The Classic Motorcycle Rally
SOLLY JOEL “SAMMY” SMITH
Personal Angle - Sammy Smith
By Jock Leyden
If Sammy Smith isn't the oldest living NMCC member, just step forward and dispute it. Not that Sammy claims anything.
He doesn't, indeed he doesn't even claim that his memory is all it should be today, but considering the fact he was born on 5th May, 1872, that’s not surprising; that makes him 90 years old this year.
You wouldn't believe it if you spoke to little roly-poly Sammy with the twinkling eyes and cherubic smile.
I sat on the verandah of his daughter's house at Hillary and listened as he recounted his life story. Born in Birmingham, Sam came out to South Africa in 1895 to join Harry and Albert Shimwell, old school friends, who were running a cycle business, formerly Judd and Judd in Johannesburg.
An engineer, he had worked previously for the famous Tangyes Works in "Brum".
The Transvaal Government was mounting all its telegraph boys on bicycles and their order for 100 cycles kept the Shimwell shop busy. More business came in a different form later when a wave of rinderpest swept over the country and there was a rush to buy cycle pumps which were used as syringes to spray the cattle.
Sam recalls, too, the drought which hit the land and water was so scarce that even dirty water was sold at 1/- for a kiddies beach bucketful. Some used soda water for shaving, things became so desperate that Solly Joel decided to force the clouds to shed their moisture by firing mortar shells into them. Unfortunately, there were people who thought the whole idea an infringement of Divine right, and Solly was brought to court and charged with “insulting the Almighty". He was bound over and his offending mortar confiscated.
More business came with the Jameson Raid, and all hands were busy day and night fitting new tyres for the bicycle owners who wanted to help the Reform Party. Most told Shimwells to charge them up to the Party. The Party paid without question, too. The raid, as everybody knows, was a bit of a damp squib, but there was nothing damp about the Dynamite train which blew up near Braamfontein in 1896. Mrs. Sam, who had come out to marry the lad from "Brum", picked up a patella (knee cap) when walking on the road near Jeppestown, miles away.
A new depot was opened in Germiston in 1897 and Sam took over, but within a couple of years the Boer War broke out and he joined up as a despatch rider to General Buller's column. It was hard work in those days for push cycles were the army issue, but the messages had to get through just the same. The despatches he carried were for the famous British war correspondents J B Atkins (Manchester Guardian), B Herbert (London Times) and Bennett Burleigh (Daily Telegraph).
At Chievely, too, was young Winston Churchill, then a war correspondent fresh from his escape from the Boers. One day the cook was ill and Sam was deputed to prepare a meal for this illustrious collection of newspapermen. For the record, let it be said that young Churchill commended the coffee served up to them. It isn't everybody who can brag of that sort of mention from the great man himself.
After his discharge he opened a branch for Shimwells in Maritzburg, but found himself back in the army for 18 months when he went to Jo'burg to investigate looting of his employers' goods. When the bother subsided he returned as manager for Natal, with branches in Durban, Harrismith, Dundee, Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg. They now had six motorcycle agencies Ariel, FN, Quadrant, James, Osmond and Vindec.
These were busy days, but he found time to compete in the second race meeting to be held at Albert Park on a cycle racing track. For this race he borrowed a Werner Freres machine from a friend and finished 2nd. There was consternation when the engine wouldn’t start when the race was over and he had to suffer the humiliation of seeing it loaded on to a rickshaw to be removed to the shop for repairs. A close examination there produced the pained cry "Good Lord, we never turned the petrol on!" Those were the days.
Riding a baby Triumph he got another second place in a veterans (!) race from Durban to Maritzburg. Of the race he remembers nothing except that he got an egg stand for his prize. Shimwells got the agencies for Triumph and Royal Enfield motorcycles and also held that for BSA for some time.
For many years he acted as official for the famous Durban-Jo'burg races, and received a gold medal from the Rand Motor Cycling Club (RMCC) in recognition of his services to the promoting body.
An interesting little anecdote is that concerning "Old Charlie Young". As Sam recalls, McKeag, who won the 1913 race on a Bradbury, was on his way down from Jo'burg when his sidecar collapsed near Colenso. To assist him Sam asked his Maritzburg depot to send young Charlie up to help. McKeag was so impressed with the way the lad performed, he came on to Durban and said "Watch this lad. He's got the makings of a great rider". Sam decided to take his advice and give Charlie his first race mount with resulting successes which followed fast and furious. How true the forecast was can be verified by looking at the record this great rider left behind him as one of South Africa's all-time greats.
Others to benefit from Sammy's patronage were Jack Booth, the kingpin among small machine riders in his day, Tommy Kenyon, a sprint star in the 1920-30 era, Chick Harris, that great-hearted little man who just loved the "rough stuff" of the Durban-Jo'burg, DJ, race, and Len Cohen who started on Triumphs and went on to carve his name all over the race record books as an AJS and BSA star.
To-day, Sam leads a very quiet life, but he still goes in to business each week to keep an eye on things. Next time you see him hurrying down West Street with his little attaché case in his hand and a smile on his chubby cheeks, don't start arguing with him over the details of the story, for he'll tell you-he doesn't claim anything and he doesn't want to start any arguments, for at 90, he thinks "these things don't matter much anyway."
Copyright J M Leyden 1962.