Life on bikes

True Biker: Fred Hill, the helmet rebel who became a biking hero

It’s over 40 years since helmets became compulsory on a motorbike. Today, nobody gives a second thought to wearing a lid, so it’s not surprising that many people have never even heard of Fred Hill. But his story is worth hearing and indeed celebrating.

It’s February 1984 and once again Fred Hill is in prison. Not for robbery or a fracas. But for not wearing a crash helmet while riding his motorcycle.

This time, though, Fred won’t be leaving and jumping on his bike again. On his 31st incarceration, half-way through a 60-day sentence for contempt of court, Fred had a heart attack and died, aged 74.

Fred Hill wreath being laid outside Pentonville Prison
Members of London and Southern MAG groups lay a wreath outside Pentonville Prison in Fred’s honour. Pic courtesy Tim Fawthrop

A man of principle

Of all of the inmates finding themselves in London’s Pentonville prison that day, Fred Hill was probably the only one who was there on principle.

His ‘crime’ was to persistently refuse to wear a helmet since a law making them compulsory was introduced in the early ’70’s.

He’d been a motorcycle dispatch rider during the war and biking was at the centre of his life. When the helmet law was introduced in 1973, Fred refused to wear a lid on the principle, incensed by what he saw as being an infringement of his civil liberties.

Fred’s theory was that, if enough people joined him in ignoring the law it would eventually be abandoned.

Freedom being a key part of the biker’s outlook, it’s this sense of resisting something that infringes our freedom that is celebrated by MAG in an annual, helmeted, ride (MAG do not dispute the need to wear a helmet for safety reasons).


A man of humour

When alive and attending MAG rallies himself, Fred would wear a mock prison outfit, complete with arrows pointing upwards.

He would lecture his gathered audience, often with generous helpings of his Yorkshire-born dry wit. He did the same with judges.

Famously, when facing a female judge who had berated him for lawlessness, Fred saw fit to remind her that, “If it hadn’t been for members of your sex breaking the law some years ago, you wouldn’t be sitting in judgement right now.” One-nil to Fred.

A man getting away with it. Or not

Fred’s antics were tolerated by his local police who often turned a blind eye. Funnily enough, the same thing happened to James May when riding helmetless from Hammersmith to Piccadilly to win a £100 bet with Jeremy Clarkson.

For Fred, it was only once he ventured further afield that tickets for riding without a helmet were regularly dispensed. These were never paid, instead finding their way no further than a bulging suitcase of fines.

It was court summons for non-payment that always did for Fred, landing him with a string of Contempt of Court prison sentences. In every other aspect of his life, Fred was the model of a law-abiding citizen.

Fred Hill Memorial ride
Fred’s life is remembered annually with ride outs by MAG

A hero still remembered

MAG members would regularly demonstrate in support of their hero, often outside the prison he’d find himself incarcerated in. Curiously, considering this was an epic story of Man vs State, media coverage of Fred’s fight was practically non-existent. In today’s hyper-connected social media driven media-obsessed world, it would be nice to think he’d get more support.

Today bikers still commemorate this great man with an annual ride. In London, this fittingly goes from the Ace Cafe to Pentonville prison.

You don’t need to approve of wearing a helmet or not. The point is to commemorate his dedication to the biking cause. Amen to that.

Get yourself sorted:

Ride out and celebrate this great man. Contact your local MAG group to see if they have a ride planned on or around the second Sunday of February each year.


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The Author

Ian Malone

Ian Malone

Ian is the Editor and a co-founder of Biker & Bike.

He is obsessed about bikes to the point that he often starts conversations with new people by saying, "Please don't get me onto the subject of bikes. We'll be here all day."

Inevitably, the next question asked is nearly always, "What bike have you got, then?"

He's 'down' to three bikes at the moment:

'97 Triumph Daytona T595
'11 Triumph Tiger 800
'13 Triumph Speed Triple R

He's not even a huge Triumph fan, it just turns out that's how the stable is filled at the moment.

Having been on every continent except Antartica (as long as Cuba kind-of qualifies as South America) he is a big fan of travelling. However, to his deep but hopefully not eternal shame, he's only ever explored Europe on two-wheels and only started doing this a few years ago.

His main mission now is to explore as much of the world on two wheels as possible, at the same time as trying out as many new motorcycling experiences as he can and go on to inspire other bikers to do the same.