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The National Speedway Museum

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

…….Taking Stock
It was a great disappointment to me that during the late 40s and early 50s, when post war speedway had taken the public by storm after the austerity and suffering of six years of conflict, the end of the war, oddly enough, left a void in everyone's life, especially the younger generations who quickly filled that void with the excitement of the track. That's allowing for the fact that some speedway was run during the war, but very isolated. My disappointment came from the fact that when I was old enough, then able enough to ride [1949] General Kitchener after a thirty year disappearance from the bill boards figuratively speaking, turned up again with that pointing finger to call you to arms. (National Service) My annoyance was tempered by the fact that I spent my service in the saddle of an army green 500 cc machine, stationed with the War Office Signal Regiment and meeting high ranking officers and politicians. This was when the now much forgotten Korean War was raging and creating more Cold War dangers. Our signal office on the Victorian Embankment was deep within the vaults of the "New War Office" building and was alive with the noise of telex communications from all over the world. Across the Thames the South Bank was also being built for the Festival of Britain, with the iconic Skylon.

My one chance before call up was very embarrassing, stalling my motor just before coming under starters orders then being disqualified. It was only left for me to put my bike into moth balls, Well! Into my shed at the top of the garden, with all the cobwebs, spiders and bats, for two long years, with one break [not meant to be a pun] when I had a day at Rye House with Wembley's Alec Jackson's riding school and breaking a throttle finger in the process. Before being forced to terminate my chosen career through injuries, I failed miserably to get any silverware on the side board, but had the time of my life trying to, and, as I might have said before, I met a great deal of lovely people,  who I would not have met but for speedway, such as Reggie Fearman and his family, Frank Bettis, Aub Lawson, Eric Chitty, Howdy Byford, a young Frankie Grant, Arthur Harrison, Jack and brother Len Cooley, and many others, I must mention Ken Brett, West Ham team manager and head of workshops, also photographer Alf Weedon. Of course, there is another side of the coin, but in general they were fewer, and one in particular, more dangerous.

Talking of the lack of trophies, there is one, that I possess, and it is the letter I received from Major Fearnley then Manager of "The Speedway Control Board" focusing on my action to avoid Ken Holmes when he fell right in front of me at very nearly the same spot as Harry Eyre crashed. Quite surprisingly for me Tiger wrote in the program that he had never in his career seen a rider lay his bike down on a track straight before. Both these mentions I hold with pride. Despite my lowly position in the run of things at West Ham, I read in the local  and the speedway press, that, I was fast taking over the mantle of Crash King of Custom House from Jack Cooley and Phil Bishop. To be mentioned in the same breath as both was good enough compensation for me.

Another little episode I found amusing, though expensive. Fresh out of hospital from the Fry "Journey into space" entertainment, I think, that they thought, I was beginning to take liberties with their hospitality. I was, on first names with some of the backroom staff in the Harringay pits when an ACU official approached and took my helmet from where it was hanging on my handle bars and feeling the crown with his fingers, Then called to one of the Mechanics for a hammer which he duly put through the crown and walked off after taking notes. Gerry Hussey kindly loaned me his, saying he wanted it back with no ventilation holes. I could only surmise that the ACU man was at my last Custom House outing.

There were the odd regrets and sad occasions. My friend Harry's death was quite a blow, as was Ernie Roccio's. I was in the pits that night when Ernie crashed without a ride but in the same heat when Harry Eyre, a fellow East Ender, had his fatal accident, then having to attend the coroner's court convened to investigate his death was one of the most sad and moving in my life. Jim Chalkley, also in that heat, did not appear, I thought because of his injuries, but recently he claimed not only that I caused Harry's death but he was not there because he was not called by Tiger Stevenson, who had to represent the club responsible for the safety of the race track as a whole, while I was summoned as a witness. Strictly speaking my first priority on the track was to avoid a fallen rider, notwithstanding that, by some freak happening Harry was on his feet as I past him with some difficulty taking the inside of the track. Rider speeds at this point on the track were around 70MPH though I was aware that the two other riders Jim Chalkley and Arthur Harrison were behind and outside of me. The overdrive took me past the pits, I then turned my bike and looking across the centre green, I saw that only Arthur [yellow and black] helmet was still mounted and the starting gate area was crowded with activity.

