Mistaken identity

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What follows concerns a little known facet of Brooklands’ history. I admit that it is gruesome. I had, indeed, some reservations about exposing it, having made a rule not to include pictures of fatal accidents in books and articles. However, in this case the information included has some remarkable twists. It serves, too, to set straight one aspect of the old track’s history. It is generally believed that only two motorcycle riders were killed in the whole long run of racing and testing on the famous motor course, from 1907 to 1939.

Brooklands had a very good record in this respect, especially remembering that it was open on weekdays as well as raced over at weekends, and that ordinary drivers and riders were permitted to drive on it when it was not in use for racing or record-breaking. In all those hundreds of thousands of high speed miles on the banked course at Weybridge, only 11 car drivers lost their lives, and but two motorcycle riders, as I thought — until now.

But there was a third… It happened during a rather sad period for Brooklands. In the closing days of lull/ and the beginning of August 1926 the low accident record was blemished, On the Saturday prior to the August Bank Holiday Monday race meeting, as recounted in my Aero-Engined Racing Cars book, the young girl passenger in the Sunbeam-Rapier was killed when that ancient motor car dived off the Byfleet banking, into the ditch.

A few days before that Eric Fernihough had gone for records with his single-cylinder 494cc Morgan-1AP three-wheeler (pictured above), his fiancee Miss Butler riding with him and taking turns at the wheel. They successfully set records of from four to six hours in Class I, after which the back tyre burst, the Morgan overturned and both occupants were flung out, fortunately without serious injury. (Incidentally, I have often wondered, with ‘hot’ vee-twin power units now none too plentiful, why no-one has made a replica of this single-cylinder Morgan.)

Then came another fatality. On July 20 1926 practice was in progress. Among those using the track was GL Parkes, who lived at Norbury, a fitter by trade. He had ridden a big vee-twin Zenith motorcycle at the opening BMCRC Meeting that year and again at the next meeting of this club, and had then rigged it up as a sidecar outfit for the 200 Mile race in June.

He was clearly an enthusiast but he did not have any luck with the Zenith, on which his fastest solo lap was at 96.15 mph. He then decided he needed something more potent. The answer was to acquire a Brough Superior and get the great Ted Baragwanath of Camden Town, that expert tuner of big twins, to make it perform. It was this fast motorcycle that Parkes was trying out on that fatal Tuesday.

After he had done some earlier laps he took it out again, with Baragwanath timing it. He was riding the machine, which Baragwanath said was good for 115 mph but had not exceeded 105 that season, and had just lapped at 102 when it went over the top of the Members’ banking. Remarkably, it flew over the tall trees and the spiked railings beyond, to land on the entrance road below, a drop of some 40 to 50 feet. according to evidence at the inquest. The Brough apparently hit the road 53 yards from the pay booth.

At the time a Mr Edmund Pears of Fulham was at this booth, talking to the gate-keeper. With a roar a motorcycle came at them from behind. striking the car, the running-board of which was damaged, and lacerating one of the attendant’s feet. The machine ploughed on and the rider seems to have fallen from it a yard away.

The well-known rider Dougal Marchant, who had won a three-lap race at the previous BMCRC Meeting on his 348cc overhead-camshaft Chater-Llea, was also practising, I imagine on the same machine, which he was to ride eight days later in a successful record attempt. He estimated he was about 12s behind the Brough when it flew over the banking top, but was too far away to see this happen.

He completed his lap, rode into the paddock, and was told of the accident about two minutes later. (This implies prompt action on someone’s part, because the crash was out of sight of the paddock, and although Baragwanath would have become uneasy when Parkes did not reappear from behind the Members’ Hill, it would have taken him some little time before he could have informed the officials and some more minutes, one might have thought, before the news was passed around . Even if there was a telephone in the pay booth and the injured gate official. or the motorist, used it, the time of the alarm being given seems commendably short).

Anyway, a doctor was called and both men were removed to Weybridge Cottage Hospital. It was now that the most remarkable case of mistaken identity occurred. The injured rider was thought to be Marchant. But it was, according to him, not until 15.45 some two hours after the accident had happened that he was told of this and that his wife had been called to the hospital to identify him! Although the Brough was so badly damaged that it could not immediately be examined for a mechanical failure, it seems rather odd, as Marchant was riding a 350 and Parkes a big-twin, that this awful error arose. The Marchants lived locally, and Dougal set off at once to the hospital.

He arrived after his wife had been by the bedside of the man she was told was her husband, before the mistake was resolved, after examination of the deceased teeth and clothing. Dougal Marchant arrived just as this discovery had been made. But worse was to follow! He was told that a telegram had been sent to his mother in Kingston, whether by his wife or track officials I do not know. Marchant’s reaction was to get there before the telegram with its bad tidings arrived, and he and his wife set off in their car — I wonder what it was? — and averaged, according to Marchant, 54 mph for the 8 3/4 miles.

“I had to ignore the signals to stop which were being constantly given to me by policemen en route.” he said! He failed to intercept the telegram by a minute or so, although it had been sent 20 minutes before they had started out from Weybridge. So a terrible ordeal for Mrs Marchant and for his mother. . . But the Chater-Lea rider praised the hospital authorities and the police: so perhaps the latter took no further action over his rapid dash from Weybridge to Kingston where they were to operate speed-traps on race-days. (It needs the mind of a Sherlock Holmes to co-relate the times of all the happenings reported at the inquest; but simple arithmetic may show why Marchant quoted such an exact speed for his run to his mother’s house, which must surely have been done in a sports car?)

At the inquest Fred Rance, the well-liked BARC superintendant, said he had seen Parkes in the paddock that morning but not the accident. But he found that the Brough’s tyre-marks showed that it was running straight about II ft from the top of the banking before it went over the top. A strong SW wind was thought to have caused the swerve, perhaps coupled to the rider’s unfamiliarity with the handling of the Brough Superior and the increased power Baragwanath had obtained from its AP engine. Herbert Parkes, a bus driver, said his brother was 28, well acquainted with motorcycles and was fit, although an accident near Croydon earlier in the year had caused concussion that had involved some three weeks in hospital.

The coroner’s verdict was accidental death. Parkes should have ridden his Brough in the approaching 200 mile 1000cc solo race, which was won by CT Ashby’s 980cc Zenith-JAP, at 85.06 mph. To conclude, I tell this sad story to correct the historical misconception that only two riders were killed at Brooklands.

Even Charles Mortimer, in his marvellous book Brooklands: Behind The Scenes (Foul’s, 1980) is not sure about this. To the names of Arthur Moorhouse, whose 994cc Indian hit a telegraph pole and caught fire during a 1912 one-hour race (the machine is said to have been buried beneath that pole, on the inside of the track) and BL Hieatt (who used to fly down from Reading in his old DH Moth), who, when riding a RexAcme for WS Worters, and was leading a 1930 200 Mile sidecar race in heavy rain, rode into the fence when coming off the Byfleet banking (memorial in Reading Cemetery) must be added that of GL Parkes. My thanks to the Surrey Herald archivist and to Dr Joe Bayley for help with the above.

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