George Symons is not a name that many of us will be familiar with but one hundred years ago he was something of a Cornish celebrity. And for those passionate about motorsports in the south west today he should be a legend. George Symons raced in the first ever Manx Grand Prix in 1923, competed in the race again in 1925 and was at one time one of the fastest men on two wheels.
With 2023 marking the centenary of this race I wanted to throw a spotlight on the career of this Cornish racing daredevil!
Speed Trials at Davidstow
George Robert Symons’ early life is something of a mystery. He was born in 1898 and grew up at Chyenhal Moor, not far from Penzance, but as yet my research has not filled in the gaps between then and when he appears in the newspapers in 1922 aged 24 racing in the speed trials on Davidstow Moor.
In May 1922 the Cornishman reported the following:
“It will be of interest to the residents of Paul to hear that at the opening speed trials of the Central Cornwall Motor Cycle Club Mr George R. Symons of Cheynhall [sic] Moor won first prize on the 4hp Triumph Class. His time for the half mile being 28.4 secs on a 1915 Standard Triumph. The above event was held at Camelford on Saturday May 13th.”Cornishman, 24th May 1922
Before it became an airfield the flat landscape of Davidstow Moor made it popular for these races in the 1920s, indeed there were racing events held on the straight roads of the airfield right into the 1950s.
Then in July 1922 George Symons took part in an Open Hill Climb competition organised by the Central Cornwall Motor Club at Fiddler May’s Hill, Polgooth near St Austell. Symons won one of the races and also clocked up the fastest time that day – 66 mile per hour.
Later that year George Symons was back racing at Davidstow, in September 1922.
On this occasion according to the Cornish Guardian there were around 40 entrants racing a course of just half a mile from a “flying start”. Symons won two of the contests that day and again received a special prize for the fastest time of the day.
The Cornishman newspaper would later report that he achieved one of the fastest ever timed events “for a private owner amateur cycle rider” at 85.7 miles per hour!
Perhaps it was these successes that led George to apply to race on the Isle of Man the following year.
The Isle of Man 1923
Motorcycle racing on the Isle of Man (Ellan Vannin in the Manx language) began with the first Tourist Trophy in 1907. The event was held in reaction to the 20mph speed limit that had been introduced across the UK, racers needed somewhere to get their kicks and the little island, which has always remained independent from the UK, still had no speed limit at all.
It was the perfect solution.
From those humble beginnings the event has grown into the incredible spectacle that it is today.
In 1907 the fastest average lap speed was 42mph, these days it’s about 135mph, with some bikes touching over 200mph. Insane when you see the roads they race on.
The first Manx Grand Prix, a race designed for amateur motorcyclists and private entrants, was introduced in 1923 and in Cornwall George Symons announced his intention to take part in the local papers in July 1922.
He was one of 34 entrants for that inaugural year.
“In 1923 34 men entered a race called the Manx Amateur Motor Cycle Race. They sped around the famous thirty-seven and three-quarter mile T.T. course for 5 laps achieving speeds of just over 50 miles per hour . . . and I wonder if they realised what they were starting?”Rear Admiral Cir Nigel Cecil, The Diamond Manx Grand Prix 1923 – 1983
The day of the race, 20th September, was windy and overcast, there had been some early rain so the roads were damp. The riders must have been a colourful sight as reporters noted that some were wearing the colour scheme of their various machines as a kind of livery, like horse racing jockeys.
George Symons had retired his faithful Triumph and was riding now riding a Sunbeam, a bike renowned for its speed at the time.
At 9.45am the men began to gather at the start-line in the town of Douglas.
There were only 34 riders lining up out of the 35 original entrants because a 21 year old competitor, Ned Brew, a native of the Isle of Man, had already been killed in a practice run earlier in the week.
Kenneth Twemlow, the first rider off, was seen smoking a final cigarette on the start line until at exactly 10am the signal was given for him to go. The other riders then followed at half minute intervals.
After the first lap R. O. Lowe on his Norton was in the lead by roughly 3 seconds.
Then at 11.21am on Brandish corner, about 2 miles from completing his second lap, our Cornishman, George Symons, crashed.
The Most Dangerous Race in the World
The famous ‘Mountain Course’ that George was following that day winds around the island and up through its windswept mountains for roughly 37 miles. It is still considered one of the most dangerous races in the world. What makes the race extraordinary is that it takes place on ordinary tarmac roads, through villages and towns as well as windy, narrow country lanes.
There are no crash barriers, numerous sharp corners, humpback bridges, manhole covers and pot holes. Given the conditions the speed that these motorcyclists travel at in nothing short of bonkers.
It is little wonder that there are frequent serious accidents and several of the course’s 200+ bends are named after riders who have lost their lives there.
Since the route was introduced in 1911 some 265 riders have lost their lives and to this day there are fatalities most years. There were 11 deaths in 2005 alone and since 1937 the only year in which races were held but no fatalities occurred was 1982.
In 1923 our George Symons crashed at Brandish, a corner named after Walter Brandish who had died there during the TT earlier that same year. It is a medium-fast left hand bend midway between Creg-ny-baa, a straight where riders can pick up some serious speed, and Hillberry a sharp right hand bend.
It is unclear exactly what happened, reports in a Cornish newspaper would later suggest that one of his tyres burst, but whatever the case Symons was “pitched off” and “thrown many yards”. He sustained head and facial injuries and a doctor was sent for to attend him on the side of the road.
