Beryl Swain: The First Woman to Race in the Isle of Man TT
One of the most prominent early female motorcyclists, Beryl Tolman Swain was born on January 22, 1936, in Walthamstow, England. She made history as the first woman to ever race in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, one of the most famous public road races in the world, as well as one of the most dangerous and deadly. On a tiny island in the Irish Sea, motorcyclists have been competing since 1907, racing across the full extent of the isle on roads that climb nearly 1,300 feet above sea level and pass through the mountains.
In 1958, Beryl married Edwin Swain, a racer who owned a motorcycle repair shop. What started as her helping him work on his bikes before his races changed when she herself tried to race. Enamoured with the sport and its speed, she joined the Ultra Lightweight class and raced at Brands Hatch and Snetterton astride 50cc motorcycles (though she tried 500cc bikes, too, through the help of her husband, who supported her racing career).
During the Isle of Man TT in 1962, the first time the race included a 50cc event, she rode her Italian Itom and averaged 48.3 miles per hour after the second lap, when her bike lost its top gear. She crossed the finish line 22nd out of the 25 entrants in her class, and enthusiastically announced her plans to return the following year.
Unfortunately, her plans were never realised. Other motorcyclists were upset by her participation, and the Federation of International Motorcycling, the governing body of motorcycle racing, led the fight to revoke her international license by setting a minimum weight limit that they knew she could not meet.
Their reasons were not entirely unjustified: at a time when men dominated the sport, organisers were worried about allowing women into a dangerous race. They were not prepared, they said, for an accident to happen to the fairer sex, not when some male competitors had already sustained injury or died in the TT race. The motion to effectively ban women who attempted to join that sort of sports competition gained support from the majority, and Beryl lost her racing license.
The result broke Beryl’s heart and ended her pioneering career, but she never lost hope. She even sought help from the Lieutenant Governor, but to no avail: her license was never reinstated. However, a decade after the weight limit came into effect, aspiring women entered the course again—Hilary Musson, the second woman to participate solo, entered in 1978.
We are left to wonder how many victories Beryl might have earned if she had been able to regain her license. She passed away on May 15, 2007, in Epping, England, at the age of 71—an unforgettable woman who helped pave the way for women who love speed as much as she did.