Exactly 50-years-ago Southend was rocked by the news that one of its forgotten action heroes had died.

It was July 1971 and Tornado Smith – once the biggest star of the Kursaal’s Wall of Death attraction - had just died in a south African hospital aged 65.

The problem was, when he died Smith was bankrupt, but somehow managed to leave a whopping fortune of £100,000 and the tax investigators were keen to find out where this money had come from.

Southend’s Wall of Death was the very first attraction of its kind to open in Britain. It roared into action in 1929 at a time when the Kursaal Amusement Park, one of the world’s very first mega attractions, was a huge draw for the town.

It featured motorcycles and cars zooming around a 20ft vertical wooden wall, shaped like a barrel cylinder. Men and women stunt riders would perform, only to be held in place by friction and centrifugal force.

There were many Wall of Death stars over the years but the most famous was George ‘Tornado’ Smith. Originally from Suffolk, Smith was said to have been working as a taxi driver and after dropping off a customer at the Kursaal one day instantly fell in love with the Wall of Death.

He wangled his way in by first working as a cashier, then stealing onto the Wall of Death at daybreak one day.

He went on to the become the most famous stunt-rider in the land.

He was known for zooming around the wall with his pet lioness Briton in a sidecar (when she got too big for the handlebars) and for riding ‘hands off ’.

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Echo: tornado smith

Ironically when he was a child he was scared of everything and admitted he wouldn’t even walk past a pond in case he fell in.

In 1946 he spoke to newspaper reporters about the thrill of the ride.

Despite the dangers, by this time he’d only been in hospital once due to an injury on the wall but admitted he’d lost enough skin to ‘make a good sized shirt’.

Tornado, who lived in Rutland Avenue, Southend, where he flew the Jolly Roger flag above his house, tried to enlist in the RAF during the Second World War but was turned down. He instead served in the Merchant Navy.

He loved sailing, and in fact had bought a boat just before the war broke out in order to sail the word – but it was destroyed in a fire. Smith got into bother a couple of times with the local police.

One time, in October 1936, he was caught speeding along Western Esplanade. He was clocked driving his car at between 40-45mph.

The limit was 30mph. In his defence Smith said it was the ‘first time he’d taken the car out’. He said he was used to driving 60mph on the Wall of Death and didn’t feel his driving was unsafe.

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In 1966 he fled Britain to South Africa with his wife with debts of £3,000 and was declared bankrupt. Naturally it was a shock to his friends and family when he died and this £100,000 sum was found. His creditors scrambled to get their money.

Tornado’s protege Yvonne Stag, who by this time was running the Wall of Death, said: “I was amazed to hear he had left all that money. It’s absolutely impossible to save that amount on what his job pays.

“He did dabble in stocks and shares and I believe he was very clever with them. Of course he was a 100 per cent miser, never spent a penny if he could help it. Every morning he used to walk down to Foulness Island to pick mushrooms for his breakfast.”

No claims had been made to Tornado’s estate, even though he was thought to have two living brothers, one living in Tilbury and another in Grays.

The money remained a mystery. One cashier who used to work at the Kursaal said the star did used to tell her he was worth a lot of money, though she never dreamt it was anything like the £100,000 legacy that surprised everyone.