Friday, June 19, 2009
By Amaryllis Knight:
One of the founders of the legendary 59 Club, The Reverend Bill Shergold (2nd to the right), died last month aged 89. Known as the "ton-up vicar", “Farv” or the "biker priest", Shergold famously ministered to hordes of young hot-headed rockers, who used to tear around London’s North Circular Road on their Nortons, BSAs and Triumphs, intimidating the population at large and causing retired Captains to sputter up their gin...
The 59 Club was originally set up as a church-run youth club at the Eton Mission youth club, based at Hackney Wick, but under the auspices of Father Bill it fast became a refuge for anti-social 'ton-up' kids and tear-away bikers to share their passion. If you rode a motorcycle and wore a black leather jacket in London in the 1960s, there were few places you'd be welcome. Shergold had discovered that young motorcyclists were banned from most cafés, cinemas, clubs and bowling alleys and had decided that they should have a club of their own where they could "come and go as they please, with no strings attached' (below: The Ace Café, London, today).
At the time the North Circular's infamous Ace Café was the favored haunt of the UK rocker scene and was sure to be packed with the disaffected youths who roamed London at night. It was the place where the original ton-up boys would eat greasy trucker food, enjoy illegal burn-ups, work on their bikes and swap stories of their riding exploits which would soon become Legend. A favourite pastime was to play a rock'n'roll record on the jukebox and race each other to the nearest roundabout and back, attempting to return to the Cafe before the song had finished. “The Ace Cafe was quite a rough place in those days and I wasn’t at all keen on going there – the rockers had a bit of a reputation, and I wasn’t sure how they would react to a vicar" Sherwood reminisced before his passing, but one Sunday afternoon he hid his vicar dog collar behind a scarf and rode up in his leathers. "Just past Staples Corner about a dozen bikes, ridden by sinister figures in black leathers, roared past in the opposite direction. I felt sick with fear. By the time I reached the bridges at Stonebridge Park I was in such a panic I opened the throttle and fled past the Ace as fast as I could. I realised I was being a coward, so I turned back. Again panic seized me and I went past. Then I turned back again and finally rode into the forecourt. By now, the Ace was practically deserted but I consoled myself that I had at least penetrated into the lions' den, even if the lions were out on the prowl." Father Bill went home and spent the following two weeks plucking up his courage to return. This time, he took an armful of church leaflets, didn't attempt to hide anything and rode his Triumph Speed Twin up to the Ace, on a busy Saturday night. "It was packed. Hundreds of boys were milling around, laughing and talking. I thought, 'This is it. I shall almost certainly lose my trousers or land up in the canal'," he later confessed. (Bill Shergold, the ton-up vicar and his congreagation of Rockers from the Ace Cafe, Busy Bee and Chelsea Bridge Snack Bar).
Far from the traditional dunking that Father Bill expected, he was treated with the utmost courtesy and found himseld "amazed" at the positive reaction he got when he handed out his leaflets and invited the bikers to come to the Eton Mission on Saturday nights. The idea of riding in convoy to a church service being held in their honour seemed to strike a chord with the leather boys and not only was Father Bill’s church in Hackney Wick packed with a scrum of rockers and cluster of media (BBC and ITV news teams swarmed around the church to see the service), but this became the beginning of the biking section of the 59 Club, which soon had more than 4,000 members, arriving weekly from as far afield as Oxford and Kent. Adressing them from the pulpit, Farv compared his biker congregation to the "knights of old", challanging them to uphold the same ideals of "courage, courtesy and chivalry." He implored that they should "dedicate their bikes and themselves to God’s service, endeavouring to use the machines in a responsible way" and then blessed their machines, as they sat, parked in the aisles of the church in tidy lines. (Shergold on the Cover of the 59 Club magazine, November 1966).
The 59 Club's round badge with the number '59' in it's centre became the envy of bikers Country wide. In it's first year, it grew into the biggest bike club in the world the ton-up vicar brought another bike riding Father in to the fold to help him run the club: Father Graham Hullett. New premises needed to be found to house its 11,000 members, so the club moved its HQ to Paddington in central London. Father Graham became heavily involved in the Club, and was known as the man who would do anything to help those in trouble. Like Shergold, he felt that "These were the same kind of lads who would have been flying Spitfires or bombers in defence of their country 20 years earlier," he says now. "Other members of the church thought myself and Father Shergold were very brave, but we weren't really - we were just mixing with people who rode bikes. Being a biker myself, I saw these lads as being just as good as anyone else. They had a different way of life but they were just as good as the rest of mankind. The 59 club's rules were that “you had to have a motorbike, and you had to visit in person to sign up.” It was packed with rockers and bikers from that moment on, and went on to become the largest motorcycle club in the world. A parish house was set up, with beds for touring bikers and a trip to the 59 Club became a pilgrimage, with riders turning up from around Great Britain with nothing more than toothbrushes and a comb.
In 1963, senior boys at Eton College invited 59 Club members to a dinner-dance at one of London's most revered and Luxurious hotels in the heart of Mayfair, the Dorchester. It gained unprecedented support from all walks of life, including Cliff Richard, Princess Margaret, nuns and the Reverend Mother from a nearby Anglican priory, all of whom rode motorcycles and attended FARV's services. (Bill Shergold, “FARV”, gets his ton-up buddies in to the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane).
The 59 Club continued to receive widespread coverage in the press and according to London's Daily Telegraph, the Bishop of London was telephoned in the middle of the night by a reporter seeking his views on blessing motorcycles... but if the newspapers hoped for a schism they were disappointed. "I had nothing but support from the Church," Shergold said. "One or two cranky lay people wrote asking me what on earth I thought I was doing, but that was about the sum of it."
In 1969, aged 60, Father Bill moved to Dover and took on more conventional parish duties, but the bikers hadn't had their fill of him yet, and hearing that he'd moved to their town, nominated him as founder of a new club, the 69 Club. Once again he found himself running the local biker club, being its spiritual guide and being rechristened “Farv” by his flock. Shergold was elected life president of both the 59 and 69 Clubs, both of which continue to this day. The club is now located in Plaistow, East London and, in keeping with tradition, is under the guidance of another "man of the cloth", Father Scot Anderson. Sadly, internal politics and frictions mean the club is now divided between older and newer members, according to Visordown. Many members of the original 59 Club feel their spirit has been lost along the way and they refuse to have anything to do with the club as it is now. Likewise, many current members prefer to distance themselves from the less-than-savoury reputation the club had in the 1960s. The 59 Club – which has some 30,000 members today (of which many renew their subscription each year by turning up in person) – will ride-out from The Ace Café at 10am on September 12, 2009, to a memorial service they are holding in Shergold's honor at St Martins-in-the Fields in Trafalgar Square, London. The service will coincide with Club's 50th anniversary and will be lead by Fr Scott Anderson, who will replicate the inaugural service celebrated by Father William Shergold, followed by a Blessing of Bikes.
This article was originally published in Amaryllis' beautiful new Falcon Motorcycles website. Thanks!