Ben Bickell tragically lost his life on the 22nd of August in the 1936 Ulster Grand Prix......Here's what happened :
The Clady circuit of Belfast in 1948
THE Clady Circuit in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, was the favourite circuit of Joe Craig, of Norton fame. Its Seven-Mile Straight made the Ulster Grand Prix, run here, into the world’s fastest motorcyclerace,in the opinion of Walter Rusk, who won the Ulster GP in 1934.
George Printamp, French President of the Commission Internationale de Tourisme Motorcycliste, also called Clady ‘the fastest road circuit in the world’.
In 1935 the Ulster GP was awarded the title Grand Prix de l’Europe, and French, German and Italian machines were brought over to race with the British on rural minor roads, closed specially for the race.
When practice began for the 1936 Ulster GP on 19 August, Jimmy Guthrie held the lap record, 95.35 mph, and the record for the race at 90.98 mph, achieved on a 490cc Norton. People were talking about the magic ton: 100 mph. There were French entries alongside the British.
Neither the local Ariel distributor, McIntyre Brothers of Belfast, nor the Ariel Works had entered a machine for the 1936 race. The only Ariel listed among the 67 motor cycles entered was to be raced by one CB Bickell. His 500cc Ariel single carried the number ‘1’.
Ben Bickell was in business with his brother, Joseph William Bickell, of Archgate Road,
Michael Waugh investigates the early history of the Clady Circuit in Co. Antrim, and the sad death there of Ben Bickell, the only Ariel- mounted rider to attempt the 1936 Ulster GP
Highgate, London N6. They were garage pro- prietors. Ben was 41 years old.
Although this was Ben’s first Ulster GP, it was also planned to be his last serious race, as he was due to marry in September. Ben had had a lucky escape with his life, when, in October 1934, he went off the banking at Brooklands at more than 100 mph. Because of his many wins there, he was called the Uncrowned King of Brooklands.
A fateful day
In 1936 the 500cc machines had to cover 12 laps (246 miles) of the 20.5-mile Clady circuit; the 350cc machines, 11 laps; and the 250cc bikes, 10 laps.
In fine weather, on Saturday 22 August at 2.00 pm, the 500cc machines set off in an exciting massed start. They were followed two minutes later by the 350cc class, and after a further two minutes by the 250ccs.
After two gentle bends the road was almost dead straight and very fast for six miles to Thorn Cottage Turn, a right-angled right-hander. From there they headed north (across an area now closed off for Belfast International Airport) to Greenmount Corner, a right-hander and the halfway point. Then came Rectory Corner after 12 miles, a left turn at a T-junction.
After another 500 yards came Muckamore Bend, a left-hander round one of the buildings of the York Street Flax Spinning Company’s mill.
I believe Ben was on his second lap when it happened. Police District Inspector Moffatt told the inquest how he saw Mr Bickell com- ing round this bend. He did not appear to be travelling nearly as fast as some riders had been, but his Ariel was ‘wobbling a good deal’ and he was trying to get it under control. His bike struck a low wall round the site of an old abbey on the right-hand side of the road, on the railway side of the bend.
The bike and Ben fell to the right and Ben
lay where he fell. The Ariel slid a yard or two
across the road.
Ben was carried into the Flax Mill, where the duty nurse treated him. District Inspector Mof- fatt went to look for the doctor, but a few minutes earlier he had left Muckamore Bend to go to Rectory Corner to see to two other riders. Ben may have ridden past an incident there.
The ambulance took Ben to the Masserene Hospital, with a large wound on his forehead and a skull fracture or two. He died at 9 pm that night, 22 August 1936.
Seeking the cause
No defect was found by the scrutineers in Ben’s helmet or bike that could have caused the accident or contributed to his injuries. Would a modern racing helmet have saved his life? Who knows?
The Coroner even made it clear that the bike manufacturer was not at fault. The inquest was told that this was only the second fatality in the GP, which had been run annually for at least 15 years.
District Inspector Moffatt reported some- thing that, though it didn’t appear to have affected other riders, may have caused Ben to lose control, however: Moffatt had been up the road towards Rectory Corner about 15 minutes before Ben fell off, and had seen that tar was beginning to lift on the surface. Was this the cause?
The race continued. Sixty yards beyond Muckamore Bend the riders took a sharp right turn onto the Seven-Mile Straight, which took them up to Clady Corner and the start/finish/ pits area. After the retirement of two famous riders – Stanley Woods and Jimmy Guthrie – the
race was won by Freddie Frith (who, like Ben, was riding in his first Ulster GP) on a 500cc Norton, by a record margin of 19 minutes. ER Thomas (Velocette) won the 350cc class, and Ginger Wood (New Imperial) won the 250cc. There was no 100 mph lap.
The Ulster GP was organized by the Ulster Motorcycle Club, of 98 Donegall Pass, Belfast. This address was bombed out in the 1940s, and the club had disappeared by 1997.
The 1936 race programme gives much use- ful information. I am grateful to Jean Finlay and Drew Ferris, without whose help I could never have found the exact site of Ben’s tragic crash. I am grateful to the Ordnance Survey, for my rough maps are based on pre-1965 OS maps. I thank my sister, Sheelagh, for helping to prepare this for publication, and my late mother, Molly, who collected Ben’s autograph and newspaper reports.
My late mother also had information about Charlie Dodson, an Irish car and motorbike racer of the 1930s. Remember the photo, in a bygone Cheval, of a statue in former Czecho- slovakia of a racing motor cyclist leaning his bike into a bend, but instead of leaning his body with it, sitting bolt upright at right angles to the road? Charlie Dodson raced like that.
If you have used Belfast International Air- port you will have crossed and driven along Clady Circuit, and if you have visited Dundrod Circuit you will probably have crossed or ridden along Clady Circuit around Nutts Corner.
So we know what happened to Ben Bickell, but not what became of his bikes. I will make a guess. It appears Ben’s bikes were in London after his death. They, including his famous blown Ariel 4F, probably stayed there during World War II, when there was much aerial bombing on London. Were they destroyed in the bombing?
This is what the Times said :
The obituary in the Times :
In the obituary it says "No Mourning....", and I think that fits the spirit of Ben very well....Always trying to go faster and faster, I think he very well realised that a thing like this could happen. On the "The Times" page I have placed the race-reports I found in the Times archive. There are two articles where is related about a rider who fractured his skull in one of the races, and only a couple of weeks later was back on Brooklands to do another record-attempt. God, these men were tough!! Ben had his fair share of success on Brooklands' track, he set records there in 1932 that were only to be broken in 1938....But as with so many riders, in the end, the God of Speed demanded the Ultimate Sacrifice.....And I think Ben wouldn't have wanted it in any other way......