The Squirrel Hotel collection
Just northwest of the city of Manchester lies the town of Horwich, with a population of about 20,000. Typical of the north midlands, Horwich had a manufacturing industry and textile base, locomotive workshops and an aircraft industry which began with de Havilland and is now part of British Aerospace. It also had plenty of pubs, one of which was the curiously-named Squirrel Hotel, which stood on the Bolton Road. A feature of the Squirrel was a huge car park, although few people owned cars and this area was a major refreshment stop for the numerous buses and coaches that plied the main road. It was a popular spot for coaches full of holidaymakers on their way north to the seaside attractions at Blackpool. The original hotel dating back to the 19th century, was demolished in the 1960s and much smaller licenced premises erected at the rear of the site. It was in this structure that the licencee and owner, Eric Biddle, established a museum which was home to what would today be described as a treasure trove of racing motorcycles. Mick Wood, who subsequently immigrated to Australia and served as a submariner in the RAN, was born in Horwich and has fond memories of The Squirrel. A treasured possession is a set of photographs featuring some of the bikes that were on display. Mick takes up the story: “As a young lad of about 13, my older brother Bill sneaked me in to the hotel one day and I recall the old one-armed bandits (the old fruit machines, cherries, lemons and oranges ) which I played before being caught and kicked out. The owner of The Squirrel, Eric Biddle, had a museum in the back, which was humidity controlled, and housed a collection of rare motorcycles and some cars,” recalls Mick Wood. “Eric was a great lover of Norton motorcycles and had a huge supply of rare Norton spares. On behalf of Jack Crowhurst, who was an Australian sidecar speedway rider and later a sponsor of Peter Scaysbrook in Historic racing, I purchased a number of bikes and had them shipped to Australia. One was a long-stroke 350 Featherbed Manx Norton, and others that I bought included an Ariel Red Hunter and a Square Four. Jack also became a customer of Eric’s and bought a lot of Norton spares to keep his two Manxes running in the classic races in Australia. The Hotel is long gone, and last time I was there it was an Indian Restaurant painted bright red. Now, four upmarket houses occupy the site. “We emigrated to Australia as 10 bob tourists on a ship called the Fairsky, one of four Italian ships of the Sitmar Line. Our worldly possessions consisted of two suitcases of personal belongings, a sewing
box and my Dad’s Honda 50 step thru. We were accommodated at the Villawood Hostel in one of those corrugated iron half round Nissen type huts. We remained there for almost two years until dad acquired a job. We then moved to a house in Bankstown from where I joined the Navy in June 1970. The hostel is now the Villawood Detention Centre. “In January 1979, whilst moving furniture into my mother-in-law’s new home in Meadowbank, (a block of units) Jack Crowhurst came strolling up the steps and introduced himself and within a few short moments he had gone into his flat and come out again, sleeves rolled up and started carrying furniture up the steps to assist us. Soon he had rigged a rope pulley system from the top floor window down three floors and soon after that, we had all the furniture in place. “After completing the removal, Jack and I sat and chatted and I advised him I was in the Navy as a Marine Engineering Technician; I think the word Engineering got him interested as a qualified engineer himself. During my Mechanicians course at HMAS Nirimba (fitter machinist course) I struggled with some of the maths as well as some aspects of the engineering side of things. Jack took to me like a son and together we spent many nights doing maths and engineering. He made it seem so simple and I eventually passed and I think he was genuinely proud of me as I was of him. The word Mechanician is a Navy term for qualified maintenance workers from memory. “After completing the Mechanicians course Dec 1981, at HMAS Nirimba, I undertook a medical and psyche test and was certified fit to train for submarines (Oberons) and was posted to HMS Dolphin (in UK) for 5 months for parts 1 and 2 ‚
“Excuse me luv, if you take the plug out of the carb air intake it will most likely start.”
