Thoroughly Modern Winnie

  embroidered zine cover by  Rosa Martyn

embroidered zine cover by Rosa Martyn

To celebrate International Women’s Day this is an article for the Modernist Heroines edition of (the wonderful) Shrieking Violets, in association with the Manchester Modernist Society and the Loiterer’s Resistance Movement.

Read the full zine by picking up a copy at the Town Hall this Sunday, or online here

At just 22 Winifred Brown became the only woman to win the King’s Cup yet articles relating to this are little more than a sentence tacked on to the end of another pilot’s list of achievements. Overnight, Winifred became world famous, and crowds of adoring fans turned out to see her when she appeared at the 1930 Buile Hill Park pageant, yet aside from race statistics there’s very little in the way of written material for such a pioneering young woman.  

In 1943 the BBC planned a series of transmissions under the title In Honour of Russia, the night was to celebrate and thank our Russian counterparts for joining allegiance during WWII. During the three hours of broadcast we meet Winifred, albeit briefly, as she’s interviewed whilst working in an aircraft factory making planes for Russia. The script (all that remains of the feature) paints Brown as a warm and positive woman…

Commentator – “women too have worked to get the Target Machine up to this piece in the line. Here is Winifred Brown.”

Winifred – “Yes, we have – hundreds of us here – we can’t let the men have all the credit. I’ve been here over two years, and I’m now fitting the remote control that governs the petrol supply. We’re proud to be working on those machines, knowing that they’re helping the Russians to beat our common enemy.”

The interview moves on and Winifred is once again just a passage in someone else’s story.

Shrouded in further mystery is Brown’s early career, it would seem as well as mucking in with the war efforts, she had in fact began to work much earlier in her life than this; very much against the norms of the time.

Two years prior to her King’s Cup victory Brown was piloting a light aircraft to deliver a film reel to the New Princes Cinema in Stalybridge, the aircraft crashed at Hunters Tower and in amongst several injured a young boy was killed. The flight itself, and the fatality, was in vain as the whole job that Brown was commissioned with had been a publicity stunt to promote the cinema – there had been no film in the canister, just a decorative, empty shell; the film itself had been delivered by hand earlier. A fraught flight by all accounts as the brains behind the stunt, Mr Browning of Woodford Aerodrome, wrestled Brown for turns at the controls. Failing to land the craft successfully Brown resumed control and glided above the excitable spectators.

Down on the ground the turnout was as grand as they could have hoped but sadly it was down to this success that the accident occurred. The crowd had surged forward over the perimeters of the landing field and as Brown touched down, the area where she had hoped to swing the aircraft around to avoid collision with the border walls was now swallowed up by a hub of excited bodies. Brown, at the last minute, launched the aircraft off the ground but collided with the wall and, tragically, with the boy sat upon it.

The cinema itself has been a moot point with the locals ever since, having a reputation for housing the ghost of the boy and, many years later, catching fire from the inside whilst disconnected from all services and totally sealed up. 

The fact that Brown not only continued to fly after this but that she went on push herself to speeds that were noted as ‘courting disaster’ is almost impossible to believe.

There was nothing that Brown couldn’t turn her hand to and, in a woefully under-documented shift of passions, she next won her water wings by sailing from Wales to the Norwegian archipelago before going on to serve for the marines. In amongst the mayhem of her less than ordinary life she found the time and want to secretly marry, announcing the news after the birth of her son, Anthony Adams (who grew up pursue a career in the arts and is most well known as playing Adam Chance in Crossroads).

Winifred Brown has been captured on film only a handful of times and the British Pathe site has some lovely footage illustrating what a coy, happy woman she was; whilst accepting her King’s Cup award she stands awkwardly, wringing her hands, averting her eyes but suppressing a beaming smile all the while. Brown is a true enigma and a marvel, the Ellen MacArthur of her day and still the only women to have won the King’s Cup. 

Check out the British Pathe videos below.