Racing Drivers

Penn’s Motor Racing Heritage

The graveyard at Holy Trinity Church, Penn, is unusual in that it contains the graves of no less than seven remarkable individuals who enjoyed motor racing in the 20th Century. Some were involved in the highest levels of the sport while others were very active enthusiasts at club level. None of them died participating in what is reputed to be a dangerous sport and most had long careers. In addition to being parishioners of Penn there are interesting links between them all.

  1. Francis Earl Howe 1884-1964
  2. Humphrey Cook 1893-1976
  3. Anthony Heal 1907-1995
  4. Len Gibbs 1904-1992
  5. Bluebelle Gibbs 1908-1972
  6. David Blakely 1929-1955
  7. Paddy Hopkirk 1933-2022

Interestingly Penn village continues to be a haven for racing motorists into the 21st century with Marino Franchitti among its residents.

© Oliver Heal, September 2022

This entry was first published by .

Francis Howe (1884 – 1964)

The Right Honourable Francis Richard Henry Penn Curzon, 5th Earl Howe, CBE, RD, PC, born 1st May 1884, lived at Penn House, Penn.

Francis, Earl Howe at Brooklands in 1936 wearing his trademark cap at a jaunty angle and his racing overalls with BRDC badge. (photo The Autocar)

Francis Howe came to motor sport quite late, starting to race in 1928 by which time he was 44 years old. Over the following decade he was a regular competitor in long distance sports car races such as the Le Mans 24 Hour Race and its nearest British equivalent, the Brooklands J.C.C. Double Twelve – a 24 hour race split into two halves. He and co-driver Malcolm Campbell using Howe’s Bugatti Type 43 came first in the 3 litre class in the 1930 Double Twelve Race – Howe’s first major victory. The following year was even more momentous as he won the Le Mans 24 Hour Race in an Alfa Romeo 8C with Sir Henry Birkin as co-driver.  Howe competed no less than seven times in the Le Mans event but he did not win it again. He also took part in other classic long-distance races such as the Mille Miglia in Italy and the 24 Heures de Francorchamps on the Spa circuit in Belgium.

In the 1930’s Earl Howe, built the mile-long drive to the house, suitably banked, for his personal enjoyment and convenience. (Penn House Website)

The 1931 Le Mans 24-hour-race winning Alfa Romeo. Howe, in helmet leans into the cockpit while co-driver Birkin sits on the pit counter. (photo The Autocar)

In contrast Howe was also a regular competitor in short sprint events such as Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb and the Brighton Speed Trials.

Having started in sports car racing Howe was soon also competing in international Grand Prix races appearing at Monaco, Montlhéry, Nürburgring, Avus, and Monza. He indulged his passion for the sport by acquiring some of the most delectable and desirable racing cars that represented the very best engineering developments of the period. Notable amongst these were the 1 ½ litre, eight cylinder, supercharged Grand Prix Delages that were still very competitive in what was then known as the voiturette class. With these he was on the podium at Avus in 1932 and 1933 and also at Bremgarten and Albi in 1935. He purchased from Ettore Bugatti one of the first Type 51, 2 litre, 8 cylinder Bugattis to be built in 1931 and the following year bought one of the larger 4.9 litre Type 54 Bugattis, although the latter was not a great success. In 1935,when the works were disposing of their team cars, Howe bought one of the ‘ultimate’ racing Bugattis a Type 59, considered by many to be the most elegant pre-war racing car. With this he raced at Dieppe, in Switzerland and at home finished third in the B.R.D.C. 500 Race at Brooklands and second at the Donington Grand Prix.

Earl Howe’s racing equipe at Penn House in 1932. Two Delages, two Bugattis, one Alfa Romeo, one Mercedes Benz and the Commer transporter. (Howe family)

By then Grand Prix racing was dominated by the state sponsored German teams and along with others Howe transferred his interest to the voiturette class. He acquired from Humphrey Cook an E.R.A. which he campaigned extensively for the next three years. As well as competing with this car in England and Europe he even took it to the USA and South Africa. He retired from active racing in 1939.

Howe racing his E.R.A. R8B at the Preis von Bern Race at Bremgarten in 1936 where he finished in 4th place.

Earl Howe continued to play a major role in the organization of motor racing for the rest of his life. He was President of the British Racing Drivers Club which still owns the Silverstone circuit. He was chairman of the Competitions Committee of the R.A.C. and acted as one of the British representatives to the CSI and the FIA. He is also remembered for being a member of the R.N.V.R., an M.P. and an active member of the House of Lords but that is another story.

