Today (January 2) in London History – “the first woman to loop the loop”

For today’s – the January 2nd Today in London History podcast – permit me to introduce Miss Trehawke Davies, “the most experienced and intrepid of ladies who made a recreation of flying.”


London calling. 

It’s January 2nd and my head is spinning. And no, I’m not hungover from New Year festivities. 

It’s spinning from the contents of today’s This Day in London History podcast. Indeed, the particulars themselves are spinning – like articles of clothing in a tumble dryer.

So let’s join the fun, let’s get in amongst it.

It’s January 2nd, 1914. Allow me to introduce Miss Trehawke Davies. The first woman to loop the loop. 

Looping the loop is of course that aviation stunt that was brand new and all the rage at the time. The pilot brings the plane up vertically and makes a circle in the air. It’s like riding a roller coaster in the sky. 

And there’s no question but we all need to make the acquaintance of Miss Trehawke Davies. Born Eleanor Josephine Davies. Her father was Frederick Trehawke Davies.

She liked that middle name of his. What aviator wouldn’t? Tree Hawk. Adopted it. Was always known as Miss Trehawk Davies.

And what a career she had. Short though her life was. She was a Londoner, born in London. About 1880. Wealthy parents.

But her aviation career was as a passenger, not a pilot. She was fetching. She was rich. She was glamorous. She got what she wanted. Daring young men in their flying machines. She liked them. She liked their machines. She liked where they went and how they got there and what they did. And they liked her. Couldn’t resist her. Obliged her. Took her with them. 

She liked the attention it got her. She was an early 20th-century celebrity. 

She was, as the Telegraph put it in her obituary, the most experienced and intrepid of ladies who have made a recreation of flying. 

Her favourite pilot was the very young – and equally glamorous – Gustav Hamel. He was in his early 20s when they teamed up, ten years younger than Miss Trehawke Davies.

Let’s look at her – and Gustave Hamel’s – flying feats. She was his passenger when he carried the aerial post from Hendon to Windsor in September, 1911. That was the first airmail service. She was with him in the first-ever Aerial Derby – an 81-mile anticlockwise circuit of London. flying around London. Theirs was the only plane that carried a passenger. Hamel’s friend Thomas Sopwith finished ahead of them but was disqualified for flying within one of the turning points. The race was awarded to Hamel and his female passenger, Miss Trehawke Davies. She was the first female passenger to be carried by air across the English channel. That was the first of eight Channel crossings she made with Hamel. She flew above 12,000 feet – that broke the height record for a pilot with one passenger. She was the first woman to own an aeroplane. In fact, she bought two. And hired the very best airmen to pilot them for her.

She revelled in the joy of flying – and cared nothing for its dangers. She said flying did wonders for her insomnia. She recalled the time Mr Hamel took her up in her 70 horsepower Bleriot tandem monoplane in a gusty north wind. “Every moment was a thrill,” she said. “We were up three minutes and Mr. Hamel was fighting for our lives all the time. Once he was jerked violently out of his seat but he recovered marvellously. There was danger in every motion of the machine. We tossed and fell, and were shaken almost breathless. It was gloriously exciting. You never knew what was going to happen next.” 

On another occasion she was flying over Germany, Holland and Belgium Henry Jacob Delaval Astley. She said she saw one of the wires getting slack and was unable to do anything – even warn Astley. She said, “I wrote in the diary I keep while flying: ‘This is our last moment alive in the air; it will be our first moment dead on the ground.’” It wasn’t. But neither of them had too many more moments alive. 

She said, “I hope when death does come I shall fall several thousand feet and be killed instantly, rather than drop from a short height and stand the chance of being horribly maimed and yet still alive.”

