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The National Speedway Museum

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

A Military Interlude

Thursday June 23rd dawned with the promise of yet another brilliant sunny day but it did nothing to humour me. I made my way up the High Street to East Ham station, with melancholy thoughts of playing football in Central Park the previous evening with my Brother and others till dusk, when really I should have been drinking myself silly. In my right hand I held a large brown paper bag enclosed around several large lumps of freshly cooked bread pudding, cooked by my Mum late last night for my journey out of Kings Cross to Darlington. Mum's bread puddings were renowned up and down Southchurch Road, but this pudding was baked with love, as she was a person who always fought against showing emotions, but I knew that she had put her true feelings into her kneading and baking.


At six forty five a.m. the station restaurant was full of lads of just eighteen years and as for that so was the concourse, each lad carrying a small lunch bag. Dress wise, there were mixtures of winkle pickers, brothel creepers, drain pipes, velvet collars and DA [duck's arse] haircuts, soon to be hacked off by military paid, father less barbers. For myself I was never a follower of fashion, a short back and side, a pair of grey trousers and a leather jacket, and standing out like a sore thumb.


An announcement over the Tannoy caused a rush to platform 2 but making sure it was only the front three carriages for Darlington. By the time we reached the York Station stop, two new friends and I had seen off Mum's bread pudding. For the next twelve weeks I followed West Ham's progress only in the NAFFI and in the back pages of the daily's while eating a typical NAFFI sausage and drinking a Cola.


But with amazing luck, after life changing basic training I got posted to Deer Bolt camp Barnard Castle to train as a Royal Signal Dispatch Rider, not to be confused with a lowly Motorcycle Orderly. At the last check Deer Bolt is now a detention centre for unruly youths, so no big change there.  I enjoyed the rest of my service immensely, meeting Field Marshal Mongomery who needs no introduction, General Bill Slim and General Wavell. [Lord Wavell]


I had to report to Montgomery at his Isington home near Bentley Hampshire and was treated to some splendid tea and cakes by his house staff on several visits. As for Slim, I was his motorcycle escort on a short tour at one time in 1950. Later as Viscount Slim he was sent out to Australia to become Governor General. He was always regarded as the most loved senior officer in the army.


But always I was anxious to shed my M20 BSA for my Dirt Bike and the big Oval. Which eventually came in July 1951 when on my first outing I looped the bike between the starting gate and the first turn and suffered concussion, now I realised I was back doing the thing I loved best.


The Transition


Apart from a compulsory three years in the Territorials taking in a two week realistic war exercise in each year, I was now free from the army.


Which reminds me, around three months before my demob, my Regiment moved into Cambridge Barracks Woolwich [now built over] just a ferry ride from my home in East Ham. It was very old [middle eighteen hundreds] but picturesque, having a broad sanded parade ground like the Horse Guards Parade ground which you entered by a large decorative arch and as soon as you entered through the very large gates, in front of you across the ground was a long two story troop accommodation with a balcony running the full length of the of the upper floor, it always reminded me of the barracks that we built in North West India, in fact it's square shape seemed to cause miniature whirlwinds rising from sanded parade ground whenever the wind blew through the archway. The other end of the barrack rooms from the verandas had great big arched windows that, as the site together with the Royal Artillery Barracks was situated on high ground, looked out over the Thames.


I read once that the men of a unit that was billeted in these very rooms in 1878 on September 3rd watched the collision of the Princess Alice and the Bywell Castle at Tripcocks point, (see Below) with the loss of at least 640 lives. Many of the soldiers rushed down to the river to help. 

Back in the 1950s my Army riding duties composed of twelve hour shifts [seven to seven, day and night] my free time was somewhat restricted. The barracks, across the road from larger Artillery Barracks from where my much loved Brother-in-law embarked from in 1942 for the Mediterranean to the North African landings, that was the last time we saw him.

During the few months at Woolwich I did manage to get my troop sergeant to cover me for one day, as I had secured a Wednesday ride at Rye House, where Alec Jackson that superb leader of the Lions ran a training school. Sergeant Chalky White promised me a hard time if I was, for any reason, not on parade come Thursday. "Any reason at all" he emphasized.

I pushed my bike to Stratford Station from my home to board the early fisherman and racing pigeon fancier's special. The Porter insisted I loaded my bike into the freight truck with the pigeons, otherwise I would have to pay double and drain my fuel tank. Worse! I must have the sliding doors closed till I arrive at Rye House, and as anyone will know on this steam line there were stops every few minutes, the fishermen with all their gear had alighted at Broxbourne.

Now I love animals but their cooing was driving me mad, and I swear I was coughing up small feathers as I left the freight box at Rye House leaving the little dears to finish their journey. In spite of this indifferent early start to the day I had a decent morning and enjoyed lunch in Mine Host's place before getting going again. But it was not long before I had a coming together with the unforgiving corrugated safety fence, but luckily somehow I got away with just a broken throttle hand finger. Remembering Chalky's words the previous day, and though I was sure it was broken I could not make any fuss. But it did take the edge off the remains of my day on the track.

Now here I was!! It was Thursday and I was on early work parade, I watched Chalky's face as I shouted a loud "Sir" to the roll call of my name, and thought he was not a happy bunny, and two or three weeks later when I eventually reported sick with a mysteriously broken finger, he eyed me with some suspicion.

Chapter Three

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(Note 1)          To see a description of the disaster of the Princess Alice sinking click here

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