25 September 2015

Open Topics: The Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls (1877 - 1910)

By Anita Davison

Whilst researching prominent Edwardian characters for my next cosy Mystery, Murder at St Philomena’s – which hasn’t been submitted to my publisher yet, but one can dream – I  came across an archetypal upper class young man whose name most people have heard of but little is known though his name graces the radiators of some of the most exclusive cars in the world.

The Hon Charles Stewart Rolls was an impressive 6ft 5ins tall, handsome and from a wealthy family. Instead of leading the life of an Edwardian aristocrat, he was an adventurer at heart, making a significant contribution to both aeronautics and transport.

Charles was the third son of John Allan Rolls, 1st Baron Llangattock, an Army officer, Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire. Their country home was The Hendre, [Welsh for Winter Dwelling or main house] near Monmouth.

Charles’ eldest brother, John Maclean Rolls was destined to be the 2nd Baron Llangattock but died of wounds received at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The second son, Henry Allen Rolls, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) who was wounded in WWI and died Sussex, in 1916. A daughter, Eleanor Georgiana Rolls married Sir John Edward Shelley, the sixth Baronet Shelley and died in 1961.


Charles was always fascinated with engines and electronics. In his teens installed a dynamo at The Hendre, and wired part of the house before entering Trinity College, Cambridge. At 18, Charles went to Paris, where, with his father's assistance he bought a 3 3/4 hp Peugeot Paris-Bordeaux Phaeton for £225 - the first ever car based in Cambridge and one of the most powerful available at the time. When he took the 140mile trip home to Monmouth in his new motor car, the townspeople waited two days and nights to catch a glimpse of him as he drove over Monnow Bridge- only the third car owned in Wales.
Rolls in his 8hp Panhard Lavassor 1900

Charles left university in 1898 with a degree in Mechanism and Applied Science, earning the nicknames "Dirty Rolls" and "Petrolls" because of his inclination to get oil on his hands from the engines. He worked on his father’s  steam yacht ‘Santa Maria’, after which he obtained a third engineer's (marine) certificate. He worked at the London and North Western Railway at their main locomotive engineering workshops, the largest limited company in the world at the time.

In 1896, he joined and a group of auto enthusiasts campaigned against the 4mph speed limit, after which it was increased to 12 mph. He was one of the founding members of the Automobile Club of Great Britain in 1897 where he served until his death. Rolls had a reputation for being very careful with money, didn’t over eat and drank alcohol in moderation. An enthusiastic racing driver, his first motor race was in France in 1899, finishing fourth in his class, driving an 8hp Panhard and Levassor.

Despite the inaugural London to Brighton Run in November 1896 there were still few automotive vehicles on the roads of Britain, so in 1900, Lord Northcliffe organised a ‘Reliability Run' over 1,000 miles from London to Edinburgh and back. This was intended to show detractors of the ‘horseless-carriage’ that the internal combustion engine could replace horse power.
The drivers had to deal with bumpy, unmade roads, with no signposts; in open cars whatever the weather. No windscreen, and little more than a pram-hood for the protection of the driver and passenger, who wore 'autocoats', hats and goggles. Charles drove his Panhard Levassor and won the gold medal for best car in any class. Frank Hedges Butler, wine merchant and 1st hon. Treasurer of the RAC, took part, accompanied by his daughter, Vera, who became Charles Roll’s girlfriend. In 1902, the pair were on a drive when they collided with a horse-drawn trap in traffic from the Barnet Fair!
Vera Hedges Butler, Charles Rolls Girlfriend

That same year, Charles started one of the first car dealerships in Britain. With £6,600 of financial backing provided by his father, C.S. Rolls and Co began importing and selling high-class French Peugeot and Belgian Minerva cars through their ‘showroom’ premises in Fulham, London.

In June 1902, Charles entered the  Paris-Vienna three-day race covering 990km - legendary as being one of the toughest because it included the Arlberg Pass, a 6000ft climb up a wagon road, crossed by drainage ditches; and a dangerous decent which burnt out brakes and caused more than a dozen accidents!

In February 1903 Rolls competed in the fateful Paris to Madrid town-to-town race which claimed the lives of thirty-four drivers and spectators. He held the unofficial land speed record in 1903 piloting his 80hp Mors, a French car which he imported and distributed, to nearly 83 mph along the course in the Duke of Portland’s Clipstone Park.

After a slow start, Rolls’ business was doing well and he opened a showroom in Brook Street in the West End of London. His friend John Scott Montagu, edited and owned a magazine called ‘Car Illustrated’. Rolls wrote for the magazine which ran advertisements for his cars.

In April 1903 the team GB Gordon-Bennett trials were held in Buckinghamshire, though Charles didn’t make the team. He entered the 800 mile race from Paris to Madrid in May which was intended to be a triumph of speed but ended at Bordeaux in chaos and disaster.

Despite starting the faster vehicles first, the disparity of speeds meant there was over-taking on the road. Due to a lack of rain, the first cars raised huge clouds of dust which hampered the vision of the following drivers but also the crowd, some of whom strayed onto the roads trying to get a better view of the oncoming cars and several were run down.

