Book Review: Out of the Frying Pan
FOR nearly 30 years, New Cross Speedway played a major part in South London sporting life. The track closed in 1963 but the memories live on, as author Norman Jacobs recalls in Out Of The Frying Pan. JOHN HYAM, who spent 17 years following the Rangers, reviews the book and adds some memories of his own.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN
I FELL in love for the first time on Wednesday, April 17, 1946.
Not with a glamourous girl but a whirlwind motorcycle sport. And we are still together after all these years. That night I saw speedway for the first time and its magic has stayed with me ever since.
I was 13 years old and knew so little about the sport that when I saw the riders leaving the pits for the first race parade, I thought they were racing. That changed in less than a minute when they lined up on the starting grid. The track lights dimmed, the tapes rose and four temporarily stationary gladiators roared into the first bend, spewing cinders as they broadsided the turn.
Ron Johnson, one of the great names of New Cross, and his partner Phil Bishop took a 5-1 heat win from rivals Ron Clarke and an engine-failure hit Jack Parker.
But my searing memory of the meeting was when announcer Cecil Smith gave the time of a scratch race as "Clickety-click-point click" for 66.6 seconds.
For more than 60 years, I believed the race winner was Mick Mitchell, who away from the track was a school caretaker in Lewisham. Recently, I found out that Mitchell was not in that race - the winner was Belle Vue's Wally Lloyd. And, just for the record, New Cross won the challenge match 46-37.
For the next 17 years, New Cross speedway was a major part of my life. I was horrified when they closed in 1953 after promoter Fred Mockford was refused permission to sign the Swedish star Olle Nygren to strengthen the Rangers. Six years later, speedway was back at New Cross.
After a handful of open meetings in 1959, they raced for two seasons in the National League. The winter of 1961-62 saw another closedown, then Wally Mawdsley and Pete Lansdale reopened the track for Provincial League racing in 1963.
Sadly, the new venture failed to catch on with fans, and the track folded for the last time on August 2, when they lost 41-37 to Poole. Three nights later in a last-ever match the Rangers slumped 51-27 in Dorset.
The last team to wear the New Cross colours included established lower-league stars like Jimmy Squibb, Bob Dugard and Stan Stevens.
And, good as they were at this level, older fans with memories of top international aces like Johnson, Jack Milne, Cyril and Bert Roger, Barry Briggs, Tommy Farndon & Co failed to accept a lower form of racing. They wanted the very best.
And, as leading speedway historian Norman Jacobs recalls in his latest book, the Rangers had their fair share of speedway's greatest names. Originally, the first promoters, Freddie Mockford and Cecil Smith, had promoted at Crystal Palace. However, in 1933 they had a disagreement with the trustees of the Palace over the rent. So they went into an agreement to introduce speedway at the then newly-opened New Cross Stadium in Ilderton Road, Peckham, for the 1934 season.
Jacobs neatly compartmentalises the New Cross story into four sections: (1) How it started; (2) The 1930s; (3) Post-war at New Cross; (4) The revival. They span 30 years, but taking out the four war years (1940-44) and the six dormant years, speedway only took place over 20 seasons. And the pre- and immediate post-war seasons were a golden time for the sport.
In pre-war years, speedway was sport's greatest crowd-puller. Crowds of 30,000 were commonplace for many meetings until the sport ground to a halt at the start of World War Two in September 1939. And, after a handful of open meetings at New Cross following the end of the war in May 1945, it was very much business as usual when league racing resumed in April 1946.
While in pre-war years there was an atmosphere of romance in regard to the leather-clad gladiators on bikes, there were also moments of great tragedy. In its second season at New Cross, the rider who many claim is the greatest ever England rider, Tommy Farndon, died after a crash on Wednesday, August 28, 1935. It happened in the final of the second-half's New Cross scratch race. Farndon and his New Cross team-mates Johnson and Stan Greatrex were the starters along with West Ham's Bluey Wilkinson.
On the third lap, Johnson hit the safety fence on the back straight. Farndon, who was close behind, hit his team-mate and was thrown over his bike's handlebars, landing heavily on his head. Both were rushed to the Miller Hospital at Greenwich. Johnson was discharged later, but Farndon was found to be in a critical condition.
The hospital was besieged by hundreds of people waiting for news. Regular bulletins about his condition were posted on the hospital gates and bus and tram drivers stopped their vehicles so that passengers could read about Farnon. The rider died two days later without regaining consciousness. Many fans outside the hospital collapsed with grief and were given medical attention. At the time of his funeral, thousands lined the route.
The book is given the title "Out Of The Frying Pan" because of the size of the original track, just 262 yards and nearly circular. It provided extremely exciting racing with riders virtually in a continous broadside. Probabably the most spectacular exponent of broadsiding was legtrailer George Newton.
His career was halted in 1938 when he suffered a serious chest infection and had a lung removed. Ten years later, Newton was back with New Cross, but just as he was finding his pre-war form, he was taken ill again. He never rode again for New Cross, but for some years was a leading rider at several second division tracks.
New Cross gave speedway its second world champion when American ace Jack Milne won the title in 1937. The team won the National League championship in 1938 and repeated the feat 10 years later.
The book also deals with the career of Johnson, the charismatic Australian who played such a major role in cementing the golden years of the Rangers. His career was of the highest calibre until a crash at Wimbledon on August 1 1949 when he fractured his skull. After that, he struggled to live up to his colourful reputation as one of the sport's all-time greats.
In 1951, Johnson returned to Australia, and after a successful comeback was briefly with West Ham in 1955, then needed the help of friends and supporters to pay his fare home. After New Cross reopened in 1959, the following season Johnson made another comeback but was outclassed even in junior events.
In 1963, when the Rangers reopened in the Provincial League, then 54 years old, Johnson was back for another trial but failed to make the team. He made his last appearance at New Cross on May 14 when he beat Phil Bishop 2-1 in a match race series. Johnson died in Australia in 1983.
This book is packed with anecdotes, records, and stories of the greatest names to grace speedway in an era when it was rated among the highest attended sports in Britain. Out Of The Frying Pan covers the history of New Cross in depth, outlining great team and individual performances, as well as revealing the roles of the promoters in maintaining the sport at a renowned speedway venue.
Out of the Frying Pan. A complete history of New Cross Speedway 1934 - 1963
Published May 2008, £12.99 in softback
160 pages with 40 photographs
Order your copy by sending a cheque or postal order, payable to 'Norman Jacobs', for £12.99 (including P+P) to:
101 Farmleigh Avenue,
Or direct from the Publishers:
The History Press Ltd.,
Or by PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org
From the South London Press, Friday, July 4, 2008.
This article was first published on 11th September 2008
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