The Motorcycling Clergyman of St Wenn
A research team of around 40 volunteers are collecting information about local men who fought in the First World War. The findings of the research will form an integral part of the performances of The Trench at Bodmin, and will also be the focus of a special exhibition at Cornwall’s Regimental Museum. During their research, the team have uncovered some fascinating stories, such as the story of the Motorcycling Clergyman of St Wenn.
Basil Henry Davies was born and raised in a vicarage in Rochdale in 1879, had become a deacon at St Mary’s Church in Surrey by the age of 24. However, the path of his career was not laid neatly out before him: during his student years at Oxford he had discovered a lifelong passion for motorcycles, and by 1904 he was on the committee of The Motor Cycling Club, and was the honorary editor of its gazette.
Basil started writing for The Motor Cycle under the pseudonym of ‘Ixion’, a king in Greek mythology punished by Zeus by being tied to a fiery, perpetually revolving wheel. He must have established quite a name for himself, because in 1905 Triumph developed their first motorcycle engine, and approached the enigmatic Ixion to ride, test and report on the motorcycle’s performance. Basil and a companion set off on the 6-day road test, which Triumph claimed was a great success, with 1,279 miles completed without major breakdowns - quite an accomplishment for the time.
Making History: Ixion seated on his 1905 Triumph belt drive motorcycle. Image used with kind permission from the Geoffrey Morris Collection.
In 1907 Basil moved to St Sepulcres Church, Northampton where he married Frances Hodgkinson, an American. They had six children together. Still, his passion for motorcycles raged, and Basil soon became president of the Northamptonshire Motorcycle Club. In fact, Basil’s busy family life and parish commitments never held him back from his passion: In 1909 he helped found the Scottish Six Days Trial – an extreme motocycle competition which ‘aimed to be the most challenging motorcycle trial ever held’. Later Basil became a gold medallist in both this event and its English equivalent. (The Scottish Six Days Trial continues to this day, and is the oldest motorcyle trials event in the world).
Over his lifetime, Basil’s other accomplishments included writing and broadcasting; his column ‘Occasional Comments’ appeared weekly in The Motor Cycle magazine, he wrote two books on motorcycling: ‘Reminiscences’ and ‘Cavalcade’, as well as books and articles on bridge and cricket. He made the first broadcast of a speedway meeting from Stamford Bridge, as well as the the first TT broadcast, and wrote articles for almost every International TT in his lifetime.
In 1916, pressures of his work and ill health brought Basil to the quiet parish of St Wenn in Cornwall, where he replaced the Rev. John Addenbrooke who had lost his son in the closing weeks of the Somme Offensive. Perhaps led by his love of engines, Basil joined the Royal Flying Corps a year later, at the age of 38. He became a technical officer, and was appointed as a Second Lieutenant. Part of Basil’s role included training pilots to fire machine guns; perhaps an unusual job for a clergyman, however these were undoubtedly unusual times. Whilst he was away, the clergy from St Columb and other parishes stepped up to the mark and provided services in St Wenn. This, however, became more and more difficult as time went on. Basil wrote several times to St Wenn church, his letters were published in the church magazine, copies of which survive to this day.
Just in case Basil is chosen to be one of the 80 men featured in our productions of The Trench, unfortunately we can’t reveal the ending to his story. But if you’d like to find out more there is much written about him online, as well as a book published in 2014: ‘Ixion of the Motor Cycle: on the life and times of Canon Basil H. Davies BA’. By Dave Masters, who interestingly is an organiser of the annual ‘Ixion Cavalcade’, a fitting tribute to this interesting man.
Recommended reading: Ixion and the 1905 Triumph, on the Go Faster Website. This website includes Basil's own account of the test ride.
About the Researcher: The story of Ixion was researched by volunteer Tim Lock, who became involved in The Trench at Bodmin while researching the fallen men from St Wenn, and the men who returned: “I was able to find out quite a lot about each of the men on the War Memorial, with the exception of one – Fred Wilson, who is proving difficult to track down” If anyone has any information about Fred Wilson, Tim would be most grateful to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org Due to his success with the names on the St Wenn War Memorial, Tim suggested to St Wenn Church that they have an exhibition in 2018 for the armistice centenary. “There is a list of the men who returned, 36 of them. Hugo White, the regimental Historian at Cornwall’s Regimental Museum was very helpful in telling me about some of them (there were quite a few in the DCLI), and while at the museum I met Deborah, (lead researcher on The Trench Bodmin) who asked me if I’d be interested in joining the Trench Project.” Tim hopes his research as part of The Trench Bodmin will go towards helping the current project to restore the war memorial in St Wenn.
St Wenn War Memorial
Photo © Rod Allday (cc-by-sa/2.0)