June 8, 1962 Beryl Swain is the first woman to ride solo in Isle of Man TT
Racing pioneer who defied authority
It may have taken 60 years to complete the journey, but the road to Ana Carrasco becoming the first female motorbike world champion in 2018 began in Walthamstow with Beryl Swain. A 15ft mural (right) – high on a gable end looking down on Wood Street, north-east London – depicts Beryl in her racing leathers, goggles perched on the peak of her gleaming red helmet, blonde hair cascading to her shoulders.
It is painted from a photograph taken in 1962 when newsreels treated Beryl as a curiosity rather than a serious sportswoman, using her fame to campaign for greater opportunities to compete. Pathe footage portrayed her as “the racing housewife”, a gimmick designed to promote her as an adjunct to her husband Eddie’s garage. In fact, she held a senior secretarial role in the City and funded herself in the sport.
She started riding after meeting Eddie in 1952 and took up serious racing after they were married in 1958. She joined the Racing 50 Motorcycling Club and prospered in the 50cc class, often as the only woman, winning trophies at Snetterton, Cadwell Park, Gosling Stadium, Brands Hatch and Silverstone. In her first year of competition, she overcame a heavy crash at Crystal Palace, even trying to carry on despite blood leaking from her helmet.
When, in 1962, the Isle of Man TT introduced a new 50cc ultralightweight class, Beryl’s application provoked prejudice and publicity. She was accepted, but the International Motorcycling Federation brought in – for that class only – a minimum weight requirement of 9st 6lb, claiming it feared public revulsion if a woman was killed and that it was being chivalrous, not prejudicial. Undaunted, Beryl (right) switched to a high-carb and oil-heavy diet and, after featuring in several articles in the press, all with a condescending tone – “When it comes down to the hard graft she is a complete, helpless SHE,” wrote the Sunday Mirror, pointing out that Eddie did the mechanical work – she was allowed to carry lead weights as ballast to make the limit.