Farnham Remembers Hawthorn

This Sunday, if you have a chance, please head for Farnham for a celebration of the life of Britain’s first Formula 1 world champion, Mike Hawthorn.

A free-to-attend event will be staged when the roads are closed and a vast array of racing machinery will hit the streets of the attractive market town that became home to the Hawthorn family. While the viewing opportunities will be free, please bring plenty of sending money as the event, marking the 60th anniversary of Hawthorn’s title, will be raising funds for local children’s charities via the Hedgehogs charitable organisation.

The S&G cannot attend but will try and post a report with a little help from the organisers. It should be an unmissable event – and you can even follow our guide to find the TT Garage, plus all of Hawthorn’s favoured haunts and hangouts in the town.

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Farnham’s Flyers go Online

The racing community in Farnham – it’s not just that chap Hawthorn, you know – now have a website.

A lovely big twisty track, a CAMRA-recommended bar down below, live Jazz for the interludes – sounds exactly like the stuff of dreams for most regulars at the S&G.

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Detailing myriad classes for small racing cars of every vintage, with information about their rather lovely track and pretty much all you might wish to know about motor racing in misty Surrey hills, it’s a fun way to spend a portion of your lunch hour.

Go on, why don’t you? Here’s the link: Farnham Scalextric Club

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Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 4: The final journey

And so we arrive at the A3 Guildford by-pass. This is a grim stretch of road at the best of times: the commuter belt’s blocked artery which invariably spreads rush hour misery across the highways and byways in every direction each weekday morning.

In 1959 this stretch of road was much narrower: 60 feet wide with two lanes in each direction and minimal protection between them. On the morning of 22 January it was raining hard and the wind was gusting on what was then a very exposed hilltop – it was not a good day for a fast drive.

The A3 as shown in British newspapers on 23 January 1959

The A3 as shown in British newspapers on 23 January 1959

On this particular day the reigning Formula One world champion, Mike Hawthorn, was off to the Cumberland Hotel in London where he was due to judge a charity motor scooter event with the holiday camp magnate Billy Butlin. He was then due to go to Mayfair and meet Louise Collins, who had just returned from her tour of the USA with Peter Ustinov in Romanoff and Juliettaken in haste to escape the sorrow of her husband’s death at the Nürburgring the previous summer.

After that, the plan was to meet up with former Le Mans winner Duncan Hamilton and sign the deal to bring his old racing friend in as an official partner in the T.T. Garage business before ending the day at the Hog’s Back Hotel for the annual dinner of his local Motor Agents Association.

Hawthorn at the T.T. Garage with his ill-starred Jaguar 3.4 saloon VDU 881

Earlier that morning another garage proprietor, the racing team owner Rob Walker, left his home near Frome in Somerset to drive to his garage in Dorking. He was at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL convertible – which he took in place of his ‘gullwing’ coupe because it handled better in wet weather conditions.

The route would take him through the centre of Farnham and staff at the T.T. Garage later recalled him honking his horn as he went past at around 11.30 – the time when Hawthorn was getting ready to set off after calling in at the Duke of Cambridge. Whether Hawthorn leapt into his Jaguar 3.4 and set off in pursuit or merely drove off as usual depends upon whose account one is reading.

All accounts agree that the white Mercedes and the green Jaguar converged at the junction with the A3, where they had to wait to turn on to the northbound carriageway. Walker later said that it was only here that he realised that it was Hawthorn who was tailing him, and that they then accelerated hard through the gears as they drove past the garage of another racer, John Coombs.

Looking back towards the Hog's Back, Hawthorn's path in blue

Looking back towards the Hog’s Back, Hawthorn’s path in blue

At this point the road takes a gentle left curve and Hawthorn, on the outside, reportedly ran a little wide but pressed on into the gentle right-hander.

The picture immediately above is the scene today. The green line marks the carriageway as it was in 1959 and the Blue line is Hawthorn’s path in the outside lane. The white building in the top left of the frame is the old Coombs Garage, itself quite a landmark in motor racing history.

At this point all seemed well as theroad flowed through into a right-hand bend and Hawthorn, holding the lead, let the tail slide out about ‘half a bonnet length ahead’ in Walker’s account. “…I thought, ‘Oh that’s just Mike playing around,'” Walker said years later. “But then he hit the curb and the Jaguar spun through 180 degrees and suddenly we were facing each other.”

