Speedway Beginnings 1928 and all that… Speedway Fiction

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The High Beech meeting - was it actually the first ‘proper’ speedway in England?

This writer in the Western Gazette claims speedway started in England 25 years earlier than 1928

TRADITION dictates that British crowds first thrilled to the sights, sounds and smells of speedway racing at High Beech, Essex, on Sunday, February 19, 1928. The sport chose to mark its Golden Jubilee in 1978 and closely involved in those celebrations was veteran impresario Johnnie Hoskins. Received wisdom also maintains that it was J. S. Hoskins who started the whole thing back in his native Australia in 1923 and brought his circus to England five years later. It credits him, too, with inventing the name ‘speedway’ for what was commonly called at the time ‘dirt track racing’.

Speedway historians, of course, disagree about some or all of the above. Pages of print and months of research have been expended by some of the sport’s most proficient writers in arguing about its true origins. