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The showgirl and the Schneider trophy


In 1931 Britain had a unique opportunity to win the Schneider Trophy outright and bring much added prestige for British achievements with aircraft and their engines.

However, this seemed impossible at a time of worldwide depression due to outright opposition from the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowdon and Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald’s ruling that it could only take place if £100,000 was made available from private funds.

The situation was unexpectedly saved by the intercession of the colourful Lady Fanny Lucy Houston.

Born in 1857, the ninth child of a woollen warehouseman and draper who lived in St. Paul’s Churchyard, the striking-looking Lucy became a chorus girl known as ‘Poppy’. At 16 she attracted the attention of Fred Gratton, a millionaire brewer who left his wife to set up home with her in Paris, where she learned society manners by mingling with archdukes and princes and even the English King, Edward VII.  On Gratton’s death she was left with an income of £6,000.  Her social respectability was further enhanced when she married the bankrupt knight, Sir Theodore Brinkman. After their divorce she married the ninth ‘red nosed’ Lord Byron and as his wife, attended the coronation of George V.

From now onwards Lucy exhibited a keen interest in politics, becoming an active suffragette who, at one time, bought 615 parrots (in red, white and blue cages) and tried to teach them to shout ‘Votes for women’. During WW1, after setting up a rest home for nurses who had served at the front, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

After Byron’s death, while she was a guest on Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht, Lucy met the reputedly ‘hard, ruthless, unpleasant bachelor’, Sir Robert Houston, a wealthy shipping magnate, and Member of Parliament for West Toxteth.  Two years later he became her final husband who, on his death in 1926, solved any financial problems by leaving her six million pounds and his yacht ‘Liberty’.

As a self-assumed champion of the British state, in 1931 she offered the £100,000 required for the Schneider Trophy. MacDonald passed her contribution to the Royal Aero Club with his qualified approval for Britain to go ahead.

Without her help Britain would not have won the trophy nor gone on to exceed the magic 400 mph. target with a speed of 407.5 mph that inspired Henry Royce to produce an engine that eventually became the famous Merlin.                       

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