Reading's forgotten boy hero - Bernard Lawrence Hieatt
PUBLISHED: 09:45 04 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:06 20 February 2013
Ben Caney rediscovers the story of a young speed ace whose exploits on a motorcycle and in a plane endeared him to hundreds. Reading's forgotten boy hero - Bernard Lawrence Hieatt...
Ben Caney rediscovers the story of a young speed ace whose exploits on a motorcycle and in a plane endeared him to hundreds...
Tucked away at the back of the Grade 11 listed graveyard at Cemetery Junction in Reading stands a life-size statue of a young man on a stone plinth. Clad in motorcycle gear from a bygone age, he looks out to the skies with a breezy, boyish smile and with remarkably life-like detail, he clutches a helmet in his right hand. He looks like the sort of hero illustrated in a 1930s Boys Own adventure annual. Only this daring-do character really did exist.
On one side of the grave is a picture of an aeorplane and on the other a motorbike. Below the statue an inscription reads: To the proud and beautiful memory of Air Pilot Bernard Lawrence. The beloved eldest son of B.L and L. Hieatt who was suddenly called away in his hour of victory on May 3rd 1930 after creating two world records in the two hundred miles motorcycle and side car race at Brooklands aged 21 years.
Below that a dedication reads: A bitter grief, a shock severe to part with one we love so dear. Our loss is great. Well not complain but hope in heaven to meet again.
Surprisingly, few people have heard of Bernard Lawrence Hieatt, but his short life proved to be just as exciting as the sort of Boys Own hero he resembled. At his funeral service at St Bartholomews Church, hundreds of people failed to gain entry and crowds began queuing early in the morning outside Cemetery Road for his internment. Indeed, the Reading Standard reported that the authorities locked the gates to exclude the general public.
Six members of the Reading and District Motorcycle Club acted as pall bearers. Dressed in black, they led the way through the streets of Reading as the procession passed slowly to the church.
During the service aeroplanes encircled the church and one, which belonged to the late pilot, flew black streamers from wings and tail. When the cortege left the church aeroplanes followed its progress along the Wokingham Road and after the committal service, dipped and gave the airmans salute. As they flew low over the cemetery, they dropped a laurel wreath attached to a parachute.
The son of a Reading butcher, Bernard had his own moth aeroplane, which he flew to venues. He was also a popular member of the Reading and District Motorcycling Club, where he was captain.
Participating in dirt track racing for a while, he went to Brooklands, the famous Surrey racetrack in 1927, to race for various engine manufacturers. Achieving distinction on the road and track, he took part in the T.T. Races on the Isle of Man and was part of the British Motor Cycle team, touring Europe and Egypt and in 1929 won the Sir Charles Wakefield Cup at Brooklands.
But his luck ran out on Saturday, May 3, 1930. Taking off from Reading Aerodrome, where Douglas Bader famously crashed his plane the following year, leading to the amputation of his legs, Bernard flew his aeroplane to Brooklands for the last time with his side car passenger, F. Mathews, also from Reading.
With his father present at the race, he had broken the 100 miles record and the two hours record covering 160 miles. But it had been raining hard throughout and, with mud thrown up from the grassy track, visibility was so atrocious, that some riders said they did not even know if they were on the race track or not.
There had been enough fuel in Bernards bike to finish the race, but with a leak in the tank, he went into the pits eight laps from the finish to refuel. At the same time he swapped his goggles for a new pair, as the ones he was wearing were caked in mud.
The pair were leading by a lap and a half when an official went out on to the track to within a few yards of the motorcycle and sidecar waving a large red disc, signalling them to slow down to five miles an hour. Bernard did not appear to see him.
With another bike 200 yards in front of him, Bernard tried to overtake and taking the inside course, steered too near to the grass verge, when the side car wheel struck the grass verge at 83mph. There was a sudden jolt and the bike and side car turned over. Mathews was trapped, lying face downwards, but escaped with only a severe shaking.
But Bernard was flung ten feet into the air and hit a concrete post with such force that it broke in two and fractured his leg. His skull shattered, lacerating his brain and he died instantly. Officials and a doctor hurried with an ambulance to the crash site, but when Bernard was found, he was not wearing goggles. He must have thrown them off while still riding. This was the first motorcycling fatality at Brooklands since the First World War.
Death from misadventure was the verdict of the inquest, while an official described Bernard as one of the finest riders on the track and in every respect an all round man.
Bernard had lived life to the full by the time of his tragic accident. He had achieved so much by the age of 21. He died in his prime, so it was understandable why people would want to capture him in this unique statue. He left this life 80 years ago, but looking at his statue in the graveyard, he almost seems alive today and maybe his spirit lives on.