The following morning I skipped work and visited the Speedway Office where a very quiet and sad looking Jean Grey whispered to me that Harry died earlier that morning. I then walked across the track noting the work of the stadium goes on, the staff preparing the dog track for the Wednesday nights racing. Early morning team practice had been suspended but I came across Ken Brett who was journeying around the track, coming from the workshop I joined him and we both then walked the track anti clockwise till a few yards before the disengaged tape poles, we arrived at the point where Harry hit the fence. Last night, dusk had descended and the track lights were on, now twelve hours on, almost to the minute on this beautiful morning, it all seemed unreal. Ken put a hand on my shoulder as we walked through the tunnel and into the office. Tiger Stevenson, explained that he had put my name forward as the best witness for the coroners court, to answer the coroner's questions and declare that anyone behind and outside my initial position on the track would have probably small chance of missing Harry, this statement of course was of no consolation to Harry's family and friends who were present. On the drive back home Tiger remarked that my words were very appropriate to the occasion, very kind of him but, likewise, it was no consolation to me.

…Everything before the pain of loss
………………….  was just the pain of ‘experience’!

After the Ken Holmes incident and spending over a month carrying a plaster from toe tip to knee until I lost my patience with Poplar orthopaedics and put a hacksaw blade to work to detach the much written on plaster from my leg in time, sadly, for the Harry Eyre race related above. Before this whilst still in plaster and during this Coronation Year [1953] Tiger Stevenson ambushed me with, what you could call a Mafia offer, that I could not refuse...Would I. He said, as the team was at Belle Vue, I could stand in for the float in the Carnival. "Your gammy right leg will offer no problems" he assured me, with all the confidence of someone with two good'uns. I would have had less problems and more enthusiasm if he had said "Come to Manchester as reserve, I am sure you will cope"

The West Ham Coronation Carnival was good entertainment for thousands but agony for me. Consequently I have since had a very strong aversion to them. But before I can be accused of being a party pooper let me set the scene, the Jessup’s flat top recovery vehicle arrived outside my home at six in the morning of that Saturday being helped onto Jesso …………………………………………..

(at this point the re-write stopped and I learned shortly afterwards that Ron had died that morning, 22 July 2013. Having got to know him whilst he was writing for the Museum website I am confident that he would want the above re-write to be published and as I already have the ‘Carnival Story’ I am sure he would approve of my finishing this piece with it. Thanks Ron for sharing your early years with us I am only sorry we will hear no more)

…. Jessop’s float, I sat on the bike in the Hammer's colours, helmet and full riding gear with the exception of my right leg, I had to cut my leathers to get them over my plaster that went from my toes to my knee. The two Jessop men "Bill and Ben" moved the bike about so that my plastered foot was behind part of the decorations sitting on my, bike five or six feet up on the truck in the middle of a very large colourful crown. This was all achieved in the road outside my house at 6 o'clock on a Saturday morning with the sun already risen, and a hot day in prospect. Curtains were beginning to be opened to a sight that they were certainly not expecting.  

Then we formed up with what seemed to be hundreds of floats along Forest Lane in Forest Gate. My head was almost level with an upstairs bay window when the inevitable happened, two small faces appeared and four hands started to wave furiously, I waved back, [big mistake] the two were joined by another two. The formatting took another hour and half, punctuated with cries like "Number twenty five how could you possibly be in front of number three and "Number forty why didn't you fill up with petrol last night" eventually we moved off, leaving number forty to find an open garage, and then hook up at the back where ever that would be. I say, "WE" moved off but I felt pretty lonely within the centre of that crown, and just as we moved about 9 o'clock I needed a wee.

At around 5 o’clock that same day we dispersed on reaching Beckton Park [as it was then] But if they had not yet judged the winners, that toilet on the other side of the park was in my sights, so with my left leg cramping from groin to toes, my right sweating profusely inside the plaster and itching like mad, plus no crutch and dressed in leathers, I hopped along somehow to the gents where, yes there was a queue. And I thought Mr. Harold (Tiger) Stevenson you owe me BIG.

Chapter Five

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…....Sadly Not To be continued as these are the last words of the late Ron Butcher.

Click to see full script Tribute to Ron by Robert Rogers