The Shuttleworth Collection is one of Britain’s best-loved transport museums: a haven where the exhibits really do come to life and the only place in the world where you can often see a real 1909 Bleriot monoplane take to the air. But while its living, breathing artefacts are well-known, perhaps its ‘founding father’ is a little less so.
The Shuttleworth family originally came from Dogdyke in Lincolnshire, where this corner of the industrial revolution saw Joseph Shuttleworth ally his boat-building business with his brother-in-law Nathaniel Clayton’s iron foundry. Together they began to build steam engines and the new agricultural machinery that began to mechanise the British landscape in the late 19th Century.
The Claytons and Shuttleworths bequeathed a thriving business to their children, with Joseph Shuttleworth’s younger son Frank enjoying a privileged upbringing and education in Germany and France and becoming an accomplished yachtsman. His chosen career was as an officer in the cavalry, while also becoming a successful steeplechase jockey; buying an estate at Old Warden in Bedfordshire from which to breed horses.
At the ripe old age of 57 he settled down and married Dorothy, the beautiful 23-year-old daughter of Old Warden’s vicar, in 1902. The couple were blissfully happy, despite the age gap, taking a round the world trip in 1906 before Dorothy gave birth to a son, Richard, who was born in 1909.
Frank died just four years later, but his legacy of adventure and adrenaline lived on in his young son. Richard developed an abiding passion for aviation, enhanced no doubt by the fact that the Clayton and Shuttleworth factories were given over to war production during World War 1. Clayton and Shuttleworth became a major aircraft constructor and, in so doing, built a wide range of machines from the nimble Sopwith Camel fighter to the gigantic Handley Page 0/400 bomber.
Perhaps in anticipation of an inherited reckless streak, Richard’s father had ensured that his inheritance was to be held in trust until he turned 23. This prompted some inventiveness from the young scion to ensure maximum thrills on a tight budget – he chose to buy and tun old cars, taking part in the London to Brighton Run from the age of 19 at the wheel – or tiller – of a variety of pioneering pre-1906 machinery.
This was often done in the company of boisterous friends and peers, while Shuttleworth’s ebullience at the controls gave nim the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ which was to become very much part of his persona. Once he turned 23, however, Richard’s massive resources allowed him to indulge all his passions, and he immediately learned to fly, buying the Bleriot and Deperdussin monoplanes which remain at the heart of his collection today.
Aircraft were one passion but motoring was another. As his contribution to the family business, Richard invested heavily in Noel Macklin’s new Railton sports car marque. For his own motoring ambitions, meanwhile, he bought a Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix car and won the Brighton Speed Trials.
He upgraded the Bugatti to a brand new Alfa Romeo P3 in 1935. The green-painted Alfa won the Brooklands Mountain Championship and ran competitively alongside the works cars of Scuderia Ferrari in Europe, but Shuttleworth’s finest hour came in the inaugural Grand Prix held at Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire at the end of the season.
It was a weekend of foul weather and the ‘crack’ Ferrari-entered Alfas of Giuseppe Farina and Raymond Sommer held sway through the early stages of the race. Shuttleworth ran in fourth but spun while attempting to remain on the lead lap and appeared to be out of the running completely.
In desperation he ditched the blue and white cork crash helmet and visor, opting instead to race bare-headed in just a pair of goggles as he attempted to fight his way back into contention. ‘Mad Jack’ was to the fore, powering the Alfa through the many bends of the parkland circuit in a string of lurid slides with his hair blowing in the wind… meanwhile the works Alfas hit trouble, leaving the British drivers a clear field.
The two Bugattis of Earl Howe and Charlie Martin looked to have the race sewn up, but Shuttleworth kept charging and when the more experienced men spun in the aqwful conditions he was able to pounce, In the end he finished 45 seconds clear of Howe’s Bugatti to claim a memorable victory – and his finest racing achievement, taking home the Donington Park Challenge Trophy and £400 for his efforts.
Early in 1936, Shuttleworth took his Alfa to South Africa and entered the East London Grand Prix. He lost control of the car at speed and suffered career-ending injuries – preferring to dedicate himself to aviation, except for his outings on the annual London to Brighton jaunt.
At the outbreak of World War 2, Richard joined the Royal Air Force. For all his enormous experience, however, he was killed in an accident while piloting a Fairey Battle bomber over Oxfordshire while practicing night flying.
His mother, although devastated by the loss of her son, set up the mansion as a Red Cross Convalescent Home for injured airmen and created a small chapel, dedicated to Richard. In 1944 she decided to place the estate in a charitable Trust in memory of her son; she wanted to ensure that it would continue as one entity to be used for the purpose of agricultural and aviation education, two interests that Richard was especially keen on.
Shuttleworth College first opened its doors to students in 1946 and remains as part of the modern Bedford College. Richard’s collection of historic aircraft and cars were also preserved in working order, opening to the public in 1963. The Collection has since grown in scale and stature, while the family home at Old Warden Park is now also a renowned conference venue and is also home to the English School of Falconry.