Tourist Trophy disaster leaves town in mourning

BELFAST Ards TT competitor Jack Chambers was on his 18th lap and was lying in third place when tragedy struck the popular road race.

Chambers had been travelling at a speed of over 100 miles per hour in his Riley car as he "shot" under the railway bridge which led him onto Church Street.

He was forced to "hug" a tight left bend but in a split second the car was off its straight course and was careering "madly" for horrified spectators on the far side of the 40 foot wide roadway. They stood no chance.

First Chambers smashed into a lamp post snapping it "like a piece of matchwood" before careering along the footpath for about 20 yards knocking down scores of helpless spectators.

Eight spectators were left dead more than 25 injured, 10 of them seriously, and the Co Down market town was left in deep mourning and having to come to terms with the devastating aftermath which would lead to racing on the Ards TT circuit being abandoned after eight years of competitions.

The News Letter reported that Samuel Corry of Victoria Avenue in the town had had a lucky escape that Saturday. Corry seeing that the car was heading for the lamp post he took two paces sideways almost at the next instant the car struck the post with a violent blow. Corry was left slightly injured and had suffered shock, but the paper noted had he remained standing where he was nothing could have saved him.

Another person to escape death was Miss Maude McBride from Bangor who, added the News Letter, "had perhaps the most miraculous escape of all". The paper reported: "Chambers' car in its mad rush carried away the coat she was wearing and left her with only one sleeve to her costume."

Commander Oscar Henderson, CVO, CBE, DSO, Private Secretary to his Grace the Governor of Northern Ireland, the Duke of Abercorn, on Saturday night of the tragedy sent a telegram to the Royal Automobile Club, promoters of the Ards TT, it read: "His Grace the Governor expresses to Royal Automobile Club his sincere regret that the interesting and exciting motor car race held today in Ulster was marred by the unfortunate accident which occurred at Newtownards. His Grace wishes to extend personally, and on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, his deep condolence with the bereaved and his sympathy with those who suffered injury."

Meanwhile, a statement was also issued on behalf of the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Viscount Craigavon, after news of the accident had reached the Ulster premier. It read: "The terrible tragedy which occurred at Newtownards on Saturday has deeply stirred the hearts of the Ulster people, and my colleagues in the Government, and myself, tender our deep and heartfelt sympathy with the relatives of those who have so tragically been taken from us."

Tuesday, September 8, 1936 proved to be a very dark day in the history of Newtownards as it was on this day that the town began to bury the dead from the Ards TT crash.

The News Letter noted that roads which had on the Saturday past "resounded to the roar of racing cars fell still and trafficless" (sic] and that "a silence unbroken by the sounds of commerce or the shouts of children playing" enveloped the town. Whilst people "meeting casually spoke in subdued tones, so impressive was the communal grief".

The blinds were drawn in all private houses throughout the day, and from one o'clock schools, shops and workrooms were shut as the funeral began to be held of the victims of the disaster. Factories also ceased work for a period in the afternoon, allowing the workers to swell the throng on that part of the race circuit along which the several of the funeral processions passed.

The News Letter correspondent in Newtownards that sombre day wrote: "Their pace was in striking contrast with the speed seen on the same stretch three days before. Apart from the route taken by the funerals, the town was deserted."

The first funeral held that day was that of two fifteen-years-old boys, Samuel Wilson and William McGimpsey.

The News Letter noted that the two teenage lads had been lifelong friends and "near neighbours" in life who, in death, lay in adjacent graves in Movilla Cemetery (where all the interments had been held that Tuesday".

The correspondent wrote: "The cortege moving along the main thoroughfare was a wonderful manifestation of the widespread sympathy aroused by the tragic accident."

Preceding the two hearses with their tiers of floral tributes walked the members of the 1st Newtownards Company of the Boys' Brigade, while at the end came more of the unfortunate boys' friends, their school classmates.

Pedestrians, walking fifteen abreast, stretched for 200 yards and motor-cars made up a mile long procession.

A grief-stricken figure among in the mourners, remarked the paper, was Alderman W J Chambers, the father of Jack Chambers, the driver of the ill-fated car.

Among the many beautiful wreaths were several bunches of flowers with inscriptions of "boyish simplicity" such as "From his playmates – Bill and Roy," which were placed by the grave of tragic Samuel Wilson.

Mourners returning from the cemetery the second sad cortege on its way and "so till evening" through the sombre, streets the "muted processions" passed at intervals in Newtownards on that black day.

James McKnight, 62, was burled from South Street at three o'clock and at four the remains of Samuel McCauley, 42, were borne from his home in Mill Street. McCauley, reported the News Letter, had been a prominently associated with Ards United Football Club and accordingly many of the team's supporters were among the mourners who made up the cortege attached to McCauley's funeral procession.

An hour later the fourth funeral of the day, that of Alexander Warden, 33, set out from the home of his mother in Court Street. Warden had been a member of the Newtownards Silver Band and the band with muffled drums played sacred music on the way for Movilla Cemetery in tribute to their dead friend where he was laid to rest.

The other victims of the Ards TT crash of 1936 were Leslie Wilson, 14, of Scrabo Road, Newtownards, William Thorn, 43, of Worcester, England, Hans Wallace, 62, of Drumawhey, Co Down, and Ernest Jacobs, 26, of Glencoe Street, Hull, England.