In a post on my own blog, Ordinariate Pilgrim, I wrote about a very remarkable example of Church work among young motorcyclists in the early 1960’s called the ’59 Motorcycle Club’. In 1962 The Revd William Shergold, forever after known as ‘Father Bill’ or just ‘Farv’ was Vicar of the Anglican parish of St Mary of Eton, Hackney Wick, in East London, which already had thriving youth work, in the 59 Club. Fr Bill rode up on his own motorcycle to the ‘Ace Café’ on the North Circular, and gave out invitations to a service for motorcyclists. About 200 came and within months the young Rockers had taken over the 59 youth club at Hackney Wick.
It was in many ways typical of the pastoral/outreach work being done by the Church of England in the 1950’s. The Church had come well out of the Second World War, having caught the spirit of the nation in those most desperate years. It saw a surge in vocations to the priesthood, and while some churches in the centre of the major cities were not rebuilt after bomb damage, new churches were being established in the suburbs and estates. It still had its historic money and many young and enthusiastic clergy facing a new and changing world with confidence. Over 100 years of Anglo-Catholic influence had given the C of E a confidence in its own position, and while it maintained a conservative position (by today’s standards) theologically and morally nonetheless it believed that it was well-placed to confront the challenges of post-war society.
What is remarkable is that the 59 Club – so typical of the Anglican approach to new social developments at that time – not only survives, but has in recent years spread across the world, and retains a place in the hearts of many motorcyclists.
In fact the early hey-day of the 59 Club did not last very long, for it was built around the passion of young people for motorcycles and rock and roll music in the 1960’s. The ‘Rockers’ moved on, music changed, so did fashions, young people took to driving cars, and the British motorcycle industry collapsed. The Club moved from Hackney Wick, via Paddington to St Augustine’s Church Hall, Haggerston in south Hackney, close to the Society of St Margaret Convent. Here the Sisters were soon to discover the practical advantages of riding small motorbikes, and modified their habits so that their veils would fit underneath their crash helmets. But in the 1990’s the Borough of Hackney, looking to save money, removed the grant which had paid the full time Club leader, and the lease on the Haggerston buildings became due: the end, the very end, of an era.
In 1994 the Ace Café on the North Circular Road, re-opened. The new owner, Mark Wilsmore, had gauged that the time was ripe for such a venture. Built around the Café’s place in motorcycle history, he nonetheless opened the place up to a new generation. A remarkable camaraderie stretched across the generations, with young people on the newest of Japanese sports bikes, mingling easily with octogenarians on their lovingly restored pre-war classics. Suddenly, the 59 Club was part of the scene again. Fr Bill, now retired to Brighton, found that the love, respect and interest which his ministry had occasioned forty years previously was as strong as ever. He was touched and slightly embarrassed about all of this, but game for taking part in an advert for jeans and giving the proceeds to the Club.
The revival of interest in the Club spread well beyond the UK. Enquiries came from France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, the United States of America, Japan and many more, with branches of the Club being set up. In the 1960’s everything had been centred on the Club HQ in Paddington: now the Club was much more dispersed, made possible through the internet and a highly mobile team of Club leaders.
After the death of the founding clergy, Fr Bill Shergold and Fr Graham Hullett, I became the clergy face of the Club, being soon joined by a Catholic priest, Fr Denis McSwiney. My links with the French 59 Club were strengthened when I bought a house in northern France (and began to speak the language rather better), and I was able in November 2014 to visit them in Paris for their Reunion. For several years the French 59 Club has organised its Annual Reunion in Paris at the end of November, to coincide with a major Motorcycle Fair. The Club has a stand and on the Saturday evening a meal and party.
This year I drove from my home in Picardie to Paris for the Reunion, gave a short speech to the assembled motorcyclists and their friends and families. I reminded them of the debt of gratitude we owe to Fr Bill for founding the Club, and of the continuing prayer which their priests offer for them – especially vital for those who have to drive in Paris! (Much laughter) On the Sunday I concelebrated the Mass at St Sulpice, Neuilly sur Marne. Somehow, my reception into the Catholic Church and subsequent ordination seem a rightful part of the growing international presence of the 59 Club.
The Club was born in a particular era, when the Church of England still had the will and the resources to do this sort of outreach work. It was the initiative of a parish priest, Bill Shergold, who was never a professional youth worker. He always wore a clerical collar, and baptised, married – and sadly sometimes had to take the funerals of – his young people. This was perhaps the last generation in England where the vast majority of the population still saw the need of the Church at these times. It was not ‘Christian’ in the sense that its members were church-going Christians – most were not! But its foundation and its purpose were from within a Church which reaches out beyond itself to embrace, pastor and witness to a group which have often found themselves on the edge of respectable society.
In changed circumstances the Club still tries to do this; it is certainly one of the more unusual fruits of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the C of E, and of an ‘Anglican patrimony’ which we often find it hard to define.
Father Scott Anderson