Lucy, Lady Houston, DBE (8 April 1857 – 29 December 1936), born Fanny Lucy Radmall, was a British philanthropist, political activist, and suffragette. Beginning in 1933, she published Britain's Saturday Review, which was best known for its attacks on what the paper labelled the "unpatriotic" Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald. She has been acknowledged as an aviation pioneer, "the saviour of the Spitfire".
Fanny Lucy Radmall was the daughter of Thomas Radmall, a woollen warehouseman and draper, and Maria Isabella Clark. She was born at 13 Lower Kennington Green, Lambeth, the ninth child of ten children. As a young woman, she was a professional dancer, a chorus girl known as "Poppy". At the age of sixteen, she ran off to Paris with a wealthy man twice her age, Frederick Gretton, whose family owned the Bass Brewery. He was married at the time. Despite a tumultuous relationship, Gretton bequeathed Poppy £6,000 per year for life when he died in 1882.
On 3 September 1883, she married Lt.-Col. Sir Theodore Francis Brinckman, 3rd Baronet (1862–1937), the couple divorcing in 1895 after a long separation. She remarried in 1901, to George Frederick William Byron, 9th Baron Byron. During their marriage, she was an active suffragette. He died in 1917, the same year Lucy, then Baroness Byron, was appointed Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her support of a home for nurses who had served in the First World War.
Her third and final marriage was to Sir Robert Houston, 1st Baronet, Member of Parliament for West Toxteth, and a shipping magnate, on 12 December 1924. Houston is described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as "a hard, ruthless, unpleasant bachelor". They lived as tax exiles on the island of Jersey. When Sir Robert showed her his will, Lady Houston reportedly tore it up, telling him that £1,000,000 was insufficient. Sir Robert then suffered a series of mental disorders and reportedly employed a food taster to ensure that he was not being poisoned. Sir Robert died on his yacht Liberty, on 14 April 1926, leaving his widow roughly £5.5 million.
Lady Houston left Jersey on the Liberty, negotiating with the British Government during passage to England the payment of £1.6 million in death duties. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "she paid for nine by-election meetings by the British National Government to be disrupted".
Lady Houston gave generously to British aviation. In 1931, she donated £100,000 to Supermarine, allowing them to win the Schneider Trophy in that year. The Royal Air Force's entry for the 1931 race for the trophy was hindered by political opposition. On 15 January 1931, the Air Ministry refused a last-minute request by the Royal Aero Club for funds for an entry. The Ministry forbade the use of the aircraft that competed in the 1929 race; forbade RAF pilots of the High Speed Flight who were trained to fly these seaplanes, to take part; and said that it would not police the race course in 1931 in the busy shipping lanes in the Solent. The Royal Aero Club sent a statement to the Cabinet on 22 January 1931, offering to raise £100,000, if the Government would rescind the Air Ministry's decrees on planes, pilots and policing.
Many newspapers backing the opposition Conservative Party wanted to put pressure on Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government. One newspaper sent a telegram to MacDonald stating that, "To prevent the socialist government from being spoilsports, Lady Houston will be responsible for all extra expenses beyond what Sir Philip Sassoon (President of the Royal Aero Club) says can be found, so that Great Britain can take part in the race for the Schneider trophy." The gift gave Lady Houston an opportunity to attack the Labour government, with the declaration "Every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself."
There were only nine months to prepare, and so Supermarine's designer Reginald Mitchell could only update the existing airframes. Rolls-Royce increased the power of the R-Type engine by 400 hp to 2,300 hp. The improved Supermarine S.6B won the trophy, though the technical achievement is slightly tarnished by the fact two S6Bs and an S6 were the only participants. (One S6B later broke the air speed record.) Her gift provided a valuable impetus to the development of the engine technology that would ultimately be vital in the Second World War, and in particular the Battle of Britain. The lessons learned in building racing seaplanes also helped Mitchell to develop the Supermarine Spitfire. As Sir Arthur Sidgreaves, the managing director of Rolls-Royce, commented at the time, "It is not too much to say that research for the Schneider Trophy contest over the past two years is what our aero-engine department would otherwise have taken six to ten years to learn."
In 1932, she offered to give £200,000 to strengthen the British army and navy. The National Government refused. She hung a huge electric sign, "DOWN WITH MACDONALD THE TRAITOR", in the rigging of Liberty and sailed round Great Britain. In a telegram to the Prime Minister, she wrote:
|“||I alone have dared to point out the dire need for air defence of London. You have muzzled others who have deplored this shameful neglect. You have treated my patriotic gesture with a contempt such as no other government would have been guilty of toward a patriot.||”|
In 1933, she financed the Houston-Mount Everest Flight Expedition, in which aircraft flew over the summit of Everest for the first time. This was to show opposition to granting independence to India. In October 1934, Lady Houston sent a cable to the winners of the MacRobertson England to Melbourne Air Race, Tom Campbell Black and C. W. A. Scott: "Your achievement has thrilled me through, oh brave men of my heart... If this does not make the Government sit up, nothing will ... Sleep well and feel proud of yourselves, as we all are ... Rule Britannia. God bless you both."
Lady Houston was so upset by the Abdication Crisis in 1936 that she stopped eating and died of a heart attack on 29 December 1936, aged 79, at her home, Byron Cottage, Hampstead Heath. She had no children and left no current will, so administration was granted to her sole surviving sibling, Mrs Florence Wrey, of more than 1.5 million pounds.
Lady Houston, her donation to Supermarine and the electric sign in the rigging were depicted in the 1942 film The First of the Few, though the sign more diplomatically states: "Down with the government. Wake up England!"