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Lady Lucy Houston, Crazy Lady, Savior of the Merlin engine, Spitfire, Hurricane, Battle of Britain

There’s less than a week to go before my book gets published. Pencils are being sharpened, electrons are flying, and the defluxificator is, well, defluxificatorating. Or to put it another any there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to make it. My female lead still has the teeniest bit of an attitude, so while I’m still dodging her punches, let’s look at another great crazy lady.

The kind of crazy I’m thinking of is the sort that has moxie, the sort that leaves you in awe, the sort that looks at the improbable, the dangerous, and the impossible, and gives it a go anyway. The sort that has such a belief in their ideas they will go to any length to see them realized. And only when their realized do people understand how great they were.

The week we’ve got a star, in fact, probably my favorite crazy lady. I’d go so far as to say that without her it is very likely The Battle of Britain would be remembered as a great Luftwaffe victory, there would be even less of “the few,” and the outcome of the Second World War would have been very different. What’s more she did all this and she wasn’t even alive by the time the war started.

This year the Battle of Britain will be 73 years old. Less than 100 people who fought in the skies over Britain are alive today. In 1940 there were 2,946. They are the people Churchill referred to as “the few.” Their achievement was monumental. Hitler had swept through Europe and was waiting for Great Britain to capitulate. When it became apparent Britain was going to resist, Hitler ordered invasion plans, named Sea-Lion, to be drawn up.

Whether the plans were feasible or even actually done, the first phase of any invasion was determined to be ariel superiority, and the Luftwaffe gladly accepted the task. After all, they had experienced pilots fresh from combat flying better aircraft (and twice as many of them), along with commanders from the most successful pilots of WW1.

The RAF and the whole of Europe knew conflict was coming long before 1940. Hitler brought back the awful memories of World War I. The war to end all wars had left much of the world traumatized. Preparing for a further conflict was daunting, but Hitler’s expansionist ambitions made the defense of Britain essential. Despite the (mainly financial) reticence, there were some who knew the coming conflict would have little to do with WW1. They knew the coming ariel conflict would be require a holistic development of not only the aircraft, but communications, command and control, training, and much more. These people not only knew this, unlike Hitler’s Sea-Lion, they planned and executed their ideas to deal with the coming fight.

The RAF entered the battle with the Spitfire and Hurricane as its principal fighter aircraft. The Spitfire emerged from the battle with the fame, even though it was the Hurricane that did the bulk of the work.


If there is one memory that can still be re-lived from the Battle of Britain it is the sound of the Spitfire in flight; it’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine makes a unique, fat, thundering roar that speaks of power and serious mechanical engineering. It is one of the things that makes the Spitfire, the Spitfire. It also makes the Hurricane, the Hurricane, because they both use the same engine, and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight still regularly flies both aircraft.

The Merlin also made the Mustang, the Mustang, so in a way it filled all the most important allied fighters.

Mustang P51, Merlin engine, Lucy Houston, WW2

How the Merlin got that fat, thundering sound is a story in itself, but one vitally important part involves a lady, and definitely a crazy lady at that.

This particular lady was born Fanny Lucy Radmall, in 1857. She was the ninth of ten children, became a chorus girl, and eloped at the age of 16 with a member of the family that owned the Bass brewery. He was twice her age, but beer being what it is in Britain, rich. He died within a few years and left her 6,000 GBP a year for life (let’s just call it a fortune in 1882 money).

Fanny went on to marry a Lt Col Sir Theodore Francis Brinckman in 1883, but they divorced in ’85 after what was described as a “long separation.” Quite what constitutes a “long separation” when you’re not even married two year, I don’t know, but it didn’t worry Fanny, she got on with life and found husband number 3.

Baron Byron fell for her charms in 1901. He possibly also fell for her money as he was bankrupt. Either way Fanny became Baroness Byron (of the same family that counted the romantic poet Lord Byron among it’s ranks). During her marriage to Byron, Fanny became politically motivated and an active suffragette. She also realized she could use her wealth to achieve things she believed in, such as in setting up a home for nurses that had served in WW1. The good Baron passed away in 1917.

When Fanny married for the fourth time she picked an MP and shipping magnate, Sir Robert Houston (making her Lady Houston). Sir Robert is described as a “hard, ruthless, unpleasant bachelor” in an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He must have mellowed when he married, because when he showed Fanny his will, leaving her just one million pounds, she tore it up, disgusted that it was not enough. He died a couple of years later he left her every penny he had, 5.5M GBP.

Lady Houston started to put her money an influence to work. She was a staunch patriot. She had strong opinions on the handling of the recovery from the economic collapse of the late twenties which were at odds with the Labour (socialist) government of Ramsay MacDonald, and she wasn’t shy in making them known.

At one time, she offered 200,000 GPB to help support the Army and Navy (MacDonald refused) At the same time she was paying to have numerous of his government meetings disrupted by invading their meeting rooms. Later she sailed around the UK in her sizable yacht with an electric sign in the rigging that read


It must have been a sight to see.

During this time she found another cause to support, one that appealed both to patriotism and her dislike of the government. It also appealed to her love of aviation.

In 1911, Jacques Schneider set up the Schneider trophy, with a prize of 1,000 GBP for the fastest speed over a triangular course. Competitions were held every two years and any aero club winning three times in succession would retain the cup. In 1929, Britain required just one more win for victory. The great depression culled entrants for the 1931 race with only France and Italy indicating they “might” compete. In the UK the Air Ministry refused to fund an aircraft, the use of RAF pilots, or the holding of the event. But, In January 1931 the Royal Aero Club offered to raise funding if the MacDonald government would rescind it’s ban.

To place additional pressure on MacDonald, Lady Houston offered £100,000 to cover any expenses beyond what the Royal Aero Club had offered. She also published a letter stating “Every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit England could not afford to defend herself.”

The stuffy “men from the ministry” were unimpressed, but after considerable pressure and public humiliation, the government, and hence Air Ministry, caved and the race went ahead.

The aircraft used in 1929 was prepared for the race because there was no time for a new design. The 1929 entry was a Supermarine S.6 with a Rolls Royce R-Type engine. Supermarine’s chief designer, Reginald Mitchell, could only marginally alter the basic aircraft design, but as a result of Lady Houston’s money, Rolls increased the power output of their engine by 400 hp to 2,300 hp.

In the event only the UK entered the race, but the aircraft broke the existing record by a sizable margin.

Lady Houston’s gift helped Mitchell’s continued development of racing aircraft that would feed directly into the Spitfire, and brought engine improvements that would lead to the Merlin engine of the Hurricane and Spitfire.

The managing director Rolls Royce said of her gift, that the engine development “over the past two years is what our aero-engine department would otherwise have taken six to ten years to learn.”

When WW2 started, the Merlin, Spitfire, and Hurricane were only just ready. They were also only just competitive with their Luftwaffe counterparts. If they had required a further 6 to 10 years, Britain would very likely have fallen to the Nazis, and the world we live in today would be very different.

Hurricane 1942, Battle of Britain, WW2, Lucy Houston

Lady Houston died several years before WW2, but I think she would have been proud to know that her money was so well spent, and that her determination saved the nation. She was a wonderfully patriotic eccentric that had the courage to get things done, even in the face of the stuffy old men from the ministry. Thanks, Lucy.



(Images courtesy of Wikipedia)

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