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New DIB 'missing person': Fay Taylour

16 January 2020

Pioneering motorist Fay Taylour joins the DIB in our latest batch of 'missing persons'. Born in Offaly in 1904, she won multiple major motorcycle and car racing titles against both male and female competitors.

Fay Taylour

by Niav Gallagher

Frances Helen Taylour ('Fay') (1904–83), racing motorist and fascist, was born on 5 April 1904 at 11 Oxmanton Mall, Birr, King's County (Co. Offaly) to Herbert Fetherstonhaugh Taylour, formerly a lieutenant in the 3rd battalion of the Leinster regiment and then county inspector in the RIC, and his wife Helen Allardice (née Webb). Fay, the second of three girls, was born into a family that was active both politically and academically. Her aunt Hilda Webb was imprisoned in Holloway prison for her actions as a suffragist, while her uncle George Webb, a mathematician and fellow of TCD was married to Dr Ella Webb (qv), a paediatrician and founder of the Children's Sunshine Home in Stillorgan, Dublin. 

Taylour appears to have been adventurous from a young age. In addition to a conventional education, first at Miss Fletcher's boarding school in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, and then at Alexandra College, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, her father also taught her to shoot, fish and ride horses. She was reportedly able to drive by the age of twelve. While at school she excelled in tennis, hockey and bicycle racing but when her mother fell ill, she undertook a course in housecraft at which she also excelled. Upon graduating from Alexandra College in 1922, Taylour was in receipt of two scholarships – one for tennis, one for housecraft – and £50 prize money. 

Although Taylour was in Dublin during the war of independence, the events do not appear to have affected either her or her school. Her father however, as an officer with the disbanded RIC, clearly felt that his place in Ireland was no longer tenable and he left. In her final term of school Taylour received a letter inviting her to join her family in Burghfield Bridge Lodge, Berkshire, to undertake running the household as her mother had been diagnosed with liver cancer. After graduating Taylour appears to have lived quietly in Berkshire running her parents' house, until her mother's death on 18 November 1925. She was already driving her father's car as part of her domestic duties but, in the aftermath of her mother's death, she used her prize money from Alexandra to buy a motorcycle – initially a small, light Levis 220cc which she soon swapped for a more powerful 348cc AJS. 

Throughout 1926 Taylour became a true motorcycle enthusiast, learning how to assemble and disassemble her bike. At a repair shop in Reading she came in contact with the owner, motorcycle enthusiast Carlton Harmon, who encouraged her to enter the Camberley Club's 'Southern Scott scramble' to be held in March 1927. The race, run in the morning and again in the afternoon, was a circuit of twenty-two miles and was considered one of the toughest events for rough riders. After three months practicing with Harmon, Taylour was victorious, taking not only the Novice Cup but also the coveted women's Venus Cup. 

The victory was the start of Taylour's motor sport career and one on which she immediately capitalised. Having noticed that some of the women competitors were sponsored, she wrote to AJS in Coventry and they offered to take her on as a member of their team. In late summer 1927 she switched allegiances and took a job with Rudge-Whitworth, nominally as part of their secretarial backroom staff. However, by winter 1927 she was racing as part of their trials team, riding a Rudge 500cc. Between March 1927 and May 1928 Taylour won a number of victories against men as well as women in different classes – grass track, cross country, hill climbs and trials – taking gold and silver at events such as the Leeds £200, the National Alan, the Travers Trophy, and the Colmore Cotswold and Victory Trophy trials and the Auto-Cycle Union (ACU) 750 mile six-day trial. 

Thus far Taylour had enjoyed solid success in trial riding and was earning enough prize money to make a living. Between races she continued to keep house for her father but when he remarried in 1928 she was freed from her domestic duties. Having waved the newly-weds off on honeymoon to France, Taylour spent the night in London and attended a speedway race at Stamford Bridge. Enthralled by what she saw Taylour determined to compete at the highest level, but her initial approaches to speedway promoters were rejected by virtue of her gender. The ACU forbade women from competing in speedway leagues, although they were allowed to compete as individuals in non-league races. Lionel Wills, an English speedway racer and heir to the wealthy W. D. and H. O. Wills tobacco industrialists, introduced her to Freddie Mockford, manager of the track at Crystal Palace who agreed to allow her seven days' practice with a race at the end. On 9 June 1928 Taylour took part in a speedway race, the first woman in England to do so, and although she did not win, she did more than enough to earn her place on the track. By the end of the summer she was attracting huge crowds and winning significant amounts of prize money. 

Throughout 1928 and 1929 Taylour raced in Australia and New Zealand, the first dirt-bike racer from Europe or the USA to compete there. She was hailed in the Australian press as 'the most daring and speedy feminine motor cyclist' (Register News Pictorial, 23 Nov. 1929). At her first race in Perth she beat the home champion Sig Schlam, equalling the track record, and then travelled to Melbourne where she continued her winning streak against Reg West. She gained a significant following, as much for her daredevil style as for her ability, and often competed in front of crowds of more than 30,000, the Irish flag emblazoned on a scarlet leather jacket. She also excelled at self-publicity, posing for cigarette cards and taking part in radio broadcasts whenever possible. 

