Many people will recall the extraordinary example set by Fred Hill in defying the compulsory helmet law throughout the nineteen seventies and eighties. Nowhere in the world has anyone made such exceptional sacrifices in the name of biker’s freedoms.
A former army dispatch rider during WW2, Fred worked for many years as a mathematics teacher before leaving to enjoy what he doubtless expected would be a quiet retirement. Incensed by the compulsory helmet law, Fred rode everywhere in an old beret, collecting literally hundreds of tickets, which he stored in a large suitcase. Fred’s refusal to pay the fines for helmet-less riding constituted ‘Contempt of Court’ for which he was given custodial sentences thirty one times.
Some of the sentences were very short, as little as 24 hours on one occasion when he was held in an unlocked police station cell and told by the desk sergeant to – ‘bugger off when no-one’s looking.’ Other sentences were much longer however and the company which Fred found himself amongst in Her Majesty’s hostels was not always the finest. Fred loathed prison life and once wrote a disturbing account of his experiences for Magnews. ‘What is a man deprived of his name, his freedom of movement taken away, his every privacy invaded, every move spied upon, locked away in a filthy cell for 23 hours out of the 24 hours- and half of these miserable hours spent in darkness.’
A member of MAG, Fred’s face was a familiar sight at MAG demonstrations all over the country. Fred always made speeches at the demonstrations, dressed in his arrow – patterned prison suit he would treat the crowd to theatrical helpings of his Yorkshire wit, always maintaining a characteristic good humour even when being booked. Though in every other way, a law-abiding citizen, Fred would encourage the crowds he addressed to follow his example, as the law would have to be repealed if enough people simply ignored it. In so doing he risked the more serious charge of incitement to break the law, though such a charge was never brought against him. Once in the dock of a magistrates court where a lady magistrate berated his lawlessness, Fred took the opportunity to remind her that if it hadn’t been for members of her sex breaking the law some years ago, she wouldn’t be sitting where she was.
With the passage of time, police in Fred’s neighbourhood frequently turned a blind eye to his indiscretions. though when he went further afield he would invariably be stopped. In order to cover the necessary distances Fred replaced his Honda 50 with a 250, aboard which, on one occasion, he battled all the way to the Gower Peninsula in Wales and back, a distance of about 500 miles in one day despite appaling weather.
Demonstrations of support by MAG members were frequently staged outside prisons in which Fred was held and a commemoration of his efforts is made annually at the gates of Pentonville Prison on the anniversary of his death. Fred Hill was seventy four years old when in 1984 he died from a heart attack suffered whilst in custody in London’s Pentonville Prison . Despite the tremendous news angle of one man against the state, the national media, with the exception of two columnists, Mathew Parris and Auberaugn Waugh, suspiciously blanked the tragedy.
Fred was imprisoned 31 times, his final sentence of 60 days, proving too much to take, was half completed. The prison governor had warned Fred that the harsh prison environment could be the death of him, to which Fred replied that, ‘it didn’t matter where a man died but how.’ An enquiry into Fred’s death resulted in a coroner’s report which concluded that Fred’s prison experience had not contributed toward his death.
Whether the helmet issue is important to you or not, we all owe it, not only to Fred but to ourselves, to sustain a ceaseless call for the reform of this outrageous legislation for, as Fred wrote – ‘what is a man deprived..of his freedom ?’ Motorcycling is about freedom. Fred understood that. We must never forget Fred’s example lest we forget why we ride motorcycles.
Credit to Philip Neale for writing the history of Fred Hill