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The Fifties
By John Chaplin

Last of the Old Brigade:
The original Aub Lawson at West Ham in 1947

 

The Golden Age of Speedway was over. The story of the sport in the decade between 1950 and 1959 is one of steady but precipitous decline.

From an early post-war high of 37 clubs and almost 10,000,000 paying customers in 1951, it had reached an all-time, rock bottom low of a mere nine functioning first class teams in 1959, plus a hotch-potch Southern Area League of five teams.

After the luxury of three thriving divisions in the Fabulous Forties, by the end of the decade the sole surviving National League consisted of Wimbledon, which enjoyed its own golden age in that period with five league titles, four National Trophy wins as well as Dons carrying off four individual World Championships, Leicester, Coventry, Norwich, Southampton, Poole, Oxford, Swindon and - propping them up uncharacteristically - the most famous club of all, Belle Vue, wooden spoonists for the first time in their long history (though their Second Division side, Belle Vue II, were on the way to the same dubious honour in 1939 when it all had to stop for a war).

It was a case of how the mighty were felled, all down the line.

The old originals were on the way out. At the start of the decade the trailblazer of the younger brigade, Australia's Graham Warren, was number one in Stenners World Rankings.

Clinging on close behind him were Jack Parker (England), Aub Lawson (Australia) and Tommy Price (England) who, a year earlier, had become the nation's first World Champion.

Way down in eighth place was Jack's brother Norman and finally, the last two representatives of the pre-war veterans still going strong were the stylish Alec Statham (England) at 14 and Ron Clarke (England) at 15.

The ranks in between were filled with the bright newcomers who had at last outridden the old order: Ken 'White Ghost' LeBreton (Australia), Fred Williams (Wales), Cyril Roger, Eric French and Cyril Brine (England), Jack Young (Australia), Wally Green and Bert Roger (England).

By the end of the decade the only pre-war class act remaining in the front rank of the sport was Aub Lawson, third in the World Championship in 1958 and, amazingly at the age of 45, topping the Norwich score chart ahead of the man whose record of success was not to be equalled by speedway racing's high achievers for the best part of a further two decades, Sweden's Ove Fundin.

The light of the magnificent Blond Bombshell Warren was eventually dimmed to a mere glimmer among Coventry's National Reserve League scorers, and the only other speedway dinosaur remaining in the saddle was Wal Morton at Ipswich in the Southern Area League.

It is important to recall the atmosphere of the sport in those days. The power base was London, with its five major First division tracks, Wimbledon, West Ham, New Cross, Wembley and Harringay. It may be hard to credit nowadays but then, on every news stand on most London street corners, which now offer only glossy lifestyle, girlie, information technology, fashion and celebrity magazines, there was as rich a variety of publications devoted to the sport.

Speedway News, Speedway Reporter, The Broadsider, Speedway Gazette, Speedway World . . . it was a cornucopia of speedway literature.

The Speedway Control Board, which was the sport's controlling body - there was no promoters' association - was under the chairmanship of Lt. Col. R. Vernon C. Brook. The secretary was a T.W. Loughborough and other committee members were G.R. Allan, C. Marians, S.T. Huggett and the legendary 'eccentric scientist' Professor A.M. Low. The clubs were represented by Sir Arthur Elvin of Wembley, John S. Hoskins of Glagow Ashfield and Newcastle, and Les Marshall of Birmingham, Cradley and Tamworth.

As you can see, the men in the 'bunkers', the promoters who actually risked their financial wellbeing running speedway tracks, were controlled by men of the 'Establishment' and therefore had little or no say over their own livelihoods.

Furthermore, there was an organisation called the Speedway Riders Association (SRA), the very powerful riders union, which in those days enjoyed a virtual closed shop membership and strictly limited the number of foreign riders allowed to race for British teams. It was the SRA which gave American Ernie Roccio a month 'to establish himself as a rider worthy of senior class racing' when he joined Wimbledon in 1950, not the promoter who signed him, Ronnie Greene.

But as speedway stood on the brink of the slippery slope, what were the causes that brought about the eventual appalling shrinkage?

For the four seasons following the war, the awestruck newcomers to speedway racing, of which I was one, had packed the terraces up and down the country allowing the sport to bask in such glorious popularity as it had never known in all of its entire previous 22 year history.

Those were the days, my friends. We thought they'd never end.

But speedway was then a comparatively young sport which had only just reached its majority. The great practitioners, the supreme artists of the cinder tracks - for that is what they raced on in those days, thick, deep, black cinders - were the star turns. They were our heroes, our idols, our knights, our living, breathing sporting legends.

They had pioneered the game, and transformed it from its wild and humble beginnings as a virtual 20th century novelty into a slick and infinitely exciting modern form of mass entertainment.

