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Brooklands Women: Elsie 'Bill' Wisdom

Early Life

Elsie Wisdom was born on 2nd March 1904 in London to shopkeeper Benjamin Gleed and his wife Emma. She was raised alongside her six brothers and would often participate in their games which earned her the nickname 'Bill'. This fond name given to her by her brothers would stick with her throughout her life.

At the young age of 16, she was gifted a motorcycle by her parents. Prior to this, she would ride pillion on her brother’s motorcycles. She rode her motorcycle fearlessly and with great enthusiasm despite her parents’ concerns. Deciding then that Bill would be better on four wheels rather than two, her parents bought her a GWK when she was 18. However, this car was hardly fast enough for the trials she was participating in so, three years later in 1925, Bill bought her own supercharged Lea-Francis with a top speed of 70mph when she was 21 years old.

Birth of a Racing Driver

Bill first entered a race only a week or so after the marriage ceremony albeit not by her own accord. Instead, Tommy had secretly entered her into what would be the first of many races for Bill: The Ladies March Handicap race at the Brooklands track. Elsie was furious when Tommy told her and more concerned about making a fool of herself in public than the actual risks associated with high speed races. However, Tommy managed to encourage her to participate and set a goal to win. She was further determined when Tommy borrowed a 1.5 litre Frazer-Nash specially which was easily capable of being one of the fastest in the race. She won by 3/4 of a mile with an average speed of 95.05mph.

This was only a first taste of what was to come as Bill began broadening her ambitions to partake in other races. She raced in the Junior Car Club’s Double Twelve Hour Race but had to retire as the uneven track and poor weather conditions caused the car to start faltering. Tommy also had high hopes for his wife. He believed she would be able to beat the women's lap record so bought her the 7.2 litre Leyland-Thomas single seater in 1932. Doubts were raised over whether Bill could handle the car so she had to prove she could to Brookland officials and John Cobb (world land speed record holder 1938, 1939 and 1947).

Then, in Autumn 1932, the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club (BARC) set up a Ladies Handicap race over 3 laps of the outer circuit. Bill reached 121.47mph with the Leyland. This both set a new women's lap record and qualified her for one of the prestigious Brooklands 120mph badges.

Also in 1932, Bill was partnered with Australian driver Joan Richmond for the 1000 Miles Race to be held at Brooklands. Heightening the stakes was that they were the only women in a race alongside men. Wisdom and Richmond’s Riley 9 car suffered tyre wear and problems with the brakes but still managed to finish in first place. Their average speed was 84.41mph and they finished a full 3 minutes ahead of second place. Bill went on to participate in 1933 and 1938 Le Mans, 1935 Brooklands 500 Miles Race and 1937 Mille Miglia amongst many other races.

A Few Near Misses

Despite her expertise in racing and her ability to drive cars fearlessly at speeds topping 100mph, Bill did suffer some accidents. In 1937, Bill and Tommy crashed on a road when trying to avoid a woman. Bill was left with a damaged face and Tommy with a broken leg. Then, in 1951, both crashed at a test circuit, leaving them with 3 bruised ribs each and Bill also with an injured arm.

Bill concluded her racing in 1955 after racing for over 2 decades. Elsie ‘Bill' Wisdom died on 13th April 1972 at the age of 68.

By Francesca Wingham, work experience student

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'Bill' Wisdom in the Leyland Thomas with daughter Ann alongside

Elsie 'Bill' Wisdom in the Leyland-Thomas with daughter Ann alongside

Elsie 'Bill' Wisdom (left), Miss D Chaff and Miss Lace at the LCC Relay Race in 1936

Elsie 'Bill' Wisdom in an MG K3