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Charlie 'Wag' Bennett

- Winner of the 3 mile & 5 mile motorcycle races at Tunbridge Wells, August 1st 1904 on a 'Kerry' motor.

- TT race 1910 at Brooklands, won by Charlie 'Wag' Bennett at average of 61mph - 1910 two cylinder Indian 70 by 83 cubic capacity, equals 638, 59 miles 870 yards. (British record).

Charlie Bennett served his apprenticeship first as a rivet boy, helping to build the first iron battleships down the Victoria and Albert dockland shipyards, then to the Canning town based Mansfield cycle company, frame building at the brazing hearth.


Charlie Bennett built his first motorcycle at these barking road premises, around the year 1904, this machine was belt driven, single speed, and solely a track racer with Bailey dropped handlebars, saddle over the rear wheel, pad on the top frame tube for the riders chest. This racer was fitted with a French Buchet engine, bore and stroke square at 76 x 76 centimetres, overhead push rod operated inlet and exhaust valves, with coil ignition using a dry cell battery.

On the Canning town banked racetrack in august 1904 this bike with Charlie Bennett riding it covered eight miles in nine minutes. It seemed this bike was ahead of its time. 

Charlie Bennett was noticed and fitted up with a 5/6 horsepower “Indian” from the American factory. He rode this in the Isle of Man and on Brook lands alongside other famous old riders, including Billy Wells, Bert Colver, Walter O.Bentley, the two Collier brothers, Harry Martin and Guy Lee Evans. 

Charlie Bennett started up his own business in these early years; he did his own electro plating and brazing, and built his own brand of pedal cycles, the well-known East London “Genuine”.


Charlie with his cockney nickname “Wag Bennett” was the founder of the cycle and motor businesses still running today.

I am his son and when I was a small boy I watched him at the bench, it was always interesting to see the bits and pieces gradually turn into a complete pedal bicycle or motorcycle. The pedalling gear had disappeared by the time of the First World War, there were even a few kick-started gearboxes, but the smaller machines were mainly ‘run and jump’.


We lived over the top of the cycle shop, busy with spares and repairs in the summer months, but hard to find the rent and keep going when October came until April. My father always started work early each morning, seven days a week, and still at it often until 10pm.  


Winter was when he stole the time to build the motorcycles. When I left school in the he would be in the back yard, workshop wreathed in the beautiful violet and orange colours thrown up from the red hot bricks in the hearth of the gas and air bellows forge. A long blue dragon’s tongue of flame coming from the blowpipe brazed the steel tubes into the cycle and motorcycle frame lugs.


The mixture ran round the joints, deep into the mating place of lug and tube, the devil belching fire, poking the flames before him, just like the picture of Hell I had seen in the Bible. 


It was not difficult to obtain supplies of metal and fittings in those days. Birmingham was in full swing and many engineering firms produced cycles and motorcycles, or fittings for other cycle builders.


My father would order lugs, steel tubing, wheel hubs and spokes from Radnall or Brampton in Birmingham, also Great Eastern Street in Bishops gate was handy for many items. Brown Brothers produced their own bike, the ‘Vindec’. I remember the strong heavy casting of a large lug that came from the Chater-Lea factory in Clerkenwell, Banner Street; this was the piece which carried the rear chain stays, seat tube and rear engine mounting, and adjust the countershaft or gearbox. The later big-port ‘A.J.S.’ had something much the same as this lug, the bikes were always with diamond-frames, the crankcase and engine plates making up the strength, nice heavy head lugs, 14 gauge steel tubing all round. Number ‘321’ or other special names were obtainable then; the top frame tube was usually bent to drop lower at the rear, the sometimes straight or steeply dropped top tube, always a lower tank tube in 7/8” or 1” tee lugs, one each end to the main frame. Wheel rims from the Palmer Tyre Company in Silvertown, East London, were nickel plated and drilled (40 holes), or in rough steel and undrilled, with beaded-edge Hutchinson tyres, size 26”x2½“x2¼“. Building up the wheels was always one of the longest jobs, 12 or 10 gauge spokes were cut to length and threaded on a hand machine, laced, hub-centred on the rim and wheel-lined up in the motorcycle rear end after truing.

The belt-rim was fitted to the spokes by small, 2 holed bracket plates.


