The Rev William Shergold: biker priest
In the days when clergymen were treated not merely with deference but often reverence, the sight of the Rev William Shergold in motorcycle leathers mixing with rockers and fellow bikers in a greasy spoon on the North Circular before “doing a ton” around London’s desolate orbital road was distinctly incongruous.
This was the late Fifties and early Sixties when what was perceived as teenage rebellion was a novelty regarded by the older generation with alarm and confusion. So the news that a man of the cloth should wish to mix with doubtful types in winkle-pickers and zip-up leathers, who wore their hair in threatening quiffs and hung about aimlessly in seedy caffs listening to impenetrable beat music was startling.
But “Father Bill” saw things differently and getting in touch with the young and inviting them to his church was his mission in life. He became associated with the 59 Club, which was attached to the Eton Mission (founded by the public school) at St Mary of Eton, Hackney Wick, East London, where he arrived as vicar in February 1959. The previous month, in a daring attempt to attract young people, the Rev John Oates, then a curate at the church, had founded the 59 Club with great fanfare. He persuaded Cliff Richard, then topping the charts, to open the club. Princess Margaret was among the hundreds of guests, and was observed clapping in time to the jukebox along with Cliff and the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It was a sensation.
Shergold saw an opportunity to reach out to the young and with his easy, open manner he made friends with them. In particular they were struck by his motorcycle and leathers, rounded off with a dog collar.
In 1962 Shergold plucked up the courage to visit the Ace Café on the North Circular and chat to its biker denizens. His charm won over the coffee-bar cowboys and in no time they were roaring up from as far afield as Oxfordshire and Kent to his church on Saturday nights to savour the atmosphere of the 59 Club, which at one point had 900 members and a waiting list. It also had one of the UK’s first espresso machines, a big draw at the time.
At one point it claimed to be the largest motorcycle club in the world, its members regarded themselves as second only to the Hells Angels, and the club was immortalised in Giles cartoons. It was the first place in Britain to show the 1953 Marlon Brando film The Wild One, which depicted two motorcycle gangs terrorising small-town America and which had been refused even an X-rating by the film censor for fear that it might incite riots.
Archbishop Trevor Huddleston visited the club, which had become a beacon of hope in the fractured world of young and old and an exemplar of how to bridge the generation gap.
William Frank Shergold was born in 1919 and grew up in Enfield, North London. He studied at St Chad’s College, Durham, and the theological College of the Resurrection, Mirfield in West Yorkshire. Ordained in 1942, he began his ministry in wartime London. He was curate of All Saints with St Frideswide, Poplar, in the East End, 1942-49, and was then Vicar of All Saints, Hanworth, West London, in 1949-58. He was already using a motorcycle to visit his parishioners on modern housing estates near the newly developed London airport, now Heathrow. At the age of 40 he became Vicar of St Mary of Eton with St Augustine in Hackney Wick where he soon found himself a celebrity.
Inspired by a service for motorcyclists at the new Guildford Cathedral in 1961, supported by the Triumph and Sunbeam owners clubs, Shergold made his first tentative visit to the Ace Café, where hundreds of rockers met to talk bikes, eat greasy food and then roar off into the night. His dog collar hidden by a scarf, Shergold stepped inside. “I just drove up to them and said I want you all to come to church tomorrow, and started handing out my little leaflets,” he said. “Do you know, I had the most fantastic evening. I stayed almost until midnight.”
The following day some 50 bikers turned up for the service. As word spread so did the congregation. In 1963 Shergold was invited to officiate during Blackpool Motorcyclists week. The bikers had a whip-round and collected £100 or so with which they bought him a chalice, inscribed. By 1964 the 59 Club had 3,800 members. The media was agog.
Shergold, in jeans and leather jacket, though not a confident biker was by this time riding a powerful Norton twin. In 1964 he was appointed Vicar of St Mary’s Paddington, and his flock moved with him. The club flourished, its members making their annual pilgrimage to the Isle of Man TT. There was, however, trouble at Margate that Easter when some of the Fifty-niners were involved in a pitched battle with Mods outside the Dreamland amusement park.
“We can’t pretend they are all angels,” Shergold said. “Some of them have let the side down. It is an awful letdown. It is quite unlike the boys.”
Kent police considered setting up a mobile “flying squad” to rush to seaside towns when trouble started.
Len Paterson, the founder of the Rockers Reunion movement, remembers Shergold fondly. Although aloof, and never as comfortable with the greasers as his fellow priest Graham Hullett, he was “a father figure that many of the boys never had”.
The 59 Club had turned around the aimless life of many a young man, he said. Dance halls and bowling alleys refused them entry. Youth clubs were terrified of them. Shergold welcomed them, married them, buried them and saw them through many a court case.
In 1969 he moved to be Vicar of St Bartholomew’s, Charlton-by-Dover, Canterbury, and established — much to the amusement of his original tearaways — the 69 Club. He faded from the media spotlight until a police raid on a nightclub in 1985 in which officers arrested a club promoter, Simon Hobart. Shergold stood in as guarantor for the young man.
For a time Father Graham Hullett had taken over the running of the 59 Club in Hackney after Shergold’s departure, but by the 1990s it was a pale shadow of its former self. The spirit of the 59 Club damaged irrevocably by tensions between the authentic rocker elements and the everyday motorcycle enthusiasts.
Eventually the lease expired, funding from Hackney Council ceased, the delapidated Victorian-Gothic pile became an “off-Hoxton” art gallery and the 59 Club moved to Plaistow.
After further parish appointments Shergold retired in 1984 with permission to officiate in Chichester from 1992-99 and in Bath and Wells from 2000. In 1991 he appeared in an advertisement for Wrangler jeans, posing on a motorbike under Southend Pier.
Despite his bravado he was a shy man and modest, but driven by the need to bring the Church to young people. It was something he missed in his retirement. He did not marry.
The Rev William Shergold, priest and motorcyclist, was born on October 17, 1919. He died on May 17, 2009, aged 89