Daredevil Alma and the Wall of Death

Daredevil Alma and the Wall of Death

By Gareth Dennison | 04/12/2020

Daredevil Alma and the Wall of Death

 

FEARLESS Ellen Alma Skinner was so enthralled with the adrenaline of stunt rides that she had to sell all her outfits to ensure she was never tempted back inside a Wall of Death.

The trailblazing performer, who was known as Daredevil Alma, was one of the first female motorcyclists in the UK to take on — and master — the wooden drum feat.

The Wall of Death captivated fairground crowds when it arrived from the US and Alma’s own daredevil career began in July 1929, when she was still in her teens.

Motorcyclists ride around the inside of a big barrel usually about 30 feet in diameter at speed — appearing to defy gravity.

Alma, who lived at Hellaby, finished riding due to blackout issues with the Wall of Death — it was very difficult to cover up — although a few performers managed to continue throughout the Second World War.

 

Author Alan Mercer, whose new book explores Alma’s adventures, said: “The word I would use to describe her is amazing, to do what she did at an early age, when there were hardly any women doing this at the time.

“Her adventure began in her home town of Skegness with the entrepreneur and holiday camp founder Billy Butlin.

“She was joined by ‘Speedy Boyd’ aka Eric Rigby and ‘Wrecker’ Longley fresh from a Speedway career.

“Making it a family affair, she was also joined by her younger brother, Fred, who rode as ‘Cyclone Morley’.”

While working for the Butlin’s founder, she was frustrated that her wages were cut by five shillings when business was quiet.

Alma told the Advertiser in 1999: “The Wall of Death was a new attraction, so I asked him how much money I could earn as a rider.

“He was a bit surprised but said ‘Why, do you fancy trying it?’. I said I did. Anyway, Billy Butlin just said ‘That’s the spirit, you’re the sort we want’ and that’s how it all started.”

Alma became proficient within a fortnight, while others came a cropper, and she became one of the nation’s best-known riders.

She toured the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia — saving many personal letters, posters, photos and even business cards. Her collection extended to material from many other riders.

It was while working abroad that she met her husband, Horace “Skid” Skinner, a speedway pioneer who was also a Wall of Death rider, and they lived at Hellaby.

“When she retired from riding, her entire wardrobe of riding outfits was sold so that she would not be tempted to return to riding,” said Alan (62), of Hampshire.

“Although it has been 80 years since they were sold it would be interesting to know if any have survived in the Rotherham area.

“Alma then took over Skid’s Rotherham based haulage business and tried to put her colourful past behind her.

“Some time after Alma retired from riding she compiled a large scrapbook but continued collecting anything relating to the Wall of Death. There were additions to this archive right up to 1989.”

Alan’s new book — his fourth on riding — features almost all Alma’s collated material in chronological order, with 360 photos, posters and articles and mentions of more than 100 Wall riders.

Former firefighter Alan began researching the subject 12 years ago after retiring. He traced every Wall of Death rider in the UK before starting to look further afield — and getting a taste of the action himself.

After collating the history of the Sala Motordrome — a Swedish Wall in Holland — he was offered the chance to try it out. He restored his own 1927 Indian Scout bike and learned to ride it on the Wall of Death.

All sorts of attractions joined the bill in the Wall of Death heyday, including racing cars and even lions or bears.

It was a dangerous way of life and many riders were killed but Alma’s decade-long stint was without serious injury.

“It came over mostly from America, with a couple from South Africa and was a whole new thing for Great Britain,” said Alan.

“It mushroomed incredibly quickly here. It was a completely different show to see at a fairground. The noise made it so much different. They added cars and some even added lions to their shows.

“It went through a quiet period in the 60s into the 70s but there are still four active walls of death in the UK, so the scene does still exist.”

Alma, again recalling her career for the Advertiser in 1999, said: “I had to have stitches under my chin once, when my footrest came off the bike. The wall was made of wood and one of the planks came up and caught me.”

Horace and Alma had big plans to return to the scene after the war — until he was killed in a hunting accident near Gainsborough in 1944. She never performed again — but still rode a motorbike until she was 80.

And Alma, who was Ellen or Nellie to friends and died in 2008, aged 96, said she did not want to part with her lavish outfits.

“They were beautiful, satins and sequins,” she said in 1999. “I do miss those times. I used to get very sad when fairground lorries passed the house.

“I wanted to go and join them.”

* Daredevil Alma — A Wall of Death Scrapbook 1929-1998 by Alan Mercer is available online from One Tree Books in Hampshire, or 01730 261199, priced at £19.99 plus P&P.

And you can email Alan at vintagewallofdeath @gmail.com if you have any information about where Alma’s outfits ended up.

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