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Clem Beckett was the David Beckham of his day

John Simkin

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In the early 1930s Clem Beckett was one of the best-known sportsman in the UK. As Graham Stevenson has pointed out: "His trade was of a blacksmith but, faced with victimisation and depression after the late 1920s, he started riding the Dome of Death at fairgrounds. So, stunning and confident was his mastery of this feat that, in no short time he had became famous as Dare Devil Beckett, the man who rode the Wall of Death and who broke world records."

He became a speedway rider for Belle Vue, a team based in Manchester. According to John Snowdon: "When speedway was first introduced to this country many greyhound stadium owners jumped on the bandwagon. Young kids were persuaded to race irrespective of their experience and many were killed or seriously injured. Clem Beckett... played a major part in setting up a trades union for riders that stopped this lethal exploitation." George Sinfield later commented: "Beneath his leather jacket beat a heart of gold. It was a heart that throbbed in rhythm with the struggle of the working people."

Stevenson has argued: "The then relatively new sport of speedway motorcycle racing was massively popular amongst young working class people in the 1930s. It is diffcult to imagine quite how much so; but, arguably, Clem Beckett was the David Beckham of his day. Young men aspired to his skill and daring and young women swooned over his dashing appearance!"

There was one way Stevenson was unlike Beckham. He saw himself as a representative of the working-class and was active in the campaign to gain access to open spaces in what is now the Peak District National Park. In 1932 he took part in what became known as the Kinder Trespass. Joseph Norman was one of those activists who worked alongside Beckett: "My first real experience of political activity was the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire which eventually led to the designation of the area as a National Park. Dozens of those that fought the police and landowners on that mass trespass were... men like Clem Beckett."

Clem Beckett also campaigned against the growth of fascism and in 1936 joined the International Brigades. Beckett wrote to his wife from the front-line at Jarama: "I'm sure you'll realise that I should never have been satisfied had I not assisted. Only my hatred of Fascism brought me here."

Clem Beckett and his friend, the poet, Christopher Caudwell, took control of a Charcot light machine-gun at the Battle of Jarma. On 12th February, 1937, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. Hugh Thomas, the author of The Spanish Civil War (1961) has commented: "A mere two hundred and twenty-five out of the original six hundred members of the British Battalion were left at the end of the day." Beckett's friend, George Sinfield, later pointed out: "Clem and Chris were posted at a vital point. They faced innumerable odds: artillery, planes, and howling Moors throwing hand-grenades. Their section was ordered to retire. Clem and Chris kept their machine-gun trained on the advancing fascists, as a cover to the retreat. The advance was halted, but Clem and Chris... lost their lives." He was 31 years old.



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