The True Golden Age of Speedway
The Golden Age of Speedway. I look forward to receiving my copy of Philip Dalling's new book of that name.
It is a sobering thought that I have been a supporter for the greater part of the time that has elapsed since that February meeting at High Beech in 1928 (I was there for the 1968 anniversary). I have a keen interest in all eras and whilst the post war boom is often considered the golden age, I would suggest to you that another time was in fact the true 'golden age'.
Let me explain. If we go back to the start of it all, speedway rapidly caught the imagination of the speed mad generation of the early 1930s. Those were the days of barnstorming, wing walking, streamlined trains and the Schneider seaplanes that gave us the Spitfire. Tracks sprung up everywhere from 1929 and one year 59 venues are claimed (there may have been more). All over the country brave young men stripped their road bikes and took to the cinders (as most, but not all, tracks were).
In 1929 the first leagues were formed, Northern and Southern. Familiar names such as Birmingham (2), Coventry (can I mention them yet?), Harringay, Southampton, West Ham, Wembley and Wimbledon took part in the Southern League, together with Stamford Bridge (yes, Chelsea), Lea Bridge and White City. In the North Belle Vue, Sheffield, Newcastle, Leicester, Long Eaton and Halifax were joined by now less familiar names.
The Northern League was shambolic, and pretty much a disaster. The Southern did better and in a few years things settled down - to just a single division of ten or so tracks. By 1936 the First Division had only 7 teams, but a small 'Provincial League' (a second division) brought names such as Bristol, Plymouth, Cardiff, Liverpool and later Norwich and Sheffield into the fray.
Non-league (and league) tracks came and went, but that was about it before the war - not really a boom period.
The post war league action started in 1947, and with it came a boom (of sorts).
Weary from years of conflict, thousands flocked to the tracks. In a matter of 2 or 3 years there were three divisions, and many clubs new to league racing. Crowds were, by today's standards, often huge. The National League, Division 1, was mostly the London clubs, plus Belle Vue. Division 2 had the bigger names from the pre-war Division 2, such as Norwich, Bristol and Sheffield. By 1951/2 Divisions 2 and especially 3 had contained many new names, some that would become big clubs in later times. Cradley, Ipswich and Eastbourne to name a few.
However, by 1952, helped on its way by penal taxation and television, the party was effectively over. Arguably a more cooperative approach could have saved many clubs, but things went downhill rapidly, until by 1957 the survivors formed a single league and around a dozen or less teams.
In the last year or so of the 1950s something stirred. Defunct tracks staged the odd meeting or two, and Mike Parker, with others, set up his own mini league. This effort led to the Provincial League in 1960. This thrived in the early 1960s, although there was little stability, with many clubs coming and going. The First Division (the then National League) was on a downward spiral, albeit a slow one.
By 1964 (when there was a major bust up between leagues) the National league was effectively on life support, with West ham coming back to make it viable with just 7 teams (against the Provincials 13 or 14 and growing). The late 50's, early 60's were no boom time, but speedway was arguably saved.
In 1965 things changed forever, with amalgamation into a single league. Team strengths were (sort of) evened out and crowds were generally high by present standards. Teams were relatively very stable and the British League as it then was prospered.
In 1968 a second division became necessary, and this brought many new names. Workington, Berwick, Barrow, Canterbury and Reading appeared either in 1968 or soon after, while old names, such a Rayleigh, Birmingham, Long Eaton, Ipswich, Plymouth and Leicester returned.
However, although some teams came and went, and one or two were short lived, something very important had happened. Although redevelopment has deprived us of some great and well supported venues, a significant number of those 1965 - 1968 tracks are still with us. Many can look back on 40 years more or less continuous league participation. On the other hand of the Division 1 post war boom era, nearly all those wonderful names, Wembley, New Cross, Harringay, etc. participated in only a relative handful of seasons (a dozen or little more), when compared with the entrants of 1965/8. This is why I consider the period 1965 - 2010, and counting, to be the true Golden Age of speedway.
This article was first published on 28th April 2011
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