Their names were the rock'n'roll superstars of the day: England's unsurpassed international pairing, the Parkers, Eric Langton, the thinking fan's rider who had come within a tyre's width of taking speedway's first official world crown in 1936, Lionel Van Praag, Australia's tough guy champion who had beaten him to the title, the incomparable swashbuckling King Of The Old Kent Road Ron Johnson, those masters of the now lost art of team riding Bill Kitchen of England and Wembley, and Canadian Eric Chitty of West Ham, the amazing clinically individual brilliance of the engimatic Australian Vic Duggan and the impeccable stylishness of America's Wilbur Lamoreaux.

Their exquisite skill had been equalled - but never surpassed - by the amazing, full-throttle style of the great leg-trailers, Oliver Hart, Bert Spencer, Phil Bishop, Colin Watson, Lloyd Goffe, Roy Dook, Syd Littlewood and the harum-scarum Doug McLachlan . . . stop me! I could go on and on.

But by the beginning of the century's fifth decade, their day was done. The huge crowds they had drawn through the turnstiles of an austere, war-torn, entertainment-starved and largely immobile Britain, suddenly began to drift away.

A Wind Of Change, the prophetic catchphrase of latter day Premier Harold Macmillan, began to chill the hitherto warmly complacent speedway world.

The populace suddenly acquired new fangled television sets, fatter wage packets and the opportunity to take holidays abroad. Petrol came off the ration and families invested in motorcars which enabled them to travel further afield to seek enjoyment instead of just catching a bus, or getting on their bikes, to the local speedway track. And speedway, not being classed as a live sport, was labouring under a cripplingly iniquitous 60 per cent Entertainment Tax which was strangling its finances and was not to be lifted until 1957.

There was an outbreak of runaway home wins, some sort of panic seemed to set in and speedway began to tamper with the basic product. Attempts were made to standardise track surfaces, then abandoned. New narrow rear tyres were brought in, then discarded. Promotion and relegation was called for, and then dumped as impractical.

There was a bid to cut riders' pay scales - vigorously opposed by the SRA. Admission prices were reduced. Betting and pools were suggested, and abandoned. Race times were dropped, then reintroduced. The guest rider system was started, then stopped, then restarted.

In other words, speedway in the 1950s didn't quite know whether it was on its apex or its elbow.

But, the first Swedish riders had won places in British league teams. Within a mere two years Britain would be forced to pass around the ultimate prize - its Wembley World Finals.

And yet, all was not yet lost. A renaissance was on the horizon.

Speedway's rebirth was imminent - and the physician was to be a little known entrepreneur with an interest in making money named Mike Parker. Some people called him a visionary, some a villain, but his vision was called the Provincial League.

So I'd like to offer you a Team of The Decade?

Some Fifties' competitions tracked ten-man teams, you know. But, as I am a speedway dinosaur myself, and also a bit of a reactionary, I recognise only the 14-heat league match and the traditional eight-man side. So mine is an eight-man team.

I'll start with Graham Warren. The Blond Bombshell was the most exciting speedway rider it has ever been my pleasure to see - on and off a bike. His flowing blond hair and his crashing good looks earned him his nickname. His remarkably rapid rise to the top, his ability to ride any track under any conditions demonstrated a unique and unequalled talent. His side, Birmingham, relied on him to maintain his phenomenal scoring when they made the transition from the Second to the First Division in 1949, and he did not falter.

Graham was by far the best speedway rider in the world in 1950. And though Fred Williams won the World Championship that year, the season was really his. It was the cruellest of fates that a freak accident in New Zealand snuffed out the fire of his brilliance.

Jack Young is next. His way was in such contrast to Warren's flamboyance. The armchair stylist they called him, and he is rated by some to have been the finest speedway rider the sport has ever known. I had the great good fortune to be witness to the night he won his first World Championship at Wembley in 1951. He was a Second Division rider at the time and astounded the speedway world. And he added to the sport's history by doing it again the following year.

Ronnie Moore is impossible to leave out. It has been said many times, but Ronnie had probably the greatest natural talent of anyone before or since. His two world titles notwithstanding, he was literally poetry in motion to watch. He had a fantastic teacher in his Wimbledon skipper Norman Parker, and so eventually became arguably the best captain and team rider - yes, even better than Norman. How much more could he have won if it had not been so easy?

Fred Williams. You can't argue with two world titles - 1950 and 1953 - even though Fred did have the advantage of riding on his home track in each Final - Wembley. Though not a spectacular performer when he rode, he delivered, and in his conversations he demonstrates that he still thinks about the sport, and what's more he still loves it. Not one of the great swashbucklers, but a real class act.

