Beryl Swain: Tribute
For some TT fans, Beryl Swain is simply a bit of trivia, the answer to the question: who was the first woman to race solo in a TT? Her story – and her name – is not one that is not at the forefront of TT’s history books. It is, perhaps, understandable why: her treatment by the motorcycling institutions in the 1960s was not the proudest in its history.
But Beryl’s story is one that is remarkable, and shows character, grit and determination. And, in recent years, Beryl’s extraordinary story has been recognised. In 2019, the 'Need for Speed' exhibition told her story, based in her hometown of Walthamstow, London.
The exhibition, which was curated by Kirstin Sibley and designed by Rachel Gomes, also included a ride-out with motorcycle collective, V.C. London, and the unveiling of a striking mural of Beryl, painted by the artist, Helen Bur.
It’s clear why Beryl is being celebrated as an unsung hero of Walthamstow. Simply being the first woman to enter the TT races and race alone against men is impressive in itself. However, despite holding an international licence, making her eligible to join the first 50cc race in 1962, obstacles were put in her way.
HOMETOWN HERO: A TT STORY FROM THE STREETS OF WALTHAMSTOW ©WOOD STREET WALLS
Ahead of the 1962 TT, the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) announced that, for safety reasons, that riders would have to weigh a minimum of 9 stone 6 pounds. Beryl weighed less than 8 stone. With the FIM not asserting weight restrictions on any other race, it became clear that the restriction was aimed at Beryl.
Beryl demonstrated impressive determination: she gained the majority of the weight she needed, and was allowed to wear a diver’s belt with a ballast to bring her to the necessary weight. Out of the 25 finishers, she crossed the line in 23rd; her Italian Itom bike not standing up to the superior German and Japanese bikes of her competitors.
Beryl had intentions to race in the TT again. She had shown fantastic skill in other races, having competed on circuits across the UK, winning medals and trophies. She wasn’t just a novelty for the TT, but rather a talented rider that showed great potential. However, the following year, the FIM determined that the risk of a woman dying in the TT was too high, and banned women from competing.
LIFE CLASS: LOCAL ARTIST HELEN BUR AT WORK IN WOOD STREET ©WOOD STREET WALLS
Often, Beryl’s story is depicted as ending just there. But, as Kirstin tells me, Beryl did not just accept the decision. Unable to present her case in front of the FIM, she wrote a 2,000-word appeal, as well as talking to the press. She also approached the Manx Grand Prix, proposing a 250cc race for women only, promising 50 riders, but the organisers rejected lifting the men-only rule.
In 1964, Beryl hung up her leathers for good. It was a similar time to the end of her marriage to Eddie Swain, her mechanic husband who introduced her to racing. It’s possible that this influenced Beryl’s decision to stop racing: any racer will know that an adequate support system is necessary for racers.
While Beryl had her own mechanic, it’s easy to imagine that Beryl may have needed some practical support like any other racer, which may have been Eddie’s domain. Or, perhaps, having fought so hard, Beryl was simply ready to leave. Beryl, according to her brother, very much knew when it was time to move on from anything.
TAKING SHAPE: BERYL ONCE AGAIN DRAWS AN AUDIENCE ©WOOD STREET WALLS
Beryl’s story has a clear and prevailing theme: sexism. There was, of course, being rejected from the TT on the basis of sex. But there was also this fascination with Beryl as a pretty housewife. Cartoons in motorcycling magazines depicted Beryl as a blonde that was encroaching on a boy’s club, a sign of ridiculous times.
There was also an uncomfortable interest in her body as she put on weight to meet the minimum requirements. Part of me wonders whether the minimum weight requirement was created to deter Beryl on the basis that they assumed a lipstick-wearing, feminine woman would not want to put the weight on for vanity reasons.
Further publicity surrounding Beryl included the film ‘Girl Racer’: a film as patronising as the title suggests. With clips that included Beryl shopping with her mother, the film reiterated the message of Beryl being a novelty – perhaps even a bored housewife – doing something a bit silly.
Also of note are the photos of Beryl in her kitchen, with motorbike parts on her table. While, cynically, we can look at these images and feel like it's further evidence of this housewife/girl racer narrative, there’s something deeply appealing about them, nonetheless. As Rachel Gomes, a motorcycle rider, notes, there is a joy in these images, whether or not it was the intention of the photographer.
RECOGNITION: A FINE TRIBUTE TO A LOCAL HERO ©WOOD STREET WALLS
The word ‘trailblazer’ has been associated with Beryl. But what trail did she leave? It’s perhaps a stretch to suggest that Beryl’s presence in 1963 has had any real impact on the later introduction and success of current female racers. After all, it was many years before the TT (1978) – and later still, the Manx Grand Prix (1989) – rowed back on their own rules barring entry to women competitors.
Instead, I think we can simply suggest that Beryl’s story is still relevant today, continuing to speak to many in the male-dominated world of motorsport.
Thanks largely to the digital age, her story has been increasingly shared these past few years; Beryl now something of a folk-hero among female racers, motorbike enthusiasts and, of course, the people of Walthamstow.
You just have to look at groups like V.C. London, who organised the ride-out for Beryl, to see that there are women still being inspired by the little-known TT competitor – and all this in a globally-recognised city that otherwise has few cultural ties to the famous races.
The very existence of V.C. London is proof of progress, standing in contrast to Beryl’s time, but female participation and female interest in motorsport still trails far behind that of males. We all have a long way to go, but we can thankful for Beryl Swain and those who are paying tribute to her.
IMAGE COURTESY OF MANX NATIONAL HERITAGE (PG/8325/1) ©UNKNOWN
VIDEO PRODUCED BY WOOD STREET WALLS ©WOOD STREET WALLS