, he became one of its biggest supporters, and King George V was so impressed by the work she was doing that he awarded her the honour of Dame of the British Empire – one of the first five women with that honour – for her services.
Now in her sixties, she married Lord Robert Houston, a man with a mighty jet black beard and a full head of hair. Hard as nails, ruthless, and merciless. Of course, they made a perfect couple and she virtually turned him into a snivelling wreck.
Just kidding! I don’t think he cried…
The couple really were perfectly suited. Once she’d gotten her claws in, she wormed her way into his merchant shipping business. Robber Baron, as he was known, realised that she had a brilliant head for business, so he let her. He apparently had to – this mountain of a man who scared the wits out of people, this pirate who successfully sued a man for £1,000,000 when it was said to his face that he dyes his hair with ink, this… Northerner, was actually scared of his wife’s sharp tongue and no-nonsense attitude.
Their relationship was rather cat-and-mouse. When it was the new Lady Houston’s birthday, Houston sent a jeweller around to Byron House to show Poppy a selection. After browsing the goods, she sent him away after selecting nothing. When he heard, Houston called her to ask why. She expressed her sadness over how he could send such rubbish over. When he pointed out that there had been a necklace worth £2,500, she wasn’t moved in the slightest. In fact, it disturbed her that he thought so little of her.
Poppy later received a call from another jeweller. This one told her about a black pearl necklace he had, asking her to come and see it. She immediately fell in love with it. There was one slight snag: it was £50,000.
She knew exactly how to play her husband: when asked if she had seen anything she liked, she told him about the necklace, and said it was possibly a little too expensive. She knew he wouldn’t want anyone to think that there was something he couldn’t afford, and very soon she had a new black pearl necklace.
In a bid to recoup his losses, Houston presented her with his will just before leaving on a business trip. She had been left £1,000,000.
Houston returned to discover this will torn in half. When he asked his wife about it, she told him in no uncertain terms that if that was all she was worth to him, he had better leave his money to those more deserving instead. The next day he showed her the new will, in which he had left her the bulk of his estate.
Money Makes You Powerful. And Mad.
When Lord Houston died aboard his boat, The Liberty, Poppy was inconsolable. She didn’t attend his funeral. Instead, she was accusing everyone of murdering her husband, and in her devastation she started hearing voices. God, of all people, telling her it was her duty to save the Empire from Russia and its atheistic heathens. She couldn’t save the Empire without money, however.
The Liberty was moored in Jersey, and so fanatical were her beliefs that the authorities had her declared insane. This prevented execution of the late Lord Houston’s will, cutting Poppy off from her inheritance. She blamed her wealth, saying, “My riches have been nothing but a curse.”
One newspaper said at the time: “… the Presence on the island of Guernsey of one so rich and delightfully taxable and the fact that her departure might render inactive some of her tremendously valuable properties there apparently makes the island officials more willing to humiliate and distress her than to let her go to her house and friends a few miles away in England.”
It didn’t help her cause that she collapsed when she was told she was still virtually a prisoner. The Drury Lane Theatre had been unable to stop her decades previously, and neither would Jersey. Poppy called in six psychiatrists from around Europe to prove her sane, and once more she got her way. She sailed off sipping tea as she sat at a table covered with the Union Jack, now the richest woman in the world, and apparently never forgiving Jersey for their initial claims.
It had been thought that Lord Houston had been dodging taxes. The Inland Revenue were unable to prove this, however, due to the army of brilliant accountants he had employed. They estimated that he owed £3,000,000.
Lady Houston called the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, and met with him and Lord Hailsham, a barrister. When Hailsham backed down, Poppy handed Churchill a cheque for £1,500,000.She asked for a kiss, he gave her a cup of tea. She found that funny.
I personally hoped that £1,500,000 would have been the amount in today’s money because otherwise we’re looking at about £79,725,000, but it was £1,500,000 at the time. Even I stopped laughing at that tale when I thought about it.
She now had the means to campaign for causes close to her heart. With her inheritance, she continued her husband and her mutual attack on the Government, specifically Ramsey MacDonald. In fact, she even bought a weekly newspaper, the Saturday Review, so that her opinions could reach a greater audience. Her main target was how passive the government was, believing that they were selling the country out to foreigners, but far worse than that, they were cutting the budgets of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force. Her articles often added an invitation for the likes of Anthony Eden and Ramsey MacDonald to sue her for libel.
Poppy had the foresight to understand that with technological advances in aircraft, the future would see wars fought in the sky, so she was immediately annoyed to discover that the government would not be putting in the money for the research and development needed for Britain to compete in the Schneider Trophy.
The Schneider Trophy had been introduced in 1911 by Jacques Schneider, a balloon and aviation enthusiast who had an interest in technology. Although initially designed to showcase technological advances in civil avionics, it soon became a competition aimed at breaking the speed record. The winning club would receive a £1,000 award, however if one club won three times in five years, they would retain the trophy and the pilot would be awarded 75,000 francs. The first competition was in 1913 in Monaco, and won by Frenchman Maurice Prevost in a Deperdussin seaplane. It won at an average speed of 45.71m/h. Britain had won it in 1914,1922,1927 and 1929. One more win, and the trophy would remain with us.
