The anti-fascist speedway ace and his motorcycle

Post date: 10/02/2023

Clem Beckett (1906-1937), originally from Oldham, was an engineer, speedway cyclist and an activist associated with the Young Communist League and the Communist Party, who later fought against fascism as an International Brigader in the Spanish Civil War.

Well-known as a daredevil motorcyclist, Beckett campaigned throughout the 1930s for safer tracks and against the exploitation of riders. For this he was blacklisted by the speedway bosses and was  forced to take to ‘wall of death’ stunt-riding to get by instead.

Beckett enlisted with the International Brigades in 1936, was earmarked to serve as an engineer, but became a fighter and ultimately gave his life in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

Andy Widall, a nephew of Clem Beckett, has preserved his relation’s iconic motorcycle. With great interest in his uncle’s life and legacy, Widall made contact with Rob Hargreaves, IBMT activist and author of the 2022 biography, 'Clem Beckett: Motorcycle Legend and War Hero’.

Widall explains:

Clem Beckett, my uncle, was a family legend. He was my mother’s brother, and growing up, he was always referred to as Uncle Clement.

I suppose the legend might have had some influence on me, because I have been a keen motorcyclist from an early age. I knew Eli Anderson, Clem’s lifelong friend, and fellow wall-of-death rider, and still think that if I got the chance I’d have a go at the wall-of-death myself.

Naturally, when I heard about Clem’s bike being up for sale, I jumped at the chance to buy it.

And when I heard about Rob Hargreaves’s book on Clem, I went along to the talk he gave at Oldham Library in September 2022. I mentioned the bike to him and IBMT colleague Graham Briggs, and was delighted to show it to them, and share a few family memories.

Here is a review from Colin Turbett of ‘Clem Beckett: Motorcycle Legend and War Hero’ by Rob Hargreaves (Pen & Sword, 2022). This piece was originally published in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2022.

Some IBMT members may know of Clem Beckett from the wonderful Townsend Theatre Productions 2016 tour of ‘Dare Devil Rides to Jarama’ that told some of his story. Despite its rather military sounding title this book tells a north of England story of working-class individualism and commitment to the cause of communism during the turbulent times of the 1920s and 1930s. As such it fills in the gaps of writer Neil Gore’s theatrical production. 

Born in 1907, Clem grew up in an Oldham terraced house and had to go out to work at the age of 12 to help support his family after his father abandoned them – simply failing to come home after his service in the First World War. 

Briefly a textile engineering apprentice and then blacksmith, Clem became fascinated with mechanical things, despite his love of horses, and began riding motorcycles at the age of 14. Within a year or two he and a close friend’s skills had improved to the point that they were servicing and repairing bikes as a side business in their spare time. He was also game for any challenge whatever the cost in terms of hard knocks – endemic to motorcycles that were both dangerous and unreliable. Adored by the girls, the group of boys were acquiring a reputation for reckless adventure as they rode their bikes on the moors surrounding Oldham. Clem’s bravery and resilience were also a strong feature of his character – in his mid-teens he literally wrestled an out-of-control Alsatian dog into submission and as a blacksmith he was not scared of those horses that dangerously refused handling.

Clem was also taken with the poverty and injustice that surrounded his life and, influenced by a socialist in his work, attended a mass meeting addressed by communist Tom Mann in 1924. He joined the Young Communist League, remaining a Communist Party of Great Britain member until the end of his life. However, the direction that brought him fame at a very young age was through motorcycle sport.

In the 1920s motorcycling was dominated by the better off and there was resistance to the hurly burly and working-class appeal of speedway when it was brought over from Australia towards the end of the decade. Clem’s skills soon developed to the point that excuses for absence from work to compete in meetings began to wear thin and his choice to leave his blacksmith job for professional speedway was not difficult. His earnings for the time were good – enough to purchase and maintain the bikes needed for this fast-growing sport and – importantly – support his mother. 

