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The High Beech Revival of 1954
By John Hyam

Early Action from High Beech

IT was one of the best kept secrets of 1954. An ambitious bid by Doug Falby, then editor-owner of the 'Speedway Gazette', to reopen the birthplace of speedway at High Beech as members of the Southern Area League.

Since its original opening in February, 1928, High Beech had been strongly associated with the sport. Sometimes known as King's Oak, the track had competed in the old Southern League until the early 1930s.

Even after the venue dropped out of league racing, it still featured as a junior track at various periods up to the start of World War Two in September 1939.

And, apart from its motorcycle speedway associations, in 1937 and 1938 High Beech had also staged meetings for midget cars which were then trying to make their mark as an alternative speedway sport.

Post-war, High Beech returned to action in 1948 and 1949 with a series of open meetings - running very much as an alternative junior track to Dickie Case's vibrant venture at nearby Rye House.

Among the post-war riders at High Beech was Allen Briggs - later to be associated with Walthamstow and Rayleigh. Another was Steve Bole, who had a brilliant one season with Eastbourne in their SAL days, then surprisingly quit racing at the end of 1954.

And a great stalwart and favourite at High Beech in the years spanning World War Two was Arthur Sweby, a rider who also made a name for himself on southern grass tracks.

While these riders never matched the calibre of the original High Beech aces of the 1920s and 1930s like Phil Bishop, Jack Barnett, Syd Edmonds and Stan Baines, they nevertheless were an integral part of the Essex track's history.

And legend has it that in the only recorded match race between a male and female rider which took place at High Beech in 1929, South African favourite Keith Harvey was run into by an unnamed woman rider. She escaped injury, but Harvey suffered a broken leg.

This, however, gets away from the attempt to revive High Beech for entry to the SAL in the mid-1950s. Falby, of course, was well placed to act as a speedway promoter. In pre-war years he had been business manager to former rider Arthur 'Westy' Westwood. In his time, Westwood promoted in France - at the Buffalo Stadium in Paris and at Marseille. And just before war broke out, he had been involved as promoter of the Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds teams in the old National League's Second Division. Post-war, Westwood ran at Tamworth in 1947 and 1948.

Falby was convinced that High Beech would be a welcome addition to the Southern Area League, which in its initial 1954 season featured Aldershot, California (Wokingham), Eastbourne, Brafield, Rye House and Eastbourne.

The moves towards a High Beech revival started in the mid-summer of 1954 when Falby enlisted me to help him draw up the framework for the venture. The first thing was to form the basis of the team.

High on the list was the former Southampton and Liverpool legtrailer George Bason. He had started the 1954 season with California, then dropped out of the side after six weeks to concentrate on his business. But he still turned out in open meetings at California. I assured Falby he could be persuaded into racing for High Beech.

It was also planned to target another of the California regime, Ted Pankhurst, who had raced briefly for the 'Poppies' at the start of 1954 before reverting to his first track love grass track racing and a career in the then new British track sport stock car racing.

Also on the High Beech hit-list was the former Oxford junior Ray Terry, who was then breaking into an injury-hit Eastbourne team. And colourful spectacular Johnnie 'Cisco Kid' Fry - another Eastbourne rider - was also on Falby's team sheet. Veteran grass trackman Tom Albery - famed for his brown racing leathers - who had also raced a few times on speedway for California was another 'wanted man.'

Stan Tebby, the grass track racing father of Jim Tebby (later a long-time loyal servant to Wimbledon) was pencilled in, as were juniors John Lalley, Al Holliday (briefly with Rayleigh in the early 1960s), cousins Keith and Ronnie Webb, Irish junior Mike O'Connor, and an Australian youngster John Gronow.

Gronow had first arrived in England in 1953 primarily to race in the Isle of Man TT. But on the ship to England he came into contact with English rider Maury McDermott (Harringay and Rayleigh). Gronow liked what he heard about speedway and decided to switch racing formulas.

Lalley, from Camden Town in North London, was a protege of the old West Ham, Norwich and Aldershot favourite Ivor 'Aussie' Powell. Lalley also pinned his faith in what was, for that time, a revolution in bike engine positioning. It was placed on a slope in the frame - the forerunner perhaps of the modern laid-down engine. Powell achieved much success with the bike - sadly Lalley never emulated his mentor.

With that part of the equation finished, at least on paper, the next objective was an inspection of the High Beech facilities. That's where I again came in. I was then regarded as an 'expert' on the SAL and its track requirements. I was writing regular columns on the SAL for the 'Gazette', 'Speedway Star' and 'Speedway News'. Falby said: "You know what the league's all about. Go and take a look at High Beech for me."

I did not own a car at the time, but I had a rather fine drop-handlebars racing-type cycle. More importantly, I was also keen on the chance of becoming a promoter in the mould of Johnnie Hoskins, so I agreed to inspect High Beech.

It involved me in a 30-mile round cycle journey from my south London home to High Beech on the far north east outskirts of the capital. I vaguely knew where the track was, and after biking through the East End, eventually went through Ilford and Romford, before finding Epping Forest and High Beech.

I was horrified when I saw the birthplace of speedway. The safety fence had long since gone, what had one been a stand of sorts was derelict, it was difficult to find the pits area, and the race circuit was overgrown.

As for the centre green, this had become a storage area for beer crates. I had never seen so many in one place - hundreds of them, neatly stacked and placed there for storage by the brewery which looked after the interests of customers at the nearby King's Oak pub.

Despite my enthusiasm, even I knew that a speedway revival at High Beech was a non-starter. For the type of Sunday afternoon racing supplied by the SAL and the low attendances the league attracted, only a fool would have poured cash into a venture that would never recoup a substantial cash outlay. I reported my findings to Doug Falby and he agreed with me: High Beech would never see another speedway meeting. And it never did.

Luckily, Falby had curbed an initial wish by me to hint at a 'High Beech speedway revival' story for the 'Speedway Gazette'. We both felt that as things stood it was best to keep quiet our moves in that direction.

And that's how things have been for more than half a century. But it's good to get things out into the open and I feel now is the time to make public the sad tale of the last bid to promote at British speedway's pioneer venue.

 

This article was first published on 1st December 2016

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  • Jim Henry:

    "re High Beech and man v woman match race. Norrie Isbister raced and beat Eva Asquith at Glasgow White City on 22nd June 1929. ( see Speedway Researcher for details.) It is more than likely they took place at other tracks in this era but have no details to hand. Bradford Autodrome (Greenfields) feature a race between a man and a greyhound and at a grass track venue a rider raced against plane."  

     

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