Collaboration between Andrew Lewis, Collections Manager, at Brooklands Museum & Yota Dimitriadi.
Thank you to the Museum of Berkshire Aviation, members of the Hieatt family & Reading Central Library.
Bernard Laurence Hieatt, also known as Bern Hieatt, was an extremely talented motorcycle racer and pilot, who was tragically killed during a race at the Brooklands racing circuit at the age of just 21. His life-size marble statue is one of the three Grade II listed monuments in Reading Old, the other ones being the sarcophagus of Mary Weinholt and the two cast iron urns of Andrewes and Barrett by the base of the non-conformists’ chapel.
Bernard was born in early 1909 in Reading, the eldest son of Benoni (Noni) Hieatt and Lizzie Godfrey. He and his two younger brothers attended Emmanuel College, Castle Hill. His father’s trade is listed as Butcher and his shop was at 131 Wokingham Road at the corner with Pitcroft Avenue. In 2004 an article at Reading Chronicle mentions that Stan, the youngest brother, had a butcher’ shop in Erleigh Road. The family home address was 121 Wokingham Road.
Bernard took up motorcycling at a young age while working for his father and began racing on dirt tracks before moving on to racing at Brooklands in 1927. Bernard and his brother Ronald (Ron) also raced motorcycles in Speedway with some success. They did not wear crash-helmets for those races, just caps or berets (Gas Kuhn website).
The two brothers were notable members of the Wembley Lions in 1929. Ron Hieatt (Norton) won the Senior Speedway event in the 1931 Wessex Scramble.
Between July 1927 and his untimely death on 3rd May 1930, Hieatt entered 25 races at Brooklands, riding for the works teams of manufacturers Cotton, Zenith and Rex Acme with great success. He participated in dirt track racing for a while, before making his debut in the famous Surrey racetrack of Brooklands in 1927.
He also raced at the Isle of Man Junior TT races in 1928 and 1929, the Ulster Grand Prix in 1929, and took part in tours of Europe and Egypt with the British Motorcycle Team.
One of Bernard’s relatives maintained a website with information about him. On the website there is the link to footage from the 1928 Isle of Man Junior TT (350cc) race (see below). Bernard Hieatt finished ninth in this race on a Cotton motorcycle. He rode his machine at an average speed of 61.3mph for over 4 hours 18 minutes to achieve this result. It has not yet been possible to identify Bernard’s starting number.
In 1929 Bernard was awarded the exclusive British Motorcycle Racing Club Gold Star for lapping the Brooklands Outer Circuit at over 100mph.
Bern was also one of the 20 men who went to Egypt to set up the first dirt-track racing court. In 1928 Speedway was very popular throughout Britain. “As winter approached they [the racers] were wondering how to make a living before the 1929 season started. Wolf Barnato, a major shareholder in Bentley and an enthusiastic racer of the marque as one of the famous “Bentley Boys”, was also a Director of the Egyptian Greyhound Racing Association. Some of the riders involved him in a scheme to gather together a team of nearly twenty riders and construct a track at the EGRA site at Zamalek, a district of Cairo on an island in the Nile River. The plan was that fifty percent of the gate would be distributed equally among the riders, in addition to the usual prize money.” (from Gus Kuhn website).
In a classic 1920s reporting style, the following extract from ‘THE AUTO’ Motor Journal 1928, (Anon reporter.) describes the expedition. The whole article can be found on this link:
“I had an interesting chat last week with Mr Hewitt about the plans for the coming Egyptian campaign. About twenty riders have gone, including Ivor Creek, Billy Galloway, Les Blakebrough, Jack Adams, Les Barker, Ted Bradley, Colin Ford, Heather Hayes, Tommy Croombs, Alan Kilfoyle, Dud Froy, Clem Cort, Wink Rice, Bern Hieatt, Dell Forster and Taffy Williams. Ivor Creek and Billy Galloway, who arrived in Egypt on October 16th, are superintending the laying of the track, which is adjacent to the Heliopolis Racecourse at Cairo and will be laid inside the existing greyhound course…They sailed on the “California” and while you are reading these lines they will be sunbathing in the land of the Pharaohs”.
Hieatt was also an accomplished pilot, earning his license at an early age, and flying a de Havilland Moth biplane with the Reading Aero Club.
He learnt to fly at Phillips & Powis School at Woodley Airfield, Reading. The company was founded by Charles Powis and Jack Phillips and operated a club and repairing aircraft (Flight, 28 August 1976). The school opened in 1929 and the first 16 pilot licenses were awarded in 1930. They charged 12s 6d for flying lessons. Bernard must have been a very keen student and one of those early graduates!
‘He gained his pilot license on G-EBSP and also flew G-EBVC snd Gipsy Moth G-AAKU. His first flight was in Moth G-EBOT and subsequently bought this aircraft from Phillips & Powis. It was P&P’s first airplane, Charles Powis having bought it from [the outstanding pilot] Winifred Spooner’ (Museum of Berkshire Aviation). Looking at records of plane ownership we think that Bernard was renting the plane out as ownership seems to have remained with Charles Powis.
A R&P advert from November 1932 states the price for a used Gipsy-Moth I plane at £390.
The Reading Aerodrome Club’s new clubhouse opened about a year after Bernard’s death on 16th May 1931 (see photos below) but Bernard must have used the space to aprk his plane the previous year..
