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59 Club - In The Beginning...
By Rev. Bill Shergold.
For the next two or three years I used the bike for pottering around my parish, but the thought never entered my head that one day I would start a club for motorcyclists. Most of my time was taken up with the youth club, which had just been launched by the Revd. John Oates. Perhaps I ought to say a word about this club because it answers the question of why the club is called the 59.
The club which we now know as the 59 Club started in 1962 as a section of the already flourishing 59 Club of the Eton Mission. This was the club we started in January 1959 with Cliff Richards as our guest star. We called it the 59 Club because we wanted to get away from the rather stuffy image of the traditional church youth fellowship. It was immensely successful from the start and many well-known recording stars came to visit us. The most fabulous evening of all was the night we were visited by Princess Margaret and her husband, together with Cliff Richard and the Shadows.
By this time the motorcycle disease had really taken hold of me. I traded in my C15 for 1959 Speed Twin and began to enjoy the thrills of a bike. I even bought a crash helmet(police-style with peak) and a leather jacket(three-quarter length, of course). Then one day I read in the daily papers that a special service for motorcyclists had been held in the newly opened cathedral at Guildford. This struck me as odd because cathedrals tend to be rather respectable. But it game me an idea.
If Guildford could do it, why couldn't Hackney Wick? Why couldn't we have a get-together at the Mission for the motorcyclists in north and east London? For the first time in my life I wrote a letter to a paper-to MotorCycle- asking if anyone would be interested in such a service. The editor, Harry Louis, published it and almost at once I got a letter from Bob Matthews, general secretary of the Triumph Owners Club, saying he thought it was a good idea and would like to help me organize the event. He was in the hospital at the time and I went to see him there to talk things over.
I caused a minor crisis at the hospital by riding my bike into a rainwater downpipe and smashing it. Bob sent me along to the North London branch of the Triumph Owners Club which in those days had its headquarters in a Quaker meeting house at Stoke Newington.
I shall always be grateful to the members of the TOMC for the way they welcomed me and backed up my ideas. Up to this moment I had been very much a lone motorcyclist. Now, through the Friday evening meetings at Stoke Newington, I found myself enjoying for the first time the fantastic comradeship of the motorcycle world.
Meanwhile plans were slowly taking shape for our big event which was now fixed for a Sunday in May, 1962. We had roped in the local road safety officer and we sent out dozens of circulars to all the motorcycle clubs in the area. Then something happened which was to have a profound effect on the whole future course of events.
One day, while I was talking about the service with some of the lads from the Triumph Owners Club, somebody said: "Of course the people you really ought to invite to your service are those young hooligans who go blasting along the North Circular Road."
Until know we had thought only of inviting members of highly respectable motorcycle clubs to our service. The other section of the motorcycling fraternity was completely unknown to me. I did recall, however, a magazine article I had read some years before whilst waiting to have my hair cut. It was the sort of article which appears from time to time in the American Press, describing the activities of the Hell's Angels. It was lavishly illustrated with pictures taken at the Ace. It certainly wasn't calculated to inspire confidence in anyone proposing to visit that cafe for the first time.
The more I thought about it the more alarmed I became. The time I chose my trip to the Ace was a Sunday afternoon. Had I known more about the habits of young motorcyclists I certainly would not have chosen that particular time. The Ace is about 13 miles from Hackney Wick and I set out with several posters rolled up on the back of my bike, hoping that I might persuade the proprietors to put one up for me. Unsure of the kind of reception I should get, I wrapped a scarf around my neck covering up my dog collar.
Just past Staple's Corner about a dozen bikes ridden by sinister looking figures in black leathers roared past in the opposite direction. I felt almost sick with fear. By the time I had passed under the bridges at Stonebridge Park, I was in such a panic that I opened the throttle up and fled past the Ace as fast as I could. Then I realized that I was being a coward.
So at the next intersection I turned back. Again panic seized me and I went past. Then I turned back a second time and finally rode into the forecourt. By this time, the Ace was practically deserted. I ordered a cup of tea and sat drinking it, my face crimson with embarrassment. I left for home with out getting rid of a single poster. But I consoled myself with the fact that I had at least penetrated into the lions' den, even if the lions were in fact out on the prowl.
