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The National Speedway Museum

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

…….never been 21 before

Around the mid-season of 1952 I had one embarrassing occasion and one very odd and painful experience.


I'll take the embarrassing if light hearted one first. I was having an afternoon drink with a friend in the Nottingham Arms a few yards from the main entrance and speedway office of the Custom House track, and thought, while here, I will pop in to see Jean Grey, just in case there was a ride coming up. I was not disappointed, she was about to put one in the post. "Oh! did you know there is a supporters dance this Saturday in Tollgate School" She was not aware when it came to dancing that I had two left feet. (As my current girl friend would testify) "That’s my old school, but I have no one to take" I said, (big mistake) "That's an idea" she said pointing to Johnnie Hoskins office doorway, Barbara in there has no one to go with either"


So first I had to hire a car, as my 1936 Morris 10 van that I had just bought from Frank Bettis, was a smelly, start on the handle, heater less, uncomfortable, though lovable piece of transport for my bike that I had obtained at a knock down price (I called her Bettsy) Anyhow Saturday night I presented myself at Barbara's flat together with my shiny rental Hillman "Nothing but the best for my promoter's secretary" I thought, and taking advantage of the hole that I had dug myself into, plus a little bit of creeping too.


Barbara looked great as we arrived at the school. It seemed strange walking in to the corridors that I last slinked through in 1945 to obtain a reference for work, I had just turned fourteen and it was nearly two years since I had last attended, and walked through these Hallowed halls, although my class was on the floor above looking across the girls play ground to their windows, and I remembered the morning when one of the lads brought in a woman's boned corset which we lowered out the the window to half way down the building and left it fluttering in the wind. The place smelt the same as then. When I confronted Head Master Mr McKinnon he did not recognise me, but after a bit of prompting he gave me a glowing report.


Barbara put her arm through mine as we walked the corridor to where the music was in the assembly hall where in my memory we prayed after hearing that two lads had died in last night’s air raid. I looked around for some support from team members but no one else had turned up. An organiser who Barbara obviously knew came over and she introduced me, to which his reply was "Well we will just have to make do. My partner sensing my embarrassment collected some of the dancers for autographs, and it was only then that I realised they were all youngsters in the hall. One little one, that she had roped in, said it was for her Dad because he was always saying "He is going to kill himself one day", another looked at my scribble saying, "I thought she said it was Ron Johnson" Johno was a hero of mine but I would have preferred if he had not butted in on my parade albeit a small one.


I managed to award and present the free ticket to the next suitable film at any Odeon with what I thought was commendable stoicism, considering there was no bar. Seeing Barbara into her flat I received a kiss that seemed to sum up my whole night. I hoped she did not give her Boss the full story. He, Johnnie Hoskins, as it turned out, would, a few weeks later, have a little section in his "Happy Hammers" program page for me during my forced absence.  

You Live and Learn - Painfully

Again around mid-season 1952 I was back at Arthur Warwick’s workshops in East Ham, but with some surprise I found that he was on the wagon and off the women. He had indeed launched himself into the search for a new JAP powered Dirt Bike, based mainly on lightweight Reynolds tubing for the frame, with lightweight magnesium alloy used for engine plates, lathe turned for wheel hubs, plus other fittings and finally he shortened the wheel base by several inches.


I was impressed with the finished machine; it looked a dream, especially alongside of mine. But I had reservations about its possible performance, though if approached, I would not have said no to trying to get it around Custom House, only on a Wednesday morning practice though. But within a day of bringing it out of A.E.s own workshop into our main one, Manager Bill told me that an old dodgy friend of the Boss from the past [of which he had a number] approached him for the repayment of an old debt. The idea was for a young friend, who had just vacated a snug room in one of Her Majesties Homes for wayward types, who apparently needed a new start. I was relayed further details of his clash with the law by another of the office staff. “Through the advertisement  page of the Stratford Express with box number, he supposedly offered very cheap wristwatches that came with a guarantee not to lose a minute over twelve months, which on receiving after parting with their hard earned money, they realized they had a child’s fixed hand toy watch.

Standing before the magistrate he pleaded that he had not misled the public because he did not say in the add, that the time pieces had works in them. Ironically the Magistrate happily insisted that he should “Serve time”


So that’s how A.E. got his jockey, who up to this point I had not seen. But several days later this was to be resolved in a bizarre manner. I was at the bench putting a set of spark plugs through the sand blaster when the show room door swung back on its hinges, followed by the entry of an agitated person, perhaps aggressive would be a better word. As I turned to him he said “Are you Ron Butcher?” I confirmed that I was and was ready to receive any inquiry regarding a vehicle our workshop. “Right then” He said, waving a stiff index finger under my nose “Next Tuesday we are both in a second half scurry race and I must win it, so just keep out of my way or I will have to put you into the fence OK!!” Then he was gone. I was left standing in absolute disbelief at what had just happened. Perhaps I was naïve in those days but I thought the background to racing was to enjoy the competition between riders and of course the joy of the fans. I was though aware of the Scurry event, Team Manager’s Secretary Jean Grey had spoken to me of the other riders “Stan Bedford, Arthur Harrison” both of who I knew and had rode with, the third was “Johnnie Fry” who I now knew, having  only just made the dubious acquaintance of.


