ON July 12 100 years ago crowds attending what was billed as The First International Aviation Meeting in the British Isles – a highlight of the Bournemouth centenary celebrations – stared in wonder as the Hon Charles Rolls took part in a flying tournament above them. Suddenly his plane cracked up and plunged to the ground. Half-an-hour later, he lay dead.

RACHEL NEWMAN looks at the life of the remarkable pioneer, whose passion was for adventure, be it motor cars, air balloons or flying planes

CHARLES Stewart Rolls was almost 33 when he was killed on July 12, 1910.

The accident occurred when, without warning, the tail of his Wright Flyer broke off and the framework crumpled in the air.

A promising life was brought to an abrupt end. Charles Rolls’ achievements were up until then outstanding, giving him recognition as both an aviation and motoring pioneer.

Born in Berkley Square, London, he was the third son of the 1st Baron Llangattock, the ancestral home being near Monmouth, Wales, but it was at Eton College where he rapidly developed an interest in engines, acquiring the nickname ‘Dirty Rolls’.

He studied mechanical and applied science at Cambridge and owned the first car in the city, his Peugeot Phaeton, bought at the age of 18.

Grad-uating in 1898, he began working on the steam yacht Santa Maria, before taking up a position at the London and North Western Railway in Crewe.

It was soon apparent, however, that his passion was for motoring and so thanks to £6,600 from his father, he started one of Britain’s first car dealerships, CS Rolls and Co, based in Fulham, to import and sell French Peugeot and Belgian Minerva vehicles.

He also became a founder member of the Auto-mobile Club of Great Britain, where he was first introduced to Henry Royce by a friend, Henry Edmunds, who was a director of Royce Ltd, who showed him Royce’s car.

It was May 4 1904. And, although the two men differed in personality and skills, they complimented each other.

Impressed with the two-cylinder Royce 10, Rolls agreed, in December 1904, to take all the cars Royce could make, which would be of two, three, four and six cylinders and badged as Rolls-Royce.

The first Rolls-Royce car, the Rolls-Royce 10hp, was launched in December 1904, with the emphasis of the name of Rolls over Royce and in 1906 Rolls-Royce Limited became a formal partnership, with Rolls as technical managing director, drawing an annual salary of £750 boosted by four per cent of the profits in excess of £10,000.

By 1907, the company was winning awards for the quality and reliability of its cars, and consolidated the achievement by buying out CS Rolls and Co.

Charles Rolls was the consummate salesman, publicising the quietness and smoothness of the Rolls-Royce and travelled to the USA to promote new cars.

But soon, with success behind him, Rolls needed a new project, and lost interest in the company, eventually resigning as technical managing director in 1909, to become instead, a non-executive director.

Sadly it was his passion for flying, pushing new boundaries, which led to his eventual end.

At first, he became a balloonist, making more than 170 ascents, and was a founder member of the Royal Aero Club in 1903, the year he won the Gordon Bennett Gold Medal for the longest single flight time.

In 1907 he tried to get Royce to design an aero engine, but Royce was more interested in cars. Not to be deterred Rolls bought one of six Wright Flyer aircraft built by Short Brothers under licence from the Wright Brothers, and made more than 200 flights, including the first nonstop double crossing of the English Channel on June 2, 1910, taking only 95 minutes.

To commemorate this feat, a statue now stands in the town square at Monmouth.

Charles Rolls was a high-achiever, and perhaps ahead of the times. We can only wonder at what might have been if he had lived longer.