The 59 Club: London's outlaws

In the 1960s, the 59 Club was the biggest, most famous motorcycle club in the world, and a notorious hangout for outcasts and misfits. Half a century later, the incredible story of a gang of hoodlums and a pair of leather-clad vicars continues to amaze.

Posted: 20 December 2010
by Stuart Barker

If you rode a motorcycle and wore a black leather jacket in London in the 1960s, there were few places you'd be welcome. The Biker Boys of the time had such a bad reputation that most cafés, cinemas and clubs banned them. The only place they could congregate was at a truck stop in North London called the Ace Café. There, the original ton-up boys would work on their bikes, swap tales of riding exploits, eat greasy trucker food and take part in illegal burn-ups. A favourite pastime was to put a rock'n' roll record on the jukebox and race each other round the block, trying to get back before the song had finished.

If you didn't ride a bike and didn't adhere to the ritual dress code of leather jacket, duck's arse haircut and battered jeans, you didn't dare go to The Ace. Many citizens were terrified to even pass the place. In polite society, these disaffected young men had no friends. They were outcasts, despised and feared in equal measure.

Like everyone else, the late Father Shergold (1919-2009) feared the Rockers who hung out at The Ace but, being a keen bike rider himself, he felt they could be 'saved' from a life of crime if they had some purpose and somewhere to belong. In the November 1966 issue of Link - the magazine of The 59 Club - Father Shergold recalled: "Because of their dress, their noisy bikes and their tendency to move in gangs, nobody wanted them. Dance halls refused them, bowling alleys told them to go home. Youth clubs were afraid of them. Even transport cafés didn't welcome their custom.

Shergold wanted to go to the Ace and give out religious posters for the benefit of the bikers but feared the reception he would get. Eventually he decided to try. Concealing his dog collar under a white scarf, he rode off on his Triumph Speed Twin. Father Shergold's recollection of the trip shows the terror which the Biker Boys instilled. "Just past Staples Corner about a dozen bikes, ridden by sinister figures in black leathers, roared past in the opposite direction. I felt sick with fear. By the time I reached the bridges at Stonebridge Park I was in such a panic I opened the throttle and fled past the Ace as fast as I could. I realised I was being a coward, so I turned back. Again panic seized me and I went past. Then I turned back again and finally rode into the forecourt. By now, the Ace was practically deserted but I consoled myself that I had at least penetrated into the lions' den, even if the lions were out on the prowl."

Father Shergold returned a few weeks later, armed with leaflets and making no attempt to hide his dog collar. "It was packed. Hundreds of boys were milling around, laughing and talking. I thought, 'This is it. I shall almost certainly lose my trousers or land up in the canal'."

But there was no need to worry about getting a ritual dunking. Father Shergold was treated with every courtesy and was amazed at the positive reaction he got when he invited the bikers to attend a special service specifically for bikers at his church the following evening. Father Shergold arranged to have various bikes on display in the church itself and, incredibly, some bikers even wheeled their machines into the church to be blessed!

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I have just read this article on the 59 club, I am member 3544, I joined at Hackney Wick and I wouldn't agree with us being "outcasts and misfits". Most of the members were tradesmen, a lot went on to have their own businesses, one I know was a croupier at the Bunny Club. It was a real mix of people. I used to go there 3 times a week and the ride to Chelsea Bridge you got right except there was a lot more than 40 or 50 bikes but I never saw a fight in the club. The trouble all started with the American Hells Angels influence and the movie "Easy Rider" probably had an influence. That's when motorcyclists started forming gangs and fighting each other but not at the 59 club.  I was at the pie stall on Chelsea Bridge the night of the shooting and I wasn't aware the bloke died, the one that did the shooting got out of a car and walked accross the road and shot this other bloke. There was a lot of bikes at the bridge that night and everyone took off before the police arrived. Anyone left were arrested for questioning. After that the police started enforcing the "more than 2 people in a group is an illegal gathering" law. I left the country shortly after that.

Posted: 29/11/2010 at 22:42

I was there with you too and never saw any aggro. Sometimes at the Bridge there were little conflicts but nothing over the top. My 59 club member number is 15155 and I joined in 1967.

Posted: 29/11/2010 at 23:21

God Bless Father Shergold. We'll not see his like again.

 Happy memories - Brighton runs, Greeks and bacon buttie runs.

I don't believe the Ton-ups have 'evolved', it's a different breed with matching gloves and plastic fantastics; not the same feeling or identity. It was a real club and everyone helped each other, not like a lot of the posers of today.

Sorry it it offends - I'm just an old fart possible related to V.Meldrew.


Posted: 21/12/2010 at 11:27

I don't think it's a fair comment to generalise that all of today's bikers are poseurs who are pretty much out for themselves.  I dare say that tag could easily have been attached to a fair few 60s bikers too.  You only have to look at places like the Workshop forum on VD, as well as the various websites set up for specific bike models, to see that there are plenty of people today who see a sense of community in biking and are out to help others with a shared interest.  Sure, there's plenty of arseholes out there who wouldn't give a door a bang, but that's always been the case, things were not universally better years ago.

Posted: 04/01/2011 at 15:48

I agree with you.  I think that some people want to retell the story as a great Christian evangelical story.  Most Rockers were immitating Marlon Brando in The Wild One, which was a highly fictition retelling of an incident that took place in Hollister, California (near where I grew up).  By that definition, everyone's a poser, in a way.  Myself, I raced scrambles (MX) in the late 60s.  I even met your Dave Bickers and later on Jeff Smith.  So later, now, I joined The Ace Cafe and ride my BSA with its "colors" on my jacket.  Am I a poser? Some would say so.  Yet, I was taking my life in my hands racing and worked in the industry for many years.  I staffed many Rock and Rolls concerts later on as a medical volunteer and even worked the Final Who Tour in 1982, where John Entwistle acknowledged me when I saved some kids from getting crushed against the front stage.  Am I a poser? Maybe to some, but to me, I feel that my long association with Rock music, racing, motorcycles and a Brit Bike Fan is enough.  I am glad that no one is bashing anyone else these days.  Life's too short,  Let's enjoy these great Brit bikes and one another while we can.

Posted: 06/01/2011 at 02:17

Hallo,I'm a guy who from of Italy,I would like to inscribe me in The 59 Club,what ai must do? thanks .Greetings. Luca

Posted: 13/07/2011 at 13:22

hi still a member since hackney live near peterbough now so handy for bmf,still got two bikes but they are jap gs750s last bonni got sold to pay tax man.not many 59 people at bmf this year anyway dont know about outlaws but we had a good time liked this artical seee you.ps and i am proud to be a member still cheers.john

Posted: 11/08/2011 at 23:41

He didn't die, he's still around, he lost most of his stomach though. He's an old mate of mine

Baz

Posted: 29/10/2013 at 21:04

I agree with all thats been said.I used to ride up from windsor to 59 andchelsea bridge the bikers were a great crowd and would help eachother thro thick and thin.When the Hells Angels started it changed to a load of mindless violents.I have a photo of the so called idiot who bought the "CHARTER" Over from america taken on Chelsea bridge.After the shooting in chelsea bridge we split after that and went into help the London Street Commune and got envolved in squating 144 Piccadilly exc'.A small group of bikers enjoying riding together.Our main meetingpoint .Heston services on M4.

Posted: 18/11/2013 at 01:37

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