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The National Speedway Museum

Memories of a long-term West Ham Speedway Enthusiast
Ron Butcher

To be or not to be - a Speedway Rider?

In May 1949, after meeting Reg Fearman and Frank Bettis I became the proud guardian of a vintage Douglas dirt bike on the understanding that I would at a future date, pass it on to another raw novice.  I immediately set about taking it around an old cycle speedway track near the junction of the Barking Bypass and Manor Way, East Ham, an interesting track with a large hump at one bend. It was a great vintage machine that you could throw around. I even borrowed a friend's old belt driven Norton to trail an old railway sleeper around the track to grade it, much to his concern.

It was a beautiful Spring with lengthening warm days and on one Sunday whilst I practiced I suddenly had three spectators, none other than Cliff Watson, Reg and Aub Lawson. After a short time to my great pleasure and surprise Aub took me to one side and said that I had got all I could out of the bike and he could arrange the sale of a track spare for me with a chance of a trial at the Custom House track, I did not sleep that night, though I did not know where the 100 pound notes would come from. It came eventually from a very unlikely source, in spite of her hatred of motor bikes my Mum said she will borrow it from the lady who ran the Xmas Club. She qualified it by warning me of the consequences of returning home with neither the bike or the money.

One hurdle overcome, with the money in my leather jacket pocket I got leave from my workplace and made my way to the speedway office, Aub was there and suggested that lunch comes before business so we went up to the club bar and up there I sat at the same table as Malcolm Craven, Eric Chitty, Kid Curtis, Cliff Watson and Aub, all my heroes. I found it almost impossible to eat my three courses while listening to their conversations learning amongst other things that Malcolm had just started to learn to fly.  At the finish of the lunch we went down to the workshop where Aub had placed the bike outside for me to try.

I did not need any persuading to jump on and broadside it around the cinder car park, it was like a dream. Eventually I pulled up at the workshop and just by the look on my face Aub decided go into the workshop to get a bill of sale, so I put my hand into my jacket to pull out the envelope and the one hundred pound notes. MY POCKET WAS EMPTY! When and where did I last have it? Panic immediately took over, then way down the length of the car park and half submerged in the track that I had just cut out with the rear wheel of what was nearly my bike was the beige envelope, it's unsealed flap catching the breeze. In a matter of only seconds I entered the workshop breathless with what I prayed was the full one hundred, it was. The Alec Mosely built bike was mine and proudly pushed it back to East Ham.

Yet another hurdle, I must get a second half ride, I tried as much as I could and visiting the office, I got to see much of a lovely Jean Grey, secretary to the team manager during the next few weeks, then it happened. I walked in during my work lunch break,  Jean smiled and said "I was about to put this in the post" It was my first ride, a ride that I had waited for since that night in 1938 as a seven year old so I signed an autograph book on Jean Grey's Desk, blew her a kiss and went back to work.

When I arrived home my rail warrant for Catterick and details of Bagdad Lines Royal Signals training camp was lying on the door mat.  

The end of my speedway career? -

For a few minutes the wind was taken from my sails leaving me in the doldrums. Then my eyes focused on the date of the warrant THURSDAY 23/6/1949 the date of my Custom House booking TUESDAY 16/6/1949 Talk about luck!

So now practice starts was the order of the day as I had only a long weekend and Monday to psych myself up. My first move was to grab a can and travel to Wag Bennett's and top up with a gallon of his best methanol and some Castrol "R" and for three days I walked my bike to Dagenham Dogs car park for umpteen starts and imaginary circuits. I was assisted by the excellent weather so I could be forgiven for thinking it was all a succession of good omens.

My big day dawned but I had not slept well and my first task was to push my treasured machine to park it outside the workshop with just a label to show it was mine, then a quick breakfast before work. My work place at the time was in the workshop of pre-war West Ham rider Arthur Warwick's car and motorcycle show rooms situated on the Barking Road, East Ham, almost opposite the Granada Cinema. In the autumn of 1946 I asked for and got employment there after I spied a brand new Speedway bike on show in the showroom window. Unfortunately the day before I started, it had been taken away and in its place was Reichmashall Herman Goering's very large armoured plated open top Mercedes with the scars from bullets on the windscreen which had not penetrated. After settling in at my job I would sit in the backseat which had suffered from his massive rear end, where I would spend my lunch break eating my penguins and bakewell tarts. I felt that I had deserved it after just surviving the bombardment from his Heinkels and Dorniers during the Blitz. If I felt particularly humorous I'd stand on the massive side runners expressing the usual German salute to Adolf Hitler. My Boss had seemed to have cut himself off from Speedway, his main interest lay inside a gin bottle and women of dubious occupations.

At six O'clock I left work and prepared myself for the evenings adventure, at around nine thirty I asked Benny King to take a pull on my rear wheel to run the engine up and put some heat in it. The pit marshall handed me the blue body and helmet colours then I got my gate position, number four. Colin Watson gave my bike a quick check and had a look at my helmet. All these small things were building up my nervous tension. Eventually I sat on my bike on the track while the announcer read out the rider's names when he came to mine, I thought I murmured, "I'm, Here" My two pusher lads shouted "We bleeding hope so" I arrived out of the last turn and approached the tapes and can remember for some reason thinking to myself come on God I want your help. That's the same one that kept the parachute mine standing upright where it rested off its detonators a just few yards from our shelter as we tried to sleep through a particularly noisy night.     

The white ribbons were now quite close when suddenly my JAP engine shuddered to a stop, I turned the bike and several of the track rakers ran to me to help bump start me off again, several of the lads were old schoolmates of mine but in spite of their good will, my engine was dead. I turned and the blue disqualification light was bright.

So it did end! Start nil and of course point money nil, and I was now condemned to eighteen months, though later to two years, because of the Korean War before resuming my quest.

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Chapter Two

Bike Receipt