But now back to what happened on January 2nd, 1914. The looping the loop flight. Miss Trehawke Davies was unwell. Her doctor had told her to stay in bed. Gladys Cooper – of all people – was going to be Hamels’ air companion, as those glamorous young female passengers were designated. Yes, Gladys Cooper, the English actress whose career spanned seven decades. Half a century later – in 1964 she would play Rex Harrison’s mother, Mrs. Higgins, in My Fair Lady. In 1914 Gladys Cooper was just getting going, just a pretty young thing. She was a Gaiety Girl. Good career move being an air companion, being in that passenger seat behind that handsome young pilot when he looped the loop. But it wasn’t to be. Not for Gladys at any rate. Some ambition and determination is more steely than others. In her sickbed Miss Trehawke Davies got wind of what was going to happen that day in the skies above Hendon. Against her doctor’s orders, she got out of her sickbed, got dressed, donned her leather automobile racing helmet, her fur coat and scarf and got herself up to the Hendon aerodrome. Just in time.   Gladys Cooper was in the passenger seat. Miss Trehawke Davies talked her out of it, took her place, went up and became the first woman to loop the loop. On that flight Hamel and passenger performed the feat seven times. At one point observers said the machine seemed to stop dead but Hamel managed to regain control. The flight – the manoeuvre – was a sensation. There was a special “upside-down” dinner held at the Royal Automobile Club. Upside down because all the courses were reversed. In keeping with the theme, Charles Coburn entertained the diners by singing a couple of verses of Two Lovely black eyes while standing on his head.

They were the bright young things of the Indian Summer of the Edwardian era and the bright young things of the first hopeful days of the new Georgian period. Hamel – impossibly handsome young Gustav Wilhelm Hamel – was the only son of an eminent doctor. His parents were German-Danish. His father had been Edward VII’s physician. His Majesty was a regular visitor to the doctor’s grand Grosvenor Square home but Mrs. Hamel, who retained her strong German accent all her life, refused to allow the King of England to bring his terrier Caesar upstairs to the family drawing-room. Young Gustave was educated at Westminster School. His parents wanted him to take up medicine. But Gustav was attracted to motor racing. And then airplanes. On his first training flight, this was in France, Gustave was barely 20 years old – his instructor, a leading French airman said he’d never seen so apt a pupil.

Hamel and Miss Trehawke Davies were like brilliant butterflies in the air for the briefest moments. Flashes of brilliance and wonderment – and then gone. On the 23rd of May, 1914 – barely four months after he and Miss Trehawke Davies looped the loop – Gustave Hamel’s monoplane went down in the Channel. He drowned. Miss Trehawke Davies would be dead just 18 months later. She was in her mid-30s. She’d survived a car crash. Her chauffeur was driving her away in her car from the aerodrome when the mishap happened. She and her chauffeur walked away from her totally wrecked automobile. She’d survived a plane crash into English coastal waters. She didn’t survive a serious illness.

Having just found Miss Trehawke Davies I wanted another memory or two. I found her last home, 5 Portland Place. Very grand indeed. And you see why I do this. It’s going to be fun to walk by there and know that that was Miss Trehawk Davies lived. Maybe walk by there with a group of London Walkers and do the needful, perform the introductions. “Meet Miss Trehawk Davies, ladies and gentlemen.” 

Good London memory to store up – this is where Miss Trehawk Davies lived.

As was the tony Mayfair auction of her possessions. Chippendale furniture and antique bronzes and porcelain vases and a Louis XVI chandelier…well, you get the idea. But imagine my surprise when I discovered that this beautiful, this remarkable woman – who tackled her insomnia by being the first woman to loop the loop, by being an air companion in record-setting magnificent but impossibly flimsy flying machines also owned a French military document, a staff order with vigorously written corrections and, in the same hand, Napoleon’s signature. To say nothing of a couple of Charles Dickens first editions. First editions that would have taken place of honour in one of her Chippendale bookcases. You see why my head is spinning. Miss Trehawke Davies’ life loops the loop in my head.

Londoners. They’re as stimulating as their infinitely stimulating city. I think their city makes them so. And they make it so.

Good night. From London.

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