Craven and the Chads
My first speedway memory dates back to the 1940's. My elder brother took me on the train from Liverpool to the Belle Vue Amusement Gardens in Manchester, just after WW2. After some breathtaking rides on the Roller Coaster, we found ourselves at the gates to the Greyhound and Speedway stadium, which had been opened to allow some spectators to leave early. So in we went - for free!!
There was a speedway meeting in progress, and it seems, it must have been a Test Match between England and Australia. This is because I can remember the fact, that there were two brothers riding together, with the name of Parker. Jack and Norman, and it would only be by representing England that they would have been together in the same team. Jack rode for Belle Vue and Norman for Wimbledon.
The occasion so excited me, the smell of combusted methanol and the roar from the bikes (no silencers in those days), that when I read, a year or so later, that the Stanley Stadium in Liverpool was to open up for Speedway, with a team called "The Chads", it was inevitable that I would soon be there on Monday evenings, pressed up against the wall surrounding the track.
Each meeting opened promptly at 7.30pm,with "Twelfth Street Rag" (by Pee Wee Hunt) and followed by "Imperial Echoes", which was the cue for riders, track staff officials, graders, and St. John's Ambulance staff, to march smartly onto the track for the opening of the meeting.
Riders were introduced to the crowd, the stadium lights dimmed, and the racing started. It was pure magic! Mr Chad incidentally was a post-wartime cartoon character, who would pose the question "What no sugar?" or whatever other particular commodity was in short supply at the time. The team comprised, Harry Welch, George Bason, Alex Gray, Doug Serrurier, Fred Wills, Charlie Oates, Alf Webster, and Derek Glover.
This was also the breaking era of Cycle Speedway, and where I lived, near Croxteth, in Liverpool, was a patch of waste ground, which was to play a significant part in the history of British Speedway. This patch became the home of Prestbury Chads, the name being borrowed from the senior speedway team. One warm evening in that first summer of Liverpool Speedway, I was watching the lads pedalling furiously around the cinders of the small oval, along with a tiny crowd including Harry Welch, Doug Serrurier and Fred Wills.
Two of the lads taking part were Brian, and his little brother Peter, of the Craven family, who I knew and who lived in the road next to where we lived. I followed these two budding riders for the rest of that cycle speedway season, and then during the winter I heard of a Speedway school, situated on Ainsdale Sands, to the north of Liverpool. This was run by Charlie Oates, another member of the Liverpool Speedway team. My brother and I braved the foul weather on many a Sunday morning and afternoon during that following winter, to watch Charlie putting novice riders through their paces on the beach. The track was marked out by small sweet bags of sand but was only accessible when the tide went out!
The brothers Craven by then had graduated to speedway proper, and along with other riders such as Don Potter of Fleetwood Flyers, and Angus Maguire of Liverpool, would lap this sand track, coached and cajoled by Charlie, until the tide re-appeared. Peter Craven worked as a trainee mechanic in the garage owned by Charlie in Brunswick Road, Liverpool, and he would ride to his place of work and back home, on his cycle speedway bike passing through the road where I lived.
In the evenings, when the rest of the lads and I were playing football or whatever in the road, Peter would come home on his bike, face covered in oil and grease, dressed in khaki overalls. He would take the corner of our road like the speedway star he was to become, foot placed both well forward and on the pavement, his left brake lever shaped just like the clutch lever on a speedway bike. Most of the lads in our road would jeer and laugh at him, but I preferred to wave and give him a thumbs up. In time he would wave and give me the thumbs up as he passed, ignoring the other lads.
The next speedway season dawned at Stanley Stadium and second half rides were given to novices attached to the track. Amongst them were of course, Brian and Peter. Brian graduated to the team, but never really achieved much at that time, but later in his life he did achieve success in the Pirate league with Liverpool.
Peter also joined the full team, but was never considered to be a great prospect, his style of riding was conservative to say the least. He was so small, that his bike appeared to be twice the size of the normal bike, and his style of riding consisted of planting his bike and left foot firmly on the inside white line, and staying there. Any rider of substance, simply rode around Peter, and that happened continually. I think Jimmy Baxter was in charge of Liverpool at that time, and Jimmy decided to release him. I am not sure, but I believe he went to Fleetwood first, then on to Belle Vue. We all know the rest of the Peter Craven story!!!.
Meanwhile back to the Liverpool Chads. In the close season they had been "moved" from out of the 3rd Division, where they had not set the place on fire, to say the least, and into the 2nd Division. To bulk up the team Jimmy Baxter, who also ran Plymouth Devils and Southampton Saints at that time, merely took Peter Robinson and Len Read from Plymouth, and Bill Griffiths and Buck Whitby from Southampton, plus a developing rider, Reg Duval, and put them into the Chads' team. They were also joined by the great George Newton from Walthamstow, and Tommy Allott from Sheffield.
Both these latter riders were veteran riders from pre-war, and were near retiring age when they joined the team, indeed Tommy used to remove his false teeth, when he went out to race. Nevertheless his machinery and leathers were always immaculate, and his bike probably one of the fastest around. If he got out of the gate first, nobody would catch him around Stanley, and he held the 4 lap record of the 446 yard track at 75 and 2/5ths seconds. He set it when he beat Merv Harding (The Red Devil) of Glasgow Ashfield in one of the most thrilling races I have ever witnessed.
George Newton was the last of the great leg-trailers along with Oliver Hart (Odsal) and he revelled in the wide open spaces of the Stanley track. His bike, "The Copper Flyer" was also a belter, and one of my greatest memories is of George "ear-holing" around the track. The angles he achieved, when he was on song, were similar to those that Peter Craven produced in his prime.
