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Book Excerpts:
Crystal Palace Speedway
A History of the Glaziers
By Norman Jacobs

1928

Crystal Palace's opening announcement placed in the Motor Cycle magazine of 17 May said that the chief event of the first meeting would be a match race between England and Australia for £100. Representing England were to be Roger Frogley, Les Blakeborough and Colin Watson while Australia's team was to consist of Hoskins's three riders, Johnson, Datson and Schlam. Admission prices were 1s 6d (7½ p) with free parking for motor cycles and cars. Stand seats were 2s (10p) and 5s (25p).

When the big day came the Heavens opened and for about an hour before the start of the meeting there was a steady downpour. In spite of this, the public swarmed in to the grounds and by the advertised starting time, 3.30 p.m., all the seats were taken and there were thousands more standing. Because of the rain and the need to treat the track it was announced that the start would be postponed for half an hour. It was reported that the crowd "bore the discomfort with great patience". Not only did the crowd have to put up with the rain, but the loud speakers broke down and all announcements were made by megaphone from the centre green. Once the meeting got started the amount of water on the track caused it to become terribly rutted necessitating a short interval during the racing to allow a ten-ton steamroller to go round flattening it out,

The main event of the day, the match between England and Australia took the form of three individual match races with slightly changed teams from those advertised in the Motor Cycle and the first heat saw Lionel Wills take on Ron Johnson, riding a 345 Harley Davidson Peashooter. As the race started it became apparent that Johnson's Peashooter lacked the power of Wills's 499 Rudge Whitworth. Nevertheless, his greater experience saw him get a good start and stay in front of the Englishman with Johnson taking the outside and Wills sticking to the white line. It was very noticeable however that Wills's machine was much faster down the straights and on lap three, Johnson's machine missed several beats, giving Wills the chance to draw level. Johnson's bike continued to misfire on the last lap and Wills was able to take him on the inside and forge ahead, eventually winning by 15 yards. The crowd went wild as it had been expected that because of their greater experience the Australians would win all three races.

In heat two, Sig Schlam, the holder of the Australian 350 cc. Championship, took on Les Blakeborough. This time their bikes were more evenly matched as Schlam was mounted on a 345 Harley Davidson while Blakeborough rode a 348 Cotton. Unfortunately, Blakeborough suffered engine failure on lap 2. Schlam then put on a wonderful exhibition of broadsiding for the spectators but on the last lap his Harley suddenly let out an enormous "scream" and died. Schlam was forced to push home to even the match score up.

The third and deciding heat brought together Roger Frogley on his 499 Rudge Whitworth and Charlie Datson, the holder of the World 500 cc ½ mile dirt track record, on his 494 Douglas. So far both of the other Australians, Johnson and Schlam, had had mechanical problems and it looked as though Datson would be no exception as he had trouble getting his bike started, but eventually the heat got underway, though it was clear that there was something very wrong with the Douglas as smoke poured from the machine for two laps, by which time Frogley was a quarter of a lap ahead. Suddenly, Datson's machine seemed to recover and he put in a hair raising lap to catch the Englishman. His cornering held the crowd spellbound as he hurled his Douglas round the bends sending up a bow wave of wet cinders nearly twice as high as himself, but he couldn't manage to get past Frogley, who came across the finishing line just a few feet in front, giving England a 2-1 winning score over Australia in what could be said to be the first ever international, albeit very unofficial, between the two countries.

1931

It was the ambition of every team to beat Wembley. Wembley had been far and away the most successful team since the beginning of league speedway in 1929. Mockford realised that one of the main reasons for this was the care and attention the Wembley management paid to the team's bikes and he was determined to outdo Wembley in this department in his ongoing effort to take Crystal Palace to the top. Before the Wembley match therefore, he made sure that all the team's machines were stripped down and cleaned, older parts replaced and the engines tuned to perfection. The result was a stunning 30-23 victory over the champions and, not only that, but for the first time that season, it was clear that the Wembley bikes were not as fast as those of their opponents. The Farndon/Francis pairing scored a maximum 15 points, while Johnson scored an individual maximum.

