Main content

Charles Stewart Rolls: aviation pioneer

Phil Carradice

Tagged with:

Say the name Rolls and people immediately think of Rolls-Royce motor cars.

Yet Charles Stewart Rolls, from Hendre House just outside Monmouth, was much more than a producer of fine cars. He was also one of the earliest and greatest of all British aviation pioneers.

Rolls Royce factory East Kilbride

Born in Berkley Square, London, Charles Rolls was the son of the first Baron and Lady Llangattock whose family home lay at Llangattock Vibon Avel, a few miles north west of Monmouth. Charles Rolls remained inordinately fond of the house and estate, Hendre as it was known, and returned there as often as he could during his short but active life.

Dirty Rolls

He was educated firstly at Eton College where his fascination for the new fangled petrol engines earned him the nickname of “Dirty Rolls". Then, in due course, he moved on to Cambridge where he took a degree in mechanical and applied science. As the son of aristocracy this was an unusual course of studies at the time but Charles was adamant, cars were the thing of the future and he wanted to be part of it.

Self Propelled Traffic Association

In 1896 he went to France and bought his first car, a Peugot, now believed to be the first car in Cambridge and certainly one of the first three motor vehicles in the whole of Wales. Charles Rolls was a real motor enthusiast. As a member of the Self Propelled Traffic Association, he campaigned against the restrictions then imposed on motor vehicles, but still found time to enjoy other pursuits. He won a Half Blue at cycling and graduated from Cambridge in 1898.

After working briefly for the London and North East Railway (LNER), with the help of his father (who donated over £6,000 to his son's enterprise) Rolls soon founded one of Britain's first car dealerships, CJ Rolls and Co. Initially the company imported French and Belgian vehicles as there was, quite literally, no such thing as a British motor industry at that time.

Meeting Henry Royce

Then, on 4 May 1904 he was introduced to Henry Royce, a man who was already designing and, in a small way, building British motor cars. Rolls agreed to sell all the cars Royce could give him, marketing the vehicles under the name Rolls-Royce, even though all that Rolls was doing was selling on the machines that Henry Royce had made. Royce was the technical wizard, Charles Rolls was much more of a marketing man – and, even at that early stage of the partnership, a very astute businessman.

In 1906 the partnership was formalised and in 1907 Rolls-Royce bought out the CJ Rolls firm. Charles Rolls was installed as technical manager of the new company and spent several years selling the machines across the world. Rolls-Royce was a huge success, much of that being down to the energy and marketing skills of Rolls himself.

By 1909, however, Rolls – ever the energetic and dynamic entrepreneur - had grown bored and, at the end of the year, resigned his position. Keeping his hand in and carefully watching the finances, he became a non-executive director of the company, thus allowing himself time and space to do what he really wanted to do – fly.

Early flyer

Charles Rolls had become interested in flying at the beginning of the century. Initially a balloonist, the achievement of the Wright Brothers in taking to the skies in a powered aeroplane thrilled him to the bone and, pretty soon, Rolls himself joined the ranks of the early flyers.

In 1903 he was a founding member of the Royal Aero Club, becoming only the second person in Britain to gain a license to fly. In 1909 he bought himself a Wright Flyer biplane and in this early machine he made over 200 separate flights.

Non-stop return crossing from England to France

On 2 June 1910 Charles Rolls became the first man to make a non-stop crossing from England to France and back again, taking just 95 minutes for the double crossing. A statue commemorating this remarkable achievement still stands in Agincourt Square in the town of Monmouth and there is another one in Dover.

These days, with international travel so commonplace, it is easy to overlook the enormity of Rolls' achievement. His machine was held together with little more than bits of wire and string, he had no navigational aids and he was literally taking his life in his hands – but that was something Rolls and all the early aviation pioneers did every time they took to the air.

Tragically, Charles Rolls was to die just one month after his crossing of the English Channel. On 12 July 1910 he was flying in an air display at Hengistbury Airfield just outside Bournemouth when the tail of his Wright Flyer broke off. Machine and pilot plummeted to the ground and Charles Rolls died almost immediately.

It was Britain's first aircraft fatality, the 11th internationally. He was buried in the churchyard at Llangattock Vibon Avel, where most of his family were laid to rest. His much loved house and estate outside Monmouth, Hendre, is now the home of the Rolls of Monmouth Golf Club. But, perhaps more importantly, his name lives on in the shape and form of one of the world's best loved motor cars, the Rolls-Royce.

Tagged with:

More Posts


Still a question mark over Sunday