Clem was a natural and showed no fear on the sometimes dangerous tracks that sprang up in the north of England. Some were composed of the cinder whose customary use had been imported with the sport; one was located on a disused rubbish tip; cans and bottles provided additional hazards for riders. Injuries were commonplace and, sadly, fatalities on some courses like the Audenshaw one a few miles from his home in Oldham. 

Commercial interests soon took over as the sport grew in popularity and Clem helped organise a riders’ union to defend their earning ability and promote safety. Barred from competition by increasingly dominant corporate interests, Clem took up riding on the ‘Wall of Death’ in fairgrounds, regularly adding to his growing list of injuries. In April 1932, as vice-president of the communist front organisation, the British Workers Sports Federation (BWSF), Clem helped organise the mass trespass on Kinder Scout that was led by his Manchester comrade Benny Rothman.

Dirt track rider collectible cigarette card featuring Clem Beckett, printed in 1929.

In 1932 Clem visited the USSR as the only motorcycle sportsperson within a BWSF sports delegation, thrilling large crowds with his demonstrations of speedway techniques. He had visited the continent regularly as a speedway rider and his flair for languages made such trips easier and helped him achieve some independence whether or not, as on this occasion, it really fitted with the aims of the tour organisers. Although it was to be many years before speedway became popular in the Soviet Union, Clem can be credited with giving the country its first taste of the sport. 

Hargreaves has to be congratulated for the detail his researches have revealed (previous accounts of Clem written soon after his death were tinged with idealised propaganda). This is certainly the case with the chapters of the book that cover the final period of Clem’s short life.

For young communists like Clem, going out to Spain to fight fascism in 1936 was a natural duty: very brief territorial military experience as well as personal prestige and physical qualities ensured that he was selected by Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt. He and others who arrived in 1936 were assembled into what would emerge as the British Battalion of the International Brigades. However, to start with – and much to his dismay, Clem was ordered to undertake motor maintenance duties behind the lines and had to frustratingly watch comrades march off to some of the early battles.

Clem’s chance came when the units he was part of were moved to defend Madrid against the fast-approaching Rebel forces. They were deployed to the Jarama Valley in what became a decisive and successful battle in February 1937. By this time Clem had been given responsibility, with the aristocratic author Chris Caudwell, for their unit’s only machine gun. This was an old French Chauchat weapon – notorious for its difficulty in operation and tendency to jam. Despite their very different class origins, Caudwell (this was his pen name, and he was otherwise known as Christopher St John Sprigg) became firm friends and comrades. Poorly led at senior command level, their unit’s involvement in this early stage of the battle was disastrous in the face of Franco’s experienced Army of Africa. 

When their position was overrun to much loss of life, Clem and Chris stoutly covered their comrades’ retreat until – goes one account – their gun jammed. The pair died together, holding the slopes of what became known as Suicide Hill, after the rest of the unit had either been killed or had successfully escaped. 

The bodies of Clem and Chris could not be recovered and to this day their graves, like others, remain undiscovered and unmarked in the dust of Spain. Back home they were celebrated as antifascist heroes: a huge public meeting in honour of fallen local men, with prominence given to Clem Beckett, was held in Manchester’s Coliseum and addressed by the great and the good, including actress Sybil Thorndike. In all, six Oldham men lost their lives in Spain. They and the four survivors were soon forgotten as Europe lurched into the Second World War.

Hargreaves points out the little-known fact that Jarama, which was a successful encounter for the Republican forces, was the first major defeat of a fascist army on the European continent. 

Not all readers will agree with Hargreaves’ ambiguous and perhaps simplistic take on the communist politics of the inter-war period, but none will doubt his service in giving us a well-researched and full account of the larger-than-life story of Clem Beckett. He also brings to life an unusual aspect of the almost forgotten contribution of the young men and women who fought fascism before it became popular and unavoidable.

Posted on 10 February 2023.

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