A little later it was reported that he had been taken unconscious to hospital in Douglas.
Three weeks later and George had still not woken up.
“He has been unconscious for nearly three weeks and was visited by his brother who has since heard that doctors believe his eyesight will be saved and he will recover use of his brain. No limbs were broken, the damage being mainly to the head, resulting in a severe concussion of the brain. We trust the young Cornishman will make a good recovery.”Cornishman, 10th October 1923
In fact, George did not wake up for six weeks and there can be little doubt that he was very lucky to have survived. He went on to make a full recovery, however, though it would be more than a year before he raced again and two before he returned to the Isle of Mann.
Penzance Speed Trials 1925
It might surprise you to learn that motorcycle races were regularly held on Eastern Green Beach in Penzance in the 1920s. At low tide the sand would come alive with daredevils on two wheels and crowds of stunned spectators would gather to watch.
George Symons it seems was now a bit of a local celebrity and his accident and miraculous recovery had made him something of a hero.
And as for George, it seems he was completely unfazed by what had happened to him, and he was certainly not holding back!
When speed trials were held on the sands at Penzance in April 1925 he again achieved the highest speed of the day – 66.6mph but not without near disaster!
“The 550cc class also roused a lot of interest as Mr G. Symons, the well-known racing rider was competing. Mr Symons it will be recalled was injured in the Isle of Man races two years ago and was unconscious for six weeks after coming off his machine . . . Yesterday he rode the same machine (a Sunbeam side by side valve model) wearing the same crash helmet that undoubtedly saved his life, I saw the dent in the hat and marvelled at the fact that this intrepid man was still alive. Mr Symons had a flawless run and the crowds cheered as he passed the post. His gear changing at the flying start was incredulous . . .”Cornishman 8th April 1925
In another race on the half mile course he was thrown over the handlebars of his motorcycle when he hit a patch of soft sand. George badly cut his face but went on to race again later in the day.
And George Symons’ ambitions to win on the Isle of Man were not over yet either, he entered the Manx Grand Prix again in 1925.
The Isle of Man 1925
Unfortunately we have no way of knowing how George felt returning to the Isle of man in September 1925. Excited, apprehensive, frightened . . . its hard to imagine what he might have been thinking.
The race took place on Tuesday 8th September and the newspapers reported that condition were perfect.
Despite this only 17 of the 43 racers that started the race made it to the finish.
And George Symons was not one of them.
On this occasion he made it to the third lap, in what was to be a record breaking year for speed, but then crashed at Signpost Corner, a medium slow right-hander, less than a mile from the finish line.
Thankfully however George was unhurt this time and walked away from the accident but it was to be the end of his Isle of Man racing dreams.
In 1926 when George Symons applied to enter the Grand Prix again his license was denied. Perhaps crashing out of the race twice had made the organisers doubt the wisdom of letting him try again.
Canada & Beyond . . . ?
After his rejection from the Manx Grand Prix George Symons went back to racing on the beach at Penzance, taking part in the speed trials in February 1926 but then he slowly starts to fade from view. In July that year the newspapers report that he has donated the sponsorship money raised to take him to the Isle of Man to the local children’s ward.
And then it seems that he hung up his dented racing helmet.
In 1929 the Cornishman printed an article informing the public that the well-known motorcyclist George Symons was planning to emigrate to Canada. The paper called him “the Cornish Segrave”, in reference to the famous race care driver Henry Segrave, but said that having beaten all other local riders he had just been “marking time” for the past three of four years and was hoped that move to Canada for a fresh start. He planned to pursue a new career, perhaps in farming.
Immigration records in Canada note that George Symons, then 31 years old, arrived in Quebec on 27th April 1929 sailing on the Ascania.
A few months later in October 1929 the Cornishman was back with an update. They informed readers that George Symons “crack Penzance motorcyclist” has now settled in Toronto and was getting on well there.
He had written to the paper saying it was “very hot and very cold” there:
“It is a place of extremes in many ways. Two shillings for a haircut and you can get a splendid three course dinner for ten pence . . . Monday, September 2nd was Labour Day and Bank Holiday and I went to the world’s biggest exhibition. I would rather go to Olympia to the motorcycle show. I buy the English ‘Motor Cycle’ [magazine] here every week and the good news of ‘Sunbeam’ keeps me alive. At present I am driving a ton Ford and labouring to the brick layers to fill up time.”
That is the last reference that I have found for George Symons. But I sincerely hope he went on to live a long happy life, full of adventure, and perhaps even took to racing on two wheels again!
We went to the Isle of Man on a whim, driven by curiosity and a cheap flight from Bristol. What I found was an incredibly independent island nation that I immediately felt at home in. It might sound strange but I felt I understood it. The Celtic roots, the drama of the landscape, the narrow roads and the super friendly locals . . .
I came across other links to Cornwall while I was there, specifically some interesting mining connections, but for some reason it was the tale of our plucky Cornish daredevil that really spoke to me.
And I can’t help wondering what he thought of this island too on his two flying visits!
Soon after this post was published I was delighted to receive a message from George Symons great niece, Margaret Ashman, who told me that she had met him once at a family Christmas party, so he must have returned home to Cornwall at some point. She also believes that he passed away in about 1968 and the family still have newspaper cutting about his career and a cup.