Many people will recall the extraordinary example set by Fred Hill in defying the compulsory helmet law throughout the nineteen seventies and eighties. Nowhere in the world has anyone made such exceptional sacrifices in the name of biker’s freedoms.
A former army dispatch rider during WW2, Fred worked for many years as a mathematics teacher before leaving to enjoy what he doubtless expected would be a quiet retirement. Incensed by the compulsory helmet law, Fred rode everywhere in an old beret, collecting literally hundreds of tickets, which he stored in a large suitcase. Fred’s refusal to pay the fines for helmet-less riding constituted ‘Contempt of Court’ for which he was given custodial sentences thirty one times.
Some of the sentences were very short, as little as 24 hours on one occasion when he was held in an unlocked police station cell and told by the desk sergeant to – ‘bugger off when no-one’s looking.’ Other sentences were much longer however and the company which Fred found himself amongst in Her Majesty’s hostels was not always the finest. Fred loathed prison life and once wrote a disturbing account of his experiences for Magnews. ‘What is a man deprived of his name, his freedom of movement taken away, his every privacy invaded, every move spied upon, locked away in a filthy cell for 23 hours out of the 24 hours- and half of these miserable hours spent in darkness.’
A member of MAG, Fred’s face was a familiar sight at MAG demonstrations all over the country. Fred always made speeches at the demonstrations, dressed in his arrow – patterned prison suit he would treat the crowd to theatrical helpings of his Yorkshire wit, always maintaining a characteristic good humour even when being booked. Though in every other way, a law-abiding citizen, Fred would encourage the crowds he addressed to follow his example, as the law would have to be repealed if enough people simply ignored it. In so doing he risked the more serious charge of incitement to break the law, though such a charge was never brought against him. Once in the dock of a magistrates court where a lady magistrate berated his lawlessness, Fred took the opportunity to remind her that if it hadn’t been for members of her sex breaking the law some years ago, she wouldn’t be sitting where she was.
With the passage of time, police in Fred’s neighbourhood frequently turned a blind eye to his indiscretions. though when he went further afield he would invariably be stopped. In order to cover the necessary distances Fred replaced his Honda 50 with a 250, aboard which, on one occasion, he battled all the way to the Gower Peninsula in Wales and back, a distance of about 500 miles in one day despite appaling weather.
Demonstrations of support by MAG members were frequently staged outside prisons in which Fred was held and a commemoration of his efforts is made annually at the gates of Pentonville Prison on the anniversary of his death. Fred Hill was seventy four years old when in 1984 he died from a heart attack suffered whilst in custody in London’s Pentonville Prison . Despite the tremendous news angle of one man against the state, the national media, with the exception of two columnists, Mathew Parris and Auberon Waugh, suspiciously blanked the tragedy.
Fred was imprisoned 31 times, his final sentence of 60 days, proving too much to take, was half completed. The prison governor had warned Fred that the harsh prison environment could be the death of him, to which Fred replied that, ‘it didn’t matter where a man died but how.’ An enquiry into Fred’s death resulted in a coroner’s report which concluded that Fred’s prison experience had not contributed toward his death.
Whether the helmet issue is important to you or not, we all owe it, not only to Fred but to ourselves, to sustain a ceaseless call for the reform of this outrageous legislation for, as Fred wrote – ‘what is a man deprived..of his freedom ?’ Motorcycling is about freedom. Fred understood that. We must never forget Fred’s example lest we forget why we ride motorcycles.
MAG’s founder, Dennis Howard, was the organisation’s President from 1973 until his death in 2001. In 2007, MAG posthumously awarded Dennis the Simon Milward Lifetime Achievement Award. As long overdue an award as any that might be imagined. Coincidentally, an old friend of Dennis’ sent The Road this personal recollection of the man who might deservedly be called the Father of The Rider’s Movement in Great Britain.
I knew Dennis very well, from when I first started biking as a teenager in the 1970’s to when I moved up north to Scotland many years ago. Dennis was indeed an absolute gent. He was urbane, highly articulate, very tolerant (except of idiots) and hugely amusing. I did not have much money when I first got interested in biking and Dennis helped me pursue my interest. I used to call around to his garage in Hampstead (just off Fitzjohns Avenue) and talk bikes, gawp at his bikes, and talk ‘bike philosophy’.
Many happy hours were spent, as Dennis helped to shape my view of the world. We discussed the proper way to ride a motorcycle, the appropriate headgear (who can forget his pudding basin helmet and flying goggles?) and of course what Dennis called ‘outer wear’. Mostly, this equated to a 1940’s dispatch rider’s coat, purchased from Lawrence Corner’s Army Surplus Store in Euston. How he loved to berate car drivers for being lazy and often stupid.
Sometimes the cars used to back up at the junction near his garage and occasionally an unfortunate car driver would empty an ash tray, or throw some litter onto the street outside his house. Dennis would pick up the offending material and return it to the interior of the vehicle with some cheery advice and some kind words of remonstration. He had a righteous anger for the stupid, overly self-possessed and of course stupid politicians.
He taught me how to ride a motorcycle (‘it’s a potentially lethal instrument my boy!’, he used to say) and occasionally we would ride together to Brands, or some other location, and he would very patiently explain any deficiencies in my riding style, clothing, or behaviour towards other road users. I have never had an accident on two wheels, which I largely attribute to Dennis’ tutelage. He had strong political views, which some may have found somewhat unpalatable, but as with all things he conveyed these with a sense of humour and a big pinch of salt.
He had a strange affection for the MZ in those days, and had a 250cc MZ with Earles forks. He eventually sold me an MZ motorcycle and sidecar which I used for a few years. He referred to the MZ as ‘really being a DKW’, because it was the DKW factory that made the MZ, and referred often to the forced-induction DKWs of the pre-war period. He had several Scotts, including a Flying Squirrel, as well as a Vincent Black Shadow.
Dennis used to lecture me about how to get the amazing paint finish on the frames of these old bikes, which was done using Brasso as a cutting agent in-between coats of black paint. Dennis used to filter his petrol through nylon stockings to prevent impurities getting into the MZ (a cream coloured ugly beast). You had to ride the MZ with Earles forks in a special way (he said) like Caracciola. I think I got it in the end. I loved the stories of his coach-building business before the war (WW2), which involved taking delivery of new Bentleys, re-building them in a ‘more satisfactory and stylish way’ and selling them to the well-heeled. He knew the ‘Bentley Boys’ of course, whom he said raced ‘the fastest racing lorries in history’.
I must admit he was a bit of a role-model for me and what I did learn from him has stood me in good stead, not just in biking but also in life. His favourite roads were in the Cotswolds and he often used to talk of riding through Chipping Camden, Broadway, Long Compton and the like, en-route to Herefordshire (where my parents had a second home). In Herefordshire he used to ride through (and wax lyrical about) villages like Weobley, Cobnash and Eardesland.
For him, these roads and villages were quintessentially English and, riding through them on the right mount, ridden properly, in the right outer wear and especially with the right mental attitude (a kind of Zen I suppose) was simply an unsurpassable experience.
For Dennis, the motorcycle was a way of life and an expression of freedom and choice. If you listen very carefully on a summer’s night, you can still hear the sound of his Black Shadow on the overrun echoing through the streets of Chipping Norton, as his ghost heads towards Bourton on the Hill.
Just listen to that V-twin go.
He will be missed.
Simon James Castle