The new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—published on Thursday 30 May 2013—adds 60 biographies of men and women who shaped the history of British motoring. The new edition features pioneering drivers and racers; creators of marques including Aston Martin, Sunbeam, and Reliant; designers of classic vehicles such as the Routemaster bus , the E-type Jaguar, and ‘Chitty Bang-Bang’; road safety campaigners, and the founders of the AA and RAC as national institutions.
Among the 60 motoring figures now added to the Oxford DNB are:
1. Car company secretary Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt (1882-1922), the first woman in Britain to compete in a motor race (1903), and author of a pioneering manual on motoring for women (1909).
2. Administrator Sir (Ernest George) Stenson Cooke (1874-1942), first secretary of the Automobile Association, which he turned into an organization of nearly three-quarters of a million members.
3. A team of drivers, the Bentley Boys (act. 1919-1931), motoring enthusiasts and playboys, who won four consecutive victories in the 24 hour race at Le Mans in their Bentley cars.
4. Engineer Albert Arthur Molteno [Bill] Durrant (1898-1984), designer of London Transport’s celebrated Routemaster bus, introduced in 1959 and in service until 2005.
5. Executive Leonard Percy [Len] Lord, Baron Lambury (1896-1967), who introduced mass production techniques at the Longbridge and Cowley car plants , and developed the Mini.
The new edition of the Oxford DNB adds a total of 112 biographies of people active between the 11th and 21st century. As well as motorists, the new edition includes Edwin Beard Budding, inventor of the lawn mower; Leslie Green, architect of London’s red-tiled Underground stations; Robert and Frances Andrews—sitters for Thomas Gainsborough’s famous double portrait in the National Gallery, London—and Lil Bilocca, campaigner for trawler safety and leader, in 1968, of Hull’s ‘headscarf army’.
1. Motorists and motoring
Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt (1882-1922), was employed as a secretary at the Napier motor vehicle company, where her potential to promote the company’s cars was spotted. She began racing in April 1903 she took part in speed trials and long-distance reliability trials. A staunch advocate of women’s right to drive, she wrote a pioneering manual on motoring for women (1909), covering everything from driving to maintenance, with advice on choosing a car and appropriate dress for the road, and a tip to women drivers to carry gloves, chocolate, and a revolver under the driver’s seat.
Sir (Ernest George) Stenson Cooke (1874-1942) he was appointed secretary of the fledgling Automobile Association in 1905. He never learned to drive, and had no particular interest in motoring, but his forceful championing of motorists produced a rapid increase in membership, which reached nearly three-quarters of a million by the eve of the Second World War. He organized the patrols which warned AA members of police speed traps, and went on to develop initiatives such as the grading of hotels. A dandy, with a waxed moustache, he took the starring role in a film on the growth of the AA, based on his own book on the organization, which highlighted his dominant role.
The team of Bentley Boys (act. 1919-1931) raced their Bentley cars to four consecutive victories in the Le Mans twenty-four hour race between 1927 and 1930, while maintaining a hedonistic lifestyle which brought to motor racing the established British tradition of the sporting amateur. The lives of twelve of the principal drivers in the team illustrate the types of figures who embodied a world of glamour, excess, and recklessness.
Albert Arthur Molteno [Bill] Durrant (1898-1984), spent his entire career working for the London General Omnibus Company, and its successor London Transport, where he became chief engineer. In the 1930s his innovations included diesel engines, power steering, and air brakes for London buses. During the Second World War he directed the design team whose Centurion tank remained in service in the British Army for thirty years. Even more long lived was his Routemaster bus for London Transport, unveiled in 1954 and in service until 2005. Designed from scratch, with a lightweight aluminium body, reliable and economical to run, it became regarded ‘the most successful motor bus ever designed’.
Leonard Percy [Len] Lord, Baron Lambury (1896-1967), began his working life as a technical draughtsman and, still in his thirties, was made managing director of Morris Motors. Here he introduced mass production methods from the USA into the firm’s Cowley factory, where the Morris Eight, the best-selling small car in Britain, was launched in 1934. He moved on to Morris’s rival, Austin, where he also modernized the Longbridge plant. In the 1950s he became chairman of the British Motor Corporation, created from a merger of the two rivals, in the face of British makers’ weakened position in world markets. At BMC he backed the development of the revolutionary Mini, launched in 1959.
Other motoring lives include:
Tamworth engineer, Tom Lawrence [Laurie] Williams (1890-1964), who worked for the Triumph Cycle Company during the First World War, making the British army’s bike for dispatch riders. He was convinced of the potential of three-wheelers and, starting in his garden shed in 1934, founded the Reliant marque, originally as a small van. In the post-war era of petrol rationing Williams adapted his idea to develop passenger cars, experimenting with new glass-reinforced plastic, before leaving the business in 1964.