He died on 26 July 1964 and is buried in the bottom right corner of the graveyard. Plot number 152.

Sources: Tim May, ‘Francis Howe, Motor Man par excellence’, GMS Publications, 2014.

© Oliver Heal, September 2021.

This entry was first published by .

George Slade (1886-1966) and Slades Garage

Slades Garage 1920’s

Slades Garage on the corner of Beacon Hill occupies the site of the Penn village forge that existed as far back as the first half of the nineteenth century and probably earlier.

In 1853 John Wingrove and William Brocks handed over the forge to Stephen Wingrove as part of the Manor of Penn with the Manor of Seagraves. When Stephen died in 1879 his son Charles Wingrove was admitted to the tenancy. In 1891 Charles transferred the business to Walter Evans who, in 1899, was Enfranchised by the Manor of Penn to take on the freehold. Walter Evans (c.1864-1933) subsequently conveyed the property to George Slade in 1922 but continued to live across the road at Hampdens.

Although the forge still belonged to Walter Evans throughout the Great War, the 1911 census shows that George Slade, 1886-1966 (born in Coleshill), his wife Thurza 1886-1978 (née Wright, born in Winchmore Hill) and their daughter Blubelle were living there and running the business.

The Slades’ daughter Ruby Bluebell was born in Penn in 1908 so presumably by the time of the census they had already been there for at least three years. In the census George’s trade was given as Blacksmith, General & Shoeing. The change in trade from a forge providing metal-working services to local farmers, horse-owners and builders evolved gradually, to cater for bicyclists, motorcyclists and motorists so that by 1920 the directories described George Slade as Motor & Agricultural Engineer & Smith.

In 1922 he traded simply as “Slade’s Garage” with “George Slade, Motor Engineer”, offering “Complete Overhauls & Repairs”. Despite this we learn from Herbert Druce that the forge continued to be a crucial element of the business through the nineteen-twenties producing metalwork for a local builder.

Herbert Druce believes that the new showroom was built late 1920’s, early 1930’s by Frank Perfect who had his builders yard almost opposite Slades garage.  A new forge was built at the back of the garage, with its only entrance off Beacon Hill, and carried on shoeing horses for a few more years.

In his spare time George Slade was an enthusiastic motorcyclist taking part in long distance trials riding a motorcycle and sidecar combination. He sold Norton motorbikes but not exclusively as he dealt in other makes as well. He introduced his daughter to the sport and she accompanied him in the sidecar on a trial when she was 15 in 1923. Four years later the roles had been reversed and Bluebell was riding the 588cc Norton with her father in the sidecar.  Although it was said that this change had been made for health reasons and that George was no longer strong enough to handle the bike (he is known to have suffered ‘heart trouble’ for many years), we find him in 1930 taking part in the Lands End Trial. On that occasion when he rode from Slough to Lands End taking in various challenging hills ‘en route’, he was accompanied by his 15 year-old apprentice, Herbert Druce.

As well as running the garage and competing in trials, and being captain of the Penn & Tylers Green Football team which won the Wycombe League in 1911, George Slade had yet another passion to which he devoted much time. He was widely recognized as a skilled pigeon fancier, breeder and racer, successfully racing both North to Lerwick and south to Pau. He created the Swing Clear family of pigeons (eggs were even exported to Japan) and designed and made the Natural System of Nestboxes for his loft. During the Second World War he was a member of the National Pigeon Service (membership NPS/61) which provided pigeons for the Air Ministry to carry messages back often from deep within occupied territory

It was reported that he had just returned home from visiting his pigeon lofts when he died suddenly in 1996, aged 79. He is buried in the new churchyard on the left hand side in plot no.55. His wife Thurza died in 1978 and they share the grave.

George & Thurza. Even in his later years, George still had to exercise his skills as a blacksmith.

His daughter Ruby Bluebell had married Len Gibbs in 1936 and together they had taken over the running of the garage. Bluebell died after a fall from a ladder when pruning the wisteria aged just 63 but Len carried on managing the firm until his own death in 1992. Slades Garage was then acquired in 1994 by Quentin Chases who has preserved its external appearance and maintained its activity in the motor trade. The garage now sells an exotic assortment of super-cars.

Thanks for much help in the preparation of this article goes to : Quentin Chases, Slades Garage Ltd, Peter Strutt, Miles Green, Ron Saunders, Herbert Druce, Norton Owners Club, Eddie Morton, Christopher White, Herbert Druce.

© Oliver Heal, September 2021

This entry was first published by .