Going in to this right hand bend, Hawthorn's Jaguar began to go sideways at approx. 100mph

Going in to this right-hander, Hawthorn’s Jaguar went sideways at 100mph

 The picture above looks down as the first left-hand bend flows into the right-hand bend. Again, the 1959 carriageway is marked with the green line and Hawthorn’s trajectory in blue.  It was at this point that Hawthorn’s fate was sealed.

Walker jumped on the brakes while the Jaguar hurtled into the opposite carriageway, clipping the tail of a truck which deflected it into one of the bollards in the central reservation, tearing off its front bumper. The rest of the car careered backwards right across the road, mounting the shallow verge and striking a young tree squarely right between the front and rear passenger doors, wrapping itself around the trunk while pulling the tree up by the roots.

The Jaguar rocketed backwards across the oncoming carriageway and hit the tree here

The Jaguar rocketed backwards across the oncoming carriageway and hit the tree approximately here

It was a sickeningly violent impact. Walker managed to pull up almost level with the Jaguar and dashed across the road. At first he couldn’t find anyone in the wreckage, but then found Hawthorn’s body lying full length across the rear seat. He breathed twice more and then all went still: Britain’s first world champion was dead.

Word got out fast. Duncan Hamilton was in Guildford on the telephone to the BRDC secretary, John Eason Gibson. Eason Gibson paused to take a call on the other line and it was John Coombs with news of the crash. By his reckoning it took Hamilton five minutes to reach the scene and help extract Hawthorn’s body from the wreck.

Hawthorn’s Jaguar, VDU881, as it came to rest after uprooting the tree which had almost bisected it

Almost immediately the area was filled with police and press. Duncan Hamilton formally identified Hawthorn’s body at 4.30pm and was then whisked off to London to pay tribute to his friend on the BBC at 6pm. Britain went into frenzy.

Conjecture and conspiracies about the cause of the accident continue to be bandied about to this day. Many theories revolve around Hawthorn’s car, registration VDU 881, with which he had won a memorable touring car battle with Tommy Sopwith’s similar entry the previous summer. The 3.4 saloon was the property of Jaguar and had been much tinkered-with in development while in Hawthorn’s care – making it a ‘Merc eater’ in its driver’s estimation.

VDU881 on its way to victory at Silverstone

VDU881 on its way to victory at Silverstone in 1958

It has been suggested that either an experimental hand throttle or radiator blind had been fitted. Road tests carried out stated variously that the car itself had a notoriously stiff throttle action and that the car was wearing experimental Dunlop Duraband radial tyres which did nothing for its wet weather handling.

No evidence was ever presented that these modifications were on the car at the time of the crash. Photos show one of John Coombs’ transporters loading the sorry-looking remains of the car at the crash site, taking the car back up to the garage where it was inspected the following day with Jaguar’s racing manager ‘Lofty’ England present.

VDU 881 is loaded up and taken away

VDU 881 is loaded up and taken away by the investigators

“I went down to Guildford the day after the accident and saw the car with the engineer,” England later said. “The car had hit the tree going sideways and wrapped itself round the tree, splitting the body on one side. In spite of this the steering still went to both locks and the wheels (front) were in track, tyres all inflated and brakes all working.”

Once the inspection was complete, VDU 881 was taken back to Jaguar and the remains disposed of. The coroner’s inquest was dispensed with as quickly as possible, recording a verdict of accidental death.

Was there a conspiracy of silence, as has been intimated over the years? No. Racing drivers, engineers and team owners were simply all too familiar with fatal accidents. Nothing was ever going to bring Mike back, so everyone moved on as quickly as possible with as little interference from the authorities as possible.

Ultimately a crash of this magnitude only occurs when a chain reaction of circumstances take place. The high winds and driving rain were a factor. The Dunlop Duraband tyres were also a factor. Possibly there were mechanical issues with the car. Whatever the circumstances were, however, the fundamental truth is that Mike Hawthorn died while driving inadvisably fast in foul weather conditions.

Yet even had he not done so, the even greater tragedy is that the days of Britain’s first world champion were drawing to a close. This part of that day dates back to 1954, that appalling year in which Hawthorn first lost his father in an avoidable road traffic accident, and then suffered serious burns after crashing at the Syracuse Grand Prix.

Leslie Hawthorn’s grave in Farnham’s cemetary

It was after returning to the UK later in 1954 for further treatment to his Syracuse burns that Hawthorn’s kidneys became of interest to the medical profession. At the end of the season he went in to Guy’s Hospital in London telling everyone that he was having a kidney stone removed – although in fact it was the entire kidney.

