Remembering one of motoring's most pioneering women

Vera Hedges Butler
Vera Hedges Butler

Hedges Butler and Charles Rolls (left) were also flying pioneers

Autocar recently honoured the female high-fliers of the British automotive industry at our annual Great Women awards ceremony.

Even in the very earliest days of motoring, there were a number of pioneering women. But very few are widely known today, so let me introduce you to one who achieved several significant firsts: Vera Hedges Butler.

She was born in London in 1881 to a wine merchant father, Frank, who in 1897 became one of the first people in Britain to buy a car (a Benz). Through the embryonic Royal Automobile Club, Frank met aristocratic young engineer Charles Rolls (who had bought his own first car, a Peugeot, two years prior, aged 18).


Both men would take part in the 1000 Miles Trial of April 1900, a massed journey from London up to Edinburgh and back designed to prove that cars were better than horse-drawn vehicles to the many naysayers (ahem). Bear in mind that cars back then were complex, frail, puny carts using mostly unmetalled roads.

Vera, aged 19, went with her father in his 6hp Panhard, which was one of 17 cars to finish. Just one other woman was present – as was Lord Iliffe, publisher of a five-year-old newspaper named The Autocar – while the gold medal was won by Rolls, driving another Panhard.

Butler reported: “We had several punctures; piston rings working round lost a good deal of compression; a lift-pin of one of the valves put one cylinder out of action part of the time; and burners blew out uphill.” See, it was no small achievement.

This clearly solidified Vera’s love of motoring, as three months later we reported on her competing in a gymkhana event at a polo club, and then in August that she had driven her father’s Panhard from London to Paris for the occasion of a race (presumably in no less than that summer’s Paris Olympics), becoming the first woman to do so.

She appeared in Autocar again almost as soon as she had returned, this time answering to a summons at West London Police Court, “for driving a car at a greater speed than was reasonable and proper”.

A constable claimed to have seen her exceeding 12mph and “a horse became restive owing to the noise the car made in its progress, finally overturning the van to which the animal was attached, and throwing the occupants into the road”.

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Her father as passenger said she had been doing no more than 7mph. But a witness said it had in fact been 14mph. Quite how he knew that is a mystery… In any case, Vera was fined £2 (£205 in today’s money), earning her the dubious honour of being the first woman prosecuted in Britain for furious driving.

Part of her defence was that she held a ‘certificat de capacité’, earned from a practical test in Paris. Such a document had been a requirement in France since 1893 but wouldn’t be so here until 1903. As such, Vera was also the first British woman to earn her driving licence.

She would one-up her Parisian adventure in summer 1901, driving her father down to Nice, then over a 4000ft mountain pass to a Grenoble monastery, several times having to dig her new 4hp Renault out of snow drifts.

On her return, Vera planned to take a tour with her father and Rolls (who by that point was her boyfriend), but her Renault caught fire. So she instead organised a flight in a hot-air balloon (with the famous aeronautical pioneer Stanley Spencer their pilot) and while over London suggested the trio create the The Royal Aero Club.

She came to our attention again in 1915, having volunteered with the Red Cross at the outbreak of World War I when her husband had gone to fight (not Rolls – he had been killed in a plane crash in 1910), first taking wounded soldiers from trains to hospitals in her car, then driving a 35hp Daimler mobile kitchen.

After the Armistice, Vera settled into family life, but she never lost her love of motoring, as evidenced by us reporting in 1950 that she had attended an RAC event marking the anniversary of the famous 1000 Miles Trial. She would die nine years later, aged 78.

Autocar Archive: 128 years of magazines available online