A Naval Hero on Two Wheels

A Naval Hero on Two Wheels

By Elizabeth Talbot

It is well-known that provenance and provable association to a significant person can elevate an object’s status and inflate its commercial value. It becomes very exciting when that person has a noted place in history and is lauded in more than one important arena of interest. Parties competing for legitimate custodianship of such noted artefacts help push up prices at auction and can generate surprising results.

Andre Ling, valuer and auctioneer in the Automobilia Department at TW Gaze, Diss, was highly delighted to receive a consignment of ten lots of motorcycling medals for his next specialist auction. Initially, the fact that they are predominately solid gold awards and that their delivery coincides with the gold market running strong and high, was reason enough for Mr Ling to be able to deliver some unexpected, but very good, news to the vendor, a descendent of the original recipient whose name appears in the presentation inscriptions. However, further research into the history of the medals has uncovered a fascinating missing link to a well-documented story, which has remained tucked away in a drawer for years.

The man who was to become Rear Admiral Sir Robert Keith Arbuthnot, 4th Baronet, KCB, MVO, RN, was born in Alderminster, Warwickshire, in 1864 and died at the age of 52, in 1916. Robert Keith Arbuthnot came from a distinguished family and entered the navy as a midshipman at the age of 13. He served in the Royal Navy from 1877, and is recorded in history books for his successful rise through the ranks; his survival on HMS Royal Sovereign in 1901, when a heavy gun exploded at the breech, killing six and leaving him as one of 20 with serious injuries; his naval defence during the Raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby by the Imperial German Navy on 16 December 1914; and his death at the Battle of Jutland two years later, when HMS Defence, and the cruiser squadron he commanded, came under heavy enemy fire after a bold manoeuvre against the German battle fleet. His vessel was sunk with all 903 hands, and Rear-Admiral Arbuthnot went down with his ship.

Sir Robert Keith Arbuthnot was also a great all-round sportsman and cups have been presented to commemorate his sporting interests in boxing, running, and motorcycling. Most significantly, he was a very keen and competent motorcyclist, and a very early member of the MCC. He kept his Triumph Sunbeam Tonneau in his day cabin, and it is said that at the time of his death his motorcycle was aboard his ship.

Not only was it unusual to have a serving sea captain engaging in motorcycle racing, but that he was a baronet, too, was unheard of. It is not known how and when he developed an interest in motorcycles, but it is known he competed in the 1904 Bexhill Speed Trials. Then, at the comparatively late age of 44 he entered the 1908 Isle of Man TT. It was only the second running of the event, and he came third in the single-cylinder class after racing for four hours and seven minutes at an average speed of 38.22 mph. He was behind winner Jack Marshall (Triumph) at 40.49 mph and second-placed Charlie Collier (Matchless) at 40.01 mph, but despite this success, it was the only TT Arbuthnot contested.

However, he won many awards in MCC events and his feats on two wheels are proudly recorded in racing annals and can be summarised as follows, with some interjections about the medals for sale in Diss.

TW Gaze have these in their sale:

A Newcastle & District Non-stop Trial, Jedburgh & Back, 1908 medal; two British Motor Cycle-racing Club medals: ”The 5 lap 350cc Scratch Race, 3rd Prize, 1913” and “The 5 lap 350cc Handicap, 3rd Prize, 1913”; a 9ct two tone gold Newcastle & District MCC Reliability Trial medal, 1908; a 9ct two tone gold Newcastle & District MCC Reliability Trial special prize medal, 1908; and a 15ct gold Auto Cycle Union Lands End to John O’ Groats medal, 1908 (Capt).

Between 1908 and 1914 he won five gold medals in the Edinburgh Trial. TW Gaze have some of these in their sale, and it is interesting to note how the medals’ engraving also charts Arbuthnot’s rise in naval rank:

A 9ct London to Edinburgh, 1911 (Commodore); a 9ct London to Edinburgh, 1912; and a 9ct London to Edinburgh, 1913.

In the 1910 Land’s End Trial he won the Shulte Cup for the best performance by a motorcycle, and from this period the auction has a silver Motor Cycling Club 100 Miles non-stop medal, 1910 (Capt Sir); whilst in 1913 he won a Special Gold medal awarded to those riders who completed the outward journey to Land’s End plus the return trip to London, still clean and in a specified time.  The auction contains a 9ct London to Land’s End medal, 1913.

He also won a gold in his only entry in the Exeter in 1912, and the collection includes his 9ct gold MCC London to Exeter to London, 1912 medal (Rear Admiral). Pre-auction estimates for the lots in the collection average £180 – 250.

In 1922 a motorcycle trial, The Arbuthnot Trial, was instigated in his honour; a day of gruelling off-road riding with time checks, which was open to naval and marine officers only, and was run in different locations each year. It gradually faded out of the racing calendar until it was revived in 1982, thanks to the research and hard work of Ian Rennie.

It is The Arbuthnot Trial which secured the second claim on his name in historical records, headlining as it does, the sporting achievements of an extraordinary gentleman. Competition for the lots should be strong: where will the prices race to?

Andre Ling is currently accepting quality entries for his next Automobilia auction to be held on 23 June. Please make contact early to avoid disappointment a.ling@twgaze.co.uk.


Dsc 1367