Several weeks elapsed before my next attempt to reach the boys at the Ace. In fact It was the night before the service was due to take place that I finally summoned enough courage to go there again. This time I made no attempt to conceal my collar and I went armed with a bundle of leaflets which said: "This is a personal invitation to YOU to come to church next Sunday for a special service for motorcyclists."
It must have been about eight o'clock on the Saturday evening when once again I entered the forecourt at the Ace. It was packed with bikes. Hundreds of boys were milling around, laughing and talking. "This is it, " I thought, "I shall almost certainly lose my trousers or land up in the canal."
I rode up to the nearest group and went straight to the point. "I want you all to come to church tomorrow." Looking back I am amazed at my own nerve- I, a middle-aged clergyman invading the stronghold of one of the toughest groups of youngsters in the country.
There was no joking, no mickey talking. Instead they came crowding round, bombarding me with questions: "What's it all about? Where is it? How do we get there?" Someone brought me a cup of tea. I never got inside the Ace at all- people kept coming to talk with me outside. All in all it was the most fantastic evening I have ever spent. At midnight I managed to get away to snatch some sleep before making final preparations for the services at three o'clock the next day.....
And what a service it was! Several days before I had issued a kind of press release, hoping that the papers would give us some advance publicity and so ensure we had a congregation. Only one paper mentioned it beforehand, but they turned up in force on the day itself-I suppose there must have been a dearth of murders and international crises that weekend.
In addition, BBC and ITV sent news teams and I think there was a newsreel team there as well. The theme of the service was that we should dedicate our bikes and ourselves to God's service, endeavoring to use the machines in a responsible sort of way. In my address I compared the present-day motorcyclist to the knights of old and suggested that we should try to uphold the same ideals of courage, courtesy and chivalry.
To drive home the idea we had arranged for a number of different bikes to be placed inside the church-symbolizing the offering of our machines to God. It was a strange assortment, ranging from a Tina scooter to a magnificent Manx Norton which had been raced the previous weekend. Looking back I suppose it was a bit of a gimmick to have the bikes in church. I never intended it that way.
People bring cabbages and marrows to church for the Harvest Festival and no one complains. It seemed to me perfectly natural for those who love motor bikes to bring them into God's house. I can't imagine how we got through the service at all. There were photographers and cameramen everywhere. The church looked like a film studio with all the lights and trailing wires. Yet despite all these distractions there was a wonderful atmosphere of devotion and reverence.
Next day the papers were full of what had happened at Hackney Wick. Here are some of the headlines: "The Knight Errants of 1962 - Ton-Up Kids in Church", "Ton Up Bikes Are Blessed", "Pictures of a 100-mph Gang that may Cause a Storm", "Blessings by the Ton", "A Vicar blesses the Ton-Uppers." One paper rang up the Bishop of London at midnight to ask him what he thought about it all!
On Tuesday several papers published cartoons, the most famous of which was by Giles in Daily Express. I wrote and told Giles how much I had liked his picture and to my delight he sent me the original drawing signed by himself. This is one of my most treasured possessions and occupies a place of honor in my study.
I was a bit overwhelmed by all this publicity. But for me it had one great advantage. I couldn't care less about having my pictures in the papers. What did please me was that almost overnight I had made friends with the boys at the Ace. Press cuttings and photographs poured in to the vicarage, so I took them up to the Ace and showed them around. The lads were delighted at receiving some good publicity for a change. In the past any mention of them in the press had been unfavorable.
I soon became a regular visitor at the Ace and got to know some of the lads quite well. One of them even invited me to his home to have lunch with his family. Others began to tell me about their mates in the hospital. At this time, also, I received considerable "fan" mail, some of it complimentary, some of it not so nice. One anonymous letter warned me of the dire consequences that would follow if I continued to associate with these "leather-hearted louts."
From these letters, but above all from the conversations with the boys themselves, I soon began to realize that they were virtually an outcast section of the community. Because of their dress, their noisy bikes and their tendency to move around in gangs, nobody wanted them. Dance halls refused them, bowling alleys told them to go home and change into ordinary clothes. Youth clubs were afraid of them. Even the transport cafe's didn't really welcome their custom.
