Sean Baggaley, Social History Curator at Gallery Oldham, talks about the life and death of local speedway star Clem Beckett
If there’s one local figure whose story makes you think, ‘this is material for a Hollywood film rather than a local museum’, it’s Clem Beckett.
Looking back you just see him as being on the right side of so many arguments at the same time.
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Born in 1906 in Scouthead, just to the east of the town on the edge of the Pennines, Clem was 12 when the family moved to Goldwick in Oldham in a terraced house, which is still there today. At 12 he started work as a half-timer, as so many Oldhamers did, spending half a day at school and half a day at work.
This was very common across the cotton mills and engineering works; you’d get half the class working in the morning and half the class working in the afternoon. Clem was one of five kids in a working class family, so he was bringing in money from an early age.
He started at Platt Brothers, a big engineering works that made textile machinery and then moved to a blacksmith’s where he served an apprenticeship. Later, when he was a speedway rider, they made a big deal of him having been a blacksmith because it made him sound more dramatic.
According to research and interviews undertaken by Edmund and Ruth Frow of the Working Class Movement Library, Clem was always very interested in bicycles, motorbikes and tinkering with machines – even as a child. In the mid-1920s speedway became a very popular sport and he was drawn into this world, and aged 22 he became a speedway rider.
We have his leather helmet, which he would use when throwing himself round the dirt track at ridiculous near horizontal angles. It’s very worn and has a great patina, although in its day it would have been painted very brightly. But the main thing I would say about it is that it’s so light; you wouldn’t think it would give you that much protection – and Clem had a lot of crashes.
He quickly got a reputation for being fearless and going into corners recklessly, becoming renowned as the brave young blacksmith from Oldham.
But the key thing that starts to mark him out is the union he forms for the speedway riders – The Dirt Track Riders Association. It’s partly about pay but it’s also about conditions, how dangerous the sport is, the pressure they’re under to ride and the condition of the bikes.
The person credited with giving him a political education is the blacksmith that he’s apprenticed to, who talks to him about trade unionism. It’s the 1920s, post-First World War, Russia has become communist, there’s this idea that communism is a coming thing so he goes to listen to a speaker at the Temperance Hall in Oldham who is from the Communist Party of Great Britain, and he joins the Young Communist League when he’s about 20.
From then on he’s always a member of the Communist Party and it’s part of his identity. By the time he’s 20 he’s been working for eight years. He’s been in Platt Brothers, which was a huge factory, he’s worked at a much smaller practice, so he’s starting to get an idea of how workers are used.
Later he writes a couple of articles about how the track owners are exploiting the workers and The Daily Worker publishes one with the headline “Bleeding the men that risk their lives on the dirt track”!
It’s cracking stuff, but this political agitation for workers’ rights gets him banned from speedway for a season.
During his ban, to make a living he started doing the Wall of Death which was a new craze that had come over from South Africa. Essentially it’s a big wooden drum with a track that everyone can look down into as the rider whizzes around the Wall of Death. He took this out on tour around the UK and Europe for a year as the ‘Outlawed Rider’ (he was very good at marketing himself) before returning to Speedway.
From the 1920s right through to the Second World War speedway and dirt track riding was a really big sport and Clem was box office. He was ‘Daredevil Beckett’, or the ‘Flying Blacksmith’ – a real crowd puller.
In Belle Vue in Manchester, White City in London – wherever the speedway was happening, his name would be high up in the programme. He would pose for publicity photos, often with a cigarette in his mouth, and these went into the speedway programmes and were made into autographed postcards that people could buy.
But politics was never far away. Oldham has always been a very strong trade union town where politics is part of everyday conversation, and in the 1930s the Communist Party was actively campaigning in support of the Spanish Republic against the Nationalist forces of General Franco.
The war in Spain was talked about at meetings and at first they were just trying to organise support in terms of funding, but very quickly they moved to having volunteers going out there.
During the course of the war at least ten men from Oldham went to fight in Spain and Clem was one of the first to go. He sent letters back that were used to raise awareness of the war and also encouraged other people to go so his experiences become part of the recruitment process to get more men out there.
In Spain his mechanical skills meant he was tasked with keeping machine guns functioning and training other people how to use them. He’d been in the Territorial Army while he was in Oldham, so he fitted into the International Brigade very well and was quite a popular and practical recruit.
But in February 1937, quite early in the Civil War, the Battle of Jarama took place just east of Madrid and for many British volunteers to the International Brigade it was the first action they had experienced. Very quickly Clem and his comrades found themselves in an exposed position without air support and little knowledge of the terrain.
“he would have chosen to die this way, defending his ideals”
It was such an exposed position it became known as ‘suicide hill’. As the retreat was being organised to get people off the hill, Clem stayed at his gun. He was killed on February 12 alongside the poet and journalist Christopher Caudwell as they covered the retreat.
When you think about the Spanish Civil War today you might think about George Orwell and Laurie Lee; a kind of literary, intellectual class, and Clem, this working class mechanic and speedway star from Oldham, pals up with the literary Christopher Caudwell. They died alongside each other for the same cause.
His body never came back to England. He had a Danish wife, Leda, who he had met on this travels and who lived in Oldham but they had no children. There was a memorial service at which she spoke and said “I know he gave his life freely and that he would have chosen to die this way, defending his ideals”.
Gallery Oldham has a relief memorial to the local men who fought in Spain that was commissioned in the 1980s for an exhibition marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War. This is currently in Oldham Parish Church but we hope to display it in the new heritage centre, which will open in late 2019 in what was our original home in Oldham Museum Library and Art Gallery.
We also have a photographic memorial, which was made at the time for the men from Oldham, including Clem, who died in Spain. These guys were essentially working class; cotton workers, engineers, but they were all either members of the Communist party or Labour party or were trade unionists who followed the same call as Clem.
Sean Baggaley was speaking to Richard Moss
Find out more about Gallery Oldham’s Social History Collections at www.galleryoldham.org.uk/collections/social-history-collection/
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