Few, if any, Jersey residents can claim to have altered the course of history in the 20th century, but Lucy, Lady Houston, probably came as close as any.
- If she had not donated £100,000 to Supermarine in 1931 the company might not have won Schneider Trophy for the air race which was a major event at the time.
- If they had not won the Schneider Trophy and developed their technology the Supermarine Spitfire might not have been developed.
- If the Spitfire had not been developed, the Battle of Britain may never have been won ...
Born Fanny Lucy Radmall in 1857, the future Lady Houston was the daughter of Thomas Radmall, a woollen warehouseman and draper, and Maria Isabella Clark. She was born in Lambeth, the second youngest of ten children. As a young woman she was a professional dancer, a chorus girl known as "Poppy". She eloped in 1873 at the age of sixteen to Paris with a member of one of the families that owned the Bass Brewery, Frederick Gretton. He was then aged 32 and left his wife. They had a tumultuous relationship and when he died in 1882, he left her £6,000 per year for life.
On 3 September 1883 she married Lt-Col Sir Theodore Francis Brinckman, 3rd Baronet, but they divorced in 1895, after a long separation. Her second marriage was to a bankrupt George Frederick William Byron, 9th Baron Byron of Rochdale, in 1901. He died in 1917. During this time she was an active suffragette. In 1917 Baroness Byron was appointed Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire for her support of a home for nurses who had served in the First World War.
Her third and final marriage, on December 12 1924, was to Sir Robert Houston, 1st Baronet, MP for West Toxteth, and a shipping magnate. They lived as tax exiles in Jersey.
When Sir Robert showed her his will, Lady Houston reportedly tore it up, telling him that ₤1 million was insufficient. Sir Robert died on his yacht Liberty, on 14 April 1926, leaving his widow roughly £5.5 million. Lady Houston left Jersey on the Liberty, where during passage to England she negotiated with the British Government the payment of £1.6 million in death duties.
Gifts to aviation
Today Lady Houston is best known for her gifts in support of British aviation. In 1931 she donated £100,000 to Supermarine, allowing them to win the Schneider Trophy that year. The Royal Air Force's entry for the 1931 race for the trophy was hindered by political opposition. On 15 January 1931, the Air Ministry refused a last minute request by the Royal Aero Club for funds for an entry. The Ministry also forbade the use of the aircraft that competed in the 1929 race; forbade RAF pilots of the High Speed Flight, who were trained to fly these seaplanes, to take part; and said that it would not police the race course in 1931 in the busy shipping lanes in the Solent.
One newspaper sent a telegram to Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald stating that: "To prevent the socialist government from being spoilsports, Lady Houston will be responsible for all extra expenses beyond what Sir Philip Sassoon, president of the Royal Aero Club, says can be found, so that Great Britain can take part in the race for the Schneider trophy."
Lady Houston's gift provided a valuable impetus to the development of engine technology that would ultimately be vital in the Second World War, in particular the Battle of Britain. The lessons learned in building racing seaplanes helped Reginald Mitchell to develop the Supermarine Spitfire. As Arthur Sidgreaves, the managing director of Rolls Royce, commented at the time: “It is not too much to say that research for the Schneider Trophy contest over the past two years is what our aero-engine department would otherwise have taken six to ten years to learn.”
In 1932 Lady Houston offered to give £200,000 to strengthen the British army and navy. The National Government refused.
In 1933 she financed the Houston-Mount Everest Flight Expedition, in which aircraft flew over the summit of Everest for the first time.
Lady Houston was a supporter of Sir Oswald Moseley and of the embryo fascist party established in Jersey in the 1930s. She also achieved notoriety for sunbathing naked in the garden of her Jersey home.
She was so upset by the abdication crisis in 1936 that she stopped eating and died of a heart attack on 29 December 1936, at the age of 79.