PIONEER WOMAN AVIATOR: Bruce [née Petre], Mildred Maryfree (1895–1990)

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Ken Ashworth
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PIONEER WOMAN AVIATOR: Bruce [née Petre], Mildred Maryfree (1895–1990)

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Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


Bruce [née Petre], Mildred Maryfree
Mark Pottle
Published in print: 23 September 2004, Published online: 23 September 2004, This version: 21 May 2009

Bruce [née Petre], Mildred Mary (1895–1990), motorist and aviator, was born on 10 November 1895 at Margaretting, Ingatestone, Essex, the daughter of Lawrence Joseph Petre (1864–1944), landowner, of Coptfold Hall, Essex, and his wife, Jennie Maginness, née Williams (d. 1943), an actress. She was educated at the convent of Sion.

Growing up among five brothers, Mildred Bruce learned early in life how to sail, ride, motorcycle, and drive a car. Her love of motoring was encouraged by her marriage, on 16 February 1926, to the Hon. Victor Austin Bruce (1897–1978), youngest son of Hugh Campbell Bruce, second Baron Aberdare. Victor Bruce, winner of the Monte Carlo rally in 1926, introduced her to long-distance motor touring and to racetracks, and in 1927 Mildred won the coupe des dames at the Monte Carlo rally, covering 1700 miles in seventy-two hours. In December 1927 husband and wife shared the driving at Montlhéry to set an endurance record of 15,000 miles in nine days, averaging around 68 m.p.h. They also undertook a mammoth car journey, beginning at John o' Groats and ending in London, during which they circled the western Mediterranean through France, Italy, Sicily, north Africa, and Spain. The Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce, as she was now known, speedily wrote a book on the tour entitled Nine Thousand Miles in Eight Weeks (1927); the lively narrative, noted The Times, travelled 'as competently as the motor-car which endured the long test' (The Times, 8 July 1927). In the following year she produced The Woman Owner–Driver (1928), a response to 'the growing tendency for women to drive and look after their own cars' (Bruce, The Woman Owner–Driver, inside cover).

Bruce returned to Montlhéry in June 1929 to claim a speed record for a single-handed twenty-four-hour drive, travelling 2164 miles at an average of 89.57 m.p.h. In between her record-breaking motor drives she established, in September 1928, the fastest time for a Dover–Calais channel crossing by motor boat. Her feats mirrored those of her own fictional creation Penelope, the heroine of a series of humorous short stories that appeared in Sketch. They were later collected in a book, The Peregrinations of Penelope (1930), accurately described as 'Wodehouse manqué' (Cadogan, 77). As well as conquering land and water, Penelope took to the air, and in the summer of 1930 Mildred Bruce, passing a car showroom off Bond Street, saw a Blackburn Bluebird light aircraft for sale at £550. It bore the sign 'Ready To Go Anywhere': on enquiring if the plane would travel round the world she was assured by the salesman, 'Of course … easily!' (Bruce, The Bluebird's Flight, 2). Before long she had decided to buy it and was planning to visit her mother's birthplace in New Albany, Indiana, via Japan. She learned to fly in a matter of weeks at Brooklands School of Flying and in the early hours of 25 September 1930 set off from Heston aerodrome, armed with route maps provided by the Automobile Association and forty hours of flying in her logbook. Bluebird bore the identifier G-ABDS and when one of its engineers was asked by an onlooker what this stood for he replied 'A B—y Daft Stunt' (ibid., 9). Such scepticism was general and few expected her even to manage to leave England.

The following day Bruce surprised her husband by telephoning him not from Kent but from Munich, and in the next five months she proved herself a serious aviator, covering 20,000 miles by air and averaging over 400 miles a day in forty-seven days of flying. She arrived in Rangoon on 30 October 1930, Shanghai on 15 November, and Tokyo on 24 November. From Japan she took Bluebird across the Pacific by ship and resumed flying at Vancouver, then travelled across the United States from Seattle and reached New York on 5 February. Pilot and plane then sailed the Atlantic on the Île de France and Bruce was honoured with a dinner in Paris by the Aero Club de France. On the final leg of her journey, from Lympne to Croydon on 20 February 1931, she was joined by five Bluebirds, one piloted by Winifred Spooner, and a lone Puss Moth belonging to Amy Johnson, whose flight to Australia in May of the previous year had inspired Mildred Bruce's own adventure. A sizeable crowd gathered to greet her and the under-secretary of state for air welcomed her home on behalf of the Air Council. Her flight, he said, 'testified to the nation's technical development', while her 'unpretentious efficiency' would do much to convince the public of the progress being made in air travel (The Times, 21 Feb 1931).

A series of celebratory dinners followed, including one given by the Women's Automobile and Sports Association. Flight judged Bruce's venture 'one of the most meritorious that has been made by a woman' (Flight, 182), and Aeroplane particularly praised her passage over the Annam Mountains, and the 600 mile stage along the Yellow Sea to Osaka, 'severe enough tests of navigation and nerve' (Aeroplane, 40/8, 25 Feb 1931, 337). In her own account of the voyage, The Bluebird's Flight (1931), she made light of the difficulties she had faced, prompting one reviewer to observe that readers might well underrate the courage she had shown: 'Her journey was a series of narrowest escapes' (The Times, 13 Nov 1931).

Bruce's attempt on the world endurance record in August 1932 met with less acclaim. Piloting a Saro Windhover flying boat, with an accompanying aircrew, she remained airborne for 55 hours. It was well short of the world record, but was nevertheless hailed as a British record, a point vigorously disputed in an editorial in Aeroplane. The journal considered the exercise to be of dubious technical value, and not comparable to the non-stop flight of two RAF pilots from Cranwell to Karachi in April 1929, a journey of almost 51 hours. Its tone betrayed a clear reaction against the sensational way that aviation was presented to the public:

It all comes under the generic heading of humbugging the press and the people, like putting on bogus Heroes of the Air at movie palaces, and knocking down pylons which were not hit, and claiming records for women when male pilots did the flying, and so on.

Aeroplane, 43/7, 17 Aug 1932, 332
It was a process in which Bruce had become unwittingly caught up. In November 1934 she embarked upon an ambitious flight to the Cape in an autogiro, intending to be 'home by Christmas'. She planned to cross the Sahara, and to fly by night as well as by day. These were hazardous courses even with a back-up plane and the venture was abandoned when the autogiro was damaged in strong winds approaching Nîmes.

Three years later, in 1937, Bruce founded Air Dispatch Ltd, a small Croydon-based company carrying freight and passengers. It claimed the quickest air service to France and regularly delivered London newspapers to Paris breakfast tables. During the war the company moved to Cardiff and concentrated on aircraft repair. In 1941 Bruce divorced her husband of fifteen years; they had one son. She announced her intention to stand for parliament at Stroud as an independent in 1945, but withdrew before the election. She died at her home, Croftway House, 298 Finchley Road, Hampstead, London, on 21 May 1990.

Mildred Bruce was one of the few women of her day to pursue a successful career in aviation. Her epic journey around the world confirmed to the public the stamina of women pilots, while the very casualness of her approach made travel by light aircraft seem less exceptional. It helped in the portrayal of the light plane as the ‘aerial motor car’. Both as a motorist and as an aviator she won the respect of the male establishment and after her failed endurance record bid in 1932 Aeroplane saluted her: 'she has always proved herself to be full of real courage and energy … and whenever she has been beaten she has proved herself to be a thorough sportsman' (Aeroplane, 43/7, 17 Aug 1932, 332).
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