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Tales from Brooklands: Florence Blenkiron

24 April 2021

In our next Tales from Brooklands, volunteer Mike Forbes is sharing the story of motorcyclist Florence Blenkiron.

Florence Blenkiron was a most remarkable woman. Not only was she the first woman to gain a Gold Star for exceeding 100mph for a lap of the Brooklands Circuit, in 1934, but with Theresa Wallach, she rode a motorcycle and sidecar from London to Cape Town in 1935. While her later story might not be so spectacular it nevertheless strengthens the claim that she was one of the great unsung heroines of her time.

Florence was raised in North Yorkshire and moved to London to be the secretary to a businessman. She started racing in 1928 and in 1933 won the first race at Brooklands in which women and men competed on equal terms, the next year gaining a Brooklands Gold Star for lapping the circuit at over 100 mph. She became good friends with Theresa Wallach during this time.

At about this time Florence and Theresa began discussing riding a motorcycle and sidecar from London to Cape Town, South Africa. Phelon and Moore Ltd of Cleckheaton, Yorkshire were persuaded to provide a suitable motorcycle – a Panther Model 100 single cylinder 600cc especially suited for hauling a sidecar – and Watsonian donated a sidecar and trailer. On December 11th, 1934 the heavily laden ensemble, now called ‘The Venture’, received a grand send‐off from London.

Theresa recorded their experiences and these were used by Barry Jones who, with further discussion with her, published ‘The Rugged Road’ in 2001. In a second edition (Wallach, 2011) he has added more detail. Theresa took a cine camera and the 32-minute film of the Rugged Road can be watched on Youtube.

Florence was more than just Theresa’s companion; she did a lot of the organisation for the trip. When communications permitted Florence filed reposts to the Press in England and the newspaper reports were followed with great interest.

The crossing of the Channel and the drive through France to Marseilles were uneventful and after a 36-hour crossing to Algiers, they obtained a permit to cross the Sahara Desert. On 26th December 1933, they set off across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert. Punctures were frequent on the rough roads and the sand was frequently soft and much effort was spent pushing the machine. There were many delays obtaining permission to continue across the desert, the local commanders being sceptical about the two girls’ ability to survive the arduous conditions.

The journey across mountains and desert was achieved by determination, punishing hard work and patience. Perhaps the most frustrating time was when in the desert a con‐rod bearing failed and the engine ground to a halt. After considerable pushing and with help from locals with horses they reached an oasis where they were stranded for over a month waiting for spare parts to reach them from P&M in England. By the time they reached Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) “… the entire machine was now held together by nuts and bolts taken from wherever they could be spared. … In addition to wire, string and rubber bands (cut from used inner tubes) we used our initiative – chewing gum was used to seal leaks in the fuel tank and water container.” (Wallach 2011)

The rest of the trip was easier though still fraught with problems, passing through Kano (Nigeria), Kampala (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Victoria Falls (Southern Rhodesia) and Pretoria (South Africa), reaching Cape Town on 29th July 1935. The total distance had been about 7,000 miles.

The intention was for the pair to return on a similar route to that taken south. However, Theresa was exhausted and returned by sea, leaving Florence to start the return journey on a replacement ‘bike and sidecar, Venture II, sent by P&M to Cape Town by sea. She left Cape Town alone, without a trailer, on 18th September. There is little detail of this journey as Florence, unlike Theresa, did not keep a diary. Unsurprisingly, there were problems with the ‘bike: the press mentioned broken valve springs, punctures and the fracture of a chassis tube on the sidecar. By January 1936 she had reached Kano, Nigeria at which point she reluctantly decided to abandon the solo journey and took the desert bus for the three-week journey to Algiers with the combination in tow, and eventually arrived in London in April 1936. For a woman on her own, this return journey must have been just as epic as the outward trip by the two ladies. Florence was something of a celebrity on her return and gave a lecture to the International Motorcyclist Touring Club in London in February 1937. Her motorcycle was shown at the Selfridges store and several photographs appeared in the motorcycling press.

From June 1936 to December 1938 she ran tours with her own Austin 18 all over the British Isles and Continent. Then she travelled to Australia and again worked as a companion‐chauffeuse, taking clients all over South East and Northern Australia.

Soon after the outbreak of WW2 Florence returned to England and joined the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service in December 1939, initially doing clerical work. In October 1940 she joined the Mechanised Transport Corps leaving for Africa and the Middle East where she was responsible for collecting wounded coming from the Desert to Cairo.

July 1941 found her with the Palestine Women Drivers Unit at Mena near Cairo where she took charge of convoys of trucks and armoured vehicles, all over Egypt, Palestine and Syria and she was commissioned 2nd Subaltern (equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant) in September of that year. By May 1942 she was with the School of Military Driving and Maintenance at Mena where she was one of two officers responsible for testing drivers and teaching maintenance to ATS Palestine women, Syrian men, British and other ranks, and all United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration personnel sent to Egypt for service on the Continent, the latter having to pass a driving and maintenance course before being allowed to draw military vehicles.

Three years later she was in charge of 30 buses driven by Palestinian women in Cairo for the transportation of Army Officers between their place of residence and Headquarters and she was mentioned in Despatches.

In August 1945 she requested a transfer to India where she joined the staff of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) War Services Club in Calcutta to take charge of maintenance of a unit of eight trucks from where she transferred to Bombay to take charge of the YWCA War Services Club. Around this time she met her husband, Kenneth Kingaby, and they were married in January 1946. Kenneth was released from the British army in Bombay the following year to take up a civilian appointment as General Manager of a large multinational company with its offices situated in Bombay.

Kenneth and Florence (by now known as Margaret, another of her fore‐names) left India in May 1955 to return to England in order to take up farming in Somerset. As a result of him having a coronary thrombosis in 1959, they had to give up the farm and he took the post of an accountant on a large estate near Peterborough.

The Kingaby’s were provided with a bungalow, Windgate Way, in woodland on a quiet part of the farm, and when Kenneth retired the couple continued to live in the cottage. The estate manager during the later years of the Kingabys’ life at the estate remembers them as quiet and reserved. Even though they were neighbours, he never really got to know them but his daughter knew Florence quite well and found her to be charismatic and inspirational. She told the girl a lot about India and encouraged her to travel before settling down.

Florence suffered a very bad stroke and eventually went into a nursing home, where she died on 4th March 1991, aged 86. Kenneth stayed on his own until he also died, about a year after Florence.

Even without the Brooklands Gold Star and her ride to and from Cape Town, this is an incredible story!

Florence after winning the first combined women’s and men’s race at Brooklands in 1933

Florence Blenkiron and Theresa Wallach on the Finishing Straight at Brooklands.

Farewell from the Mayoress of Bloemfontein July 1935, Florence driving, Theresa in sidecar (Scott Abbott Trust archives)

Florence in the garden at Windgate Way (Scott Abbott Trust archives)