Barry Briggs. Once the rough edges had been smoothed away, Briggo became - as everybody knows - one of the sport's true legends. The wild - and, yes, sometimes what looked like dangerous performances - packed 'em in during his early days. I stood in the Wembley pits enveloped by the white-hot atmosphere of a gigantic Empire Stadium crowd as he and Fundin pitted their nerve against each other in the dramatic run-off for the 1957 World Championship.

There was, quite plainly, physical contact as they rushed down the back straight on the third lap of that emotion-charged decider. 'Desperately he tried to lean on me, putting his arm over my throttle arm, trying the last trick to keep me back,' wrote Barry, describing the incident in his book Briggo. 'But I wasn't having any of that. I just kept the throttle open . . .' And Ove went charging towards the fence.

It was Briggo's first title, and I caught him in the vast concrete labyrinth of the Wembley tunnel to shake his hand and congratulate him. I thought at the time: 'He is just a kid.' It wasn't until I researched this piece that I came to realise that, at the time, we were both the same age - 23. And I can't help reflecting that he has done just as much for the sport since he quit racing as he did for it on the track.

Ove Fundin. I was never privileged to be around the great Ove while he was at his magnificent height, so the stories of his fiery temperament reach me second hand. But I don't doubt them, and he has never denied them to me - in fact he has readily confirmed them. The thing about Fundin is that he not only set the standard of achievement - five world titles and six rostrum places in ten years - he was the epitome of what every ambitious speedway rider should aspire to be. He positively loathed losing. He is not ashamed of that part of his character. It is what drove him to achieve such outstanding success. Since I have come to know him well, I have discovered that he is . . . a gentleman, in the true sense of the word.

Split Waterman. Truly one of the sport's great and enduring characters of which speedway has too few these days. The first English post-war overnight sensation and, within a few seasons, speedway's most expensive rider with his transfer from Wembley to Harringay for the enormously fat fee of �3,000. Split came as close as it is possible to be to the sport's supreme prize on two occasions. He was World Championship runner-up in 1951 and 1953, but he will be remembered long after some who did win it are forgotten. He was controversial, volatile and a great entertainer.

Aub Lawson. He was known as 'Gentleman Aub', but more than one of his contemporaries has told me that was a misnomer. I prefer the think of him as 'Evergreen', which may be a cliche, but it sums up the man admirably. From his very first appearance in Britain, in 1939, it was apparent his quality was high. Wembley loaned him to Middlesbrough, and he qualified for that year's World Final which, tragically, never took place because of the war. One of the few speedway artists who successful altered his riding style from old-fashioned leg-trailing to the modern foot-forward method, he became brilliantly consistent. He was also a world-class teacher, and he endured longest of the Old Brigade. He had not only finished third in the world behind Briggs and Fundin in 1958, but was still racing in 1960 - the beginning of the new decade.

© John Chaplin 2011

 

This article was first published on 14th July 2011


 

  • David Briggs:

    "John Chaplin always writes such interesing and informative pieces, I've enjoyed his articles and Vintage Speedway Magazine for many years. Although I first saw speedway racing sat on my Mum's lap in the grandstand at Pennycross Stadium, Plymouth in the 50's, it was 1961 when as a 13 year old my imagination was captured for life when the Provincial League re-opend Pennycross with the arrival of The Plymouth Bulldogs, racing in the previous season's Bristol race jackets, or breastplates as we called them then. Jack Scott, Maury Mattingly, Cliff Cox, Chris Julians, Ron Bagley, Chris Blewett and Ray Wicket were my first speedway heroes, although Pete Lansdale and Len Read were household names in our household. I find stories involving deep cinders racing surfaces, black leathers and silencer-less bikes intriuging. I remember my Dad, Alan, telling me stories of the days before my time, "they used to spray thinned oil onto the tracks in those days, not water" and descriptions of Wombwell, Tamworth and Leicester Super and other tracks he'd visited with the Devils as mechanic and occasional team manager. He never talked much about it, but I believe he tried his luck at Exeter before WW2 as Francis Drake, his parents would have grounded him had they known about it. I have some programmes with the name in some junior races. Thanks John Chaplin for stirring the old memory banks, long may you entertain with your inspired writing."

  • Reg Catterall:

    "So good to read of the days gone by. As a Brummies support I saw all the greats. Although not able to put them in order as they were all super I can say that my favourites were Wilbur Lamoreaux, Graham Warren, Jack Parker. I remember when Graham challenged Jack Parker for the Golden Helmet at Perry Barr. Graham fell and Jack retained the title which had become known as "Parker's Pension". Great days."

  • Anthony Otway:

    "I supported Norwich until they closed and I have a photgraph of Aub Lawson riding round the Norwich track on a donkey. I also have several World Final programes from the 50s and 60s all filled in which I attended. Also several photos of old Norwich riders."

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