By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria
To celebrate Victoria’s centenary in 1934, well-known philanthropist, businessman and he of Cherry Ripe fame, Sir Macpherson Robertson, sponsored a trail-blazing air race from Mildenhall RAF Base in East Anglia to Melbourne.
It was promoted as “The World’s Greatest Air Race” and there was plenty of incentive to take part – a magnificent gold trophy, gold medals for participants and prizes valued at £15,000. (The relative value today is about $1.3 million.)
Twenty entrants left England in October 1934, destined for the finish line at Flemington, a distance of 18,200 kilometres, with compulsory stops at Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville. Only 12 aircraft made it, the winning British team of Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black arriving in just under three days.
Up to 100,000 excited Melburnians flocked to Flemington Racecourse mid-afternoon on Tuesday, October 23 to watch the winners cross the finish line in their specially designed racing aircraft, a crimson De Havilland Comet. The newspapers of the day described the plane “flashing out of the sky like a fiery particle” as the ecstatic crowds whistled, cooeed and cheered.
No further celebration was planned until the prize giving at Laverton several weeks later, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor believing that a parade through Melbourne’s streets would draw attention away from what was a key part of the state’s Centenary celebrations. He soon succumbed to public pressure and you see here some of the seven cars in the lunchtime parade (held on Wednesday, October 31), wending their way through huge crowds as they moved from Bourke St into Swanston St on their circuitous route to Parliament House for a state government luncheon. The Herald reported that “in a riot of flowers, cheers, streamers and milling thousands, 14 airmen passed by, bewildered, nervous, but very proud.”
The airmen were treated like film stars and the sound must have been deafening as the crowds roared their approval as the cars drove past. The first car you see here in this image from the State Library of Victoria’s Picture Collection, held the British team. The car behind them, just turning from Bourke St into Swanston St, held the second place-getters, the crew of the Dutch DC-2 Uiver. And behind them, the American Boeing crew whose car is surrounded by spectators.
There were actually two races – a speed race and a handicap race – and if you want to know more about this exciting moment in Melbourne’s history, the RHSV’s current exhibition Tales from the MacRobertson International Air Races features stories that are full of the romance of the skies and derring-do worthy of Biggles himself.
A particularly spectacular story is that of the second-place getter, the Dutch KLM plane Uiver, which made an emergency landing in Albury during a wild electrical storm, helped by locals who used the town’s lights to flash out the name of the town in Morse code while others lit the make-shift airfield (the race-track) with car headlights to guide the plane to safety.
One of the more unusual stories is that of Harold Brook, a novice pilot with only 100 hours flying experience. He was accompanied by a paying passenger – 28-year-old Ella Lay, herself a pilot, who knitted her way to Australia, remained here, trained as a nurse and enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service during World War II.
The youngest pilot, the only solo flier in the race, and one of the few Australian entrants, was 7th place-getter, 21-year-old C.J. (Jimmy) Melrose, whose De Havilland Puss Moth was named My Hildegarde after his mother who had funded him. He won second place in the handicap division.
And, of course, there were those who didn’t make it. Australian pioneer aviator Horrie Miller engaged James Wood and Don Bennett to fly the race but they came unstuck in Aleppo. As Bennett told the story in his autobiography, they “… hit the ground with a fair wallop and the undercarriage collapsed; down she went and the nose went in as we whipped over on our back. I was in the tail of the machine and my velocity from one end of the cabin to the other was remarkable. Even more astounding was the degree of ‘concertina-ing’ of my body which took place at the far end.” That was the end of their race.
The Tales from the MacRobertson International Air Races exhibition is on at the RHSV Gallery Downstairs, 239 A’Beckett St, Melbourne, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday through to mid-September 2021 •