Hawthorn never admitted it, because his racing licence would have been withdrawn on the spot, but he had a degenerative kidney disease. By late 1958 his remaining kidney was also in a chronic state. Although kidney transplants from both living and dead donors had been taking place since 1950, these procedures were in their infancy and there was as yet no means of suppressing the body’s urge to reject these new organs. The prognosis was dire.

Whatever fundamental ailment was doubtless exacerbated by the plentiful supply of drink taken by Hawthorn at every opportunity, but then clearly his choice was to live out his days in a brief, bright burst rather than hold out tremulously.

Despite his extrovert nature, Hawthorn knew he was ill

Despite his extrovert nature, Hawthorn knew that he was ill

The plans that Mike Hawthorn had made to marry Jean Howarth, race aeroplanes and ensure the ongoing success of the T.T. Garage would inevitably have been cut short – and he knew it. At the time of his death, the surgeon who had operated on him at Guy’s had given him 18 months at the longest.

As it was, he was buried five days after the accident in the cemetery on Farnham’s West Street, close to his father’s resting place. His mother Winifred, who had returned to Farnham after her husband’s death in 1954 to take over management of the T.T. Garage, also rests just behind her son.

Mike Hawthorn’s grave complete with title-winning Ferrari

The grave is well kept by the combined efforts of the local council, local enthusiasts, visiting fans and even one of Mike’s childhood girlfriends, who still pops by… presumably to make sure that he’s not getting into more trouble. \

As we have seen, much of Hawthorn’s Surrey is still here to be found, although not always, perhaps, how the man himself would have wanted it. Jean Howarth remains an incredibly beautiful woman, who eventually moved on from the loss of her first fiancee to marry another hellraising Grand Prix driver – Innes Ireland.

Immediately behind the crash site on the A3 is the Onslow Arboretum, where on January 22nd 1999 a hawthorn bush named Quickthorn was planted level with where the Jaguar came to rest. On January 22nd 2009 the bush hosted luminaries from the era in another dedication ceremony: this time placing a plaque. Sadly, this was looted within weeks.

The 'Quickthorn' buch planted in Hawthorn's memory in 1999

The ‘Quickthorn’ bush planted in Hawthorn’s memory in 1999

So ends this tour of Mike Hawthorn’s Surrey. He was a controversial figure in life, one who is significantly harder to define than many of his contemporaries – and even they have difficulty in pinning him down. “I liked Mike a lot and he liked me,” Sir Stirling Moss reflected not long ago. “At least I think he did. I hope he did, anyway… but you never really knew him.”

Hawthorn was one of the bright young things who galvanised the British motor racing community and inspired more than half a century – and counting – at the forefront of Formula One. The stories of that generation of Hawthorn, Moss, Peter Collins, Tony Brooks, Stuart Lewis-Evans, Roy Salvadori et al will continue to crop up throughout the Scarf & Goggles in years ahead, with a mixture of hilarity, tragedy and achievement quite unique to this remarkable group of young men.

For now, however, this particular tour of Mike Hawthorn’s stamping grounds is over…

Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 3: Oddments

Practicing for the 1958 British GP

Practice for the 1958 British GP

The little series of features about what remains of Mike Hawthorn’s Surrey here on the Scarf & Goggles is intended as background to a man who will feature repeatedly in stories to come – and yet who could easily be written off as a one-dimensional caricature.

When following the route of Mike and the Members from Farnham to Tilford, for example, it was amusing to have a quick look at the forecourt of the specialist car dealer: Hawthorns ‘The Racing Legend’. As you can see, despite the name and location of the showroom, it’s covered in what the 1958 Formula One world champion referred to as ‘Kraut cars’.

Hawthorns’ garage in Farnham – not quite the T.T. Garage

As his ex-girlfriend Moi Kenward recalled in Mon Ami Mate, Mercedes-Benz was a subject upon which Hawthorn was particularly strident. “We were upstairs at the 1955 Earls Court Motor Show when someone told Mike that Sir Jeremy Boles was buying a gullwing Mercedes,” she recounted.

“‘He’s not buying a ****ing German car! Come on – let’s get down there,’ he said.” A somewhat bemused group of onlookers subsequently witnessed Hawthorn ranting at the Mercedes staff and Sir Jeremy – albeit too late to stop him from handing the cheque over.

Of course, Hawthorn’s passionate dislike of Mercedes was ultimately to play a part in both of the biggest tragedies of his life: the 1955 Le Mans disaster and his own death on the Guildford by-pass in 1959. Wartime scars were very evident 60 years ago, however, and national prestige depended heavily on the success of one country’s racing cars against those of another. In many ways, Hawthorn saw himself as a member of the British Foreign Office rather than an itinerant sportsman.