It had been revealed on the front page of the Daily Express that the financing for any British entry would be down to private investors, however they were pretty certain that such a large amount would not be affordable for one person.
Clearly, they didn’t know much about Poppy.
She bit that article just as Lord Houston had chomped on that necklace, and arranged to meet Mitchell and his pilot. She listened, she learnt, and the next day they received a cheque for £100,000. Today, that would have been £5,000,000. She told MacDonald, “the supremacy of English airmen can only be upheld by their entrance for the Schneider Trophy and I consider this of supreme importance.”
Lady Houston’s donation allowed for the Supermarine Rolls-Royce S1595 and S1596 Seaplanes to become a reality. Having personally overseen Britain’s entries since 1922, Mitchell had been filled with ideas – modification would perhaps have been the only way because by the time Lady Houston’s donation came in, there was less than nine months, so Mitchell modified and British team , RAF High Speed Flight, brought along six machines.
The S.6Bs, S1595 and S1596, were as yet untested, and each club was permitted three entrants into the competition.
The initial plan was that the ‘junior’ S.6B, S1595, would fly the course alone. If they felt that it just wasn’t fast enough, or it suffered a mechanical failure, it’d be pulled from the competition and S.6A N248 would fly the course. If neither S1595 nor N248 were good enough, N247 held in reserve would be used.
N248 had been disqualified from the competition during its last entry when it had turned inside one of the markers, giving the win to N247, which had performed at 328.63m/h, proving its worth. However, during practice, N247 was destroyed in a take-off accident which had killed its pilot, Navy Lt. G.N. Brinton.
S1595 completed the course with seven perfect laps, improving on the previous winning speed at 340.08m/h. How? The S.6Bs had their floats extended by 3 feet, and Rolls-Royce had improved the engine, increasing the power of the Rolls-Royce R, their aero engine, from 1,900hp to 2,300hp.
Seventeen days later, S.6B ‘Senior’ broke the world speed record, flying at 407.5m/h.
If it’s to be considered correct that the S.6B was the springboard for both the Spitfire and the Roll-Royce Merlin, then it really does seem down to Lady Houston, who watched S1595 bring the Trophy home in 1931 from aboard the Liberty, that Britain had a magnificent air defence.
The Lady was so certain of impending war that she tried to give Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, £200,000 to provide a London-based air defence in a letter.
“When I read the terrible news that our forces of defence — already far too far below the safety mark — are again to be the victims of what only Socialists can call economy my spirit was heavy and oppressed, and every fibre of my being cried out against this further treachery to us and our fighting forces. No, no, no! Mr Chamberlain. You must not allow this to be called economy. This is not economy. This is a base betrayal of the people’s safety. To leave our homes and our children unprotected while every other country is feverishly arming is a Socialist invitation to our enemies to come and destroy us.“A million of money has been voted for dole palaces, and work is actually in progress to build new Labour Exchanges at a cost of £700,000, while county councillors are given carte blanche to pile up every extravagance waste can suggest and are encouraged to fritter away millions of money that should be spent protecting us.“But deeds are better than words, and so instead of sending you a cheque for £40,000 for Income-tax I now offer you £200,000 towards the £5,000,000 required for our protection. So only 19 times as much as my gift if needed to make up the £5,000,000 necessary — a paltry sum to ensure the safety of the nation — and I appeal to all, both rich and poor, to find it, for surely there is not a man or woman in England who will not echo my cry, ‘Hands off economising on our Navy, our Army, and our Air Force.'”
Chamberlain turned Lady Houston’s offer down, stating that the Government could not accept such a gift for such a specific purpose. It probably didn’t go down too well with the woman who was purported to have said, “Every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself.” This came from a woman who was said to have slept beneath a Union Jack bedspread.
The year after, Lady Houston financed the Mount Everest expedition, but it remains unknown about just how many projects or charities she put her money into. It is known that most of her “gifts” went to hospitals and charities, and apparently gave the Government, frequently under the name of a good friend of hers, Miss Juliana Hoare.
Both Mitchell and Lady Houston died prior to seeing the Spitfire in action, although Mitchell managed to watch test flights prior to his death in 11 June, 1937 from cancer. When the RAF ordered production of 310 of the Type 300 K5054, Mitchell’s reaction was a logical one: “Spitfire was just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose.”
I feel Mitchell and Poppy perhaps got along famously.
Poppy died 26th December, 1936, of a broken British heart. It was said that she was so upset by the abdication of King Edward VIII two weeks previously that she stopped eating, succumbing to a heart attack, although newspapers have said her heart failed from bronchitis. She was buried in St. Marylebone Cemetery, now known as East Finchley Cemetery. Her epitaph reads: “She was one of England’s greatest patriots and her generosity was unbounded.”