Bluebelle Gibbs (1908-1972)

Bluebelle, as she was mostly known, was born in Penn on 7th November 1908 and given the names Ruby Bluebell (without a final ‘e’) Slade by her parents George and Thurza Slade. At that time her father George ran  the Penn village forge for its owner Walter Evans, only taking it over after the Great War when it became Slade’s Garage.

George Slade was an enthusiastic motorcyclist who competed in long distance trials. He introduced Bluebelle to bikes at an early age and she had learned to ride a motorbike by the time she was twelve years old. When she was fifteen she started accompanying her father on trials in the sidecar. In 1927 she was entered in her first trial at the controls of the 588cc Norton sidecar outfit with her father (apparently with a weak heart) now in the sidecar. Her ability rapidly shone through and she achieved “many successes” that year so that when she was eighteen she was part of the Norton Works team.

She won the 1928 Woodgreen Ladies Open Reliability Trial on a Norton 44 loaned by the works and took part in the renowned Colmore Trial with her sidecar combination. In 1930 she rode a 348cc Norton CJ and in 1933 was on a special competition version of the Norton 50.

Bluebell on her trials Norton motorbike

Len & Bluebelle Gibbs.

Another regular competitor at these trials was a young man called Len Gibbs. Len and Bluebelle were married in the summer of 1936 and the following year she and Len effectively took over the running of Slade’s Garage. Bluebelle continued to compete and in 1939 Norton supplied a bike fitted  with a very special Elektron crankcase. Once events started again after the War, Bluebelle carried on entering 350cc and 500cc Trials Nortons and even taking to circuit racing at Silverstone in 1952.

Blubelle Gibbs, Silverstone 1952 (Filmed by Marie Partridge, of the Pinner Cine Society)

Racing on four wheels was perhaps more suitable for middle-age and from 1951 onwards she was regularly to be found at the wheel of the lightweight, ex-Le Mans H.R.G. that Len had bought and was developing. Over five years she raced it about half a dozen times a year in club events at Silverstone and Goodwood and was placed among the top three finishers on sixteen occasions. Not only was the power output of the engine improved over time but the car was also given a new all-enveloping body.

Bluebelle Gibbs racing the lightweight H.R.G. with a new all-enveloping body at the BARC Easter meeting at Silverstone in March 1953. She finished in 10th position. (Revs Institute/George Phillips)

The H.R.G. was succeeded by a Cooper Climax but Bluebelle was not happy with its rear-engine layout and after a brief unsuccessful interlude with a Lotus 11, it was replaced by a Lola Mk1 in 1962.

Bluebelle Gibbs racing the Lola Mark 1 at Silverstone on 1st September 1962 in the SUNBAC Trophy Race. (Photo John Hendy with thanks to Simon Hendy)

This is the car with which Bluebelle became most closely identified as she raced it for nearly ten years. The Lola was front engined and had a very light tubular frame clothed with a low, white-painted, aerodynamic two-seater body.  It was road registered (1 UPP) and was driven to and from the race circuits and on occasions she even took her aged mother along as a passenger. She was still regularly winning races with this car until 1969 and in 1970 took a second place at Silverstone.

Even though Bluebelle was now in her sixties and had been an active motor sport competitor for over forty years she had no intention of slowing down. During 1971 she bought the much newer, ex-Martin Raymond, Daren Mk2 sports racing car which held 1000cc lap records at a number of circuits. She intended to race this car in 1972 but tragedy intervened. On Easter Saturday she was trimming the wisteria on the front of the cottage when the ladder slipped and she died from brain damage as a result of the fall. She was 63 years old.

She is buried in the new churchyard in plot no. 75, the penultimate grave on the right of the left-hand path. The name engraved on the headstone is Bluebelle Gibbs even though her given names were Ruby Bluebell. The inscription reads: ‘Loved and admired for her achievements, her humility and her kindness’.

Thanks for much help in the preparation of this article goes to : Quentin Chases, Slades Garage Ltd, Miles Green, Ron Saunders, Herbert Druce, Norton Owners Club, Eddie Morton, Christopher White.

© Oliver Heal, September 2021

This entry was first published by .

Len Gibbs (1904-1992)

Leonard Ernest Gibbs was born in Staines, Middx, on 19 July 1904 to parents Ernest and Phoebe Gibbs. After his marriage to Bluebelle Slade he ran Slades Garage in Penn until his death.

Bluebelle & Len c. 1937 outside the garage cottage.

Len rode in motor cycle trials during the 1930s for both Raleigh and Enfield teams (?) and met fellow competitor Bluebell Slade. They were married in the summer of 1936 and Len took on the running of Slades Garage in Penn in 1937. He was quickly drawn into helping Anthony Heal with his cars, particularly the huge 1910, ex-Brooklands, chain-driven Fiat.

