This past weekend’s Sepia Saturday theme brought to mind a story I’ve been intending to write up about a prize winning racer in my Kunkel family.
Family discoveries can come from all sorts of cryptic clues. They may even reveal hidden stories – if we’re lucky. One such came to light over great grandson of George and Mary Kunkel. A cousin recounted how, while still a little girl, she attended the funeral of a young Paterson cousin who had died racing motorcycles overseas. Various searches on this family’s deaths was unproductive – until the three-month gap between Mary Bishop’s son’s dates of death and burial were finally noticed. The internet provided the final loop of the puzzle revealing that Jack Bishop was a renowned pioneer of dirt track racing in both Australia and England in the 1920s and early 30s.
After leaving school, Jack started work in the motor trade. It’s likely that’s where he gained his enthusiasm for dirt bike racing which was a new sport in those post-WWI days. In 1928 Jack Bishop was recruited by AJ Hunting to race in England and along with other Australian racers signed a contract which paid him £5 per week and a return first class voyage. Jack Bishop and the team sailed on the Oronsay from Brisbane, arriving in London on 9 May 1928. Jack was 19 years old and he and all his team-mates listed their occupation as “professional motor cyclist” with their address c/- International Speedway Limited London. Although the Australians made a prominent opening in May 1928 on the dirt tracks at White City and Crystal Palace, the heavy rain made the muddy tracks hazardous and Jack was thrown and received concussion. In July 1928 he was injured in two races which affected his early career in the United Kingdom.
The thrill of dirt track racing appealed to many spectators and the sport became very popular. On 19 August 1929 he was part of an Exeter team who faced the Stamford Bridge team from London in front of a 25,000 strong crowd of spectators. The “red and white” team from Exeter won the race 13-8 with Bishop leading the final lap and team-member, Jackson, covering him. Jack was then the “undisputed champion of the track at Exeter”. There are many reports in the English press about the achievements of the team from Down Under including Jack Bishop. They even received gifts from their fans and I was amused by the one included here.
Jack Bishop became sufficiently famous to have his own cigarette card in Ogden’s “Famous Dirt Track Riders” series. He is described as “a successful Australian rider who came over to England in 1928, Jack Bishop is one of the most daring riders, and his dashing displays are very popular with all the Speedway fans. He has been especially successful when competing in the Handicap events and sometimes when starting from scratch has run through the field and won by a big margin. He has also a number of lap records to his credit both in England and Australia.”
There were plenty of thrills and quite a few spills – some that were physically very damaging. In the early days Jack was apparently riding a basic bike which quite likely contributed to the falls. In 1930, on a return visit to Brisbane, he acquired a much more sophisticated bike which was better suited to racing. It was during this visit that he brought his young English bride, Lilian (nee Grist), with him. They’d married in London in late 1929 and although the newspaper report above mentions he already had a son there’s no indication of a child on the passenger manifests for the Jervis Bay.
Over the next few years Jack pursued a successful racing career in Australia, New Zealand and England. It seems his wife Lilian remained in Australia while Jack travelled and competed. This must have been a lonely life for her with no family to support her, especially when her husband was injured or sick overseas.
Jack later worked under contract to the New Zealand Speedways and was regarded as one of the finest riders in the Dominion. In 1931 he was badly injured there in an off-track accident but by 1932 he had returned to England to race. During this trip Jack became so seriously ill that specialist medical attention could not save his life. He died in England on 20 March 1933, only 24 years old. Jack’s death was reported extensively in both British and Australian newspapers. Only general references are made to his widow and two children.
Supporters and friends made it possible for “his earthly remains to be interred in his home town” by rallying to raise funds. Jack’s ashes were interred in the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery on 17 June 1933 with impressive solidarity and respect from his fellow riders. A sidecar carried the urn with the ashes, contained in an oak casket which was draped with the colours of the Downs Club.
The motorcycle was driven by Jack’s old friend and fellow racer, Cyril Anderson. A car with the relatives followed in the cortege and then behind it, two by two, came motor cyclists, their headlights draped in black. The Club remembers the funeral as probably the first motor-cycle funeral in the world.
Jack’s widow, Mrs Lillian L Bishop, 24, returned to England on the Largs Bay on 25 September 1933. With Lillian was her young son, Daniel J Bishop, aged 3 and possibly named for Jack’s uncle, Daniel Paterson. Lillian and Daniel Bishop’s intended address was 19 Glyn Mansions, Kensington, London. There is only one child on the British immigration records and that reveals another tragedy: just nine days after Jack’s interment, their daughter Patricia’s death was registered.
