The Anonymous Widower

Stories of Lady Houston

I’m just watching James May’s Toy Stories about building an Airfix Spitfire.

May has got a few facts wrong about the Battle of Britain, where the Hawker Hurricane was more numerous and was more influential in the Battle of Britain.  (To the French, we are too selfish in calling that battle that name.  They made a documentary to commemorate the 25th anniversary and said it was the Battle of Europe.  If our aerial knights had lost, it would have given Hitler everything he wanted.  But the rest, as they say is history!)

I have to put one story that happened to me concerning a Hurricane.  I was flying my Piper Arrow from Staverton airport to Ipswich and to do this I had to transit the USAF base at Upper Heyford.  Just as I’d received my clearance to cross the zone, I heard a clipped accent say something like this. ‘Heyford Tower, this is Hurricane One, request transit your zone.’  The voice was all very wizard prang and the call-sign was that of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

The reply was American and slightly worried.  ‘Say again call-sign and aircraft type’.

The clipped accent replied. ‘Heyford Tower, this is Hurricane One, request transit your zone.’

The American still had no idea what aircraft he had and repeated his request for call-sign and aircraft type.  It was at this time, that another American voice broke in.  ‘Hurricane One, this is Heyford Tower, permission to transit the zone.  That’s a mighty fine aircraft you have there.  Any chance of a pass of the tower.’

‘Hurricane One.  Wilco!’

Even some Americans know how significant Sidney Camm‘s design is in the history of the UK.  Sir Sidney also laid down the design of the Harrier, which had tremendous influence in the outcome of the Falklands War.  Has any other designer helped his country in a major way in two wars forty years apart?

I didn’t see the Hurricane that day, but I have stopped by Duxford and seen one doing aerobatic practice on a crisp morning.  As someone born just after the Second World War, I felt a lump in my throat.  Do children today understand the significance of the Hurricane and the Spitfire?

But why is Lady Houston the title of this post?

Dame Fanny Lucy Houston was one of the first five Dames of the British Empire.  She was given that title for looking after tired nurses in the First World War. In Wikipedia she is described as an “English benefactor, philanthropist, adventuress and patriot”.

They also describe her relationship to Robert Houston.

Her third and final marriage, on December 12, 1924, was to Sir Robert Paterson Houston, 1st Bt., member of parliament for West Toxteth, and a shipping magnate. Robert Houston is described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “a hard, ruthless, unpleasant bachelor”. They lived as tax exiles on the island of Jersey.

When Sir Robert showed her his will, Lucy tore it up telling him that one million pounds was not good enough. Sir Robert then suffered a series of mental disorders and Lucy employed a food-taster to ensure that he was not being poisoned. Even so Sir Robert mysteriously died on his yacht Liberty on 14 April 1926, leaving his widow roughly £5.5 million.

She was described as paranoid with religious delusions and declared mentally unfit to manage her own affairs, but she left Jersey in the Liberty. She then negotiated with the British Government the payment of £1.6 million in death duties. Her political opinions were extreme (she supported Mussolini). According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography “she paid for nine by-election meetings by the British National Government to be disrupted”.

Yes!  I suspect we’d say she was a couple of bricks short of a full load.


She used her fortune to fund the defence of the Schneider Trophy in 1931. But her gift had long-lasting affects according to Wikipedia.

The gift gave Lucy Houston an opportunity to attack the Labour government, with the declaration: “Every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself.” The Prime Minister could not ignore the patriotic fervour that she generated and so yielded.

There were only nine months to prepare and so Supermarine’s designer Reginald Mitchell could only update the existing airframes. Rolls-Royce increased the power of the R-Type engine by 400 hp to 2,300 hp. The improved aircraft Supermarine S.6B won the trophy, though the technical achievement is slightly tarnished by the fact two S6Bs and an S6 were the only participants. (One S6B later broke the air speed record.)

Lady Houston’s gift provided a valuable impetus to the development of engine technology that would ultimately vital in the Second World War in particular the Battle of Britain. The lessons learned in building racing seaplanes also helped Reginald Mitchell to develop the Supermarine Spitfire. As Arthur Sidgreaves, the managing director of Rolls Royce, commented at the time: “It is not too much to say that research for the Schneider Trophy contest over the past two years is what our aero-engine department would otherwise have taken six to 10 years to learn.”

So every Merlin engine that powered the Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito and many other aircraft owed a debt to an eccentric English woman.

Would the Battle of Britain have been won, without her gift?

I’ve stood on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, but who should be there are Lady Houston, Sydney Camm, R. J. Mitchell and Henry Royce.  Three of them were dead before the Second World War, but without them Britain would have lost its most desperate battle.

We think of Royce as the second half of Rolls-Royce, but he was a self-educated engineer of genius.  Wikipedia tells this tale, about the successor to the “R” Type engine, that powered the seaplanes.

Following the success of the “R” engine, it was clear that they had an engine that would be of use to the Royal Air Force. As no Government assistance was forthcoming at first, in the national interest, they went ahead with development of what was called the “P.V.12” engine (P.V. standing for Private Venture). The idea was to produce an engine of about the same performance as the “R”, albeit with a much longer life. Royce launched the PV12 in October 1932 but unfortunately did not live to see its completion. The engine completed its first test in 1934, the year after he died. Later, the PV12 became the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and the man who had once humbly signed the visitors’ book at the RAF Calshot seaplane base as “F.H. Royce – Mechanic” would never know how his engines would go on to change the course of the Second World War.

Most will think of Rolls-Royce as a car manufacturer, but how many know that Royce was one of the most influential men of the twentieth century for what he did in the final years of his life.

But to return to Lady Houston.

My father met her and he described her as mad.  She was in bed, with red, white and blue curtains and a Union Flag bedspread.  What he was doing, I don’t know and I can’t ask him, but my father was a man who dabbled in left-wing Tory politics and somehow this may have led him to Lady Houston.

I may not have agreed with some of her politics, but…

November 1, 2009 - Posted by | World | , , ,


  1. […] then there was the odd-ball, Lady Houston. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Sir Sydney’s Magical QuestBy George! How […]

    Pingback by Sir Sydney Camm « The Anonymous Widower | December 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] have my own memories of Hurricanes and they are in this rather long post. 52.245212 […]

    Pingback by A Hurricane Over Hull « The Anonymous Widower | May 8, 2011 | Reply

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