Easter 1940 Slades Garage, Penn Bucks. Anthony Heal’s 1910 Fiat, 1924 Vauxhall and 1919 Ballot.

During the war he kept the garage open whilst serving as a Special Constable. In 1941 he and Bluebelle were witnesses at the marriage of Anthony & Theodora Heal at Amersham Registry Office . The Fiat was used as a wedding carriage but the engine had to be left running during the ceremony  so rather distracted the witnesses!

1937 Len Gibbs at Brooklands tuning up Anthony Heal’s newly acquired 1910 10 litre Fiat

July 1945 one of the very first post-war motor sport events was a sprint at Cockfosters. Anthony Heal and Len Gibbs participated with the 1919 Indianapolis Ballot once owned by Humphrey Cook. Earl Howe opened the course with his Bugatti Type 57S.

1919 Indianapolis Ballot

Gibbs started competing on four wheels in 1946 with the Fiat which he drove in 1947 and 1948 at Prescott Hill Climb as well as the Luton Hoo Speed Trial. From 1947  he also raced his own 1929/31 1089cc Riley 9 special.

This potent machine underwent constant development and may well have been several different cars. It had a shortened and strengthened chassis fitted with an ex-Bob Gerrard high compression racing engine fed by four Amal carburetters. Len also experimented with a very large supercharger.  He was placed in club events at Goodwood, Silverstone and Castle Combe on numerous occasions. The engine blew up comprehensively in 1951 but reappeared the following year with a new engine. A subsequent owner recorded that it had a special racing crankshaft and crankcase as well as a twin-plug cylinder head.

In 1950 he bought a pair of the lightweight, aerodynamic H.R.G.s that had been raced at Le Mans in 1949 – he soon sold one on to Michael Keen which then passed to David Blakely. Over the next four years both he and Bluebell raced the remaining H.R.G. (Reg. No. HXR 530) regularly.

Len Gibbs in his lightweight H.R.G. taking part in the 1952 Goodwood 9-Hour Race. The similar H.R.G. behind was driven by David Blakely.

In 1952 the HRG was fitted with four Amal carburettors and Len entered for the Goodwood 9-Hour Race with Anthony Heal as his co-driver. They finished in 13th place in a race that included much faster machinery driven by professionals such as Peter Collins and Stirling Moss.

Len further developed the H.R.G. converting it to twin overhead camshafts and fitting an all-enveloping body for the 1953 season.

He had retained his Riley and continued to race that as well until the end of 1954 when it was replaced by a Lotus Mk VI for 1955 which in turn gave way to a Lotus Eleven in 1956. Over four years he took part in numerous events, including the 1957 British Empire Trophy Race, with the Lotus 11.

In 1960 he was racing a single-seater for the first time – a mid-engined Lotus 18.

Len Gibbs (no. 80) racing his rear-engined Lotus 18 in AMOC Trophy race at Silverstone in 1960.

There was then a return to a two-seater, front engine racing car for 1962 when a new Lola Mark 1 was acquired. Len came first with this car at the MCC Meeting at Brands Hatch on 1st July. Thereafter it was his wife, Bluebelle who was the main competitor with the Lola.

Bluebelle Gibbs racing the Lola Mark 1 at Silverstone on 1st September 1962 in the SUNBAC Trophy Race. (Photo John Hendy with thanks to Simon Hendy)

Len’s next single-seater was a Lotus 31 made for the new 1-litre Formula 3 series introduced in 1964 and he raced that through 1966 and 1967. For 1968 he bought a Ford-powered Brabham BT21 Formula 3 car.

Len Gibbs with his single-seater Brabham ? which he bought in the mid-sixties. Here it was on display on Penn Common.

In April he had a scary moment when competitors well ahead of him on the grid at Silverstone collided and he ran into the back of two cars  and the Brabham was launched into the air. Undaunted, he was racing again by June and in September won the Nottingham S.C.C. Formula Libre Race. In 1969 he took part in the AMOC Martini International Trophy Formula 3 Race finishing 18th  on a wet circuit. He entered again the following year but did not finish. This seems to have been his final race when he was 65 years old and it is notable that amongst the others competing that day were some up-and-coming stars – Carlos Pace, Wilson Fittipaldi and James Hunt.

