Maxine Blossom Miles - Muses & the Beau Monde
Maxine "Blossom" Miles, born 22 September 1901 as Maxine Forbes-Robertson, was a British aviation engineer, socialite, and businesswoman. She was born into a well-known family of actors. She became interested in aviation in the 1920s, and married her flight instructor, Frederick George Miles. Together they eventually founded Miles Aircraft Ltd, where she was also a draughtswoman.
Maxine Forbes-Robertson's parents were Johnston Forbes-Robertson and his wife, May Gertrude Dermot better known by her stage name of Gertrude Elliott, both actors. Her father was acclaimed, and his family was at the heart of London society. A privileged but grounded upbringing ensured that "Blossom", as she was known in her family, was able to develop her intellectual, sporting and artistic abilities to the full despite allegedly losing an eye at an early age. She was no stranger to the theatre and appeared on the London stage with members of her family on occasion.
Blossom spent her early years with her sisters Jean, Chloe and Diana at Hartsbourne Manor, the home of her aunt Maxine Elliott an American actress and businesswoman. A wing of the manor was used exclusively by Miles's parents. The house, formerly the family seat of Sir Thomas Thompson is now a private members' golf club. The Forbes-Robertsons' main family home was located at 22 Bedford Square in the heart of London's Bloomsbury district.
Blossom was a contemporary of Barbara Cartland, with whom she was presented in 1919 as a debutante. Cartland said of Forbes-Robertson "I do believe that once you know something nasty you can't erase it. That's why when I had my children ... I wouldn't read any racy novels -- because Blossom Forbes-Robertson, who 'came out' with me in 1919, was born with an empty eye socket after her mother acted the role of a one-eyed woman during pregnancy. So I just tried to think beautiful thoughts." As a 'bright young thing' along with Lady Diana Cooper and Elsa Maxwell, Forbes-Robertson organised 'treasure hunt' parties across London.
On 8 October 1924, Blossom married Captain Hon Inigo Freeman-Thomas (later 2nd Marquess of Willingdon), son of Freeman Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquess of Willingdon and Lady Marie Brassey, Her married name became Freeman-Thomas. Maxine Elliott (her Aunt) gave Freeman-Thomas a $500,000 dowry on announcement of her marriage, and the couple lived for a time in Miss Elliot's Regents Park home. Blossom's sister, Diana, was to write that Elliott had swept Blossom's first marriage out of the hands of her parents.
In February 1931, the couple were having a low-wing monoplane built at Shoreham Airport. They planned to fly to India, where Freeman-Thomas's father had been appointed Viceroy but the New York Times reported that Viscount Ratendone (Inigo Freeman-Thomas) was seeking a divorce.
Freeman-Thomas named Frederick George Miles, flying instructor, as co-defendant with Maxine in an undefended suit and was granted a decree nisi. Blossom and Inigo Freeman-Thomas were divorced in 1932. Both Blossom and Freeman-Thomas had been members of the Southern Aero Club of Shoreham, where F. G. Miles was a director and instructor. Miles flew his Simmonds Spartan aircraft to South Africa to escape the situation and consider his position; almost immediately he returned, and he and Blossom were soon wed.
Blossom gained her aviation certificate (Royal Aero Club certificate 9585) through her membership in the Southern Aero Club. One of the first aircraft she owned was a De Havilland DH.60X Cirrus Moth, registered G-EBZG, in 1928, after it had been damaged on landing at Shoreham, sold to Southern Aircraft Ltd, and rebuilt; it was then named "Jemimah".
In 1933 Blossom and F.G. designed the Miles Hawk. The aircraft quickly proving its performance to be roughly 50 percent greater than biplane contemporaries. Within 15 months, 47 Hawks had been sold to various domestic customers. An advanced derivative, the Miles Hawk Major, was also quickly developed, alongside several specialised versions of the original aircraft. In the picture below Blossom paints a Hawk image on the fuselage of a Miles M.2 Hawk. Her sister, actress Jean Forbes-Robertson, holds the real model.
Blossom designed the Miles Hawk G-ACIZ aircraft which Gabrielle Patterson, Britain's first woman flying instructor (and later one of the "first eight" women pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary) flew in the King's Cup air race in 1934.
Of the aircrafts Blossom helped design, the Miles Sparrowhawk, is one of the most notable. F. G. Miles decided to compete in the 1935 King’s Cup Air Race and the job of producing a suitable aircraft fell to Blossom, who had just eight weeks to produce an aeroplane. With neither the time or the facilities to create something from scratch, she took a Miles Hawk, shortened the fuselage, improved the streamlining, reduced the wingspan by 5 ft, reduced the height of the undercarriage, moved the legs outwards and away from the propeller slipstream and, finally, installed extra tanks to enable the 140 hp Gypsy Major engine to complete the 953-mile course with only a single re-fuelling stop.
The Miles Trio (George, Fred and Blossom) designs used extensively by the RAF included the Miles Hawk and Miles Master, both of which were used as training aircraft for Hurricane and Spitfire pilots.
Blossom was a director of Phillip and Powis Aircraft Ltd, and later, when that company was purchased by her husband and brother-in-law, a shareholder of Miles Aircraft Ltd. Within the Miles company, Blossom was a draughtswoman as well as looking after the social and welfare issues faced by the rapidly expanding company.
With the coming of World War II, Blossom anticipated the need for women in the aircraft workforce in positions other than secretaries and typists. Women trained by her in the company’s Experimental Department’s Liverpool Road drawing office became known as “Blossom’s Babies.” In 1943 The Miles Aeronautical Technical School opened under her directorship. The school prepared young men and women for careers in aviation.
Below is a video from 1947 by British Pathé of the school which not only shows the amazingly competent youth of the day but also includes a brief inspection of students work by Blossom.
Blossom and F.G. had two children, Jeremy born in 1933 and Mary Susannah born in 1939. The couple's home, Lands End in Twyford, was a contemporary piece of modern design which reflected Blossom's tastes.
Blossom served as one of five commissioners of the Civil Air Guard which was established in July 1938 to encourage and subsidise pilot training. Formed around civilian flying clubs, subsidised tuition was offered in exchange for an 'honourable undertaking' that in times of emergency, members would serve in the Royal Air Force Reserve.
In 1942, she was a guest speaker at the Women’s Engineering Society's Annual Dinner, held at the Forum Club, speaking on Women in the Drawing Office, based on her personal experiences working on aircraft engineering and training up other women in the field during World War Two.
Seven hundred women applied for the first 16 training places at the Phillip and Powis Aircraft Ltd, offered as part of supporting the war effort. Gertrude Entwistle, President of the Women’s Engineering Society stated that they were "proud to count Mrs Miles a member. She would have felt the society would have failed if Mrs Miles had not been a member".
With aircraft development becoming more specialized during WWII, Blossom left the direct design work to others. She expanded company benefits to include newsletters, amateur dramatics with the Aerodrome Players and other morale-building efforts. Sadly, caught up in post-war British economic doldrums, Miles Aircraft went bankrupt in 1947.
F.G. Miles died in 1976. Maxine Blossom Miles died 6 April 1984, aged 82, in Worthing.
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