In the 100th Anniversary Year of Bentley, our School Archivist John Kimbell writes of W.O Bentley and his time as a boy here at Lambrook:
One hundred years ago, two Old Lambrookians were instrumental in establishing a firm which swiftly became renowned world-wide for excellence in engineering and for the highest achievements in competitive motor sport.
Today, their brand is still recognised for its elegance of design and remains synonymous with luxury. Furthermore, it continues to bear the family name of its distinguished founding brothers: Horace Millner Bentley and Walter Owen Bentley.
The centenary of Bentley Motors Limited was celebrated this summer on Wednesday10th July, the company having been born in 1919 out of an earlier enterprise, Bentley and Bentley, which the two siblings had started in early 1912.
These two Past Pupils, usually known more simply as H.M. and W.O., were the youngest of six brothers, all of whom attended Lambrook at the end of the 19th century. With three sisters in the family too, the Bentleys were a large household, originally of Yorkshire descent, and their home was in London near Regent’s Park.
Born on 16th September 1888, Walter (as his parents always called him) was ten years old when he boarded the train to join Horace, three years his senior and already in his final year at Lambrook. Incidentally, 1898 also saw another significant arrival in the form of Orchard House, built that year as a hostel for the masters.
There were only sixty boys in residence, all full boarders, but W.O. was never gregarious in temperament and remained rather aloof – a shy, quiet child who preferred independence. He had no special friends, nor any particular enemies, but did fight back against bullies and became a champion of the underdog.
W.O. had seen his first cricket match at Lord’s during the summer before joining Lambrook, and from then on it became his passion. The fixture was between the M.C.C. and Yorkshire which, given the Bentley family heritage, was naturally the county to which he swore his undying allegiance.
At Lambrook, games of cricket were played on four days every week during the summer and W.O.’s prowess developed from his first season. Nets were also available and the coaching was clearly effective – by the age of twelve he was already opening the batting for the 1st XI, scoring 79 not out against Park House School in Reading.
Perhaps surprisingly, given this achievement, sport never really came naturally to W.O. and he knew that he had to work hard in order to succeed. Nevertheless, he was fully prepared to dedicate the necessary effort and duly reaped the rewards, not only in cricket but also in fives – winning the Singles Cup during his final year.
W.O. described the school Gymnasium as ‘wonderful’. His enthusiastic commitment during training sessions eventually led to distinction in this sport too and he featured on the Gym Six Board in 1902, exactly one decade after his eldest brother. In fact, the Bentley family presented the Challenge Cup itself, inscribed with the initials of all six of their Lambrookian boys: W.W., A.H., L.H., A.W., H.M., W.O.
If there was one home pursuit which W.O. really missed at school, it was cycling. As a nine-year-old he had saved enough pocket money to buy a second-hand bicycle of his own (with a contribution from his mother) but pupils at Lambrook only went out for matches and organised walks. On Sundays they also marched to church at St Mary’s Winkfield, wearing top hats, and once a year to the horse races at Ascot.
During his spare time, W.O. kept himself busy with social occupations such as tending to garden plots, which the pupils cultivated together. Photography was another hobby which particularly fascinated him. Having been given a box Brownie camera at the age of twelve, he adored the challenge of taking, printing and developing good images.
Given the pleasure that W.O. derived from perfecting photographic techniques with complex gadgets, as well as from cycling on the quite advanced machines of the day, perhaps it is little surprise that Physics and Chemistry were the subjects that he enjoyed most. By his own account, though, he was a slow learner whose logical mind needed to understand each step of a process before moving on to the next.
Claiming that his academic standard was too poor, W.O. felt that he did not deserve the award of a place at Clifton College in 1902 and that luck had been on his side. All five of his elder brothers had transferred there previously, and he may well have had the influence of E. D. Mansfield to thank too – the Lambrook Headmaster had originally held a post at Clifton before moving to Winkfield Row in 1883.
Already nicknamed ‘the Bun’ on account of his shape and black-coloured eyes, W.O. arrived at the College to find H.M. well established as second-in-command at Tait’s, the house of choice for every Bentley brother. The Clifton career followed a very similar trajectory to that of his former life at Lambrook, including an early introduction to informal boxing, following a familial piece of advice from his elder sibling.