There is no indication that she was buried in the Toowoomba and Drayton cemetery with her father and I’m left wondering if Lilian took her daughter’s ashes back to England with her.
UPDATE: I purchased the death certificate for Patricia Mary Bishop, daughter of Jack and Lilian. She died in the Mackay Mater Hospital on 26 June 1933 of meningitis and cardiac failure. Poor little mite. She was buried in the Mackay cemetery on 28 June 1933. What a tragic end to this story. I’ve left a flower for her on FindAGrave. I wonder if one day Daniel’s descendants may find this story and learn more.
Nothing further is known of Lillian and Daniel after their migration “home”. Research so far has been unsuccessful. I would love to hear more of them or make contact with descendants.
The extensive obituary from Jack’s home town. MOTOR CYCLING. (1933, March 24). Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette (Qld. : 1922 – 1933), p. 10. Retrieved May 25, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article254304278
Why not race over to the Sepia Saturday page and see what prize-winning stories have been told?
 Such moments are the lifeblood of dedicated family historians because they make the long frustrating hours of searching worthwhile.
 Originally from Australian Speedway Motorcycles webpage: http://www.ausm.info/aus_history/speedway_pioneers/aust_speedway_pioneers_2.htm Site no longer online.
 http://www.exeter-falcons.demon.co.uk/prewar.htm The history of Exeter-Falcons dirt racing makes many references to Jack Bishop. Also no longer online but this may have replaced it: https://cybermotorcycle.com/archives/exeter-speedway/spencer.htm
 Toowoomba Chronicle, 24 June 1933, page 5 contains a detailed report of Jack Bishop’s life and funeral.
 Passenger lists leaving UK 1890-1960 at http://www.findmypast.com.
 There is an excellent photograph of Jack Bishop in his racing leathers on the National Library of New Zealand, Timeframes webpage.
 Toowoomba Chronicle, 24 June 1933, page 5.
 Email from Downs Motorcycle Sporting Club researcher, Garry Luchich in 2007.
 UK Incoming passenger lists 1878-1960, BT26, piece 1029, item 1 on http://www.ancestry.co.uk.
20 thoughts on “Jack Bishop: A champion bike racer”
A story worth telling. You have reminded me of an Ancestor of Robert’s who was a Speedway Motorbike rider tragically killed as the result of racing. I should follow your lead and write up Norm’s story.
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That would be an interesting story Jill…they were very popular at the peak of the sport.
Well, I’m glad he had the chance to do what he loved, but such a shame he died so young – and apparently of something not connected to the dangers of what his sport.
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It was very sad indeed. Newspapers are such a gift for telling us more. I’d love to learn more about his family.
Yet another really interesting read, thank you.
You keep coming up with great stories Pauleen! Enjoyed this one, fascinating yet rather sad. Thanks for sharing.
Yes it was certainly sad for him to die so young and then his poor wife who was only 23 when she went through all that. I’d really love to know what happened afterwards. I hope the rest of her life was happier.
Pauleen I loved reading about Jack but felt sad that his life was so short. It might have been short but what a life he had. Very sad to hear also about the death of his daughter. I do wonder what became of his wife and whether she remarried. This must have been a very exciting discovery for you
Yes when I first discovered all this some years ago I was amazed by his story and how well known he was. Very sad about his early death. If UK certificates were more informative I’d order it but I think I may have to get the daughter’s certificate. I’d written some of this for my book and also to go in a Toowoomba FHS publication but have my fingers crossed that putting it out online I may make a connection with his family.
A fascinating story about a young man pursuing a dream. I imagine that the engineering improvements in motorcycles, automobiles, and airplanes in the post-war years inspired a lot of thrill seekers like Jack to enter racing. But traveling from Australia to Britain and back again must have required real determination and skill to succeed as he did. A sad end but worth the research.
Yes it’s a bitter sweet story. Quite an adventure for him but a sad early ending.
Mike, a further comment. I’ve been wondering if the interest in the sport may have originated with the messengers in WWI who moved between the front lines and the commanders further back. No idea if that’s the case, just my ponderings.
Quite a story. Good that you’ve pulled it all together here to honor him.
Congratulations! Your blog has been included in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
Thank you, Chris
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I must live in a bubble. I didn’t realize this sport dates that far back. Wonderful story well told.
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Thanks Wendy…I wouldn’t have known either without the oral history clues.