Since his death, meanwhile, Mike Hawthorn’s life has been commemorated in several ways – although a great many more have been declined. Perhaps the most popular is the locally-brewed beer that is light but strong at 5.3% and named in honour of the Farnham Flyer – although perhaps it would be a benefit if they could spell his name right!

A pint of Hawthorn(e) meets the end of the day very well!

Despite this little faux pas, the pub which serves this estimable pint was well known to the Hawthorn family, being about a mile north of their original home in Farnham. The Ball and Wicket – know in some quarters as the ‘Ball and Socket’ – has expanded to incorporate a well-regarded bistro and is independently-owned by the brewery responsible for the commemorative tipple, and made for a welcome pause to catch up on one’s notes.

Time for a pause at the ‘Ball and Socket’

Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 2: The Members’ Trail

Hawthorn went fast to enjoy more time for beer...

Hawthorn went fast to ensure more time in the day for beer…

If one is preparing to follow in the wheeltracks of Britain’s first Formula One world champion, Mike Hawthorn, around his stamping grounds in Surrey then a stout constitution is required. The villages in this part of the world are thick with hostelries, which were the number one choice of entertainment for the young racer and his gang of friends known amongst themselves as ‘the Members’.

At the age of 17 Hawthorn was apprenticed to Dennis Bros. in Guildford – the renowned manufacturer of trucks, ambulances, fire engines, buses and military vehicles. It was while here that he gathered the Members around him – like-minded souls who would share Hawthorn’s passions for the ‘three Bs’: Bikes, Boozing and Birds.

The former Dennis Bros. factory site is now an anonymous business park

Although Hawthorn had inherited plenty of engineering savvy from a childhood spent in his father’s workshops, this brought precious little benefit to Dennis Bros. in exchange for his salary. More often than not Hawthorn was to be found riding his motorbike around the perimeter wall or planning his next expedition with the Members. He once took off in a brand new truck only to discover that none of the panels were actually bolted in place, causing the thing to disintegrate around his ears.

Not very much would detain Hawthorn in this neck of the woods today

Playtime was altogether more interesting to Hawthorn. It was never really agreed what his gang were Members of, but there were one or two badges of belonging. The first was that everyone addressed each other as ‘Bo’ and the second was that they all wore ties. Hawthorn took to wearing a bow tie gifted to him by a girlfriend, prompting one of the Members to ask if they should all adopt similar accessories.

“No, you bloody fool,” Hawthorn was reported to have said in Mon Ami Mate. “It’s a bow tie, not a Bo tie!”

After a week at work (and providing that there was nothing going on at Goodwood, where they would eagerly head and squeeze through the fence and enjoy a free day out), the Members would convene on a Saturday at The Bush hotel in Farnham town centre.

The Bush Hotel in Farnham was the Members’ meeting place

The Bush was a handy, central spot to be but perhaps the number of ‘ordinary’ folk about in town on a Saturday morning curtailed the Members’ hi-jinks somewhat, so they would saddle up their motorbikes and head south.

Driving out past the railway station, their aim was for Tilford. Here you will find an idyllic little village with a generous green over which presides the Barley Mow pub. The friendly locals and sparse traffic which typify the place today mean that it is all too easy to imagine the Members coercing their favourite landlord to stay open all afternoon as they sat around discussing the three Bs over yet another round.

Small wonder that the Members could spend whole days at the Barley Mow

There’s a collection of Hawthorn-related photos and cuttings outside the Gents’ loo, although there’s no mention of the fact that this was the place where his beloved boxer dog, Grogger, met his maker after bounding out to welcome a car.

A mile or so down the road from the Barley Mow is the Duke of Cambridge Hotel, which is actually across the border in Hampshire and thus offered slightly later closing time for the rambunctious regulars. Today the Duke of Cambridge has one of the best pub menus in the area and getting a table can be a problem unless you book far in advance.

Hawthorn’s second home, the Duke of Cambridge, is a gastronomic delight today

Even the doting Bishops would not always flout legal closing time, however, and Surrey had a much earlier finish to the evening than neighbouring Hampshire. So it was that the Members would wobble unsteadily onward for a nightcap. Quite often this would mean traversing the woodland lanes to get down to the Frensham Ponds Hotel, where they could usually sweet talk the staff into pretending that they were residents.

