Reverend Bill Shergold
Leathers under his Cassock.

" IN THE BEGINNING... " part 1 by Rev. Bill Shergold.
Taken from Link: Magazine of the Fifty Nine Club, November 1966.

A newspaper reporter once accused me of buying a motor bike and a leather jacket as a kind of gimmick to attract teenagers to my church. That is quite untrue. I had a motor bike long before leather jackets had become the rage. In face, my outfit when I first started motor cycling would certainly raise a laugh among the young motor cyclists of today. It consisted of a green beret, long blue police mac, riding breaches and DR boots, all bought at the local surplus stores. As for my bike -a BSA Bantam- I got it simply to get around my parish which at that time was in a new housing area near London Airport.

I was taught to ride by a member of our youth club, Eric Hall, who allowed me to practice on his brand-new Douglas Dragonfly. We used to go out in the late evening so that no one could see my escapades. Eventually he decided that I was ready to take my test. I went to Ealing and failed.

The examiner was a woman and I'm convinced that her pet aversions were vicars and motor bikes. In any event, not only did she fail me but, as if to twist the knife in the wound, she informed me that I was a menace to the public. Perhaps I was. But I passed next time-only just, for I ran out of petrol on the way home!

This stage in my motor cycling career could hardly be called successful. The bike was a dead loss. I can't remember how many times I pushed it from Hanworth to Twickenham for the dealer to tackle the latest fault. One day I was vainly kicking it outside the house of a parishioner. The milkman was chatting on the doorstep and remarked to the woman: "What a pity vicars aren't allowed to swear." Little did he know.

Twice it broke down on the way to a wedding and I was so embarrassed at conducting marriage services with greasy hands that I decided to sell it and go back to my old push bike.

I was so completely fed up with motorcycles at this stage that I vowed I would never have another one. This resolve I kept until 1959 when the Bishop sent me to take charge of the Eton College Mission at Hackney Wick. This is a big and busy parish and it soon became clear that I must have some form of transportation. Since I had never learned how to drive a car, I decided to take a chance and buy another bike. This time it was a secondhand C15 BSA. It was almost like starting to learn to ride all over again. I used to get up about 4 am and ride around the empty streets. The C15 was a dream after the Bantam, but I wasn't entirely certain that I had done the right thing in buying a bike.

Perhaps it would have been more in keeping with dignity of a middle-aged vicar to have bought a car and learned to drive. Then my mind was made up for me. I remember the incident quite vividly. We were having lunch in the Clergy House when the phone rang. A little boy in our Sunday school had been playing in a bombed site and a huge piece of concrete had fallen on his head. He was badly hurt and his parents wanted a priest wanted a priest to visit him at once. I knew I should have to use my bike. It sounded simple enough. But Brentwood was a long way from Hackney and it would mean going along the notoriously busy Eastern Avenue.

There was no time for hesitation and I set off at once. It was a nightmare ride for one so inexperienced, but I got there and was able to pray with the little boy. Incidentally, he made a remarkable recovery. Safely back at the Eton Mission, I was filled with a strange sense of elation. Not only had I conquered my fear of traffic, I had been able to use the bike for doing my work as a priest.

Next morning in church I deliberately offered my bike to God and asked Him to make use of it in His work. It was a prayer which has been answered in a way I could never have dreamed of.

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 motor cyclists. 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 motor-cycle 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 motor cyclists 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 motor cyclists in north and east London? For the first time in my life I wrote a letter to a paper-to Motor Cycle- 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 motor cyclist. Now, through the Friday evening meetings at Stoke Newington, I found myself enjoying for the first time the fantastic comradeship of the motor-cycle 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." "That's all very well, " I said, "but I don't' know any of them. How can I get in tough with them?" "If you really want to meet them you should go along to the Ace Cafe." "Okay," I said, "I will!"

Until know we had thought only of inviting members of highly respectable motor cycle clubs to our service. The other section of the motor cycling 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 motor cyclists 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 motor cyclists."

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.....

For Part two of Bill Shergold's story, click here!