After the death of Bluebelle in 1972 Len did not race any more but continued to run Slades Garage in Penn until his own death from pneumonia in 1992 at the age of 87. He is buried with Bluebelle in the lower churchyard, the penultimate grave on the right side of the left hand path, in plot no. 75. The inscription reads: “A sporting caring and loved resident of Penn Village for many years.”

© Oliver Heal, September 2021

This entry was first published by .

Humphrey Cook (1893-1978)

Humphrey Wyndham Cook, born in Chelsea 16 March 1893, lived at The Old Park, Hammersley Lane, Tylers Green from 1941 and later at The Orchard, Beacon Hill, Penn. He also had a flat at 38 Upper Brook Street, London W1, and was educated at Harrow and Oxford University.

David Weguelin, who interviewed Humphrey Cook at his flat in Chelsea in 1976, described him as “a large, shy and very modest person” who had “inherited a large fortune at the age of twelve when his father died leaving him the thriving family wholesale drapery firm – Cook Son & Co. of St. Paul’s Churchyard. However, an early visit to his father’s business convinced the young Humphrey that he did not wish to pursue a career in drapery or anything else for that matter.”

Humphrey Cook at the wheel of “Rouge et Noir II” the 1922 Tourist Trophy Race Vauxhall

He began motor-racing in 1914 at Brooklands motor circuit, Weybridge, with a 10.6 litre Isotta Fraschini painted in black and red stripes. Red and black became his racing colours and in 1921 raced a Vauxhall 30/98 known as “Rouge et Noir”.

Humphrey Cook in his 1919 5 litre Indianapolis Ballot at Brooklands in 1922.

In 1922 he raced one of the powerful 5-litre, 8-cylinder Ballot cars built for the 1919 Indianapolis race (incidentally this car, No. 1003, was based in Penn from 1937 when it was acquired by Anthony Heal and was looked after for several years by Len Gibbs of Slades Garage). For 1923 Cook had one of the 1922 TT Vauxhalls “Rouge et Noir II” with which competed frequently for the next couple of years and which was subsequently supercharged, becoming the Vauxhall-Villiers and famously raced by Raymond Mays. This was followed by a twin-cam 16-valve Aston Martin and then Humphrey Cook joined the “Bentley Boys” notably finishing third in the 1929 Six-Hour Race at Brooklands with Leslie Callingham at the wheel of a 4 ½ litre Bentley. He was a member of the Aston Martin team that raced at Le Mans in 1931 but after about  eighteen hours a front wing fell off and they had to retire.

Humphrey Cook competing with E.R.A. R1 at Syston Park in 1935.

Cook’s most notable motor-racing achievement has to be the setting up of the E.R.A. (English Racing Automobiles) team in 1933 with Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon. Cook not only financed the operation but was Managing Director and one of the racing drivers. He also introduced British Racing Green to the world of motorsport. These iconic voiturette racing cars won numerous prizes in their class through the nineteen-thirties when Grand Prix racing was dominated by the state-sponsored German teams. They continue to be raced today as an active memorial to Cook and his colleagues. In 1949 Earl Howe wrote, ‘I often wonder if those who guide the destinies of the Motor Industry… have any conception whatever of how much they owe to Humphrey Cook and what he has done for National prestige.’

Cooks personal appearances as a driver included:

1934 R2A (H.C.’s 1100cc car) Brooklands (one 1st place plus standing start record attempts), Donington (5th place).

1935 R1A Brooklands (two 1st places, one 2nd place). R2A Nurburgring (5th 1500cc race), Dieppe (4th place).

1937 R12B Albi GP (3rd place)

In 1939 Mays and Berthon left ERA to become independent, and Cook announced he was closing down the works but was prepared to hand over the cars to the British Motor Racing Fund to be run as a national organisation. It soon emerged that the B.M.R.F. had insufficient funds and so Cook continued to run the team until everything was closed down by war. In 1945 he reestablished E.R.A. Ltd with a workshop in Dunstable, but finally disposed of his interest in the company at the end of 1947. Cook’s link with Earl Howe extended beyond the race track as they were both deeply involved in the running of the British Racing Drivers Club of which Howe was President and Cook was Honorary Treasurer from 1931 to 1947. Cook then became Vice President of the Club.

Humphrey Wyndham Cook died 3rd August 1978 aged 85, and is buried in the lower graveyard extension, on the left-hand-side, as you enter through the arch, about halfway down (plot no.30). The graveyard extension was completed through a donation he gave in memory of his wife Anne who is buried with him.

David Weguelin, The History of English Racing Automobiles Ltd, White Mouse Editions, 1980.William Boddy, The History of Brooklands Motor Course,

© Oliver Heal, September 2021

This entry was first published by .