On Saturday 3rd May 1930, Hieatt started strongly in the 200 miles Sidecar 600 cm3 Class Race at Brooklands on his Rex-Acme-Blackburne. During his final pit stop, Hieatt reported that visibility was very bad due to the heavy rain. After restarting from his last refueling pit stop with only eight laps to the finish, on 69th lap, his sidecar clipped the side of the track, flipping it over. He rode at a speed of more than 80 mi/h (129 km/h) into the fence when dropping down from the Byfleet Banking, onto the straightaway. The outfit carried on for a while then hit again the fence, careered along the grass bank and turned over.
Fred Mathews, his passenger, was trapped under the sidecar and escaped with minor injuries, but Hieatt was tragically thrown from the motorbike into a concrete post, killing him instantly. His death was the first post-WW1 fatality at Brooklands. Only half of the Brooklands race court has survived today. It includes, allegedly, the section where Bernard’s fatal accident occurred. ‘His yellow plan was parked near the scene of the tragedy’ (Museum of Berkshire Aviation).
The 2004 article at Reading Chronicle mentioned earlier, states that Fred Matthews was the son of the Matthews family who ran the Mineral Water Company in the Prince of wales Avenue area of West Reading.
Bernard had announced before the race his ambition to set up a new world’s record. During that race Hieatt achieved his ambition. Despite the poor weather he set two World sidecar records for his class: the 100 miles (82.13 mi/h; 132.1 km/h) and 2-hour Class F records covering 160 miles, 257.4 kilometers (80.97 mi/h; 130.3 km/h) (Motorsport Memorial website). He was easily leading when disaster struck during the closing stages of the race. When he died he had only a further 10 miles to go and would probably have also won the race in his class.
These photos (courtesy of Brooklands Museum Collection) are taken from that fateful race.
Among the audience members on that race was Bernard’s father. The accident was seen by entrant J.S. Wortens and he describes it in detail in the book ‘Brooklands Behind the Scenes’ by Charles Mortimer, Haynes Publishing group (1980):
“…Bernard Hieatt was leading Vic Horsman by about 2 laps I think. With four laps to go he came into the pits without his goggles on and a badly leaking (petrol) tank.
Hieatt was so excited that I had a job to make him put on a clean pair of goggles and wait while we filled up his tank with enough fuel to keep him going for the odd few laps.
Off he went into the pouring rain, after I had done my best to explain to him that if he went round at about three quarter throttle, Vic couldn’t possibly catch him. He reappeared after a lap again with no goggles on, apparently flat out. Next lap round I watched him with horror come off the Byfleet banking and making no attempt to straighten up whatsoever, ride at full speed into one of the large wooden posts which held up the corrugated iron fence on the river bridge. I shouted “ambulance” and drove up from the fork on the side of the track. Bernard lay dead in the middle of the bridge, the passenger had nothing but bruises.”
Hieatt’s loss was keenly felt in both the motorcycling and aviation world. His death was reported widely by both local and national press.
The inquest took place on Tuesday 6th May at Weybridge Parish Room. The Coroner, Mr G Wills Taylor, and a jury returned the verdict ‘death from misadventure’. They ruled that Bernard misjudged his distance while running at full speed. He tried to pass a backmarker where there seemed no room to pass. Evidence of identification was given by Bernard’s father. Benoni described how he saw the body of his son on the track. He was watching the race but was not in a position to see the crash. He testified that his son was in perfect health having passed a strict medical test for flying purposes. He said that Bernard spoke to him before the race and said that he was felling fit and well. ” I don’t know what we are going to do, but I don’t think we shall do a lot. I have done everything to the machine”, Bernard told his father.
His funeral on 9th May was attended by all the leading motorcyclists of the day and hundreds of mourners lined the route to St Bartholomew’s church where the service took place and then to Reading Old Cemetery. It was reported that the church door and the cemetery gates had to be locked due to the excessive number of people who wanted to attend (see article below). The funeral cortege was accompanied by motorcyclists from Hieatt’s clubs and aircraft from the Reading Aero Club. 6 members of the Reading and District Motor Club, of which he was a member, were pallbearers. The funeral arrangements were overseen by Mr C. Lovegrove’s funeral home of 34 Friar Street, Reading and Mr G. Wills of Weybridge. Mr Wills may have been involved because of the proximity of his practice to Brooklands Race Court.
Bernard’s parents commissioned his statue from Italy. It was based on a photograph of Bernard. It is also said that special permission had to be sought for the erection of the memorial and if you visit the cemetery you will see that there are no other life-size human representations, only angels.
On 10th June 1931 The Reading Standard reported that the statue was made of Carrara marble. It shows Bernard in racing clothes holding a crash helmet in hand and it was sculptured from a photograph after he had achieved one of his numerous racing victories. Carved on one side of the pedestal is a bas relief of his motorcycle and on the reverse another one of his plane.
The statue is surrounded by a massive marble kerb with posts at each corner representing flying wings, a crash helmet and goggles. On the front there is the inscription: “In the midst of life we are in death”. Again Mr C. Lovegrove, of 34 Friar Street, Reading was entrusted with the design and erection of the memorial. The carving was executed in the studios of Messrs O Del’Amico, Carrar, Italy. The final carving was carried out by Mr Lovegrove’s own sculptor in Reading. It is rumoured that the memorial cost his father £1,000, the equivalent of £100,000 today (2022). It is said (but not verified) that his statue was built in the direction to face his house.
Bernard’s statue is included in the national database ‘From Pitch to Plinth: The Sporting Statues Project‘ led by the University of Sheffield, UK. It records and researches statues of sportsmen and women around the world. Hieatt’s statue is one of the earliest sportsmen statues in the UK.
Buried in Section 68, Row E, Plot 16