I shied off bringing it up with anyone else, as surely no one would believe me, it was to me at the time, “Surreal” But on the Monday I did confide in my brother, who suggested I should make an official complaint. I did not take his advice, though in the pits on the night, I thought that I owed it to Arthur and Stan to bring it up. They indicate that they had only just been approached, perhaps not as aggressively as I, as we were now all in the pits and under the authority of the ACU and pit marshal. Colours and grid position had been issued prior to the interval confirming the printed program, and I could not have been happier, I had drawn the fence number 4, while Fry was on number one. For several months now I had been attempting to sharpen up my reflexes by putting the dining table to the wall and playing solo table tennis for hours, mostly for the purpose of good gate starts, but it did help in any track incident also.   All I had to do now was to get a good gate and ride the fence which at any time, I liked the option of doing so and I even had the pleasure on one occasion, when Tiger Stevenson was the announcer  of the heat results for a brief period before taking up more active duties at Custom House. I remember I had scraped through in a third position, after which he came over the tannoy with “And in third position was “Ron wall of death Butcher” It gave my ego a perverted boost.


Back to the pits on this particular “Fry..ing tonight. I eased my front wheel to the tapes with as much clutch that I dared and feathering the throttle, waited for what seemed an age to the tape lifting. Then everything was on automatic, I got a wonderful start, [probably all down to the adrenalin for this situation] but I could swear even now that on the first turn my rear tyre was on the bottom skirting plates of the chain wire fencing, giving me the wide open spaces away from Fry, but I would drop down to the line on the second turn well in front of him. Approaching the pit gates, a front wheel struck my Left leg and then nothing, similar I suppose to a screen going blank on your computer. But truly never to get it back even now, over sixty years later.


A bright light was trying to penetrating my eyelids, a noise in my head sounded as if it was full of very wild Bumble Bees. I tried turning my head from the light but with the slightest movement it was the Blitz and Guy Fawks night all in one, not to mention the nausea. I did though just get a glimpse  of A.E. and Bill and oddly remember thinking they have come to check on their bike.Then some disembodied voice called out “The ambulance is backing in” and I realized I was in the first aid room, but then the screen blanked out again.


Over the years a succession of memories have made themselves available, I now know there were more people in the first aid room under the race result tower. My Brother John and lifetime friend Bob, who having knowledge of Mr. Fry, had rushed down from the back straight terraces, the St. Johns ambulance men who had stretchered me from the spot on the dog track where my bike and I had finally landed some twenty feet or more from the impact, The bike had apparently had the softer landing finishing on top off me. Then there was the track medical officer, Doctor Eugene Kelly who was summoned from his stool at the clubroom bar and who, during the following year after I had crashed in avoiding Wimbledon’s Ken Holmes who had fallen in front of me, was again called to the first aid room from his place at the bar for me and Ken.


I complained to him of a really bad pain in my right foot. He grabbed my foot twisting it and stretching it, completely ignoring my very loud cries of “JESUS CHRIST” and a bit more. He concluded by declaring “You’re alright Laddie, work it off” Well who was I to argue with a man being kept from his next double Irish whisky. Taking my second ride and managing a third place, followed by a painful drive home I had a restless night. At the end of which I broke my Mum’s clothes line prop for a crutch to get me to Poplar Hospital by a number 15 bus the following morning.  X-rays soon showed that I had five broken metatarsals, and there are only five metatarsals to one foot. The result took me off the tracks for about six weeks. Even then I had to shed my own plaster, with a hacksaw blade after growing very impatient with the Hospital clearance.

       

Now somehow I was in emergency Poplar Hospital. I still could not move my head without wanting to be violently sick. John and Bob were still with me, Mr. Fry had been discharged as fit but with a warning from Bob what he would do if he sees him out any time, Fry’s reply typically was “That could have been a great race” this only served to stir up Bob a bit more. After a few days I become aware that the ward I was in was named and dedicated to a Elizabeth Fry! No relation? I hoped.


I left the hospital having sustained a hair line fracture of my skull, but feeling extremely lucky, after a chap had been admitted to the ward, two beds from me. He had fallen from the scaffolding on the Brunswick Wharf power station being built on the River bank, which incidentally could be seen from the ward windows. The unfortunate young man lived for several days with serious head injuries and making unsettling noises all the time, his family would sit around his bed side all they could, until in the early hours of one day, when it all went quiet and I watched as the nurses wheeled his bed off the darkened ward.


Once back in circulation again I began to get a better indication as to what happened that night. First, apparently in the following week’s program That Show man of all Show men, Johnnie Hoskins had written that “I am suing young Ron Butcher for damages to twenty feet of safety fence”. In the pits, Jack Young and Ken Brett found time to have a word with me. Ken who stood at the pit gate on the night said “You scared the life out of me, why didn’t you shut down” I replied that I had the right of way, which brought a smile to their faces. I still did not mention Fry’s threats. Jack on the other hand suggested that “If you do nothing more you must hold the record for the highest and longest aerial spill” and from many other witnesses, it became obvious that Fry had driven straight at me.

                                                                                                                   

Just for the record A.E. returned to Mr. Gilbey’s Gin comfort water and the Ladies of the night. As for Mr. Fry I never heard of the man again, but many years later there was another turn in the screw.

 

Chapter Four

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