I am so excited to share the story of a remarkable lady: the Honourable Mrs Victor Bruce. Mildred epitomises everything about the trailblazer of the period of the Bright Young Things in the Roaring Twenties.
Mildred Bruce, also known as Mary Petre, was born to the youngest brother of Lord Petre of Ingatestone Hall and second cousin to Henry Petre, who later married Kay Defries (a woman I have previously mentioned in this series). Mildred’s father was Lawrence Petre, the sixth son of the honourable Arthur Charles August and Lady Katherine Petre. Following the early death of his father, Lawrence attended a Catholic boarding school, then spent his bachelorhood roaming around Thorndon Hall – a magnificent Palladian mansion near Brentwood – with his uncle William Joseph Petre, the 13th Baron (who was also monsignor of the Vatican) and their fifteen pointer dogs.
The quintessential ‘Easy Virtue’ movie kicks in here, when Lawrence married Jennie Williams, an extroverted American actress. He visited her on the London stage and gifted her with a dazzling diamond necklace and peonies. Amongst the many exquisite bouquets were Parisian Bonnets, followed by an engagement ring. Once married, the happy couple moved back to the family seat of Coptfold Hall in Essex (one of England’s lost country houses, now demolished) and Lawrence became a keen meteorologist.
This early beginning sets the scene for Mildred and her elder brother Louis as having a rather aristocratic yet eccentric upbringing. As a girl, Mildred was gifted ponies as suggested by her mother although, despite being attached to a cart which was pulled at haste and ditched quite regularly, Mildred’s interest was always in her cousin Henry’s exploits. Mildred took a Matchless motorcycle, belonging to her brother – which she painted red to match her ribbons – and got caught speeding at the age of 15. Luckily, she was not formally charged as the officers were unable to determine her speed. So begins my fascination with this relentlessly determined trailblazer.
Mildred and her mother soon moved beside the Shoreham Aerodrome, whereupon Mildred had an affair with a flying officer and, in 1920, gave birth out of wedlock. Mildred relocated to Sussex and, despite now being a single mother, her passion for flying and speed only grew.
In 1907, Mr and Mrs Locke King opened up Brooklands as a racing circuit, and it was Selwyn F. Edge (once the owner of the De Dion Bouton motor car) who created the record attempt for a 24-hour trial as the first event at the circuit. In 1924, Mildred broke this record and it was to become the beginning of a longstanding business relationship between Edge and Mildred and, of course, her determination to break records.