Brooklands Stories: Sir Henry Segrave
11 December 2021
In this Brooklands Stories, volunteer Peter Kearns explores the story of Land Speed Record holder and racing driver Sir Henry Segrave.
Born just ten years after Carl Benz patented the first horseless carriage, Henry Segrave was destined for speed. At the age of 31 he pushed the world land speed record to over 200mph. He then went on to achieve a world speed record on the water.
Sir Henry O’Neal de Hane Segrave was born in the USA in September 1896, his father was Irish, and his mother was American. At that time, of course, being Irish also meant being British. The young Henry spent his early years in Ireland and at Eton.
First World War Service
At the outbreak of the First World War, Henry Segrave joined the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, where the officer training course had been cut from two years to just three months. He volunteered to join the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, that had suffered heavy casualties and was quickly in the thick of the fighting. It is said that, as an eighteen-year-old Subaltern, he was referred to by his men as “the Lion’s Cub”.
In one offensive, he led his men into an enemy trench and confronted a German soldier. When his revolver jammed, Henry Segrave threw a belt of ammunition at the man who was shooting at him, the shot went high and hit him in the shoulder. His men rescued him, and he was returned to England to recuperate.
Henry Segrave then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He shot down four enemy aircraft in four months. In July 1916, flying a DH2 fighter, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire over the Somme. He crashed and was found at dusk slumped in his battered cockpit in a tree. He did not fly again. He later commented: “I was a rotten pilot, I always seemed to make a mess of landing."
His connection with military aviation did not, however, cease. He was the ‘pilot’ of an experimental unmanned, powered aircraft, effectively, and early drone. He was then appointed to the British Aviation Mission to the USA, following a period with the British Munitions Inventions Department. After the war ended, he served for a short period with the RAF.
Just before the start of the First World War, in 1914, a Grand Prix Opel had been abandoned at Brooklands Motor Course. After the War, racing did not restart until 1920. At the Whitsun meeting that year, Henry Segrave drove one of those Opels to win the Spring Handicap. This was the first of many race that he won at Brooklands and elsewhere.
Following his early success, a long-term relationship with Sunbeam Talbot Darracq (STD) was developed. It started with a win in a 1500cc Talbot at the first post-war long-distance race at Brooklands, the Junior Car Club (JCC) 200-mile race. At his third French Grand Prix entry, in 1923 he won in a Sunbeam. This made him the first British driver in a British car to win a Grand Prix. This was a major breakthrough for British motorsport and was a key factor in the RAC being awarded the opportunity to organise the first officially recognised British Grand Prix, which was run at Brooklands.
The Sunbeam Team continued to support Henry Segrave with Talbot Darracq cars in 1924 and 1925. In these, he entered various races including the JCC 200-mile races at Brooklands.
The first British Grand Prix, as mentioned above, took place at Brooklands in August 1926. Henry Segrave was one of the nine starters, but his Darracq suffered tyre problems and he was not one of the three finishers.
In September of that year, the JCC 200 complied with the new Grand Prix 1500cc formula. This attracted a bigger field of 23 starters. Henry Segrave won this in a Talbot. Another innovation at Brooklands, in 1927, was the ‘Double Twelve’, a twenty-four-hour race, run in two halves over two days. Henry Segrave entered but did not finish, as his Sunbeam ran out of fuel. After this, he retired from track-based motor racing to concentrate on land, and then water, speed records.
Sir Henry Segrave
Illustration by Sammy Davis of Sir Henry Segrave winning the 1923 French Grand Prix in the Sunbeam.
1926 British Grand Prix, Sir Henry Segrave in the Talbot (9)
Land Speed Records
It was in March 1926 that Henry Segrave achieved his first land speed records. This was at Ainsdale beach in Lancashire. He achieved an officially recorded 152.33 mph in Ladybird, a 4-litre Sunbeam. This record was broken a month later by J. G Parry- Thomas in the famous Babs, that had a 27-litre Liberty aero engine.
Undeterred, Henry Segrave took a new car, Mystery (also known as ‘The Slug’) to Daytona Beach in the USA in March 1927. This was a 1,000hp Sunbeam, powered by two, 22.4 litre Sunbeam Matabele V-12 aero engines. These engines had previously been used in the Maple Leaf VII powerboat, which sunk during the 1921 Harmsworth Trophy Race on the Detroit River in the USA. This was the first non- American car to try for a land speed record at Daytona. In it Henry Segrave became the first person in the world to travel at over 200mph. His officially recorded speed was 203.79mph.
Two years later, in March 1929, Henry Segrave took a new car, the Golden Arrow, to Daytona Beach. In this he recorded 231.45mph, another world land speed record. Later that month, he was at Ormond Beach Florida, to watch an American, Lee Bible attempt to break his record. Unfortunately, Lee Bible crashed and was killed. Henry Segrave never attempted another land speed record. As a result, Golden Arrow therefore only ever recorded 18.74 driven miles. It is on display along with the Sunbeam 350HP and the Sunbeam 1000HP at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu.
Water Speed Records
Already Henry Segrave was involved in motorboat racing. Soon after the incident at Ormond Beach, he went to Miami to race against Garfield Wood, who then held the world water speed record. Henry Segrave, in Miss England, beat Garfield Wood, in Miss America, becoming the first person to beat Garfield Wood in nine years.
On his return to England, Henry Segrave was knighted in recognition of his achievements on land and water.
On Friday, 13th June 1930, Sir Henry Segrave, boarded Miss England II on Lake Windermere. Also on board was Michael Willcocks, his engineer, and Percival Victor Halliwell of Rolls Royce, who had supplied the engine. The plan was to break the world water speed record.
To be accepted, it was necessary to do two runs, in opposite directions, the result is the average of the two, timed runs. The first run was at 96.41mph and the second was at 101.11mph, giving an average of 98.76, a new record was set. This information did not reach the crew of Miss England II before they decided to do a third run. Before the end of the measured mile, the boat suddenly swerved, shot out of the water, and crashed down. The crew were all thrown clear. Percival Victor Halliwell was drowned at the scene. Sir Henry Segrave and Michael Willcocks were picked up, both severely injured and taken to hospital.
Lady Segrave was able to tell her husband that the record had been broken, before he slipped into unconsciousness, from which he did not recover.
There is no definitive explanation for the accident. A large tree branch was found floating near the scene and some say the boat might have hit this. Others say that it was due to fundamental design faults in the boat. Whatever the reason, the boat was rebuilt and Kaye Don, another Brooklands ace, achieved two more world water speed records in the rebuilt Miss England II.
As well as his activities on land and in the water, Sir Henry Segrave also turned his hand to aircraft design. His wooden prototype, the Saro Segrave Meteor took to the air in May 1930. After his death, three metal versions, known as the Blackburn Segrave, were built, but the project did not progress any further.
After his death, Lady Doris Segrave established the Segrave Trophy, to recognise any British national who demonstrates “outstanding skill, courage and initiative on land, water and in the air”. It is awarded by the Royal Automobile Club and recipients have included: Malcolm Campbell, Amy Johnson, and Lewis Hamilton.
Sir Henry Segrave in the 100HP Sunbeam at Brooklands
Sir Henry Segrave travelling in Miss England II on Lake Windermere