Major Sir Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 22 September 1896, with an Irish father and American mother living in the village of Witley in Surrey. He was educated at Eton in Berkshire and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Surrey.
Sir Henry Segrave became a commissioned officer in the 2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment shortly after the outbreak of World War One and was wounded in 1915, prompting a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in January 1916 following recuperation.
Sir Henry patrolled the skies over the Western Front in 1916, flying Britain’s first single-seater fighter aircraft, the Airco DH2, with 29 Squadron RFC alongside the future “ace” James McCudden. Sir Henry scored four aerial victories before once again being seriously wounded in battle. After his recovery, he was placed on administrative duties, whereupon Sir Henry swiftly discovered the allure of motoring, taking to the wheel of a 120hp Itala racing car that had been requisitioned and converted for road use by the RFC.
Ending the war with the rank of major in the Royal Air Force, Major Sir Henry Segrave resigned his commission and began to forge a career as a racing driver. He bought a pre-war Opel Grand Prix car and began campaigning the 260hp brute at Brooklands, as well as at numerous sprint and hill-climb event. He built up his reputation before progressing to the new generation of Grand Prix cars, at a time when motor sport was emerging from the shadows of the war.
In 1923, Sir Henry became the first British driver to win at the highest level of racing, when he drove a Talbot-Darracq to victory in the French Grand Prix held at Tours. A year later, he became the first British driver to win a Grand Prix in a British car when he powered his Sunbeam to victory at San Sebastián in Spain in 1924 – an achievement that would take 30 years to replicate.
By now, Sir Henry’s focus on racing itself had begun to wane in favour of outright speed. In February 1925, Sir Henry shared driving duties with John Godfrey Parry-Thomas and Caberto Conelli in a six-cylinder, two-litre, supercharged Sunbeam at the Montlhéry circuit near Paris, where the three averaged 102.74mph over three hours and set new class E records for 50 miles, 100 kilometres, 100 miles and 500 kilometres – before bad weather broke their run.
From there, Sir Henry set about the land speed record, reaching 152mph for the Flying Kilometre in 1926, at the wheel of Sunbeam’s V12 “Ladybird”. The following year, Sir Henry was armed with the celebrated 1000hp Sunbeam and with it became the first person to pass 200mph on land, witnessed by some 30,000 onlookers at Daytona Beach in Florida.
Sir Henry’s record of 203mph was then broken twice in 1928, prompting him to return to Daytona in 1929 with the fabulous Napier-engined Golden Arrow. He won back the land speed record with an achievement of 231.44mph and, in so doing, earned himself a knighthood, before another new challenge would beckon: becoming the fastest man on water.
After failing at his first attempt with Miss England I, Sir Henry enlisted the support of Lord Wakefield, the founder of Castrol, to fund the construction of a new boat with twin Rolls-Royce Schneider engines totalling 4500hp. After setting a new record of 98mph at Lake Windermere, Miss England II struck a piece of debris, which tore a hole in the bottom of the boat. This was the tragedy that killed Rolls-Royce chief tester and engineer, Mr Victor Halliwell instantly, and although Sir Henry was found alive in the water, he too succumbed soon afterwards with his injuries.
Major Sir Henry Segrave’s last scrape with danger was with no shortage of glory though, for he died the first person ever to have held both land and water speed records, and with an illustrious life story that continues to inspire motor sports – and the Segrave Trophy – today.