Olga Kevelos – “Idle Woman”, international motorcycle champion and pub landlady

Olga in 1954 on her Greeves motorcycle

Olga Kevelos was an astronomer, “Idle Woman”, motorcycle racing champion, Mastermind contestant, a much-loved (and respected) pub landlady, an energetic parish councillor, sometimes a very wicked humourist, and a good friend to many, many people in King’s Sutton and beyond.

Olga was born on November 6, 1923. She was the first child of a wealthy Greek financier and the English widow of an Indian Army doctor who had died of wounds sustained in the First World War. After marrying in Nice, the couple had settled in a large Victorian villa in a then rather well-to-do suburb of Birmingham, Edgbaston. Olga’s birth was followed two years later by a brother, Victor, and then in 1932 by yet another brother, Raymond.

Olga attended the celebrated King Edward VI High School for Girls, where she more than held her own, academically speaking. But the unconventional and competitive aspects of her nature were also much in evidence even then. At one point, she was severely censured by the headmistress for organising a wholly unauthorised roller-skate race in the school hall. History doesn’t record who won that race.

After going on to study metallurgy, and with the country now at war, Olga worked for a time in the laboratories of William Mills, manufacturer of the famous Mills Bomb. Recalling that time many years later, Olga was quoted as saying: “...I give thanks for the war, otherwise I would never have escaped from home. Although I loved it, I wanted to live in the outside world.

Always passionate about astronomy, Olga was then lured to London by the offer of a job at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Unfortunately, enemy bombing forced the closure of the Observatory soon afterwards and Olga was evacuated along with other members of staff to the Admiralty at Bath.

Her arrival in Bath dismayed at least one member of the senior management there, Donald Sadler, who later recalled in his memoirs that “Olga Kevelos... could not do arithmetic and terrified people by stalking around with a large knife in her belt... Most [members of the clerical staff] were reasonably competent and one or two were exceptionally good, but a few were hopeless — Olga Kevelos could not add plus and minus signs together.” Mr Sadler did acknowledge, however, that “...she seemed an interesting woman, and after the war, became a motor-cycle racing champion!”

An “Idle Woman”

It has to be said that Olga wasn’t especially pleased to be in Bath either. There was none of the star-gazing that so fascinated her and the daily grind of endless paperwork didn’t suit a young girl who yearned to make her way in the world. One day in 1943, though, fate intervened to change her life dramatically. Her eye was caught by an advertisement placed in the Times by the Department for War Transport. The ad was seeking female trainees to work on canal barges for the Inland Waterways. Olga jumped at the chance to escape the drudgery of clerical work and spent the next two years with several all-female volunteer crews who manned barges carrying vital war materials up and down the Grand Union Canal between London and the Midlands.

Nearly 50 years on, in June 1992, Olga was delighted to be invited to a reunion held at the Blatchworth Canal Centre in Hertfordshire to honour those extraordinary women. They had been nicknamed the “Idle Women” after the initials IW on their badges. Officially, IW stood for Inland Waterways, but the traditional boat people alongside whom they worked — people born and bred to the canal system — called them idle women and the name had stuck.

They had certainly been women, but far from idle. Interviewed at the Blatchworth reunion by a journalist from the Independent newspaper, Olga remembered that it was “hard work with no respite at all. From the moment you cast off in the morning,” she said, “you just kept going till you were ‘locked out’ — meaning that the lock had been shut — or darkness made it impossible for you to go any farther. We worked an 18- to-20-hour day, and nobody ever stopped.”

Unlike the much better known Land Girls, the Idle Women didn’t receive much in the way of extra rations. Olga said: “We subsisted on cocoa with condensed milk, national loaf and peanut butter. I don't know how we managed to live and keep as fit as we did. I was always hungry, all the time.”

The 1992 reunion was organised to premier a play written and performed by members the Mikron Theatre company, which travelled the waterways presenting its works at canal-side venues. This very moving play, Imogen’s War, was based on diaries and books written by some of the Idle Women themselves. It was later performed by Mikron just down the road at Aynho Wharf where I remember Olga was thrilled to be the guest of honour.

Later still, in October 2005, the Waterways Trust and British Waterways unveiled a special plaque at the National Waterways Museum, in Stoke Bruerne not far from us, to commemorate the involvement of the idle women in the Home Front. In a long overdue appreciation of their contribution to the war effort, the British Waterways’ chairman, said this: “Keeping cargo moving along the waterways during the war was no easy task. These young ladies had to contend with limited rations, difficult living conditions and sometimes appalling weather including being ice-bound. Their selfless service to the country deserves recognition and we are delighted to unveil this plaque in their honour.”

