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Tales from Brooklands: Major R.C.Empson

06 February 2021

In this Tales from Brooklands, volunteer Stuart R McRae shares the story of his grandfather, Brooklands racer and motoring correspondent Major R.C.Empson.

'I am often asked by visitors why I became a volunteer at Brooklands. People are quite intrigued when I tell them that it was mainly because my grandfather raced here pre and post First Word War. He was Reginald Calvert Empson, later Major R.C.Empson.

According to the Brooklands archive, his first two races were on the 18th April and 9th May 1908 driving an 8hp Sizaire.

He did not race again until after WW1, having survived the fighting serving with the Royal Field Artillery in France and Belgium, including battles at Ypres and the Somme. He was invalided out for a short time following a gas attack. He quickly rose to the rank of Major and was awarded the Military Cross for his service.

He had married Sara Hyman in 1905 and my Mother was born in 1909. They were divorced in 1927 and he got remarried to Agnes Blois in 1928, a stage entertainer who performed under the stage name Stella Pierres.

He returned to Brooklands in 1920 taking part in 8 races that year in a single-seater AV Cycle Car he named 'ICANOPIT', which he drove to victory on 10th July 1920. He also took part in a number of trials and rallies driving AV, a Couch, a 9hp Webb, a 25hp Bentley and a Cluley. Over the years he competed in a total of 19 races at Brooklands.

His last race was on August Bank Holiday 1933, the same day that John Cobb first raced the Napier-Railton. The race was for pre-WW1 Brooklands drivers, all in 1087cc MG Magnas, and he finished 2nd. In 1933 he also gained his pilots licence at Brooklands, in the Flying Clubs Gipsy Moth. He owned a converted Bristol fighter F2B.

He became a motoring correspondent for the Daily Sketch alongside fellow Brooklands racer Kay Petre. On the 20th January 1939 he was returning from covering the Monte Carlo Rally with Kay Petre. She was driving when they collided with a lorry at a crossroads at Amberieu-en-Bugey near Lyon in France. My grandfather was killed instantly and Kay was badly injured. The accident resulted in Kay and the lorry driver being charged with manslaughter, but no further action was taken as she had returned to the UK and the Second World War had broken out.

My grandfather's widow started proceedings against Kay Petre and after a long battle received an out of court settlement of £4,000 (worth nearly £183,000 in today's money).

I was born in 1943 so never met my Grandfather. I am sure it would have been great to talk to him about his life and times and can imagine he had some wonderful stories to tell.

My lasting legacy was that my mother gave me the middle name Reginald.

So volunteering at Brooklands I can walk in his footsteps.'

Stuart R McRae, Brooklands volunteer

Major R.C.Empson in ICANOPIT

Reginald and Stella with the converted Bristol fighter

My grandfathers family and friends paid for a memorial to be erected near the accident site. The inscription read:

IN MEMORY OF
MAJOR R CALVERT EMPSON
A VERY GALLANT SOLDIER AND SPORTSMAN
KILLED JANUARY 20TH 1939
R.I.P

I often wonder is any trace of the memorial still exists as I would like to visit the site, but I tend to think that it may well have been destroyed during the ravages of WW2.