The sporting history of Sir Henry Birkin
The swift reactions and keen eye of a celebrated racing driver, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, turn out to be a boon in the field too, says Graham Lorne
Unless you hold an interest in vintage racing cars, the chances are that you will never have heard of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. But a century ago he was a household name, especially in the county of Norfolk. He was undoubtedly one of the area’s most colourful residents during the Roaring Twenties, his exploits allowing him to spend little time at his adopted home of Tacolneston Hall.
Having served in World War I, Henry Birkin had returned home a dashing young chap who appeared to have the world at his feet. His biography was titled Full Throttle, which perfectly summed up his hectic, privileged lifestyle.
Henry Birkin’s family were manufacturers in the lucrative Nottingham lace trade but, strongly against his father’s wishes, his life predominantly revolved around flying aeroplanes and driving fast cars. In the spirit of the age of empire, he was fiercely patriotic and he became obsessed with racing the Bentley cars that were dominating the Le Mans 24-hour race during the 1920s. Henry Birkin’s greatest success was winning the 1929 Le Mans event, partnered by financier Woolf Barnato.
Henry Birkin and the Bentley Boys
By this time, the ‘Bentley Boys’ were celebrity heroes to the nation and nobody lived up to the image of the gentleman racer better than Henry Birkin. He was utterly fearless and played for the team, as exemplified by his persistence in developing the now legendary ‘Blower’ Bentley, a supercharged version of the works 4.5-litre car that was exceptionally fast but also notoriously unreliable.
Birkin alone had recognised the threat that the new supercharged Mercedes-Benz could pose to Bentley at Le Mans. Walter Owen ‘WO’ Bentley was an excellent engineer and purist who failed to share Birkin’s enthusiasm for supercharged engines. Having exhausted his own funds, Birkin secured the financial patronage of the wealthy heiress and racehorse owner Dorothy Paget and, thanks to her generosity, the Blower project reached fruition.
Bentley finally built 55 Blowers to approved regulations, giving Birkin the chance to prove his car’s worth. In 1930, two privately entered Blowers competed at Le Mans and Birkin and Dr Benjafield ruthlessly pushed them to the limits of their considerable performance. Their aim was to lure the Mercedes-Benz team’s 7.1-litre Kompressor into
an early duel and the ploy worked well, until both Bentleys fell broken by the wayside.
However, shortly afterwards the German ace Rudolf Caracciola’s SSK had also expired in the intense heat of competition, leaving Barnato and the naturally aspirated Bentley Speed Six to cruise to a leisurely win. It was largely due to Henry Birkin’s selfless contribution that this great tactical victory was secured.
Racing cars were far from being Birkin’s sole sporting interest. He was a fine shot and his love of shooting and the countryside had prompted his relocation to Norfolk. As a child he had particularly enjoyed holidaying at scenic Blakeney, a habit that endured throughout his adult life. He hired the shooting at Shadwell Court — to this day one of East Anglia’s most prestigious shoot venues — but, unlike many of his high-society peers, Henry Birkin was never an upper-class, big-bag driven-game elitist.
He was once heard to comment: “I can take 100 birds in a morning at Shadwell, but they’re not worth one taken at Blakeney.”
It is apparent he had developed a deep love of wildfowling on the Norfolk coast and particularly enjoyed night flighting when the combination of a full moon and clouds proved advantageous, while his swift reactions and keen eye allowed him to excel at walked-up snipe.
Birkin would often leave an exclusive Mayfair club after midnight before embarking upon a high-speed dash through the night to Blakeney Point so he might enjoy morning flight on the picturesque east-coast marshes. Legend has it that Birkin would be bitterly disappointed if he had not made the Norfolk border within 60 minutes of leaving Mayfair.
Birkin made many friends around Blakeney and enjoyed the company of the local fishermen on the quayside as they exchanged yarns. In turn, the locals respected his maritime knowledge, as Birkin spent many of his holidays sailing on the river and racing his speedboat off the coast.
In 1928, Birkin generously hired a charabanc for three days to take Blakeney’s fishermen — and the entire lifeboat crew — to Brooklands so they might watch him win the six-hour race. The fishermen rarely changed out of their traditional smocks but made the effort to wear suits, shirts and neckties. One old boy returned home and immediately asked his wife to “get this bloody thing off me. I’ve had it on for three days.” Like most of his pals, ‘Bob’ Bishop knew that once it was off, he would never have been able to put his tie back on.
There are conflicting accounts about the following tale, with one claiming that it occurred at Shadwell and involved three pheasants. Another version tells of how Birkin made a wager that he could shoot flighting ducks so that they would drop through the open upper section of a stable door. Although five ducks hit the closed lower door, Birkin dropped another three through the stable’s open upper door and he won the wager in fine fashion. Whatever the truth, it’s a good story.
Birkin’s down-to-earth manner endeared him to the area’s marshmen, and Captain ‘Billy’ Temple invited him for lunch in his caravan at Morston. Birkin apparently enjoyed the bowl of curlew stew presented to him but later inquired if the chef perhaps should have plucked the wader first…
For several decades the annual Hickling Broad ‘coot shoot’ was a prestigious event that produced some impressive bags and attracted some famous guests, including Birkin. He was not averse to some fun and wagered that he could drop a swan on to the punt containing Shooting Times columnist and noted agrarian author James Wentworth Day. Wentworth Day was the hero of another Shooting Times stalwart John Humphreys, who later owned the author’s famous double eight-bore, which was known as ‘Roaring Emma’.
Eventually a swan flew in the right direction, a shot was fired and the punt was sunk, with Wentworth Day becoming the bedraggled victim of Birkin’s latest prank.
Birkin’s lofty connections gave him the opportunity to enjoy sport all over the country. In one week he received invitations to shoot three days in Scotland and three in Norfolk, all on alternate days. Mere mortals would have had a difficult decision to make — the grouse moor or pheasant covert — but Birkin was not going to allow logistical difficulties to force him to decline an invitation to shoot grouse.
So a Bentley Speed Six would be waiting to transport him the greater part of each journey. In an amazing feat of stamina and organisation, Birkin and his loader made the long haul north or south so that he could shoot in each location, with the Monday, Wednesday and Friday spent after the grouse in Scotland and the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday shooting lowland game in Norfolk.
Henry Birkin’s glory days were to be cut tragically short. Bentley Motors’ financial woes forced it to withdraw from racing, the company subsequently bought by Rolls-Royce. Spurning a well-paid desk job with Rolls-Royce, Birkin continued to campaign adaptations of his Blower, courageously setting a new Brooklands lap record in 1932.
As the global depression tightened its hold, Henry Birkin travelled the world, earning a precarious living as a professional racing driver, winning Le Mans again in 1931.
In the Tripoli Grand Prix of May 1933, he finished third but during a pit stop badly burned his arm against the hot exhaust pipe, said to be while he was reaching for a cigarette lighter. On the voyage home, Henry Birkin apparently suffered a septic infection of his wound and died on 22 June, a month short of his 37th birthday. He was buried in the churchyard at Blakeney.
Nine decades and the old-timers who enthralled me with memories of ‘their’ Bentley Boy have all passed. However, the interest in Birkin and his peers remains undiminished, and his Blower, with its unique racing provenance, realised more than £5m at auction in 2013. I wonder what became of his guns?