On 4 May 1904, Charles met Frederick Henry Royce at the Midland Hotel in Manchester to discuss selling Royce motor cars. Royce was fifteen years older and had worked hard all his life, unlike the wealthy Charles. Royce found he had little in common with the handsome aristocrat, yet they still became friends. Royce wanted to build the best cars, Charles wanted to sell the best, and both wanted them to be British.
Original Logo

Legend has it that when Royce showed Charles his motor car, he climbed aboard and asked Royce to go ahead and start her up, Royce replied, “My dear fellow, she’s already running!”

Charles borrowed one of Royce’s cars for his return journey to London; where he announced he had:-“...found the greatest motor engineer in the world”.

Thus Rolls-Royce was born; the first cars offered to the public in December 1904. Charles was appointed Technical Director at a salary of £750 per annum with 4% of any profits over £10,000. As a board member he provided financial backing as well as technical and business expertise.

In 1906 Rolls won the Tourist Trophy and also broke the Monte Carlo-to-London record.  When the staff at the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby heard the news, they hoisted Henry Royce aloft in triumph.

That same year, Rolls exhibited Rolls-Royce cars at the New York Motor Show and was introduced to the Wright Brothers.


Charles’ first ascent aboard a balloon, was on the ‘Wulfruna’  in 1896 on a sixteen mile flight from Crystal Palace to Epping Forest.

In 1901, Vera Hedges Butler had arranged a trip for her father, Frank,but before they were due to set out, Vera’s Renault 4.5 caught fire and the trip was cancelled. Instead, Charles suggested a trip with their friend Stanley Spencer in Spencer’s balloon, ‘City of New York’. They took off from Crystal Palace and whilst sipping champagne over Sidcup, Kent, discussed starting an Aero Club along the lines of the Royal Automobile Club, but allowing women as equal members. They leased a clubhouse at 119 Piccadilly, which it retained until 1961 and in 1910 became the Royal Aero Club.
Charles Rolls with Frank and Vera Butler Hedges

Every weekend, weather permitting, he and his friends, and his girlfriend, Vera, could be seen at The Hurlingham Club  at Ranelagh, or the Crystal Palace to ascend in balloons.

The Club membership quickly grew to nearly three hundred, The Hon. Lady Shelley – Charles Roll’s sister, Eleanor, was a member as well as being a keen motorist. The club owned three balloons where trips were charged at two guineas each. Races, contests, and exhibitions of aeronautic subjects and machines were held in the Club grounds.

Charles’ friend, Leslie Bucknall, invented a sport where balloons were chased by motor cars; originally intended to show the military that despatches could be moved more quickly by balloon.

In January 1903, Bucknall’s balloon Vivienne II, left from Prospect Park, Reading with Bucknall, Charles and Frank Hedges Butler on board. The pilot tried to bring the balloon down beneath the cloud cover so the cars could see to follow it. They descended too fast, only stopping in time to avert disaster to the passengers, although Vivienne II  was destroyed by the rough landing. Subsequently, Charles made over 170 balloon ascents and in 1903 won the Gordon Bennett Gold Medal for the longest single flight time and held the record for the Paris to Berlin flight.

His interest turned from balloons to powered flight, and in April 1910, he purchased the French Wright with a Wright Bariquand engine - not Rolls-Royce powered because Royce was yet to design a Rolls-Royce aero engine. Together with the Wright brothers in America and the Short brothers, balloon makers to the Club, Charles acquired a Wright license for the first aircraft production line in the world at Leysdown and later at nearby Eastchurch.

From 1910 the Royal Aero Club, issued Aviators Certificates, Charles Rolls was issued with Certificate No 1. The Club trained most military pilots up to 1915, when military schools took over.

On June 2nd, 1910, Rolls flew his Wright biplane across the English Channel to France, was spotted over French territory without permission, and returned to England without landing. The trip was the third Channel crossing by air, Bleriot having made the first, and Jacques de Lesseps the second. Charles became the first man to fly non-stop across the English Channel both ways.

On the 12 July 1910, around twenty of the world’s most famous aviators travelled to Hengistbury Head, at Christchurch, Dorset which attracted approximately 2,000 visitors.

With a gusting wing speed of 20 to 25 mph, Charles came in to land. He shut off his engine, intending to glide in a broad circle down onto the target spot. He saw he would undershoot, so pulled back the controls to lift the nose and began a turn, when a stiff wind hit his plane beam-on.

Witnesses report they heard a crack and saw the two rear rudders break loose from the tail plane which bent upwards, crumpled and snapped off. Parts splintered and fell from the aircraft as the tail boom broke away. The machine overturned and nose-dived into the ground.
Roll's Crashed Plane

Although Rolls fell only 20 feet, he fractured his skull, and died in the arms of a distraught friend, US colonel and aviator Sam Cody.   He was 33 years old

Charles was Britain`s first aircraft fatality in a powered aircraft, and the eleventh internationally. Lord Montague of Beaulieu interrupted his speech in the House of Lords to announce his death. Charles was buried at St. Cadoc's Church on 16 July 1910. He had a philosophical outlook towards the danger he courted, saying:

“All good engineering calls for casualties—so why not?”

As a symbol of mourning, the intertwined “RR” logo on the Rolls-Royce radiator plate was changed from red to black and his name retained as a mark of respect.

Rolls-Royce History