After her momentous war, Olga was awarded a government grant to study French medieval history at the Cité University in Paris. Olga recalled having a “smashing time” during this period of study in the company of one of the girls she had crewed with on the canals. The pair bicycled all over Paris and travelled extensively in other parts of Europe as well. “I was one of the first backpackers,” she later quipped to a magazine journalist.

On the back of the knowledge of Europe she gained at this time, Olga started her own travel agency on her return to Birmingham. She also helped her father and other members of the family in the running of the Cherry Orchard restaurant in the centre of town, which her father had bought as a side line to his work at the Birmingham Stock Exchange.

Motorcycle champion

From there on, Olga’s life might well have returned to some semblance of normality if it hadn’t been for another twist of fate. Finding that her then boyfriend, Phil Heath, was slipping off at weekends to race motorcycles, Olga decided that the best way to stay with her man was to join him at the races. She borrowed a bike from an artist friend, took a few basic lessons in how to ride it, and embarked on a career that would last for over twenty years.

Encouraged by her bike-racing boyfriend to try her hand at the sport herself, Olga soon impressed everyone with her natural aptitude. She later listed all the qualities a motorcycle racer should have: “balance, anticipation, concentration and fearlessness.” It’s possible that her tough life working on the barges had something to do with her success as well, preparing her both mentally and physically for what was to come.

In fact, Olga did so well at her first race meeting that she was offered a bike and sponsorship there and then by the James Motorcycle Company. She accepted the offer but found the James machines too fickle and the following year was the proud owner of an AJS, which she rode down to San Remo in Italy to take part in the International Six Day Trial. In San Remo an accident left her with a broken wrist and a broken ankle too. Undaunted, she rode back to Birmingham with her wrist and ankle still in plaster. (It should be noted that most of Olga’s male competitors travelled to and from San Remo in the comparative luxury of their team transports.

Olga went on to win the first of her two Gold medals, riding a 500cc Norton in the following year’s International Six Day Trials in Wales. She was to ride in every Scottish and International Six Days Trial event until she finally retired from the sport in 1970. During that time, she won the backing of virtually every major British motorcycle manufacturer, and the Italian and Czech manufacturers Parilla and Jawa/CZ respectively. It was the imposition by the Czechs of a strict fitness regime lasting some six weeks, to which Olga later attributed her second gold medal in 1953.

Her former links with Czechoslovakia led Olga 40-odd years later to be invited to a Foreign Office reception held to celebrate the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Union. The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, apparently spent some time discussing with Olga her views on Ghengis Khan. “He probably wanted a few tips on how to invade other people’s countries successfully,” she commented afterwards.

During her days as a professional motorcycle racer, Olga also turned her hand to competing on four wheels. She regularly drove Kieft Formula III cars at Brands Hatch and Thruxton. As well as the Kiefts, she raced cars designed by her greatest love, Rex McCandless. Rex was an extraordinary Irish engineer who when Olga first met him worked for leading British bike manufacturer Norton and he was a pivotal part of the team that developed the legendary Norton “featherbed” bike frame. The Featherbed was later adopted by just about every major motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

Rex later went on to work for fellow Ulsterman, tractor magnate Harry Ferguson (of Massey Ferguson fame), for whom he designed two revolutionary, aluminium-bodied racing cars that were distinguished by their Shamrock-shaped radiators. In the 1960s, Rex also took his inventive genius to the skies, designing and building his own Autogyro, a form of one-person helicopter similar to the one featured in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. As with Olga, Rex attracted superlatives like a lamp attracts moths. It comes as no surprise, then, that he and Olga got on like a house on fire, sometimes almost literally.

Her career as Britain’s leading lady motorcyclist turned Olga into something of a celebrity of course and like all such people, she attracted a lot of press attention. Newspaper stories about her life abounded. Some of them were even true. During one of the Scottish six day trials, for example, Olga and one of the race officials, Allan Jefferies, were reported to have found themselves banged up in the Fort William nick for general rowdiness around the town. They were apparently only released the following morning after dire threats that the six days event would be moved to a different part of Scotland if the local police force didn’t let their prisoners go.

Then there was the time Olga drove her Italian Parilla motorcycle over a cliff during the International Six Day Trial at Lake Como in northern Italy. She lost two teeth as a result and also wrecked her bike. The headline in one of Italy’s leading newspapers, La Stampa, the following morning read: “Olga has lost her smile.”

Writing in an early 1960s Scottish Six Day Trial programme, one of Olga’s fellow participants, David Tye, recalled an encounter with her at a previous event. As he made his way around the course, Mr Tye came across Olga, apparently stranded by the wayside. No, she assured him, she didn’t need any help, she’d simply stopped to admire the view.

