May Brookes was a motoring adventuress. Her vehicles included a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, two Rolls-Royce Phantom IIs, a Bugatti 8-cylinder for sporting occasions and a Studebaker serving the sick and wounded in Egypt in World War I.
Motoring, however, was just one of an astonishing array of pursuits: watercolourist, china painter, champion golfer, first grade tennis player, soprano, troop entertainer and art collector. Born into a wealthy Melbourne family in 1874, the younger daughter of William Brookes (1834-1910) of Warwickshire, England, and Catherine Margaret nee Robinson (1839-1913), of Portadown, Northern Ireland. William and Margaret married in 1865. Miss Brookes was destined to be absorbed into a leisured upper-class society as her father had apparently intended for his family. William Brookes had arrived in Victoria in 1852 and became rich from gold mining in the Bendigo area, notably the Golden Fleece claim and other endeavours. Their city home, ‘Brookwood’ in Queens Road, was a rendezvous for Melbourne society and their mountain home, ‘Penola’, at Mount Macedon hosted weekend parties. Both had tennis courts. William Brookes left an estate of £172,000 ($24M in 2020). Miss Brookes was educated at Shipley House, South Yarra. Run by Mrs Webster from about 1880 to 1895 it was one of the most popular schools for girls in Melbourne. Miss Brookes published her memoirs, Wild Flowers and Wanderings – under the North Star and the Southern Cross, in 1934 and this plus contemporary newspaper reports give a picture of her lifestyle in this echelon of Australian society. It encompassed tennis at Wimbledon in the 1900s, Cairo in World War I and Rolls-Royces in England, on the Continent and in Australia in the 1920s and 1930s.
Miss Brookes took delivery of her Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, chassis 115EM, an Arthur Mulliner limousine, on 3 April 1924. It was fitted with front wheel brakes soon after new. The car was noted in Australia in the 9 December 1926 edition of the society weekly newspaper Table Talk, published in Melbourne from1885 to 1939: “The racing Bugatti which she brought back with her (along with the Rolls Royce) was in the hill climb at Belgrave on Saturday.” The hill-climbing contest at Terry’s Hill, Belgrave, in the Dandenong Ranges was organized by the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria and considered the most difficult up to that time.
The 17 February 1927 edition of Table Talk added: “The stately Rolls Royce appears to be discernible in increasing numbers upon our streets. Miss May Brookes, of “Ardoch”, Dandenong road, East St. Kilda, is numbered amongst Rolls Royce owners.” A report of her motoring adventures also comes from Table Talk on 9 June 1927: “At present touring on the Continent is a well-known Melbourne sportswoman, Miss May Brookes, whom members of her old club, the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, will remember. Miss Brookes, accompanied by Mrs. C. J. Thomsen, has been touring Italy and Switzerland, and the latest news of her is that after touring Holland and Germany she will proceed to Scotland, where she can indulge in her favourite sport, golf. Motor racing is also one of Miss Brookes’ pastimes, and last February she broke the record at the Belgrave hill climb in her straight eight Bugatti. She has deserted the Bugatti for a Rolls-Royce while abroad.” It is likely that Miss Brookes took her Silver Ghost 115EM back to Europe for this tour, as it is not subsequently known in Australia. Sport was an important pursuit for Miss Brookes and her siblings. She recounted in Wild Flowers and Wanderings, “It was in Scotland … that I was first filled with an ardent enthusiasm for golf; at North Berwick, a beautiful spot overlooking the sea, I played my first round on its famous golf-links.” By 1914 Miss Brookes was twice Lady Golf Champion of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club. After the excitement of the1926 RACV hill climb the town returned to normal as shown in this view of Terry’s Hill looking into Belgrave. [Museums Victoria.] Miss Brookes was also a first grade tennis player and wrote, “All were literally ‘tennis mad’, and went from one tournament to another, with Wimbledon, as now, the Mecca of the champions …. After the Wimbledon matches we would go across to the Continent, often to the well-known sporting centre of Dinard, where we were always entertained royally.” Her brother, Norman Everard Brookes (1877-1968), won the Gentlemen’s Singles Championship at Wimbledon in 1907 and again in 1914. Norman Brookes was knighted in 1939 and the trophy for the men's singles at the Australian Open, the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, is named in his honour. This is Miss Brookes’ account of her involvement in World War I: “In the midst of all our excitement and ambitions in the golf and tennis world, there came upon us the dreadful news of the start of the Great World War. I dropped my golf clubs, and Norman his tennis racquet, and we both commenced to think of how we could be of service to the wonderful men who joined up so readily to do their bit for our Empire. My brother Harold also went to England and joined up at once for active service. Strangely enough, though one might imagine it from his exploits as a tennis champion, Norman was not accepted for active service [he suffered from stomach ulcers], so turned his efforts towards immediate service with the Red Cross. After his departure for Egypt, I felt the war atmosphere so strongly that sport and social events faded completely from my existence and something in my being, urged me to go as near as possible to the centre of activities – to do something, no matter what, to help.” Soon after the outbreak of war, fundraising activities began to help with the suffering in Belgium. