Gwenda Hawkes: The Brooklands speed queen
Our latest historical post will look at the life and racing career of Gwenda Hawkes - a woman who had a strong ability at setting and smashing speed records, which has allowed her name to live on in the motorsport world for many years.
Writing in 1958 after her racing career had drawn to an end, Sports Illustrated noted her preference “to race records rather than drivers”.
“Records to her were cold facts, with no regard to sex,” they continued. “They could be challenged alone on the track.”
Born Gwenda Glubb on the 1st June 1894 in Fulwood, England, Gwenda was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College where it is said that she taught herself how to drive. Before her interesting and varied racing endeavours, Gwenda first put her driving skills to the test during the First World War, working as an ambulance driver.
Hawkes was employed by the Scottish Women’s Hospital Organisation and served on the Eastern Front. For her war work, Gwenda was awarded the Cross of St. George and the Cross of St. Stanislaus.
Following her first marriage, then known as Gwenda Janson, Gwenda became interested in motorcycle racing. She competed in a wealth of events at Brooklands and began her hall of record setting achievements. 1921 saw Gwenda establish the 1,000 mile record in a Ner-A-Car Motorcycle.
Always one to try something different, the next year she set the Double Twelve record at Brooklands on a 249cc Trump-JAP. This success was replicated on the continent too - at the Montlhéry Circuit, Gwenda broke the World 24 Hour Motorcycle Speed Record on a Tervot-JAP.
Gwenda’s French success continued even when she made the switch to motorcars. Driving a Derby-Miller created car, between 1930 and 1933, Hawkes continually smashed the one-mile speed record at Montlhéry.
Gwenda even tried her luck on two occasions at Le Mans 24 Hours event, competing in a Derby Car with a Maserati engine, however her success didn’t transfer here. In 1935, she became the fastest woman ever at Brooklands with a lap speed of 135.95mph. Bettering the previous lap of Kay Petre, Gwenda was branded the ‘Brooklands Speed Queen’ by the British press.
Despite the lack of other female competitors, Gwenda and her contemporaries such as Kay Petre were written about often in newspapers and magazines. Many articles were recounting the sheer number of records broken by Hawkes, however some were rather probing into her personal life.
That is perhaps why she hated public attention. In 1930 The Citizen described Gwenda as, “the most unassuming woman, and although a famous racing motorist, she hates publicity”. For Gwenda, the focus was on speed and the records she could achieve and not impressing the press.
During the Second World War, Gwenda alongside her third husband Douglas Hawkes moved back to England from France to be part of the war effort. This time instead of ambulance driving in the firing line, Gwenda worked in an armaments factory. In her later life, Hawkes spent the remainder of her years on the Greek island of Poros. Gwenda Hawkes died on the 27th May 1990, aged 95.
The name Gwenda Hawkes will remain firmly in the history books due to the wealth of records that she achieved in her lifetime.