Elsie Wisdom

2/3/1904 - 13/4/1972

Record updated 02-Mar-23

Affectionately know as "Bill", Elsie Wisdom was one of the first female winners in a mixed race at Brooklands, the 1932 JCC 1000 Mile Race with Joan Richmond. Aside from winning on the track she was also successful in rallying, winning the International Alpine Trial in 1936.

Elsie Wisdom
Elsie Wisdom was born on 2nd March 1904 in London. Her father, Benjamin Gleed, was a shopkeeper. She had six brothers and severely outnumbered it was hardly surprising that she ended up joining in all of their games. They gave her the nickname 'Bill' and it stuck!

At 16, she was given a motorcycle by her parents. Which, to their increasing concern, she rode with great enthusiasm!

After two years of living with the constant worry of what Bill was up to on two wheels, her parent felt that four would be a better bet. They thus acquired a GWK when she was 18. She started racing casually however the problem for Bill was that it just wasn't fast enough for her activities and so three years later in 1925, Bill bought a supercharged Lea-Francis which was far more up to the job.

She married Charles Thomas Swain in 1925 but things did not work out when Tommy Wisdom, a motoring journalist and gentleman racer, appeared in dramatic fashion! He was out sailing near her home on the south coast with his brother and a friend, when their boat capsized. Tommy and his brother were saved though sadly their friend didn't make it. The brothers were taked to Elsie’s house to recover. There was an instant attraction due also in part to their shared interests. The romance blossomed and in 1929 Bill divorced Charles.

Elsie and Tommy at Brooklands in 1933

The following year, 1930, she married Tommy who, only a week or so after the marriage and without her knowing, signed her up for a women-only race at Brooklands, The Ladies March Handicap. Not best pleased with him she was reluctant to compete. However with a little persuasion from Tommy, she finally agreed to race, helped also by the fact that Tommy had borrowed a 1.5 litre Frazer-Nash which was probably one of the fastest cars in the race. She won comfortably at an average speed of just over 95 mph.

Encouraged with her success, she became a regular competitor at Brooklands. Impressed with his wife's performance, in 1932 Tommy bought her the 7.2 litre Leyland-Thomas single seater with a view of setting the women's outright lap record. Doubts were raised by Brookland officials as to whether Bill could handle the car. They arranged a test under the scrutiny of John Cobb, the future the world land speed record holder, to prove her ability. She comfortably showed the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club sceptics thaat she was very capable of mastering the unpredictable 7.2-litre Leyland.

The 7.2 litre Leyland-Thomas

Having passed muster, in the Autumn of 1932, the BARC set up a Ladies Handicap race over 3 laps of the outer circuit. Bill reached 121.47mph with the Leyland. This both set a new women's lap record and qualified her for one of the prestigious Brooklands 120mph badges.

That year she joined up with the Australian driver, Joan Richmond, for the JCC's 1000 Mile Race at Brooklands, the only women in a race alongside men. They drove a Riley at an average speed of around 90 mph for the best part of twelve hours, recovering from a spin and other mishaps. It was a historic win.

She raced at Le Man in 1933 sharing an Aston Martin with Mortimer Morris-Goodall. They retired with bearing issues. She was back there in 1935 with Kay Petre but once again retiring with engine problems.

In 1936 she and Tommy won the tricky International Alpine Trial, a mountain rally, in a Jaguar SS100.

In 1937 they entered the Mille Miglia in a works MG. With crowds notoriously lining the roads there were always incidents. On this occasion Tommy had to swerve to miss a woman who had stepped out in front of them. The car spun and Elsie went through the windscreen, suffering serious facial injuries while Tommy ended up with a broken leg. Undeterred, Elsie entered the 1938 Le Mans with Author Dobson in an MG, once again failing to finish and continued to rally the Jaguar in the Monte Carlo.

She and Tommy had a bad accident in 1937 trying to avoid a woman leaving Bill with facial injuries and Tommy with a broken leg. Then the war intervened and brought further proceedings to a halt.

Tommy joined the RAF rising to the rank of Wing-Commander.

Post World War II, Elsie concentrated on rallying, with some good results. One of her later finishes came on the Monte Carlo Rally, driving a Morris Minor with Betty Haig and Barbara Marshall,

After World War II, when European automobile racing events resumed, Bill concentrated on rallying and was on a three-woman team for a Monte Carlo Rally in 1948.

In 1951 they had a head on collision in their Bristol during a high-speed run around the Cortina Circuit on the Alpine Rally. Though the roads had been closed off, a large American car removed one of the safety barriers and drove into their path. The American car apparently went over the edge of the mountain pass while Bill and Tommy were hospitalised.

This was followed by only a few more races until Bill's last outing in 1955.

After she retired from racing, she lived with Tommy in a seaside cottage in Ferring, Sussex. They both died in 1972, Bill in April and Tommy in November.

Their daughter Ann "Wiz" Wisdom Riley drove in races in the 1950s and 1960s and was navigator to Pat Moss in the earlier part of her rally career.