Brighton’s Record-Breaking Pioneer – The Feats of Dorothy Levitt
Tony Allan had been researching his family genealogy when he was contacted by researcher Ann Kramer, asking if he had any information about one of his ancestors, Dorothy Levitt, he was unsure who she was referring to. It soon became apparent that Dorothy Levitt had in fact been Elizabeth Levi, born in West Hackney in 1882, who later changed her name and whose name did appear on Tony’s genealogy charts. Levitt was a pioneer racing motorist, yacht racer and aviator, who broke the water speed record and on two occasions the land speed record, first in Brighton in 1905 driving just under 80 miles an hour and again in 1906 when the Napier she was driving hit 100 mph.
Intrigued, Mr Allan started looking into the life of Dorothy Levitt, his second cousin twice removed, and gathered details about this remarkable young woman who died in May 1922. “I became fascinated with her, the daughter of Julia Raphael who was an ancestor on my mother’s side, and began delving the archives to find out more. She had a large Wikipedia listing -which was wrong in some instances- and I wanted to know why she wasn’t more widely known. The more I researched the more I became a torch for her, to be recognised as a pioneer in Women’s sports and achievements. She came from humble beginnings and entered a world where only the wealthy could afford to compete and yet she took them on and beat them to become the premier car racing driver during the early years of motor sports. I am very proud to have found her and shall continue to share her life.”
To mark the centenary of her death, writer and car enthusiast Michael Barton wrote a book about Dorothy Levitt’s life – ‘Fast Lady’- in which he explains that in 1900, the 18-year-old Dorothy could hardly have envisaged what lay ahead when she started work as a temporary typist in the New Burlington Street showroom and offices of Selywn Edge – a leading light in selling and racing cars. At a time when motoring was in its infancy and only a few women drove, Edge soon spotted Dorothy’s aptitude for cars.
Dorothy didn’t just master speed, but car mechanics too. She wrote the authoritative handbook of the day, The Woman and the Car, published in 1909. Advising of the need for a hand-mirror to check on the traffic behind, she effectively introduced the rear-view mirror, though her safety recommendation of keeping a small Colt 45 pistol in the glove compartment hasn’t stood the test of time! She was also a keen shot, cyclist and fisherwomen and when she took to the water at Cowes, her ability at motor yachting caught the attention of Queen Alexandra. When she took to the skies, she learned by trial and error being among the first to test their teeth at aviation as there was no one yet experienced enough to be an instructor.
“Being a car enthusiast, I was aware of Dorothy Levitt. In 2018, I bought an oil painting depicting a young woman driving an early car, only to find out that the woman in the painting was in fact Dorothy Levitt herself. While researching her life and family, I met Tony who was instrumental in unraveling the full story. What Dorothy did and achieved would be extraordinary today, let alone at the time,” he said.
Brighton based author, tour guide and women’s history enthusiast, Louise Peskett, who included a chapter about Dorothy Levitt in her book ‘The Fearless and the Fabulous- A Journey through Brighton and Hove’s Women’s History’ has also been impressed by Levitt’s achievements. “Dorothy Levitt was a significant woman because, not only did she break various speed records earning the nickname “the fastest girl on earth” and proving that women could drive just as well as men, she understood the freedoms that driving could open up for women. She always strove to demystify driving and cars for women in her regular motoring column in the weekly ‘The Graphic’ newspaper and her 1909 book, ‘The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Hand Book for Women who Motor or Want to Motor’. This clearly illustrated book was full of good advice, from the idea of carrying a compact mirror when driving to see what was happening behind you (several years before the official invention of the rear view mirror), to how to choose a car and how to change a spark plug. At a time when cars were very much in the male domain, Dorothy Levitt was an inspiring figure who encouraged women to jump into the driving seat and see where their journeys took them.”
Levitt, a woman ahead of her time who refused to be bound by the tenets of her gender, ethnicity and class was based in London but expressed her wish to be buried in a place overlooking the sea, and her sister- who had been living n Brighton, arranged for her burial in the Jewish cemetery in Meadowview, where her grave still stands.
To find out more about the amazing Dorothy Levitt and other pioneering women from Brighton and Hove, you can find Louise Peskett’s ‘The Fearless and the Fabulous’, here.