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George Pepper
By John Hyam

George Pepper in 1939 Action

THE record books show that in pre-war seasons the West Ham riders Eric Chitty and Jimmy Gibb were the pick of the Canadian riders competing in Britain. Both were among the Top Twenty riders of the 1938 and 1939 seasons.

There were other Canadian riders who came to Britain in the immediate pre-World War Two seasons. They were Charlie Appleby, Eddie Barker, Bruce Venier, Bob Sparks, Elwood Stillwell and George Pepper.

Undoubtedly the best of the lesser order riders George Pepper, who first turned up at West Ham in 1938, but was posted by the First Division club's promoter Johnnie Hoskins to his newly formed Second Division track at Newcastle.

In 1937, Pepper was on the verge of dropping out of cross-Atlantic speedway to follow a career in road racing, but was persuaded by Chitty and Gibb to try British speedway racing. He actually arrived in Britain in 1938 with the purpose of riding in the Isle of Man TT.

Pepper was an immediate star at Newcastle and became the track record holder, which stood well into the post-war seasons. He developed into one of the Second Division's top riders and many experts predicted that he was destined for the sport's highest honours. Had war not started in 1939, it is certain he would have joined Chitty and Gibb at West Ham for the never held 1940 season.

Jeff Lloyd, who was a post-war star at Newcastle, New Cross and Harringay, had some vivid memories about the hard racing style of Pepper. When racing for Middlesbrough in 1939, Lloyd was going for a maximum against Newcastle when he met Pepper who went on to beat him. Lloyd said of Pepper's tactics: "Considering my inexperience, Pepper was far more aggressive than he need have been in beating me." But that was probably typical of Pepper - as it was of Lloyd. Both wanted to be the best and rode to achieve that.

Pepper volunteered for war service in September 1939 and after initial pilot training served with the RAF's 29 Squadron, firstly flying Blenheims, then the Bristol Beaufighter. He distinguished himself by shooting down six German aircraft and was awarded the DFC and Bar.

Pepper was 26 years old when he died in a flying accident on November 17, 1942, and is buried in his home town Belleville, Ontario, Canada.


This article was first published on 29th July 2012


  • Tom Marriott:

    "Always nice to see articles on Canadian riders. But I need to clarify some dates and facts. As far as I have been able to ascertain George had never ridden speedway prior to going to meet up with Eric Chitty in 1937. George had found fame in winning a T. T. style race where he beat such notable American riders such as Floyde Emde and Babe Tancredie. Based on this and with help from the Bellville public George went over to the Isle of Man in 1937. He found it a little daunting on seeing the circuit but once he had done a little practice he was hoping for a good result. Sadly it wasn't to be.

    Below is my information on George's Isle of Man trip. As with all Time Trials racers the Holy Grail is to race in the TT Races held in the Isle of Man. So George was off to the Isle of Man for the famous Time Trial races. He left with high hopes and lots of moral and financial support from home. About $350 was raised including $50 alone from the Quinte Motorcycle club. This was to offset the cost of expenses to get George and his two motorcycle across the Atlantic. Considering that the freight alone for the two motorcycles would cost the better part of $50 alone. George told the crowd that went to see him off that "It is swell of the good citizens to help me make this trip and I am going to try hard not to disappoint them"

    So on May the 6th 1937 George left Belleville to go to Montreal to board the Duchess of Bedford bound for Liverpool England. Four weeks later he would be riding in the Time Trials on the Isle of Man. In 1937 it had become known to Norton Motors that he had success on their machines and should he enter the race they would supply him with a new machine gratis and that the bike would be guaranteed to travel at 120 mph. Also he would be supplied with a mechanic who was experienced at the Isle of Man who would act as his pit crew. In Georges own words he describes his reaction to seeing the Isle of Man up close and personal. ( in a letter to his friend Ken Colling).

