Pioneering driver Florence Thomson proved critics wrong

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

Mrs Thomson crosses Paddy's Ford near Goulburn
Mrs Thomson crosses Paddy's Ford near Goulburn

Five days of supreme enjoyment. That’s how Florence Thomson described her 1905 Dunlop Reliability Motor Contest experience. Mrs Thomson was the only female competitor in a field of 23 drivers who started in Sydney and one of 17 who reached the finishing point in Melbourne.

Organised by RACV foundation member Harry James, in his role as Dunlop advertising manager, the contest was a reliability trial rather than a race. It was designed to encourage motoring and test the reliability of the automobile over rough roads.

The route followed the old coach road between Sydney and Melbourne (later the Hume Highway), a distance of 920 kilometres. Mrs Ben Thomson, as she was then known, had been driving for two years and was behind the wheel of a 6HP Wolseley imported from England for the event.

The Adelaide Register, reporting after Mrs Thomson’s finish, wrote that “had a referendum of the contestants been taken on who was the pluckiest performer, this adventurous enthusiast would have been a walk-over”. 

But support was not entirely on Mrs Thomson’s side at the beginning. The Register commented: “Scoffing pessimists, who did not know the ambitious, intrepid driver, her fixity of purpose and exhilarating courage, were confident that she would not accomplish the long journey. They spoke of fatigue, fear
and utter helplessness when adverse circumstances demanded resourcefulness and cheerful resignation.”

‘I thought of nothing but the finishing post’

Mrs Thomson at Gundagai
Mrs Thomson at Gundagai

To the question of whether she felt any embarrassment during the event, Mrs Thomson replied: “No, I can’t say that I did. Of course I knew I was the only lady in the race. But I quite forgot that aspect of the matter as I sped along the roads, flew down sharp declivities, through watercourses and whisked around corners. I thought of nothing but the finishing post, and the cheers of spectators, who practically defined the whole route, became merely formal after a while.

“Do you know people asked me what I thought of the country? Pretty landscapes did not appeal to me, but I knew a lot about the holes and stones in the highways. My great aim was to go the whole journey and I was over-careful about accidents. I sacrificed speed to caution.

“At times I cut out a speed of 25 miles an hour, but where a policy of caution was dictated I crawled at seven miles. Although we did not stop during the day for meals I was never fatigued. I know what people would have said if I had been forced to withdraw from the race: ‘Well, it was a foolish adventure for a woman and disaster was inevitable’.

“They can’t say that now, and I am more than pleased that I did not provide the opportunity for such petty criticism. I was determined to complete the distance, and I would not have minded if I had come in last so long as that purpose had been accomplished.”

Rushed with congratulations

After reaching the finishing point at Coburg, the contestants formed a procession which travelled to the Hay Market at the top of Elizabeth Street. The route was lined with spectators who cheered the motorists, but as the Melbourne Leader reported, “the absence of the racing element precluded much enthusiasm. One incident, however, caused a demonstration, and that was the arrival of Mrs B. Thomson, who rode right through from Sydney. She reached the Hay Market at 3.35, cool and collected, and was rushed with congratulations. Her car was laden with floral tributes. Mrs Thomson is the first Australian lady to undertake the journey.”

Mrs Thomson told reporters at the finish that she would not have missed the unique experience for anything and would undertake the trip again with even greater zest.

Historic event

The inaugural RACV Florence Thomson Tour, for women drivers of historic vehicles, takes place in the Yarra Valley on April 30. It is fully subscribed, but a similar event may run next year.

Written by Helen Stitt, curator, RACV Heritage Collection
April 21, 2017