After all, a motorcyclist consumes on average a cup of tea or Coke every two hours. A lorry driver or a coach tripper will spend five bob on a meal and be on his way within 30 minutes. I was becoming more and more convinced that what they really needed was a new kind of club which would combine the personal and friendly touch of a youth club with the free and easy atmosphere of a transport cafe or coffee bar.
My difficulty was that our premises at the Eton Mission were already being used almost to capacity. And in any case, Hackney Wick is such a difficult place to find in its maze of one way streets that I doubted very much if it would meet our requirements. Eventually I decided on an experiment. It so happened that the 20th anniversary of my ordination was approaching.
Instead of having a party for my Parishioners I decided to throw a party for my new friends from the Ace. It was a tremendous success. About 80 turned up, thus proving that the situation of the Eton Mission was no obstacle.
At this point I was fortunate to come in contact with two existing motorcycle clubs, both of which showed real interest in my plans for a new club. I well remember being approached outside the Ace one day by Mick Ingarfield of the Friendly Club, who invited me to HQ at Hammersmith to meet their members. About this time, too, I met Garth Pettitt of the Sunbeam Club. Garth is an astonishing person - he holds some high position in the Civil Service but thinks nothing of arriving at a Mansion House reception on his SS Norton and changing out of his leathers in the gents.
There two clubs were tremendous and I can never adequately repay their kindness in supporting me in these early days. Eventually we decided to make use of Saturday nights - the only time when the halls were not being used - And to launch the new club in October, 1962. As a matter of fact it was never intended that it should be a club at all - as witness the affectionate title of the Vicar's Caff which it was soon given.
The question of finding a suitable personality of the motorcycling world to open the club was solved during one of my weekly visits to the Ace. I was sitting at a table drinking tea and showing photographs to a crowd of the lads when I noticed at the next table a gentleman of more than ample proportions. How he managed to fit himself into one of those funny swivel seats I have never discovered. He was obviously bursting with curiosity and in the end could contain himself no long. He introduced himself as "Harold Harvey" and asked if he might see the photographs.
It appeared that he was a photographer and often went to motorcycle race meetings to take action pictures. He said that he might be able to find us a suitable guest. As a result of this chance meeting we not only secured the services of Alf Hagon on the opening night but the Club acquired its first adult helper. I would like to pay tribute to all that Bob Harvey has done for the club since its inception.
In order to publicize our opening night as widely as possible we prepared some handbills which I took around to places like the Busy Bee, the Dug-Out, Woodlands, Johnsons and of course, the Ace. I never found it easy visiting a cafe for the first time but in the case of the Busy Bee I was lucky. A German TV company was making a documentary film about British youth and asked me to put them in touch with some young motorcyclists. Off I hurried to the Bee to find motorcyclists to take part in the filming.
I needed no further introduction at the Bee. We spent hours making the film and the lads had a wonderful time. I shall never forget riding three-abreast down the Watford By-Pass at one o'clock in the morning with a TV camera filming from the back of a van and enormous arc lights blazing in our eyes.
We have to thank the Daily Mirror for another bit of useful publicity at this time. Among my many letters was one from a keen motorcyclist in America. He enclosed a type-written prayer which was widely used by members of his club. I trimmed it down and had it printed on cards, small enough to carry in a wallet. The problem was to distribute it. I have always shrunk away from using my friendship with the boys in the cafes to thrust religion at them.
So I hesitated to hand out the prayer cards myself. Instead I sent one to the Daily Mirror who were kind enough to give it quite a splash. I received applications from all over the country. The most amusing was from an MoT examiner who asked for 50 copies, explaining that he proposed to give one to every motorcyclist who came to him for his driving test.
The article in the Mirror was also occasion of another cartoon at my expense. This time I was provided with a wife - but not a very attractive one. She piloted a sidecar outfit while I perched precariously in a gothic-looking pulpit balanced on the chair. I was pictured with a megaphone, calling out to the passing motorcyclists. The caption read: "I'll say one thing for the vicar - he's determined to get through to us."
Well, the message certainly got through. At our opening that October evening we had an attendance of about 100. They were the first of thousands; and they were in at the humble beginning of what was soon to become the largest motorcycle club the world has ever known.