In 1964, Olga risked the wrath of the East German police by handing out to local children some expensively imported fruit she’d been given by the authorities. Unbeknown to Olga, such luxuries were “verboten” as far as the general population were concerned and, in any case, these children didn’t have any idea how to unpeel a banana. Olga competed in several other countries behind the old Iron Curtain – including Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia – during her illustrious career, and she retained a great deal of sympathy for the collective sufferings of their people for the rest of her life.

The motorcycle trials events in which Olga participated were widely acknowledged as the longest and most strenuous of all motorcycle competitions. This short extract from a biography of the famously macho Hollywood film star Steve McQueen – who famously performed the stunt himself when filmed jumping his motorbike over a barbed wire fence in the film, the Great Escape – gives a flavour of just how tough they were:

“In September of 1964 Steve was chosen as a member of the US team for the ‘International Six Day Trials’, the most challenging motorcycle event in the world. Each member of the team would ride 200 miles per day, competing in a range of endurance and skill based events, through mountains, forests and rocky trails against the best riders the world had to offer.”

“The most challenging motorcycle event in the world... against the best riders the world had to offer.” It’s worth repeating those phrases. Remember, Olga Kevelos, the woman whose life we celebrate here, won two gold medals, and several more silver and bronze medals, against the best riders the world had to offer in the most challenging motorcycle event in the world.

Pub landlady, quiz fanatic and parish councillor

Olga eventually gave up racing in 1970 and settled down to help her younger brother Ray at his pub in King’s Sutton, the Three Tuns. The pair of them were to stay at the Tuns until 1992, the best part of 26 years in all. During that time they ran an orderly, if somewhat unconventional, house. On many occasions, for example, would-be customers could be heard shouting and banging on the pub door at seven thirty in the evening, well after official opening time, trying to get a drink.

In those days, before the arrival of late opening shops, the Tuns would also be invaded by children looking to buy chocolate from the pub’s “off licence”, a hatch to one side of the bar. Unsurprisingly, a lot of those children later learnt how to hold their beer at the Tuns.

In 1978, Olga famously took part in one of the BBC’s most popular TV programmes, Mastermind, specialising in Ghengis Khan. A young local resident Taffy Sharpe, spent ages before the recording trying to improve her knowledge of sport in anticipation of the general knowledge round. (Olga knew next to nothing about most sports.) Taffy made Olga memorise dozens of sports facts, including the winner of that year’s FA Cup. Needless to say, when that question came up, Olga’s mind went blank and she could only think of Taffy’s own team Liverpool. Wrong team! Despite this letdown, Olga won her round and went on to do another, narrowly failing to go further. For the rest of her life, Olga continued to participate in quizzes, mostly in pubs in and around Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire but also higher profile events like the TV quiz, 15-1.

Olga could be ruthless in her pursuit of quiz victories, carefully selecting people for inclusion in (or exclusion from) her teams according to their ability to answer questions on subjects where her own knowledge was relatively weak. On one occasion in the late 1980s when Olga was trying to strengthen her regular team, she was mightily impressed by the brainpower of a chap called Naden, who played for a pub in Middleton Cheney. Looking up Naden in the telephone directory, she called him and invited him to join her team. She was mortified to find on the night of his big debut, however, that she’d got the wrong Naden!

Olga’s quiz teams enjoyed a few successes, notably beating a side led by a Brain of Britain winner to take the Oxford Mail Trophy, and twice winning the Northamptonshire County Villages competition. After she and Ray had to let the Tuns go, Olga became involved in local politics, working tirelessly on the Parish Council and helping to get the Kings Sutton Times out every month. “When you’ve run a village pub,” she said, “you know better than anybody what issues the community is most concerned about.”

Olga died on October 28, 2009 at the Horton Hospital in Banbury after suffering a massive stroke.

Olga Kevelos could light up a room with the gleam in her eye, and leave people in convulsions of laughter with her mischievous sense of humour. She was a woman of firm convictions but never allowed seriousness to interfere with her sense of fun. She was open about what was by any standards a remarkable life but never boastful. It’s no exaggeration to describe her as a legend in her own lifetime and her death leaves King’s Sutton a sadder and poorer place.

This article is based on the eulogy for Olga Kevelos written by David Bridson and delivered by him at her funeral in November 2009.

Further reading

Olga Kevelos’s obituary in The Times

Olga Kevelos’s Daily Telegraph obituary

Olga Kevelos’s Independent obituary

Biography of Olga Kevelos by Scots author and motorcycle enthusiast Colin Turbett

Profile of Olga Kevelos by Tim Coghlan for Canals & Rivers magazine: Part 1 and Part 2.

Barbour’s tribute to local hero Olga Kevelos

Audiovisual records

Obituary of Olga Kevelos from BBC Radio 4's “Last Word” programme.

British Pathé film of one of Olga’s races on four wheels, in which she led all the way until the final few seconds, when she was pipped to the post by another driver after being signalled to slow down by her team in case her engine blew up! .