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 17 August 1914 that a fund, which became known as the ‘Belgian Fund’ had been arranged in Sydney, under the direction of the Consul for Belgium, Mr Watteeuw. It was supported right across Australia with an enormous number and variety of fund raising functions over the next few years. The Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, reported on 4 August 1916 the fund had raised £190,000 nationally [$20M in 2020]. A similar ‘Belgian Relief Fund’ operated in London. Miss Brookes wrote, “My mind turned towards Art, and it seemed to me that my voice had been given to me for some special purpose in life; my long studies of many roles in opera – my Schubert Lieder and my study to acquire something of the Art of bel canto – hitherto a personal pleasure solely because of artistic striving – seemed to point the way to a special mission, and I thought to utilize this gift for the benefit of our boys. I decided to start at home, by organizing a concert in aid of the Belgians, for whom great sympathy had been aroused by their gallant stand against overwhelming armies; this concert was held at my flat in Fairleigh House, South Yarra, and I had sent out invitations which resulted in such a demand for seats that a substantial sum was handed to the Consul for Belgium, who attended along with most Notables of Melbourne.” “Full of zeal, and inspired by the success of our efforts, I spread my wings for the first time – “sans famille” – and set off with my faithful maid Lucy, and my accompanist Mrs. Billings - Egypt as the depot for Australia’s army – being our objective.” Miss Nellie Billings was a well known Australian pianist, who returned to Australia in early 1916. Miss Brookes and her party travelled on the ‘Osterley’, which during World War I was used as a troopship by the Australian Imperial Force as ‘HMAT Osterley’ and during the voyage entertaining the troops commenced, “a favourite was “Softly awakes my Heart” from “Samson and Delilah”. Indeed, I came in time to be known as “Delilah May”, for this aria was always in demand on my programmes, with almost fatalistic regularity.” “These concerts by night were a truly wonderful sight, and I felt a strange inspiration and awe singing to the crowded mass of upturned faces. The atmosphere of mystery as we went on into the unknown was felt intensely by all, the ship with throbbing pulses gliding over the dark ocean, and the Southern Cross shining above us like a symbol of our Crusade.” “My first vision of my brother Norman was at Shepheards that famous hotel which became my headquarters for the next four years. All visitors to Cairo are familiar with this celebrated rendez-vous, like a Persian temple in its beauty …. Having once started on my mission, demands for my services took on the dimensions of a fast rolling snowball, and I soon found myself engaged in hospital work during the daytime, and in the evening driving long distances to give perhaps three concerts a night.” Shepheard’s Hotel was the leading hotel in Cairo and one of the most celebrated hotels in the world from the middle of the 19th century until it was burned down in 1952. During World War I it served as British Headquarters in the Near East.
Miss Brookes now came within the orbit of the upper echelons of the military: “At this time I met many military celebrities: notable among Australians in Egypt were the late Sir John Monash, Lieut.-General Sir H. C. Chauvel, Brigadier-General Granville Ryrie … General Sir W. R. Birdwood, one of the best loved of the Australian soldiers, such was his camaradie that he was always ready with the fullest admiration for the daring exploits of his men – “I cannot say how far the Anzacs will go”, he said on one occasion, “but I know they will go as far as I ask them, if it is within the bounds of human possibility”. Miss Brookes wrote of another military character, “Frequently in Cairo was ‘Colonel Lawrence’ [T.E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’], in those days referred to as the uncrowned king of the Arabs. He would disappear as mysteriously as any Arab for long periods, and reappear just as silently and unobtrusively. To have the respect of the Arab chiefs, a man must have quality, and there is undoubtedly that “something” in this romantic personality which has gained him so many respectful tributes from a race which temperamentally is considered “difficult” by Europeans.” “Ross Smith, the Australian pioneer airman, was among my friends in Cairo at that time. He was a very popular officer, and intrepid airman, and all who knew him were saddened when his career was so tragically cut short by death.” Sir Ross Macpherson Smith (1892-1922) enlisted in 1914 in the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, landing at Gallipoli 13 May 1915. In 1917 he volunteered for the Australian Flying Corps. He was later twice awarded the Military Cr