William Lancaster and the Red Rose Garage

  |  Published: Apr 6th 2014

The Red Rose Garage

When Captain Bill Lancaster opened the Red Rose garage in 1923 he was a man with an interesting past and an even more interesting future. Bill Lancaster had been a pilot with the Australian Airforce during WWI and served in France. He was invalided out just before the war ended and almost immediately joined the RAF for a few months. In 1921 he joined the RAF again on a short service commission. By this time he was married with two children.

 

When stationed at Halton in 1923, his thoughts turned to making a living on leaving the RAF and he and a business partner opened the Red Rose garage on the site where it now stands. This did not provide Bill with enough adventure and he decided to attempt to fly a light plane to Australia. Record breaking flights were big news at the time and made people famous. He bought a small two-seater biplane which he named Red Rose and flew from the field behind the garage. His chosen passenger for the attempt was a Mrs Miller who was estranged from her Australian husband: an arrangement which must have raised a few eyebrows and certainly made the trip more newsworthy.

 

The flight lasted from 14 October 1927 to 19 March 1928 and set the record for the first passenger flight to Australia. It took so long because the aircraft was slow by modern standards and needed refuelling many times. In addition it also required a lot of repairs along the way and in Singapore the RAF rebuilt it from a virtual write-off.

 

In Australia the two were able to earn money by writing articles and giving lectures. People were particularly interested in Mrs Miller’s side of the story. When the income slowed down they moved to America to try to make a living there but they were unsuccessful. Consequently they became involved in a number of hair-brained schemes to raise money, none of which worked. (At about this time Bill’s parents transferred the full ownership of the garage to his partner.) On returning from one of these schemes in Mexico, Bill found that Mrs Miller had agreed to marry a Mr Haden Clarke. Although Mrs Miller was now divorced, Bill’s wife would not divorce him. The next part of the story is the most difficult to understand.

 

Haden Clarke was found shot dead using Bill Lancaster’s pistol, and Bill admitted he had forged two suicide notes. It was judged that Clarke had committed suicide whilst depressed because he had an incurable illness and also another lady claimed he was already married to her. Bill was acquitted of murder.

 

Following the trial in October 1932, Bill and Mrs Miller moved back to England where they found making a living equally difficult. In desperation Bill decided to do another record flight, this time solo to South Africa. It was hopeless from the beginning as the current record held by Amy Mollison was in an aircraft 20mph faster than the one Bill used. By the time he disappeared over the Sahara desert on 12 April 1933, he was aleady well behind schedule. Searches failed to find him or the plane.

 

In 1962 a French army patrol found the plane and Bill’s body beside it. All the aircraft documents were there along with the diary he kept for 8 days before he died of thirst. In his span of 35 years Captain Bill Lancaster had shown he was a man of great courage if not wisdom. Woven into his life are many things that remain a mystery.

 

Just think of him when you look at Red Rose garage in Aylesbury Road, next to the BP petrol station. He named it after the Lancastrian emblem.

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