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Lionel Wills

WILLS, Percy Lionel Bethune

Known to most in the world of speedway as Lionel Wills.

Did not know whether to classify Mr Wills as a Backroom Boy in the “& Much More” section or in the “Riders Profile” section, however as he did ride for a short while I have included him as a rider but will put him in the Backroom Boys section as well.

It has been difficult to get a handle on this gentleman but these are the facts or otherwise that I have unearthed.

He was born on April 6th 1903 in Kensington, London and I have seen it suggested that he was related to one of the founders of WD&HO Wills Tobacco, this however seems to be a misunderstanding, although there may be a family connection if there is it is one I have not found.

It was a company called G. & R. Wills & Co. Ltd. Wholesalers of cloth, fabric and soft goods. There was also a subsidiary shipping agent.

G and R were brothers, George and Richard, they emigrated to South Australia in 1849 with a selection of drapery and set up shop in Adelaide. The company grew and there were branches in many Australian towns. A second company was set up called George Wills & Co. they were shipping agents. The companies went public in 1946.

Richard died in Australia but George returned to the UK permanently 1859 and took charge of the companies purchasing house. He and his wife Lucy had seven children and we are interested in the one called Charles Percy who married a lady called Clarisse A Patton-Bethune they had three children one of whom is the subject or this piece, Lionel Wills. I don’t know when he was appointed but Lionel was in later years the Managing Director of the company set up by his grandfather George and his brother Richard.

Right, back to Lionel, as a young adult he is described as a prominent member of the Cambridge University Club (which club is not stated perhaps it was not sporting but a general club for students) and that suggests he was well educated but I have no further detail. His working life seems to have been as some sort to travelling agent/buyer for the family company as there are records of his visiting many different countries including Australia and it was in 1926 whilst there that he saw speedway for the first time and must have been enthralled by it because once he returned home he was instrumental in the introduction of speedway in the UK.

Before I get ahead of myself – whilst Lionel Wills was travelling the world back in the UK interest in motorcycles was growing and using them for sporting purposes was increasing and in 1926 Fred Mockford and Cecil Smith along with group of enthusiasts formed a company called London Motor Sports Ltd. Crystal Palace Park it was decided was a suitable venue to use for racing and in 1927 they were allowed to run a meeting, the racing took place over a mile long course set out on the Parks paths, it proved popular with, it is said, 10,000 people turning up to witness the first event. It seems it was expensive costing a whole shilling plus 2d tax to view added to which several spectators were injured by a side car and before the second meeting an investment in crash barriers had taken place and the circuit was widened and improved.

I digress, back to Lionel Wills, it is said that he approached Fred Mockford and Cecil Smith suggesting that they try the motorcycle sport he had seen in Australia, and introduce Dirt track racing at Crystal Palace. And that, as they say, was the start of all things speedway?

Now he was no doubt a pioneer in the sport but he may not have been alone and there are always doubts as to when speedway in the UK actually started; think about it, at the start people rode their bikes to a meeting, removed the lights and raced them replacing the lights to go back home so it would seem that racing of a dirt track type would have taken place all over the country before it became organised into a defined sport.

Tony Webb writes “He became the first secretary and treasurer of the Speedway Riders’ Association. He also took to riding and appeared in meetings at High Beech, Crystal Palace, London White City, Brighton, Swindon, Stamford Bridge and Greenford during the year. He wasn’t without success, winning the One Mile Scratch Final at Crystal Palace on June 23 and the Gorse Hill Scratch Race final at Swindon in August.”

Lionel was twice married, the first time in Perth, Australia to Edythe Winifred Stapledon in 1930 and the second to Madge E P Rose at Westminster in 1948

Percy L B Wills, Lionel, died in Trieste, Italy in 1967.



By Jackie Hodkinson

Photo of Lionel on a bike courtesy John Somerville Collection

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