How Wolverhampton air race gave a clue to a doomed royal romance

King's Cup air race, Wolverhampton airport – Saturday, June 17, 1950.

Competitors, presumably including Peter Townsend (although we can't identify him) being briefed on the day of the race at Wolverhampton airport.
Competitors, presumably including Peter Townsend (although we can't identify him) being briefed on the day of the race at Wolverhampton airport.

Was this event of 70 years ago an early and unnoticed clue that a relationship between young Princess Margaret, sister of the future Queen, and dashing fighter pilot Peter Townsend was destined to take flight?

The doomed romance between Margaret and Group Captain Townsend is a poignant royal story of lost love, with the princess ultimately putting duty before personal happiness. Bowing to constitutional pressure, she announced in 1955 that she would not marry the divorced war hero.

It was in 1953 that the press had twigged their relationship. Townsend, equerry to her father King George VI – this is how the pair got to know each other – had divorced in 1952.

But turn back the clock to Friday, June 16, 1950, and Exhibit A – a report in the Express & Star previewing the King's Cup air race being held at Pendeford aerodrome the following day.

Doomed romance – Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend.

"The famous Hawker Hurricane, The Last of the Many, which has been entered in the race by Princess Margaret and which will be flown by Group Captain Peter Townsend, arrived at the aerodrome during the morning, flown by Hawker's chief test pilot, 'Wimpey' Wade, a former RAF squadron leader," read the report by the Star's air correspondent.

And on the day of the race, with aerial racing action still in progress, it was reported from the Star's "mobile publishing office" that: "With two-thirds of the King's Cup air race from Wolverhampton municipal airport completed this afternoon it seemed likely that the veteran Hurricane fighter entered by Princess Margaret flown by Group Captain Peter Townsend, and named The Last of the Many, stood a very good chance of winning the race.

"If Group Captain Townsend brings the silver and blue Hurricane into first place despite opposition from two Spitfires, Princess Margaret will become the first member of the royal family to hold the cup given by her grandfather, King George V, in 1922."

It was not to be. It was a handicap race and the faster planes, the Hurricane and the two Spitfires, were handicapped. In the event the winner was Edward Day, a Kent hop farmer, with Townsend coming in second.

Princess Margaret's entry for the Wolverhampton air race was this Hawker Hurricane flown by Peter Townsend. Called The Last of the Many, it is seen at the June 1950 event.

Incidentally Margaret was clearly not at the event – it's inconceivable that it would not have been mentioned in reports had she been.

When romance deepened between the fated pair is unclear. Although accounts point to her falling in love with him after the death of her father in 1952, that air race at Wolverhampton was perhaps a public indication in plain sight of what was to follow.

Aircraft taking part had to make three circuits of a roughly rectangular course, starting and finishing at Wolverhampton. First leg was from Wolverhampton to Abbots Bromley, then to Meir where aircraft would turn south west to a point near Newport, and then back to the turning pylon on Pendeford aerodrome.

There was a much smaller triangular course, Wolverhampton-Wheaton Aston-Penkridge-Wolverhampton, for a Goodyear Trophy air race which was held on the Sunday.

The King's Cup race was hit by a tragedy when one of the competitors crashed on the outskirts of Newport on his second lap.

A last picture, and tragedy for one of the competitors that day, William Henry Moss. The top picture shows him taking off at 2.33pm, the second is the wreckage of his aircraft near Newport 55 minutes later.

Village children at Woodcote were among those who saw the veteran pilot, William Henry Moss, flung out of his single seater Mosscraft plane and killed when it crashed in a field near the turning pylon at Pave Lane on the Saturday afternoon.

When a wing struck the ground the machine crashed through a hedge and broke up.

One witness, a Mrs M Anslow of Woodcote, said: "He came very low round the pylon, and the machine seemed to crumple up after hitting the hedge. The petrol tank bounced away down the field by itself."

The victim was managing director of HG Moss and Co Ltd and Mosscraft Ltd of Chorley in Lancashire.

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