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Tales from Brooklands: Barbara Cartland

04 April 2021

In our next Tales of Brooklands, volunteer Peter Kearns is sharing the fascinating story of Dame Barbara Cartland. Best known for her writing, Barbara Cartland was also an aviator, county councillor and welfare campaigner.

Most people have heard of Barbara Cartland, few know that she should, correctly, be known as Dame Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland, Dame of the British Empire. Fewer still know of her as a winner of the 1984 Bishop Wright Air Industry Award, as a County Councillor and champion of the Traveller community. In a full and varied life she did all of this and much more. As many people do know, she wrote more books in her life than anyone else has done to date.

It all started very promisingly; Barbara Cartland was born in Edgbaston in July 1901 to a well-heeled family. In her late teens, her grandfather and her father both died, leaving her mother to bring up Barbara and her two brothers in straightened circumstances. This she achieved by moving to London to purchase and run a clothing shop.

By the 1920’s Barbara Cartland was earning a good living as a society journalist and subsequently also a romantic novelist. She was attending the society events at places like Brooklands Motor Course. She persuaded the Brooklands authorities to set aside a reading room for ladies. When you come to visit the Brooklands Museum, you will signs in the Clubhouse to the Barbara Cartland Room. Here you will find a replica of the Ladies’ Reading Room, some artefacts owned by, or related to, Barbara Cartland and a photograph of a glider carrying her name.

In 1931 Barbara Cartland organised a party of young society women to borrow some MG cars to have a race at Brooklands. She rather romantically described this as the first women’s race at Brooklands. In reality, the first women’s race at Brooklands, the “Ladies’ Bracelet” event had taken place in 1908.

Another hobby/sport that the young society set of the time were taking active in was gliding. At the time, the launching of gliders was by a variety of methods of different levels of effectiveness. These included: bungees, starting rails, launch ramps, auto-tow, and winch. All of these provided a launch, but with relatively little altitude and resulted in quite short flights. Most were around two minutes to a quarter of an hour. Barbara Cartland was an accomplished pilot and said that such short flights were “for wimps”. She sought ways to achieve much longer flights.

She heard about some students in Germany who were using powered aircraft to tow gliders to higher launch altitudes but again not for sustained flights. Working with two RAF officers she worked out the system and mechanics to achieve not only a launch but also a sustained flight before releasing.

In 1931 this resulted in a record-breaking glider flight of 200 miles. She flew this carrying a sack of mail, thus also achieving the first glider based airmail delivery. During the Second World War large gliders initially towed by powered aircraft became an important weapon for achieving penetration behind enemy lines. They were widely recognised as a significant factor in the success of Operation Overlord (the “D Day” liberation of France). Somewhat uncharacteristically, Barbara Cartland never took any credit for her contribution to this important achievement. In 1984 she was awarded the Bishop Wright Air industry Award at Kennedy Airport, USA for her contribution to the development of aviation.

Soon after the start of the Second World War, she set sail for Canada with her two young sons, intending to keep them safely away from what was seen then as the imminent danger of invasion. She came to feel “underemployed and cowardly” and so returned to England and war work. She was appointed Chief Lady Welfare Officer to the Services in Bedfordshire. One of her particular projects involved getting married women to donate their wedding dresses to forces women who were getting married during the war, at a time of clothing shortages. She also campaigned for the welfare of all those in the RAF and specifically women working in the WAAFS.

During the War, she became a County Cadet Officer in the St. John Ambulance and continued her involvement with them, both working for them and raising funds.

After the War she went into local politics, becoming a County Councillor in Hertfordshire. Her wider political activities included arguing for better pay and working conditions for nurses and midwives and she evoked a commission of enquiry into the treatment of the elderly by the government. She also took an interest in the welfare and rights of people in the Romany community (then commonly known as gypsies). This eventually resulted in Travellers’ children attending school. The first dedicated camp for Traveller families set up in Hertfordshire was named in her honour as Barbaraville.

In the 1960’s Barbara Cartland became interested in alternative medicines and health foods. One of her books: “The Magic of Honey” was said to have caused health food shops to run out of honey. She founded, and became president of, the National Association for Health. In the 1970’s she released an album of love songs with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Throughout all this she was writing her books. She wrote 723 novels that were published in her lifetime, and 160 novels that were published posthumously. She wrote not only romantic novels; as mentioned above, she wrote on health foods, she wrote a biography of her late brother Ronald – featuring a preface by Winston Churchill, she wrote a political novel, ‘Sleeping Swords’, which was the first work of fiction to be accepted by the House of Commons library, and many others.

In 1950 she moved to Camfield Place in Essendon, Hertfordshire, once the home of Beatrix Potter’s grandparents and the setting for Peter Rabbit.

In 1981 her step-granddaughter, Diana Spencer, an avid Barbara Cartland reader, was married to the Prince of Wales.

In 1991 she was appointed as a Dame of the British Empire. This was not only for her contribution to literature but also for her work in the community and with charities.

Barbara Cartland, author, social activist, and aviation pioneer, died on 21st May 2000 aged ninety-eight and was buried beneath an oak tree planted by Elizabeth I in her private grounds near Essendon.

Peter Kearns, Brooklands volunteer

Barbara Cartland in a pink dress cutting a ribbon

Dame Barbara Cartland opening the restored Ladies Reading room at the Museum in 1990

Archive photo of the Ladies reading room, includes chairs a desk and fireplace

Ladies reading room in the Brooklands Clubhouse 1931

Vintage snapshot group of women in whites sat on a racing car

Group photo from Barbara Cartlands 1931 Ladies Race

Glider with Barbara Cartland painted on the side, group of 4 people stood beside it

Barbara Cartland with her Glider