Mockford now knew for sure that this was the way to go and so he set up a "state-of-the-art" workshop at the back of the speedway track in the old polo-pony sheds, fitted with all the best modern appliances for all the team members to use. Not only that, but Mockford brought in as workshop supervisor, the man whose bike frame, along with the J.A.P. engine, had revolutionised the sport, G L Wallis. Along with four assistant mechanics, he made him responsible for ensuring that the Glaziers turned out in every match with the best possible machinery. Johnson, Francis, Key and Shepherd were all given brand new Wallis J.A.P. mounts with another being made for Frogley. After every meeting, Wallis insisted on taking the bikes in to the workshop and overhauling them. The only slight fly in the Mockford ointment was Tom Farndon, who insisted on continuing to look after his own machine. This wouldn't have been quite so bad if Farndon had been an expert mechanic himself, but he wasn't and it was said that Mockford had to employ a special member of staff whose job it was to walk round the track and pick up the bits and pieces that had fallen off Farndon's bike during the racing.

1933

Although the new clutch start had been introduced in an effort to overcome the problems with false starts, the system still wasn't working very well as riders were still edging forward and trying to anticipate the start. On 17 June, following the match against Nottingham, which the Glaziers won, 41-22, Fred Mockford, together with Harry Shepherd, tried out yet another new starting technique aimed at cutting out the recalled starts and the disqualifications. Borrowed from horse racing, it was an extremely simple idea consisting of a frame extended across the track with three horizontal tapes which rise as an operator pulls the handle. In other words, a starting gate. There were no springs and no complicated machinery of any kind to go wrong, the motive power being supplied by gravity through the medium of a weight. Before the experiment took place there was a fear that the riders would continually breast the tapes and the starting gate would prove to be no better than any other system in stopping false starts. However, the starting method that was employed prevented this happening as the riders had to line up a foot behind the gate with their engines running and their clutches out and start as soon as the tapes rose. Because of the speed of the tapes rising no-one was able to anticipate the start to such an extent that the tapes were broken at any time. It was claimed that the presence of something tangible in front of them prevented the riders from jumping off before the tapes rose and all the riders who took part in the experiment spoke strongly in favour of the starting gate. Although the experiment was an undoubted success, fears were expressed that speedway riders were such an ingenious lot that it would not be long before they found a way to anticipate the tapes and still manage to get flyers.

In spite of these doubts, the Control Board announced, at its meeting the following Tuesday, that it had been so impressed by the results of the experiment at Crystal Palace that it had decided the starting gate was to be installed at all tracks for the purpose of clutch-start racing within three weeks of the date of the notice and that from then on its use was obligatory in all official fixtures. The only difference to the Crystal Palace experiment was that riders were to line up two feet behind the gate instead of one foot. Any rider touching the tapes would be sent back and, if they repeated the offence, they would be excluded from the race. The Control Board added that they couldn't see any reason why all tracks should not be able to install them within three weeks as the cost of constructing the gate was less than £5 including labour charges.

1939

There was now a good deal of anxiety inside the Crystal Palace management. The poor form of the team was seen as a major contributory factor to the alarming drop in attendances. Middlesbrough had just closed through lack of support and there was great concern that the Glaziers would soon go the same way if things didn't improve on the track. But things were about to get even worse as the Glaziers were crushed 63-21 by Sheffield. Ten of the 14 heats resulted in 5-1s to Sheffield. There were no redeeming features for Crystal Palace as they suffered their heaviest defeat of the season.

Finally, the moment came when the whole of the Crystal Palace team, free from engine failures and other misfortunes all clicked at the same time as the next home match, on 24 June, resulted in a 56-28 destruction of Stoke. Leading the charge were Mitchell and Weir with paid maximums backed up strongly by Harvey, Lovell, Clarke, Appleby, Challis and Trim. Even the luck seemed to be with the Glaziers this time as in Heat 13, Appleby fell at the start rolled over on to his feet, pulled his fallen machine up restarted and then managed to fight his way through to second place.

Sadly, this overwhelming victory was watched by very few people as most had now given up on their team and after one more match, a loss away at Norwich (50-34) on 1 July, the Crystal Palace management decided that enough was enough and withdrew the team from the league. Although there were 1,100 members of the supporters' club, most meetings had been run at a big loss, sometimes as much as £100 per match, the equivalent of something like £3,000 in today's money. Many pundits felt that the main problem was one that had led to Crystal Palace's closure back in 1933 and that was the management's continued refusal to pay for floodlighting. Speedway meetings held in the afternoon rarely attracted the same sort of attendances as those held in the evening. 40,000 spectators had turned out for the first meeting of the season, very few of those turned out for the last.

 

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This article was first published on 2nd September 2012


 

  • A.D Shephertd:

    "It was interesting to read about Crystal Palace and seeing my fathers name with the others. He raced at New Cross as well. When the war ended and racing started in 1945 he was a pit Marshal at meetings and I used to meet the riders."

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