submarine training which was completed on board HMS Finwhale, a similar submarine to an Oberon. The Finwhale had the propellers removed so no sea time was available. It was during this period from August to December 1981 whilst still in the UK, that Jack called me and advised he had spoken with Eric Biddle at the Museum and had arranged to purchase the Manx 350 and Ariel Red Hunter. “I was the go between in terms of purchasing and shipping the bikes. Jack then wired funds to me for purchasing the bikes, the Manx was first and the cost was 3550 pounds and that was the first problem. HMS Dolphin has a bank in situ and I joined the line at the counter to draw out the required funds in cash. Most sailors in the British Navy are not well paid and those in front of me were drawing on average about 20/30 pounds for the weekend and as I got to the counter, in an Australian accent, I said, 3550 pounds please and the teller looked at me surprised, but counted out 355 pounds for me and I said, sorry, I want 3550 pounds. Obviously this had not happened before for that amount of cash and the room went very quiet and the teller looked at me very seriously and said, ‘are you joking?’ to which I said no! It became apparent that the bank did not carry sufficient cash and that I would need to go into town. I did this and was very nervous travelling by train to Horwich with this amount of cash. “I arrived at the museum and spoke with Eric and the cash was handed over and Eric kindly had the bike delivered to my mother’s house in Chorley about 5 miles from Horwich. The bike was pushed into the house and took up residence in mum’s sunken bathroom were it remained prior to shipping. “The museum itself was well organised and was air conditioned to keep the bikes in pristine condition. Eric advised that due to ill health, in particular his eyesight, he was reluctantly selling his beloved collection. I do recall there being a BSA Gold Star there as well as other impressive bikes. Eric also had probably one of the best range of Norton spares of which Jack purchased some as required for racing. Jack then organised further funding sent straight to Eric to purchase the Red Hunter Ariel, which like the Manx was delivered to mum’s house and took up residence in Mum’s living room as the bathroom was full. I remember my brother-in-law Les saying he can’t even get in the house with shoes on but “our Mick” can bring motor bikes in. I took the Red Hunter for a ride with my sister as pillion, as did a couple of the other Australian sailors staying at Mum’s with me, and to my surprise nearly came off when going to change gear with my left foot, and found out the hard way that bikes in those days had the brake and gear shift on the opposite side than more modern bikes. Shipping was done via my brother Bill, who was an international truck driver for Pickfords and was able to ship them from within his company. The bikes were crated and shipped to Liverpool for the journey to Australia. The ship the bikes were on caught fire not long after leaving port and returned to port for repairs, luckily with no damage to the bikes.
“In Australia, Jack was advised the shipping container had arrived and he needed to come to the wharfs to pick them up. On arrival, they were not able to locate the container and Jack was advised they would contact him when found. Sometime later Jack was advised the container was now found and the bikes available and again he went to pick them up. Again, the same issue arose and Jack finally twigged, the wharfies wanted money. After providing $200, the bikes as if by magic appeared. Unfortunately, the bikes both had damage to their fuel tanks as the handlebars had been twisted sideways to form a skinny profile to fit the crates. The bikes were later fixed and Peter Scaysbrook rode the Manx in Classic races with quite a bit of success. One of the funniest things I have seen happen with Jack was at Amaroo Park, with Peter. They were getting the Manx 350 ready for a race and they were pushing the bike to get it started to warm it up, but the bike would not start no matter what. The spark plug was removed several times, fuel checked, and both Peter and Jack were sweating profusely. Whilst pushing the bike back to our camp, an old lady sitting in an old deck chair, who obviously knew a bit about bikes shouted to Jack and said, “Excuse me luv, if you take the plug out of the carb air intake it will most likely start.” Jack was furious as well as embarrassed but Peter and I had a good laugh anyway. Later I worked for Jack when he was employed at TRW and I saw this as broadening of my knowledge in Engineering and
he always made sure I was given interesting jobs, such as cold extrusion of axles and machining engine valves. Jack also worked for Pyrotek where again I was employed machining high temperature ceramics again learning more engineering aspects.” During the 15 years he owned the Squirrel hotel in conjunction with his wife Gladys, Eric Biddle welcomed many famous names to his little museum, including John Surtees. The pub became a popular ‘pint stop’ for motorcyclists, and to add to the attraction, Eric would mount one of the museum bikes on the bar. In a journal a few years back, Eric was quoted thus. “A big “Hello!” to all motorbike enthusiasts out there. My name is Eric Biddle and I’ve never been without a bike since acquiring a Sidney Gleaves Special in 1936 when I was 16. Over the years I’ve been the proud owner of many bikes – some of you may remember “The Squirrel Collection” of over 50 racing machines when I was landlord of “The Squirrel Hotel” at Horwich, Lancashire, England. “One of my all-time favourites was a 350cc outside flywheel Manx Norton ridden by Ray Amm in 1954, the last time Norton entered a factory team in the TT. This is the last complete, totally original machine of four that were built and was sold to John Surtees. Although I only have room for one or two bikes now I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for them and still have a large collection of pictures and information. I would love to hear from anyone else who is mad about classic British bikes.” Eric Biddle passed away in 2008 aged 87. Jack Crowhust died in Sydney in 2009, aged 79.
ABOVE The last traces of the Squirrel – the India Palace Restaurant – under demolition. LEFT The Squirrel Hotel boarded up and deserted.
Mick Wood with Eric Biddle at the Squirrel Hotel.
The DOHC 500 Norton ridden by Geoff Duke and Artie Bell at Montlhery, France to a world record of 111.85mph for two hours. Note the special fuel tank. The 1952 350 Manx Norton purchased by Jack Crowhurst. In the form shown in the museum, it was fitted with ex-works rear shocks.
Works 350cc KTT Velocette, ridden by Les Graham to win the 1951 Swiss Grand Prix. The Mk1 KTT Velocette known as ‘Roaring Ann’; at one time holder of 50 world records and ridden to 2nd place in the 1927 and 1928 TTs by Harold Willis.
1930 two-speed Scott Squirrel. 1929 Excelsior JAP 250 ridden at Brooklands by Eric Fernihough.
Peter Scaysbrook (7) on the 350 Manx at Amaroo Park.
1961 7R AJS, final form of the famous 350cc racer. First of the plunger frame International Nortons supplied in ‘Manx Racing Trim’ to a customer in Germany.