All this, the primary chain and belt pulley to a fraction of an inch, with just a 2’ straight edge and the naked eye. The rear brakes were always the rubber block type, pulling onto or pressing inside the ‘v’ of the belt rim. Sometimes a rim on the spokes of the front wheel was used to take a brake block, but it was ready to fly out of its guider clips and throw the rider over the locked wheel and handlebars. Front forks were Druid or Brampton, no friction discs, no steering damper, a nice wide handlebar 7/8” or1”, but always a 1” stem entering the fork column tube, an inverted lever at each extreme end of the bars for front brake and exhaust lifter. This was rarely called a release valve or decompresser in the 1920s. The inverted control levers were good for some extra excitement when riding side by side with a companion, similarly equipped, they would hook together with both riders finishing up entangled in a heap on the road!


Mudguards, 4” or 3”, to look like a racer, double-wire stays, sometimes a rear carrier, always a clip to secure the rear stand, 2 number plates, the front one nicely placed to slice a victim after the front wheel had got him!


Twist grips were about, but almost all the old British ones had the twin gas and air control levers on the right hand bar, and if the engine was lucky enough to have a magneto with variable ignition, there could be a mag lever on the left side of the bars, very useful to be able to advance and retard the spark timing whilst on the move, and as good as an extra gear when hill climbing.

My father, Charlie Bennett, would send a boy with cardboard templates to a firm in Pentonville Road, King’s Cross. They would turn out a petrol tank with built in oil space and painted, ready in 2 or 3 days. I had seen him make petrol tanks, a tricky job, with 2 soldering irons on the go and sticks of ‘tinmans solder’, large shining sheets of 30 gauge tin, bent and curved to shape, on blocks of wood, 2 large holes for the oil and petrol filler cap (the screwed necks to be soldered in) and another hole for the oil drip feed pump.

Careful attention was always given to the 3/8” bore, threaded brass collar for the petrol tap and the blind topped ones which were soldered into the bottom of the tank, sometimes 1 or 2 on top or up front to take the set screws securing the tank to the tank rail or perhaps the top frame tube. The heat in the enamelling oven was always kept low when drying the tanks after painting.

Engines were not difficult to obtain in the old days, they were 2 and 4 stroke. Beardmore, Villiers, J.A.P., Dalm, De Dion Bouton and Fafnir were some of the maker’s engines I noticed in the workshop.


I remember the Dixie mags and Brown & Barlow carburettors. Brooks leather saddles were always on a seat stem slid into a slotted lug. When these machines were not fixed engine, single speed, the gearboxes were usually Albion or Chater-Lea, sometimes 2 speed without a clutch, ‘run and jump’ start, or perhaps even a 3 speeder with a kick start pedal.


There was always a hand gear-lever fitted against the right hand side of the petrol tank.


Some of the more mature customers would ask for raised touring handlebars and cast aluminium foot boards, but most of the young ones wanted flat or slightly raised bars, with foot rests and the odd special colour paint.


Fire engine red or Indian red with gold lines looked magnificent. The usual finish for the machines was black enamel for the frame, front forks, mudguards, engine chain cover, wheel rims, spokes and hubs, handlebars and lots of small fittings were all nickel plated. The petrol tank light brown and panels blue and cream with gold lining. Each tank side sported a varnished transfer, The Genuine, and on the frame head lug front, ‘C.E. BENNETT Cycle and Motor Works’, 116 Rathbone Street, Canning Town, London.

On the very day I reached the age of 14 (1939) I was outside the driving licence office. I covered lots of miles, sneaking rides on some of these old machines. Surprising how reliable they were down to Southend or the Kentish hopfields, climbing Bread and Cheese Hill and Wrotham without having to run alongside, provided you worked up a good speed, and a nice dose of oil using the hand pump a ¼ of a mile before the start of the hill.

Carrying a spare inner tube, a belt with some fasteners, ½ a gallon of petrol and a quart of engine oil, these old machines could cover the length of Britain.


Their weakest point was the magneto. Inlet and exhaust valves rarely pulled their heads off, valve springs did go soft, but there was not often an engine seizure.


The ’60 drips a minute’ of oil, showing through the gauge glass, with one extra pumpful for luck now and then took care of the lubrication.


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