Birthplace of British Motor Racing

Bexhill-on-Sea became known as the “Birthplace of British Motor Racing” because of an event that took place in May, 1902. The story that follows is a much shortened version of the full story that could be told, but links, to reports and articles, taken from the “Bexhill Observer” at the time, will fill in the details for those interested.

The links, to those articles, appear in blue text in the relevant points in the story – just click on a link to read what the people of the day read. Important note – The newspaper images will appear with, at top right, a symbol to enlarge the image and at bottom right, a symbol to close the image and return to the text. When an image is enlarged it may be necessary to use the horizontal and vertical sliders to find those symbols

The “Bexhill Observer” was, and still is, a weekly newspaper – back in 1902 it came out on a Saturday – so reports of events could appear a week later the event, as in this case.

The 7th Earl De La Warr, Reginald Windsor Sackville, began the development of his proposed healthy, sea-side resort, Bexhill-on-Sea, in 1883. Work progressed fast and was well underway in 1896 when the 7th Earl died and the Bexhill Estate passed to his son and heir, the Viscount Cantelupe, Gilbert George Reginald Sackville, 8th Earl De La Warr, and so did the Bexhill project.

It was an idea of the 8th Earl that was to secure the town’s place in history – the idea being to bring together, in Bexhill-on-Sea, as many of the latest designs of automobiles manufactured in Europe and, by pitting them against each other in a series of speed trials, to give motor designers and manufacturers the opportunity to learn and improve their future designs.

Bexhill-on-Sea, by hosting this event, something no one had done before, gained immensely in its efforts to promote the town as a fashionable new resort; it, also, gained financially because of the number of visitors who turned up to watch – hotels and boarding houses were full for days, before and after.

The Beginning

It’s not known, for certain, when the idea came or who the person was who had that idea but the first inkling local people had would have been a report on page 4, of the Bexhill Observer, issued on 15th February, 1902, the report said, “An announcement was made, in yesterday’s “Daily Mail”, of the very greatest interest to Bexhill. It is possible that, through the enterprising action of Lord De La Ware, a great gathering of English and Continental automobilists may be held here shortly, for the purpose of testing the speed of latest designs in motorcars.”

This “great gathering” was to be organised by the, relatively, new “Automobile Club” (the Club was formed in 1897) but, in February 1902, it was not at all certain who would get the honour of hosting the trials because the newspaper article goes on to say, “Lord Suffield and the Duke of Portland have promised to permit such tests on private roads on their estates at Cromer and Welbeck, and it is possible that a similar concession will be granted by Lord De La Warr at Bexhill.” So, Bexhill wasn’t the first choice.

Another article appeared in the Observer, on 1st March, 1902, page 8, with the disappointing news – “As to the likelihood of the De La Warr Front being suitable for a kilometre speed trial, we were informed yesterday by a gentleman, who is in a position to speak with knowledge and authority, that it is extremely improbable the Club will be able to find any place in Bexhill suitable for the purpose.”

Things improved when, on 22nd March, 1902, page 5, it was reported “Two Speed Trials Arranged – Rental Guaranteed” – “Negotiations are proceeding between the Automobile Club and Lord De La Warr for the use of the Front of his lordships Estate as a racecourse for motor cars…”

“It was further decided that the race should be started at Crystal Palace; the cars to remain at Bexhill on Saturday and Sunday and return to Crystal Palace, if possible by a different route with observers on board on the Monday.”

In early April, the “Bexhill Observer” (19th April 1902, page 5) interviewed the Earl de La Warr and he said that the Automobile Races were planned for Whit Monday, the 19th of May – he gave some idea as to the planning, the entertainment that the visitors would see, and the good that the event would do for Bexhill during the forthcoming season.

The race was to start from the top of Galley Hill and finish some way short of the gates at the bottom of Sea-road; he expected vehicles would reach speeds of up to 75 miles an hour!

As to what would happen after the event, he said, “I do not think we could do better than to follow the Continental idea in such matters and wind up the day’s amusements (which will already have included concerts by the De La Warr Orchestra) with a grand Automobile Pink Domino Ball.”.

In the issue, dated 26th Apr 1902, page 5, details were given of the famous cars expected and the drivers, some of whom were the celebrity racing drivers of the day, from all over Europe.

In those days, with motoring in its infancy, there were no mass-produced cars; automobiles were mainly built abroad, on the continent, for rich men and women. Some of the drivers at the Bexhill Speed Trials were manufacturers experimenting with this new technology and their businesses were almost in the embryonic stage but they would grow into international companies. Many were rich young men and women enjoying the challenges of driving these new vehicles at high speed.

Details of the course were given – a specially prepared track extending from Galley Hill to the Kursaal Gates. In order to allow the vehicles to reach a good speed, before entering the last “flying kilometre”, it was found necessary that the cars should start some distance back, on the public road. This, however, would have raised many objections from all sources so it was decided that the cycle track should be extended to the top of Galley Hill and the start should be from there. This, by running down the hill, would allow the cars to get up to a reasonable speed before entering onto the final, flat kilometre.

A great deal of interest was concentrated on the French driver, Monsieur Serpollet and his car – he promised to do his best to bring over, for the meeting, the steam car on which he covered the kilometre at Nice at the rate of 75 mph.