In 1930, when she was at the height of her success, a UK-wide ban on women riding speedway was imposed. Denied access to motorcycle racing and prize money in Britain, Taylour spent the rest of the 1930 season in Europe, and most especially in Germany. In 1931 she switched to four wheels, taking part in the Calcutta to Ranchi run. Driving a Chevrolet, Taylour broke the record for the event by forty minutes. Later that year she competed in the ladies handicap at Brooklands Automobile Racing Club, winning the race and coming second overall, reaching a speed of 98.37mph. By 1934 it appeared that Taylour would repeat her successful career on two wheels with an equally successful one with four. That year she took part in a 4,000-mile race around Italy against more than 220 competitors, while in August she won the first ever Leinster Trophy, despite being the only woman driver in a field of twenty-nine. Throughout the year she also set a women's track record at Crystal Palace on 30 June and won the British Ladies Championship later that summer. 

1934 marked the apex of Taylour's car-racing career and for the next four years she appears to have struggled. She competed in relatively few races which led to problems finding sponsorship and money. A small event in 1935 also points to the stubborn nature and increasing intransigence of her character when she opted to go to prison rather than pay a small fine for speeding. On 24 June she was imprisoned to Holloway, only to be released the next day when a journalist from the Daily Express paid her fine. Far from being grateful she complained that '… paying the fine has spoiled it all … I wanted to serve the week's imprisonment as a protest …' (Evening Post, 10 Aug. 1935). 

Throughout the latter half of the decade Taylour spent more time racing in Germany and South Africa, and she only left Hamburg for Britain on 26 August 1939, a week before the war broke out. Her presence in Germany in the months before the war immediately placed her under suspicion, especially because she had met with Nazi officials and had broadcast to South Africa from Radio Berlin. She did nothing to allay suspicions upon her return: neighbours complained that she listened to English-language broadcasts from Germany late at night and she publicly argued that the war was wrong at every available opportunity. In October she was interviewed by two special branch officers who questioned her on her attitudes to the war, as well as asking if she was a member of Oswald Mosley's British Union (formerly the British Union of Fascists). According to the account in her MI5 file, Taylour said she had never heard of the British Union but, intrigued by the officer's question, read their literature and 'quite frankly [found] their views were similar to mine' (KV 2/2143). Two months later Action, the British Union newspaper, announced, 'Miss Fay Taylour, the famous woman racing car driver, has just joined the British Union …' (Action, 26 Oct. 1939). 

From this time onwards Taylour was deeply involved in British Union political activities, attending meetings, wearing the British Union badge on her coat collar, and distributing propaganda material. She returned to Ireland briefly in February 1940 and an intercepted letter showed that she met with a 'Father F', almost certainly Denis Fahey (qv), a catholic priest and renowned anti-Semite. When she returned to England Taylour's anti-war behaviour escalated, and she was among a large crowd who gathered to protest newsreel footage of British sailors returning from the first battle of Narvik where HMS Hardy had been lost in battle. 

On 1 June Taylour was arrested at her father's home at Lucerne Cottage, Kensington, and taken to Holloway prison under Defence Regulation 18B, which suspended habeas corpus and allowed for the internment of suspected Nazi sympathisers. In an appeal hearing held on 28 August 1940 the committee questioned Taylour closely on her anti-British activities and pro-German views. She denied both, claiming she was anti-war rather than anti-British. When confronted with a letter she had written in which she declared, 'I love Nazi Germany and the German people and their leader', she claimed it was because she hated to see war between the two countries (KV 2-2144). Her appeal was rejected, and she was held in Holloway until autumn 1942 when she was transferred to Port Erin internment camp on the Isle of Man. A report from the prison warden there described her as 'one of the worst pro-Nazis … [who] is in the habit of hoarding pictures of Hitler and [has] in her possession a hymn in which his name was substituted for God's' (KV 2-2144). Despite their concerns, she was released on 5 October 1943 on condition that she travel to Dublin and remain there until the war ended. In Ireland she reconnected with Denis Fahey, as well as developing new connections with the IRA and other anti-British activists. She remained under British intelligence surveillance until 1976. 

Taylour's uncompromising Nazi sympathies and lack of remorse dogged her for the rest of her life. She attempted to revive her racing career in the post-war period, travelling to Los Angeles in 1949 to resume midget and stock car racing. That came to an abrupt end, however, when she was refused re-entry to the United States in 1952 after flying back to England for her father's funeral. For the next three years she continued racing in Europe and Australia while she appealed the decision, but her career was coming to an end. She was finally allowed back into the United States in 1955 but by that time she was fifty-one and was forced because of crippling arthritis to retire from racing the following year. She remained in the US until 1971, taking a series of jobs including 'resident advisor' at a college, and salesperson for General Tires, before returning to England. 

The last years of Taylour's life were spent in England, living at Dairy House in Blandford, Dorset, while she attempted to write her biography. She died in Weymouth hospital on 2 August 1983 before she could complete it and donated her body to medical research. For a period in the 1920s Fay Taylour dominated motorcycle racing in both Europe and Australia, gaining fame not as a woman-racer but as one who competed and won at all levels on three continents against both men and women. Despite her successes in that area, her politics tend to dominate her legacy. 

ODNB; TNA (UK) KV (Records of the Security Service) 2/2143-2144; TNA (UK) KV 2/2144 (1941–53); NAI, 1911 census; Ir. Times, 27 Aug., 2 Sept. 1929; 26 May 1934; 2 Sept. 1953; 18 Apr. 2007; Brian Belton, Fay Taylour: queen of speedway (2006); Martin Pugh, 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts': fascists and fascism in Britain between the wars (2006); Stephen M. Cullen, 'Fay Taylour: a dangerous woman in sport and politics', Women's History Review, 21 (2012), 211–32; idem, Fanatical Fay Taylour; her sporting and political life at speed, 1904–1983 (2015); Pádraig Turley, 'Offaly's queen of speedway: the career of Birr's Fay Taylour', Offaly Heritage, 10 (2018), 303–28 

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2019

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