Brooklands Women: Muriel Thompson
The second blog in our series on Brooklands Women features Muriel Thompson, the first woman to win a race at Brooklands.
Despite Ethel Locke King’s central role in the construction of the Brooklands track, and pressure from leading figures of the motoring world like S F Edge, the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club (BARC) was extremely resistant to the idea of women racing. Having based many of its rules and procedures on horse racing, the BARC argued that as female jockeys were not allowed then it would not have female drivers either. In 1908, the BARC temporarily relented and staged the Ladies’ Bracelet Handicap on 4th July 1908. This all ladies race was Muriel Thompson’s first foray onto the Brooklands track.
Seven women entered the race, although two did not start. They wore coloured scarves to distinguish themselves to the spectators, rather than the coloured jockeys’ silks worn by the men. Many also tied their long skirts around their ankles with rope because most of the bodywork of the cars had been removed to reduce weight and thus there was nothing to prevent the wind blowing their skirts up. After a race of one lap and up the Finishing Straight (3 miles in total), Muriel Thompson crossed the line in first place on her Austin ‘Pobble’. She was closely followed by Ethel Locke King on her Itala ‘Bambo’ then Christabel Ellis in third place on Arrol-Johnston ‘Guarded Flame’. A month later on 3rd August 1908, Muriel and Christabel faced off again in a match race, Muriel emerging victorious. Sadly, this was the last time the BARC allowed women to race for another two decades, and not against men until 1932, although races organised by other clubs at Brooklands allowed women drivers.
However, this was neither Muriel’s first nor last experience of motoring. Born into a wealthy Scottish shipping family, she was raised to not view her gender as a restricting factor and, at a fairly early age, was made the driver of the family car. Following her success at Brooklands, she was the chauffeur for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU, better known as the suffragettes), driving Emmeline Pankhurst on her national tour in 1909.
Determined to do her bit during the First World War, Muriel joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in January 1915 as an ambulance driver, taking her Cadillac with her as a converted ambulance, 'Kangaroo'. Travelling to Calais, Muriel worked at the Belgian military hospital called Lamarck, the British forces having rejected the FANY’s offer of support. She was personally awarded the Order of Leopold II by King Albert I of Belgium for evacuating wounded Belgian troops under fire at Dixmude. Having been second in command of the Calais convoy, on 1st January 1918, she became the commanding officer of the St Omer convoy, a joint unit of FANY and Red Cross. This unit was working close to the frontline supporting the British troops, who were finally accepting the FANY’s help, as the German advance took its toll.
On 18th May, Thompson’s unit saw a particularly grim night. Called out to tend to the civilian wounded following a bombing raid, the women worked unrelentingly to rescue casualties despite a second raid dropping shells all around them. They then proceeded to clear casualties from an ammunition depot that had been hit as explosions continued to go off. Muriel Thompson was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Military Medal for her work on that night, with a further fifteen Military Medals and two Croix de Guerre awarded to other members of the unit.
Muriel does not appear to have returned to motor racing after the war. However, her abilities with cars undoubtedly played a huge role in her life and made her a trailblazer both at Brooklands and elsewhere. She died in London in 1939 from encephalitis lethargica (‘sleeping sickness’).
Muriel Thompson winning a steering contest.
Muriel Thompson winning the Match Race against Christabel Ellis on 3rd August 1908.