Among those, also, taking part were to be:

The Honourable Stewart Charles Rolls (it wouldn’t be until 1906 that, he and Henry Royce would set up the Rolls-Royce Company).
Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe), a publisher who founded the “Daily Mail” newspaper in 1896, and the “Daily Mirror”, in 1905.

Charles Jarrott, at that time a well-known English racing driver and businessman who would go on to found (with others) the Automobile Association (AA) in 1905 – he would remain the chairman until 1922.

The “Bexhill Observer”, on page 3 of  the 3rd May 1902 publication, gave much the same information but listed the prizes to be awarded – including the “Daily Mail One Hundred Guinea Challenge Cup” for the fastest car over the Bexhill kilometre.

A “Guinea” was worth £1 1s (£1.05) and seems to have taken its name from the country of Guinea, on the coast of Africa, which was rich in gold. Rich people, and those who thought they were rich, dealt in Guineas (motor cars, fur coats, and such, for example) while tradesmen were paid in pounds. A “Guinea” is pronounced very similarly to ‘Guinness’, the name of the Irish stout.

In the “Bexhill Observer”, of 10th May 1902 (page 10), excitement was building and the newspaper told of fantastic modern things that might or would happen – timing of the races by electricity and even a proposed speed race for Ladies!

Details of the classes that the cars would be entered under were outlined and there was even going to be a 40-guinea cup awarded to the owner of the best car in appearance and design!

On the 17th May 1902, with just two days to go, and so much already revealed, the “Bexhill Observer”, on page 5, still found many things to talk about – the Bexhill “welcome” cup, amusements for “automobile lists” and others such as the De La Warr Orchestra with a Wagner concert, Mr James Coward a famous London organist, and Miss Jeanne Douste, whose theatrical company would give a performance of “Hansel and Gretel”.

The “Pink Domino Ball” was progressing admirably, many tickets having been taken up by the London contingent.

The Goodyear Company was to take over the Kursaal from midnight on Sunday and decorate the arches with lights and flowers ready for the dining – catering to be by the Sackville Hotel.

A long list of prizes and subscribers was given; officials were named; regulations of the course were listed; hints for spectators given; the order of procession and the route to be followed was all laid out – and children’s sports were laid on.

Whit Monday, 19th May, arrived but the results of the races and any report of the events would not be out until the 24th. On 24th May 1902, the “Bexhill Observer” published, as part of its normal paper, a 4-page supplement, which you can read, a page at a time, by clicking on the following:- Page 1; Page 2; Page 3; Page 4. Monsieur Leon Serpolett, as was expected, won first prize in his new car and an interview with him was reported on page 3 of the supplement.

On 31st May 1902, page 2, the Observer reported on a meeting of the ‘Press’ and they had many complaints concerning a lack of knowing what was going on and what the results were – they hoped that lessons would be learned for the next such event.

The “Bexhill Observer”, on 31st May, 1902, page 7, reported on an article in the “Daily Telegraph”, which said “As a spectacle it is difficult to imagine anything more thrilling than the sight of a car rushing past at upwards of fifty miles an hour . . . .” – something that, to us, is an everyday occurrence!

What is interesting is, the “Telegraph” journalist couldn’t see anything beyond single cars racing in speed trials against other single vehicles – and only four years away from the building of the track at Brooklands.

All things were to change, however, when, on 28th June 1902, a Mr William Mayner took the Earl to court seemingly complaining of the danger of cars racing along the streets of Bexhill and the fact that he could not get to his properties for a few days because of the barriers erected for the races.

The case was heard on 24th August 1902, at the Lord Chancellor’s Court, and reported in the Observer on 26th July 1902, page 2

The Court awarded Mr Mayner a perpetual injunction against any possible future races along that part of town so that was the end of any serious involvement in motor racing by Bexhill. The townsfolk, local businesses and hotels were surprised and greatly disappointed but there was nothing they could do.

On 2nd August 1902 (page 9), Mr Mayner was interviewed by the Observer. It turned out that his reasons for the court action was not quite as he had suggested. He was a very wealthy man who owned “whole streets” in Bexhill and two houses on the Marina, near the Sackville Hotel. These two houses, he admitted, later, “have behind them sufficient land for the building of sixteen residences, with stabling accommodation, and these would be the only houses of the class on the Marina. No gentleman keeping his horses and broughams would live within the sphere of these dangerous motor races.” It would seem that his interests lay more in protecting his future profits that the safety of the Bexhill public!

The end would have come soon, anyway, as, at a place called Brooklands in Surrey, a local landowner, Hugh Locke King, was planning to build the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, on 330 acres of farm and woodland, on his estate at Weybridge in Surrey. Work commenced in late 1906 and the track was opened in 1907.

As a final note, on 26th October 2002, in commemoration of the event, Rother District Council unveiled, on Bexhill seafront, a tubular steel sculpture representing M. Serpolett’s “Easter Egg” car – a car he designed and was famous for though not the one he drove in the speed trials at Bexhill.

A metal plaque, at the base of the sculpture, records,

1902 – BEXHILL on SEA – 2002
26th OCTOBER 2002

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