Army officer George Neville [Charles] Russell (1899-1971), the son of a spymaster, had commanding roles in the British army’s transport sector during the Second World War before being put in charge of the road haulage industry in Britain following nationalization in 1947. He created British Road Services, comprising thousands of long-distance haulage businesses taken into public ownership and which he ran until 1959.
Derbyshire inventor Herbert Frood (1864-1931) was struck by the unsatisfactory stopping power of brakes on horse-drawn carriages and experimented with improvements using woven cotton, which were adopted by horse-drawn omnibuses, before he developed asbestos brakes which he marketed to motor racers. He established the Ferodo brand in 1920 and retired 1928, having created a new industry.
An army general’s daughter Gwenda Mary Stewart (1894-1990) studied to be a librarian before driving motor ambulances in Serbia during the First World War, and embarking on the first of three marriages. She took up motor cycle racing in the early 1920s and, sustained by tea and cigarettes, broke endurance records. In 1930 she moved to cars, breaking records at the Paris Montlhery track. In 1935 at a specially arranged duel at Brooklands, Stewart competed against her rival driver Kay Petre (1903-1994), and secured the ‘ladies’ lap record’ at over 135 mph.
2. Champions of outdoor living
The May 2013 edition of the Oxford DNB also celebrates exemplars and champions of outdoor living. Thomas Gainsborough’s double portrait of ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ (c.1750, National Gallery, London) is one of the most famous works in British painting. The painting depicts Robert Andrews (1725-1806) and his wife Frances Andrews (1732-1780) under an oak surveying their lands on the Suffolk/Essex border. The ODNB’s new biography of Mr and Mrs Andrews explains their association with Gainsborough and how the painting—as much a work of landscape as portraiture—celebrates the couple’s marriage and the restoration of their respective estates after a complex legal case.
Landowners on a smaller scale owe much to the Gloucestershire inventor, Edwin Beard Budding (1796-1846), now best known for his ‘mowing machine’ which he patented in 1830. Budding’s machine used a system of rotating helical blades, derived from techniques used to remove the nap from cloth. His design, which incorporated a tray to catch grass clippings, went into production in the early 1830s and became the model for lawnmowers used by generations of gardeners. One of Budding’s earliest machines is now on display in the Science Museum, London.
In the mid-18th century two men successfully took on the ‘establishment’ to assert their right to walk on common land. Today Cobbler’s Walk in Bushy Park, near Hampton Court, Surrey, commemorates the actions of the cordwainer Timothy Bennett (d. 1756) who successfully campaigned against the closing of a public walk in the park, following the creation of a royal drive to Hampton Court Palace. Bennett’s campaign has many similarities to that of the Richmond brewer John Lewis (1713-1792) who resisted attempts by George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia, to close Richmond Park to all but her friends. In 1756 Lewis brought a successful legal challenge and public access was restored. Subsequently both men have been celebrated as champions of English liberties in the face of authority, and as forebears of the ‘right-to-roam’ movement.
The Hull housewife Lillian Bilocca (1929-1988) is also remembered as an unlikely campaigner, this time to secure improved safety standards for trawler men. In early 1968, 58 Hull fishermen were killed in three shipping disasters; trawling was then governed by 19th-century legislation which required safety equipment to be bought by crew members, which few did. Reports from the time identified the mortality rate for British trawler men as five times that of the next most dangerous profession, coal mining. Bilocca organized protests by the wives, sisters, and mothers of Hull fishermen. She led what became the ‘headscarf army’ which confronted shipping owners, met with government ministers, and secured a temporary ban on fishing in Icelandic waters. The latter proved divisive in Hull, and Bilocca was lionized and abused for her stand. A government enquiry into the trawler safety began in March 1968 with the demands of Bilocca’s ‘army’ adopted in full.
Finally, on the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, the ODNB adds the biography of the architect Leslie Green (1875-1908) who designed the well-known ‘red tile’ Tube stations at Covent Garden, Russell Square, Chalk Farm, and over 40 other locations across the capital. Green’s designs were influenced by his time in Paris and used elaborately molded ox-blood terracotta tiles on the exterior. Inside Green’s stations are defined by their decorative green tiling and elegant platform signage. Green’s stations were designed and built in just 4 years and his heavy workload probably led to his early death at 33 years.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped all walks of British life from the Romans to the 21st century. The dictionary is updated three times a year with new biographies. The next update will be published on 26 September 2013 and will include a special focus on the history of Birmingham and the West Midlands, to mark the opening of the Birmingham’s new public library—the largest in Europe.
The Oxford DNB online is freely available in public libraries across the UK. Public libraries offer ‘remote access’, allowing library members to log-in and read the dictionary online—at home or anywhere—at any time. The Oxford DNB is extended in three annual updates published every January, May, and September. For further details see www.oxforddnb.com.