Brooklands Women: Ethel Locke King

Part of a blog series about Brooklands Women: the amazing women linked to Brooklands who pushed boundaries and achieved incredible things.

First up is Ethel Locke King, who oversaw much of the track's construction at Brooklands and was a vital member of the Surrey division of the Red Cross during World War One.

Ethel was born in 1864 in Hobart, Tasmania where her father, Sir Thomas Gore-Browne, was governor. As a result, she had a not inconsiderable fortune but was not willing to satisfy herself with the normal pursuits of society ladies. She married Hugh Locke King in 1884 and they set off almost immediately to Cairo due to Hugh's weak health. It was here, near the pyramids at Giza, that they embarked upon their first adventure. Discovering the old hunting lodge of the Khedive Ismail (governor of Egypt), it seems to have been Ethel's idea to turn it into a hotel. This was duly done, with fireplaces added and the décor completed in a sumptuous style, and Mena House Hotel was opened. It appears to have run at a loss, perhaps a foreshadowing of the financial troubles to come, but it was certainly an ambitious project.

This ambition was to rear its head once more in 1906 when Hugh decided to build a motor racing circuit at Brooklands. As a keen motorist, and a forthright woman by contemporary accounts, it seems likely that Ethel encouraged this scheme. According to her nephew, Stewart Gore-Browne, she travelled out to Turin herself to bring back her newly bought Itala 'Bambo', which had won the inaugural Targa Florio in 1906, demonstrating her confidence and interest in driving matters.

Construction of the Brooklands track began in summer 1906 but by December, as costs mounted far beyond anticipated levels, Ethel was in charge. Letters between her and her associates show that she was taking extremely tough financial decisions about whether to cut their losses and lose everything or invest further, gambling with money they did not really have.

The track opened on 17th June 1907 with Ethel leading a single-file procession around the track in her Itala car, that is until the drivers broke rank and started an impromptu race around the world's first purpose-built motor racing circuit. Ethel raced again at Brooklands in the Ladies' Silver Bracelet Handicap in 1908, the first women's race at Brooklands, crossing the line in second place behind Muriel Thompson.

Ethel’s organisational skills came to the fore once more as the First World War loomed. As the Vice President of the British Red Cross in Chertsey and, from 1915, Assistant County Director, she played a key role in preparing citizens for war and providing medical facilities for wounded soldiers. To demonstrate the skills and preparedness of the Red Cross’s Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), Ethel organised an Army Field Day in 1914 before war actually broke out. At the time, it was thought that the Territorial Army (TA) would stay in Britain to defend her in case of invasion and the VADs would provide first aid to the TA. Obviously, we now know that the war panned out very differently. The scenario played out was that the German invasion had landed in Sussex and was pushing the retreating British troops back towards London, where they were holding the line on the Surrey Downs. The Red Cross were responsible for arranging a clearing hospital, four rest stations, a stationary hospital and a base hospital; all set within the Brooklands race track which was standing in for the greater distance from Weybridge to London. Queen Alexandra attended along with her sister, Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia, and a number of other dignitaries. The day was a great success and Ethel was congratulated by Queen Alexandra for her work organising it.

Her administrative prowess was further displayed once war was declared. Ethel set up fifteen Red Cross hospitals in Surrey and was Commandant of twelve to fourteen, requiring her to run the non-medical aspects of the hospitals. She also co-ordinated all the donations to her division and her Red Cross card describes her hours of work as “All day & most of the night as well”. Her tremendous work earned her an appointment as Dame Commander of the British Empire, bestowed by George V on 1st January 1918.

If you would like to find out more about Ethel, visit our temporary exhibition in the Billiard Room celebrating her life and achievements.

By Abi Wilson

Orginally published in the Collections Blog in April 2017

Ethel Locke King (right) and a Red Cross nurse at Brooklands House military hospital.

Ethel and Hugh Locke King in the Paddock with a Napier car after S F Edge's 24 hour run.

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