The Frensham Ponds Hotel enjoys an idyllic setting with plenty of boats to enjoy

If getting down to Frensham was a bit of an issue then the final destination for the Members would be The Bluebell in Dockenfield, today nestling near the fantastic Alice Holt adventure forest on the road back up to Hawthorn’s home in Rowledge. Organising a lock-in at this secluded spot would have been a doddle, and the snug little bar is more than welcoming to this day.

The Bluebell feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere – but is full of friendly faces

From there, Hawthorn would have gone back to the family home, Merridale, in Rowledge – usually with a Member or two in tow. It’s a challenging drive today, uphill on a single-track road with a surface which resembles Passchendaele at its worst, but if the Members were feeling any bumps in the road then probably they would feel that it had been an unsatisfactory day’s drinking.

I followed their path back to the village but at that point drew a blank. Nobody in the Post Office, the village shop or the butcher’s could recall a house being called Merridale – or ‘Merry Hell’ as Hawthorn preferred it. There was a reason for Hawthorn’s black humour – and, perhaps, the wild roving and companionship he created among the Members. It was the wrench of his parents’ separation.

Leslie Hawthorn was a racer, a drinker and a ladies’ man and as Mike reached adulthood his mother called time on family life. She moved in to a flat in Farnham and then took a job as a receptionist in London and Merridale was clearly anything but merry – often empty as Hawthorn Sr enjoyed his second bachelorhood – meaning that his son doubtless felt the need to take his mates and a dose of good cheer home with him.

It’s also perhaps worth noting that of the seven founding Members, four of them didn’t live to see their 30th birthday. Simon Hayter died first in a road accident on the A3 not far from where Mike Hawthorn himself would perish. Another road accident claimed ‘Black Mike’ Crossley while in Germany and Peter Poppe went on to fly jets in the RAF, being killed while flying a Gloster Javelin while supporting a Search & Rescue operation over the sea during the Malayan emergency.

But in the early ‘Fifties, Hawthorn was on the cusp of life as an international jet-setter… and while the Members and their haunts would remain central to his life whenever he was in England, he had many more adventures in store.

Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 1: Beginnings

Taking a ride with Mike -  a guide to the champion's haunts

Taking a ride with Mike – a guide to the world of a remarkable champion

A hell-raiser in life and a uniquely tragic figure in death – there simply never was a racing driver like Mike Hawthorn. Although born in the Yorkshire mining town of Mexborough, the flaxen-haired racer moved to Surrey as a toddler and was typically known as the ‘Farnham Flyer’ in the popular British press.

Much of Hawthorn’s world remains untouched out in the leafy lanes of the Surrey and Hampshire borders, allowing the chance to visit places that would be instantly recognisable to the 1958 Formula One world champion – if not always enhanced by the passing years.

To start with here is Stephendale Road, the quiet little cul-de-sac off the main route from Farnham to Aldershot, which is where the Hawthorn family moved to in 1931. It has previously been described as Stevendale Road in Chris Nixon’s classic book Mon Ami Mate – whether he got it wrong or it’s subsequently been changed is anyone’s guess.

No blue plaques here yet – and which house was the Hawthorn residence is not clear, but the homes in Stephendale Road are little altered

Leaving Stephendale Road and heading back towards Farnham, the first obvious landmark is The Albion pub – a favourite haunt of Leslie Hawthorn, Mike’s father. The Albion was also about half way between Stephendale Road and the Tourist Trophy Garage, with which father and son are synonymous.

The garage staff became used to beer-fuelled antics going on in the Hawthorn household – Leslie and his drinking pals regularly filled the workshop with road signs and other ‘objets trouves’ from their nocturnal adventures on the way to or from The Albion.

The Albion pub on East Street: preferred watering hole of Hawthorn Sr

Despite the ribaldry, Leslie Hawthorn was clearly intent that his son would be a young Surrey gentleman, and as a result sent him to Barfield Preparatory School in the nearby village of Runfold – where predictably he was more concerned with sport and socialising than on schoolwork. Barfield remains a highly exclusive prep school to this day, where pupils enjoy the amenities of the Mike Hawthorn Sports Hall.

Barfield Prep. School where Mike was a pupil from 1938 to 1942

From 1942, Mike went off to Ardingley College, a prestigious public school at Hayward’s Heath in Sussex. His father, meanwhile, was a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War 2 – although neither boarding school nor military duty seemed to keep father or son away from home for too long. Meanwhile as Mike grew up, he and his hand-picked gang of friends were formed as the ‘Members’ – and we’ll catch up with them in Part 2.