On the 30th of January 1911, Harold Barnwell had taken off from a farm at Blairdrummond with an aeroplane he constructed himself. He flew to a height of 200 feet. In recognition of this, a prize of £50 was awarded to Harold by the Scottish Aeronautical Society.
Just weeks later the Daily Mail newspaper would offer far greater reward. This was a prize of £10,000, a phenomenal sum of money at that time. It was offered to any flyer who could complete a 1,010 miles circuit of Britain in the quickest time. The route would start at Brooklands Surrey, then go from London to Edinburgh, west to Glasgow, south down to Bristol and finally return to London. During the race, a number of checkpoints would be visited, including one at Stirling. No doubt Harold Barwell had some hand in this arrangement. By so doing, he was to ensure that the citizens of Stirling would live a day to remember for the remainder of their lives. The event was called the ‘Circuit of Britain’ and thirty entrants registered with the Royal Aero Club.
The rules of the race required the circuit to be completed within 24 hours flying time. All competing machines were required to carry ten official ‘marks’ on important components such as the tail, wings, and engine components. Up to six of these parts could be replaced during the race, but at least four had to be in place when the finishing line was crossed. In short, the machine that finished had to be substantially the same as the one that started.
All competitors were issued with a strip-map of the route, which was unwound on rollers as the race went on. It showed the country on either side of the route to a depth of seven miles, compass headings for each leg, spot heights, and a cross-section of the terrain. The map proved unwieldy, and, during the race, one competitor at least had to land to retrieve the 22-foot-long chart that had unravelled in the cockpit.
A number of entrants would abandon the race before the start, for a variety of reasons. One hopeful, named Gilmour was obliged to withdraw because his licence had been suspended by the Royal Aero Club for dangerous flying over the Henley Regatta just two weeks previously.
The remaining seventeen aviators started at Brooklands on Saturday 22nd July in the midst of a heatwave. Brooklands was then the centre of aviation. It was here that Harold Barnwell would shortly come to work and meet his death some seven years later. A crowd of several thousand, which included the Maharaja of Gwalior and Prince Henry of Prussia, featured amongst the dignitaries gathered to witness the start. The hot turbulent air made flying hazardous. When Lieutenant Porte of the Royal Navy attempted take off, his wing tilted to vertical and he plunged back to earth wrecking his machine. A relieved cheer rose when Porte walked away unhurt. He was the first of many competitors who in the next days would be forced to withdraw from the competition.
By the time the race had reached Redford Barracks at Edinburgh, only three competitors realistically remained in the running. Jules Vedrines and Andre Beaumont were both French: James Valentine was British. At Harrogate, Valentine had been about half an hour behind the leaders and at Newcastle, the gap widened as the exhausted pilot became lost. Tuesday 25th July 1911 was the day when the race reached Stirling. The two Frenchman left Edinburgh shortly after 3 a.m. and appeared over King’s Park at 3:56am. The Frenchmen had rested and departed for the next Control at Glasgow before Valentine had even taken off from Edinburgh at 7:40 a.m. Later, Valentine reached Stirling but then made a bad landing near Falkirk which ruined the propeller. A replacement was sent, but as a result he was further delayed.
The spectacle triggered great excitement at Kings Park. In spite of the early hour of the French planes’ arrival, some eight thousand people were waiting. Health and Safety issues were addressed by provision of a rope around the landing area together with flares lit for the “guidance of pilots” and “safety of onlookers.”
Two days later, Beaumont would win the race and the £10,000 prize. Védrines would claim second place. On the 27th July, Beaumont was invited to meet King George V at Buckingham Palace to discuss the race. The conversation was, of necessity, conducted in French. The next day, the winner was officially presented with his prize at a luncheon at the Savoy Hotel. However, there were still a number of minor prizes on offer such as a prize of 100 guineas donated by the Brighton Hoteliers’ Association for the first British pilot to reach their town. This, the persistent Valentine claimed, as late as the 3rd August. Valentine finally reached Brooklands the following evening after numerous delays.
The difference between the experienced Frenchmen and the rest of the field could not have been clearer. Beaumont and Védrines had the stamina, skill, and attention to detail, to cover hundreds of miles in a few hours. By contrast, the majority of other competitors struggled to cope with mechanical failures, difficult weather, or just sheer fatigue. Few realised then, that history had repeated itself. In 1784, the endeavours of the dogged Scots hot-air balloonist James Tytler had been effortlessly outshone by the debonair Italian Vincenzo Lunardi.
Worse still, no British machine had completed the race. The event served as a ‘wake-up call’ to British industry. Harold and his brother Frank Barnwell were soon to be at the forefront of efforts to remedy matters.