Peter Robinson - Chads' skipper - was a stylist and the anchor of the team, and he paired with George to make a fantastic combination of different styles. Len Read was so small and slight that he had weights added under the saddled of his bike to help him maintain control. Bill Griffiths and Buck Whitby never really achieved greatness, but along with Harry Welch (original skipper) and Reg Duval, and with Peter, George, Len and Tommy, they were an entertaining mid-table team.
The crowds at Liverpool were a consistent 7,000 at this time, and racing was always of a very high standard, any visiting rider willing to open the throttle and have a go, did well at Stanley. I remember well, Les Hewitt (Coventry Bees), Merv Harding - see above - along with Ken Le Breton (White Ghost), Keith Gurtner (Little Boy Blue) all of Ashfield, Arthur Forrest (Halifax), Billy Bales (Yarmouth) and of course the great Jack Young of Edinburgh Monarchs, were riders who could always be relied on to bring in the crowds, and remember this was still the 2nd Division.
Sadly for a number of reasons, by the time 1953 dawned, these crowds had dwindled, and eventually crippling overheads, and the iniquitous Entertainment tax brought an end to that particular era at Stanley. Supporters of the sport made a vain attempt to rally support, but by this time all the principle riders had either moved to other clubs or retired.
I moved away from Merseyside shortly after that, relocating to Southampton, where I was able to follow The Saints for a number of years, and then on their demise, Poole Pirates. I now live in Devon, and was able to follow my favourite sport at Exeter and still get the buzz.
This article was first published on 25th May 2006
"Thanks for those priceless memories! The thought of Peter Craven sliding his bicycle around the corner on the way home from work is pure gold. Despite being made fun of by others, I am sure that your encouragement was just what he needed. And I bet he smiled right back!"
"Interesting to read about Liverpool, especially Charlie Oates, who I had the privilage to meet up at Buxton while he was over for the Peter Craven Memorial at Liverpool Cathedral. I was setting my bike up by the pits for a second half ride when Charlie introduced himself and soon we were deep in conversation about Speedway and life in general. He soon spotted Guy Allott, the next thing they were trying to borrow a bike each and show us "young uns" how it should be done. After the meeting we swapped addresses and kept in touch, Charlie would always ask if I was in the GP yet (ha ha) and tell me about his plans to have another skid on the beach near his home on the Isle of Man. Usually with each letter he would send over a pack of Manx kippers as well! In return I would send him some North Staffs Oatcakes, and tell him that no, I wasn't in the GP this year, maybe next. Sadly Charlie died last year, but I'll never forget what a character he was, with a passion for Speedway and life .Wouldn't it be nice if there was a plaque or something near Ainsdale Beach, where I think his ashes were scattered, to celebrate his life and contribution to Speedway? "
"I wonder if there is someone out there willing to take a chance and open a track in the Liverpool area? Since the showing of speedway on sky, there must be a whole new audience out there."
"Lovely to read this. My dad Tony Buxey used to ride for The Southampton Saints just after the war with Vic Collins."
" My Father James (Jim) Huxley and my Godfather Lol Lees used to manage a cycle Speedway team in Liverpool in the 1950s. The team "Fairfield Aces" won a trophy, I have a photo of the team with the trophy if anyone team members oR friends, woulf like a copy. Myb rother and I used to watch the team and were also regulars at the Chads. My Mum made the ACES breastplates and the lads all looked young good looking and smart, a great bunch, who used to visit our house regularly. Happy Days. I still watch Speedway at Workington."
"All info about the 'old days' when I rode for the Chads, and other teams is interesting to me. Just wish I had kept more info of those days. Thanks."
"Thanks for this trip down memory lane. I recall all these riders and many others. Whenever I pass near where the Chads rode, I seem to smell the shale, hear the bikes, and see vendors selling "Speedway Echo" or "Speedway Gazette". A long time ago, but the activities of youth stay in the mind."
"Does anybody else remember in the mid 50's going by coach from Stanly Stadium to Strothers Music shop in Wallasey and recording the Liverpool Chads fan song 'We're here to cheer our lads, we're here to cheer the Chads' etc. which was played over the Tannoy system at the beginning of each meeting. I was one of about eight kids who were chosen/volunteered after the Saturday kids matinee at the Casino cinema. Does the record still exist? Be interested to know!"
"Great web site very interesting read. If I am not mistaken I think Reg Duval also rode for Coventry Bees. I watched Les Hewitt win the Brandonapolis in 1950 when I was only a young boy, beating all the top First Division riders at that time. I was in touch with Les during the last 3/4 years of his life he was a great guy and a gentleman."
"My father was a top Canadian rider for Liverpool in 1959 or 1960. His number was 57 & I was wondering if you have any info on him. I have an old scrapbook with lots of photos from his racing days in England. In fact, I was conceived in England while he was there racing. Hence the name Elizabeth, I guess. "
"I first supported speedway in 1960 at Liverpool. This was the first year of the Provincial league and Liverpool were not a good side and struggled big time when captain and number Brian Craven broke his leg. The promotion made a number of changes around May and June and Dave Dodd was one of them. He joined from Poole when they were looking to make a play for he league title. After a tricky start Dave began to blossom particularly at home and made some high scores. In fact he was involved in one of the best races I ever saw in a second half final with Edinburgh's Willie Templeton but for the life of me I cannot recall if he won! I am sure he did not come back in 1961 to England and do not know if he raced here earlier than 1960."
"Dave Dodd's daughter can see available details of his UK career on www.speedwayresearcher.org.uk"
"I would love to hear from any members or family of The Fairfield Aces team, Liverpool 1950s."
"The Craven family lived as a neighbour to my family, I had always assumed that the team name came from the Road name where Peter lived 'Prestbury Road' L11 3DU, apparently when the houses were newly built the gardens at the rear were not fenced off and they used the area for practice!"
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