Fives remained a favourite activity but it was Cricket, of all the sports, at which W.O. continued to excel. He was selected for the house team in his second year and during the 1905 summer season he opened the batting, just as he had done at Lambrook, scoring the second highest total of runs – ‘a very consistent batsman, who watches the ball well’.
With the notable exception of Physics and Chemistry, at which he was still quite good (even getting a ‘star’ in the latter on one occasion), W.O.’s academic levels were as undistinguished as before. It was unsurprising, therefore, that he never got out of the third form and instead left Clifton early, at the age of sixteen.
Since childhood, one of W.O.’s obsessions had been the railways with their steam engines and so, duly honouring his loyalty to Yorkshire, it was to Doncaster that he travelled in the autumn of 1905 – fulfilling his dreams by becoming an apprentice engineer at the Great Northern Railway locomotive works.
W.O.’s motoring enthusiasm was first tested on a Quadrant motor cycle, which was duly followed by a car, a Sizaire-Naudin sports model. In 1912, together with his brother H.M., he bought out the firm of Lecoq and Fermie, gaining the concession for Doriot,Flandrin et Parant (D.F.P.) sports cars.
Commissioned into the RNAS at the outbreak of WW1, W.O. performed outstanding prodigies as an engineer – first sorting out the gremlins in the tricky Nieuport fighters before then designing and creating his own engine with aluminium components for the Sopwith Camel. He ended the war as a Captain and was awarded the M.B.E.
In January 1919, W.O. sat down in his London office in Conduit Street, and set out his ambitious vision: ‘to make a fast car, a good car, the best in its class’. His racing successes were numerous, for Bentley won at Brooklands, Montléry and Le Mans – occupying the first four places there in 1929.
Hard times were to follow in the shape of financial problems. Bentley Motors were taken over by Rolls Royce in 1931, and W.O. continued to help with the development of the 3 ½ and 4 ½ Derby Bentleys, but in 1935 he joined Lagondas as a designer, where success followed success.
W.O. married three times but had no children. When the Bentley Drivers’ Club re-launched during the late 1940s after the Second World War he agreed to become their Patron and, together with his third wife Margaret, held delightful parties for the club’s members at their home in Shamley Green, Surrey.
In the Lambrook Chronicles of the 1950s, his entry for the Old Boys’ register read ‘consulting engineer’, and in 1958 it was announced that ‘W.O.Bentley has published his autobiography’. A decade later, the reference to his 80th birthday celebrations states that he ‘was taken for a Lap of Honour at Brooklands in a very special car’.
W.O. Bentley died on 13 August 1971, and on 13 September, three days before his 83rd birthday, a memorial service was held in Guildford Cathedral. Outside the Cathedral, no fewer than seventy-five vintage Bentleys stood in silent tribute to the man through whose courage and toil they had been created.
- V. Clough, travelling with a friend in a 1927 3-litre, made sure that he was present at the event – it was his very first duty that autumn as incoming Headmaster of Lambrook. The following summer, Tom invited a contingent of Bentley drivers and their cars to visit Lambrook, their former Patron’s Prep School.
The forty vintage cars were driven into the playground, where their owners were able to chat to the pupils. They, in turn, could inspect the many fine and famous vehicles, including Woolf Barnato’s special ‘Blue Train Car’, which beat the ‘Train Bleu’ from Monte Carlo to London in 1930 with four hours to spare!
The event was repeated in 1988, the centenary of W.O.’s birth and, coincidentally, the start of Tom Clough’s last year as Headmaster of Lambrook. Exciting vintage Bentleys arrived once more, including an immaculate, two-seater Mark VI in the same classic colour as W.O.’s autobiography – British Racing Green.
That pilgrimage of the Bentley Drivers’ Club to one of the shrines of their mentor enabled the cars’ owners to view the Gym VI board and Fives Cup which both bear W.O.’s name, as well as the whole school group photographs from 1901 and 1902, where images of him can be seen from his last two years at Lambrook.
So, when the next opportunity presents itself for you as Old Lambrookians to pay a return visit to Winkfield Row, be sure to seek out these relics of one of our most illustrious Old Boys, and please do not leave without asking to see our latest archival acquisition: a signed first edition of W.O.’s autobiography.
John Kimbell, School ArchivistBack to all news