Charles Rolls MA, FRGS, AMIMechE (27th August 1877 – 12th July 1910)
The Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls was born in London although his ancestral home was The Hendre near Monmouth in Wales. At Eton he showed no interest in academic studies and returned home where a tutor discovered his fervent interest in things mechanical. He gained entry to Trinity College, Cambridge studying mechanical and applied science. At the age of 18 he travelled to Paris and bought his first car a Peugeot – allegedly the first owned by a Cambridge scholar. He became a founder member of the Automobile Club of Great Britain – a campaigning group devoted to the freedom of the roads and the abolition of the restrictions imposed by the Locomotive Acts.
Charles Rolls was a keen cyclist at Cambridge winning a half blue and becoming Captain of the Cambridge University Bicycle Club. Via this route he was to meet the Wright Brothers who started out making bicycles. However his first taste of aerial adventure was with balloons, making 170 ascents. In 1903 he won the Gordon Bennett gold medal for the longest single flight. That same year, with financial backing from his father, he set up a business in Fulham, London to import and sell Peugeot motor cars from France and Minerva cars from Belgium. Rolls wanted to sell British-made cars but found them lacking in quality and reliability.
A friend introduced him to the two-cylinder Royce 10 and though Rolls preferred three or four-cylinder engines he was impressed with its smoothness. A meeting was arranged at the Midland Hotel in Manchester on 4th May 1904 with Henry Royce because the engineer declared he did not have time to travel to London. By December an agreement had been reached that CS Rolls & Co would take all the cars he could produce. All subsequent cars would be known as Rolls-Royces.
Meanwhile Charles Rolls became only the second Briton to venture into the skies in a heavier-than-air machine. The flight took place near Le Mans in France on 8th October 1908 and lasted 4 minutes and twenty seconds – the pilot was Wilbur Wright. Rolls bought one of six Wright Flyers made under licence by the Short Brothers, and making more than 200 flights. This was the next big thing in CS Rolls’ fervent mind and so despite the new car company winning plaudits for smoothness, design and reliability his own interest in it was waning. At the end of 1909 he resigned as Technical Managing Director to become a non-executive director – Rolls-Royce Limited having bought out CS Rolls & Co two years earlier.
Typically, Charles Rolls dived headlong into the new craze for aeroplanes. Frenchman Louis Bleriot traversed the English channel on the 25th July 1909 crash-landing at Dover so naturally CS Rolls wanted to better that pioneering flight. On 2nd June 1910 he flew a non-stop return flight across the channel taking 95 minutes to do so. For this feat he was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Aero Club. Yet the British Military saw no future potential in these flying machines. However, CS Rolls clearly demonstrated through this memorable flight that Britain was no longer an island. And many brave young pioneer airmen were to lose their lives in the 1914-18 war that followed.
A month after his epic two way cross-channel flight, Charles Rolls had died on a bleak airstrip near Hengistbury Head in Hampshire, now Dorset. An air display and competition had been organised to celebrate the centenary of the south coast holiday resort of Bournemouth and crowds flocked to see these magnificent men in their flying machines. Rolls hastily modified the tail plane of his Wright Flyer after his first flight had not brought him the accuracy he sought for a precision landing test. The tail plane broke off throwing it pilot out from some 80ft up. He died from head injuries and was trapped as the plane landed around him. He was the first Briton to die in an aeroplane accident.
Currently a modest round granite stone occupies a small corner of St Peter’s Catholic School Playing fields on the site of the crash. It is not accessible to the public. Plans are afoot for a more fitting and visible memorial at Hengistbury Head by the Charles Rolls Heritage Trust to honour this multi-talented pioneer of land and aviation transportation.
More information: The Charles Rolls Heritage Trust (formerly the Charles Rolls Memorial Trust) www.charlesrollsmemorialtrust.org.uk
Author: Brian Palmer