    " The morning after we landed the roads were not closed for practice, so Horace Boswell, ( a friend of his manager Bill Spence), took me on the back of the Triumph and showed me which way the course went. My first impression on seeing the course was a feeling of doubt as to whether or not I would make a fool of myself in the races as it looked almost impossible to average even 60 mph let alone a speed like some stars of over 88 mph! After this lap, I started to ride around slowly to try and memorize the corners etc. After a couple of laps I decided to see how quickly I could get around not exceeding 40 mph at any time. I found I took over 1 1/2 hours so I tried it at 50 mph and it was a little quicker. I did 2 or 3 laps each day before practice finally started. I took a little over 3/4 of an hour for the first lap, and each lap after that I was able to cut a little time off until I got down to 30 minutes for a lap on the second to last day of practicing. By this time I was broke, as spare parts etc. had taken a lot more than I had counted on. I had a grant of 30 pounds coming from the A.C.U. if I started in 2 races. Since I had qualified in all 3 races I decided not to take any chances on the last day of practice. Horace and I had figured as near as we could the speed required to get a replica, as after seeing the practice speeds, we knew a replica was the best we could hope for. Finally the race started, and when it came for my turn I was wondering if the motor would start and if I would get away as good as the others. I need not have worried because the motor fired at the first time it turned over and away we went. Nothing much happened on lap 1 or 2 except I passed 2 or 3 riders and 2 riders passed me so fast I thought I had stopped. I had made arrangements to refuel on lap 3 as we figured I could make a faster fill up when I wasn't as tired as I would be on lap 4 or 5. The refilling went off o.k. and I was feeling pretty good as I was well inside replica time, and didn't expect to have anymore stops until the end of the race. Another lap went by and the motor still ran beautifully. Three quarters of lap 5 was completed when suddenly the motor stopped motoring and I had to retire at Hilberry. Later we found the trouble was due to a defective ball bearing which had broken and jammed in the works. I didn't feel too bad about this as I still had two more chances."

    George continues with comments on the 1937 lightweight TT race.

    "The lightweight race on Wednesday started in lovely weather but I didn't get far as a cam follower broke and I had to retire at the same place as Monday. Still, I didn't feel too bad as it was still possible to do something in the senior race on Friday."

    With only one race left George was down to his last chance of getting a replica trophy.

    " Friday was clear and bright like Monday and Wednesday had been. I started number 8 and started to feel pretty good because before half a lap had gone I had passed 2 riders - number 7 (C Tattersall - Vincent) and number 2 (S V Vartax - Rudge) and hadn't been passed myself. This feeling didn't last long however as I suddenly felt my right leg getting very cold. I looked down and found fuel was spraying out the side of the tank all over my leg. I shut off the fuel from the other side of the tank and started trying to decide what to do. I figured I had enough fuel to do another lap, then I would refuel each lap. This would have been o.k. except I ran out of fuel half way around the course and had to retire as the only place you were allowed to refuel is at the pits, and they were 15 miles away. The one lap I did was a standing lap and took just under 30 minutes."

    Note: If George had been lapping at just under 30 minutes per lap on the Norton he would have had an average speed of over 75 -80 mph. Winner Freddie Frith averaged 88.21 mph. The program for the 1937 Senior TT race shows George being in 6th place out of 22 competitors after lap one. He retired on lap two ending what must have been a very frustrating time on the Isle of Man. George had received a letter fro Eric Chitty inviting him to visit with him at West Ham. ( Most people know that Chitty was given a mandate to find future speedway prospects by John H Hoskins. Chitty did just that in the pre war years supplying nearly half the Newcastle team!) George visited Eric after the ill fated Isle of Man trip. Needless to say he was not an overnight sensation in 1937 after trying speedway for the first time. In his own words he said he found it harder than it looked. But that part of Georges life is another story! "

  • Jim Henry:

    "You can add Clune Johnstone to the list of Canadians. He was at Marine Gardens in 1938 and made one appearance at Glasgow White City in 1939."

  • John Hyam:

    "Re: George Pepper: it would appear he did race speedway as far back as 1934. From 'My Story - Eric Chitty' (Stenners 1946) in reference to the 1934 Canadian Championship at the Ulster Stadium, Toronto: "Back in Toronto my own doctor successfully treated the injury. Then it was arranged to stage the Canadian quarter-mile speedway championship at Ulster Stadium. At the last moment I decided to ride. The hand was by no means healed, as I quickly found out. I could grip the handlebars right enough, but couldn't leave go. After each heat that hand was prised from the bars. All the same, I had the good luck to come out on top with maximum points. "In the field were Jimmy Gibb, Goldie Restall, Johnny Millett, GEORGE PEPPER, Elwood Stillwell, Bob Sparks, Buce Venier, all of whom subsequently rode for English league clubs.""

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