Eric Crudgington Fernihough: from Magdalene Student
to Motorcycling Champion
This week’s blog post is written by Mr Terry Wright, who has been undertaking research in Magdalene College Archives for his book on Eric Fernihough and the world motorcycle speed record, provisionally titled ‘Speed Monarch’.
Every year, on or about 23 April, an unusual commemoration of a Magdalene College alumnus is held by the side of a road near Gyón, south of Budapest, in Hungary. Hundreds of motorcyclists converge to remember Eric Crudgington Fernihough MA(Cantab) at the spot where he died in 1938 while trying to regain the world motorcycle speed record from Germany’s Ernst Henne. Just 33 years of age, Eric Fernihough was a largely unsung hero at a time when speed was a global passion, and records tumbled almost weekly.
‘Ferni,’ as his friends called him, had an inauspicious start to his life. Abandoned by his father, with his mother dying in childbirth, he was plucked from a Merseyside children’s’ home by Emily McCalmont, a well-to-do widow, who adopted him in 1910. Travel round the world, a home in Bournemouth, school at Clayesmore and a place at Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1923 was his considerable good fortune.
Magdalene College’s Admissions Register records Eric’s matriculation on 11 October 1923 in the company of another 56 freshmen.[i] Notes on Eric’s tutorial card provide some details of his examinations, while correspondence between the Tutor, A. S. Ramsey, and Eric’s mother, Emily, shed light on his academic performance. At the end of his first year, in June 1924, Eric sat for ‘Principles of Chemistry’ and Emily was informed by letter that he had failed with only 67 marks out of a possible 250.
In November 1924, Emily wrote to Ramsey to say that she was ‘not feeling happy about my boy [who] needs a fatherly talk with an understanding man’. Ramsey replied that he had talked with Eric, ‘I have tried to impress upon him from the outset the necessity for close application to work, and I am not sure that he does not still over-estimate his chances of success and that he is still too easily satisfied with what work he does. . .’[ii]
There was more bad news in June 1925, with Eric’s failure in ‘Economics I’, just two marks short of a pass. The final sentence of Ramsey’s letter to Emily was blunt, ‘It does not appear to me desirable that a student should devote as much time as he does to motor-cycles’, he concluded. Eric had been given permission to have a motorcycle at Cambridge, and Ramsey would have been familiar with Eric’s active membership of the Cambridge University Motor Cycle Club which held speed trials and had an annual inter-varsity speed competition against Oxford. In 1925 Eric was chosen to represent the University in the September Amateur Tourist Trophy (TT) race in the Isle of Man. Unfortunately, he did not finish the race due to mechanical problems.
Meanwhile Emily had written to the College to ask if Eric could take the Engineering Tripos instead. Ramsey’s reply in late June 1925 was not encouraging. He did not think Eric could pass the two parts of the Engineering Tripos in one year because it normally took two years. He wrote, ‘He does not appear to me to have any interests apart from motor-cycles and if you could get him into an Engineering or Motoring firm at once I think this would be undoubtedly the wisest course as I do not feel that he is getting from Cambridge what Cambridge has to give.’
Undaunted, Eric embarked on the Engineering course and passed Part 1 with a ‘first’ in December 1925. Despite spending the Easter 1926 vacation setting some minor motorcycle world records at Brooklands and volunteering during the General Strike, he passed Part 2 of the Tripos in June with a ‘third’. A photograph taken outside Senate House (Eric is on the right) is the only extant image of Eric’s graduation on 26 June 1926; any identification of the other graduates would be appreciated.
Eric’s passion for motorcycles and speed had nearly been his undoing as a student. After scraping through to a modest BA, he worked for some years for Hendys, still one of Southampton’s biggest motor dealers. All the while he raced motorcycles at Brooklands, in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Continent. He was the European 175cc class champion in 1932.
He next bought a garage besides Brooklands track near Weybridge, Surrey and started building his first record-breaking motorcycle, a Brough-Superior JAP, which set a new Brooklands lap record at 123.58mph in July 1935. In April 1937 he made a round trip of more than 2000 miles to Hungary and set the world motorcycle speed record at 169.79mph. Then, BMW’s Ernst Henne recaptured the record in November 1937 at 173.68mph.
On 23 April 1938 it was time for the return match. Eric’s target was a mean speed in two directions of 175mph or more over a 5km stretch of straight and level road, which had kilometre and mile sections set-out midway. Starting his first timed run, he accelerated the big bike through the challenging approach curve into the long straight ahead. As the electric timing equipment was triggered at an estimated speed of 180mph, the officials saw a slight wobble of the front wheel. Almost instantly this developed into a violent oscillation of the handlebars from lock to lock.
The uncontrollable motorcycle veered left into the road-side ditch and continued running it until it hit an obstacle and exploded high into the air in a plume of dirt. Eric was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital in Budapest. A short life, which spanned most of a great era of record-breaking, was over, and a British rider would never again hold the absolute world motorcycle speed record.
[i] Magdalene College Admissions Register (Magdalene College Archives reference: B/425).
[ii] Eric Fernihough Tutorial File, Magdalene College Archives.