New book recalls Saddleworth’s brave speedway hero

FOR a Yorkshireman, Clem Beckett had the misfortune of being born on the ‘wrong side’ of the Pennines, with the nearest White Rose town being over the hills and far away. And unsurprisingly, because of the proximity of Oldham to his birthplace in Saddleworth, then in Yorkshire, he was variously described as an Oldhamer, Mancunian and even a Lancastrian.

In fact Clem Henry Beckett was born in 1906 at Stone Rake (sometimes rendered Stonerakes), a simple stone dwelling, perched on the edge of the moors, set apart from the nearest weavers’ cottages by a steep hillside, and equidistant from Springhead, Scouthead and Austerlands. It was reliant on spring water, accessible only by field paths, and bereft of gas or electricity, reflecting the fact that the Beckett family, as incomers, were poor.

Clem Beckett

Their remote home might have been thought almost beyond the bounds of civilisation by better-off townsfolk in Oldham who enjoyed the benefit of nearby council schools, tramcars, municipal parks and a Co-op store on every corner. Today, nothing remains of Clem’s birthplace other than ruined foundations pushing through rough pasture.

From these humble beginnings, Clem Beckett went on to become a pioneering superstar in the new sport of motorcycle speedway (originally called dirt track) racing, adored by his fans, and at the height of his career, able to indulge his passion for speedboats, flying planes, and international travel.

Not bad for a lad who, after a short time living at Top o’th Meadows, Strinesdale, spent his boyhood in Roundthorn, surrounded by the smoke and noise of industrial Oldham. By the age of 25, Clem had competed in almost every country in Europe.

Beckett’s story is told in a new book by Manchester author Rob Hargreaves, entitled Clem Beckett, Motorcycle Legend and War Hero, tracing his career from tearaway childhood to death in battle, fighting as a volunteer with the British Battalion in the Spanish Civil War.

Clem’s father deserted his family after returning from the First World War, and while his mother tried to make ends meet by nursing wounded and shell-shocked men who had survived the war, Clem contributed to household income by repairing motorbikes in a neighbour’s shed. Before long he had also established a tough guy reputation for rugby, but above all for racing – and crashing – home-made motorbikes, as well as a home-made car, which he named ‘Road Louse’ and was reputed to have achieved speeds of up 90 mph.

These were the days before speed limits, when Clem and his friends, headed out on their ramshackle machines, racing noisily along the lanes of Saddleworth, up onto the moors above Greenfield. A favourite destination was the Moorcock Inn, overlooking Dovestones, from where they continued to another landmark hostelry, the Isle of Skye, on the road to Holmfirth.

Clem was a rebel, and a daredevil. He joined the Communist Party because he felt the established political parties could not save the country from economic decline of the 1920s and the Great Depression, which followed. When speedway bosses tried to cut riders’ wages, he led a protest which got him banned from the tracks. He took up stunt riding on the wall-of-death, a fairground attraction, which also took him abroad, leading to a spectacular fall in front of the King of Denmark.

Clem was killed, aged 30, manning a light machine gun, covering the retreat off ‘Suicide Hill’ at the Battle of Jarama. He was one of 10 men from the Oldham and Saddleworth district who volunteered to fight in Spain; only four survived, including Saddleworth man Albert Charlesworth, who later served as a pilot with the RAF in World War Two.

A plaque commemorating Oldham and Saddleworth International Brigaders is displayed in the town’s parish church, and is due to be moved to the Heritage Centre, when renovation is completed.

Rob said: “Clem Beckett had an irreverence towards authority, and ‘old fogeys’. But he also had strong beliefs and great courage. His enthusiasm for motorbikes and his great technical ability launched him on a spectacular career, but it also ensured his selection for the British contingent to Spain, and his untimely death.’

• ‘Clem Beckett, Motorcycle Legend and War Hero’ is published by Pen and Sword at £25.

One Reply to “New book recalls Saddleworth’s brave speedway hero”

  1. He sounds like one hell of a character — like Biggles with an attitude!!! He sure packed a lot into a far too short life and I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of him. I’m sure there’s a movie just waiting to be made.

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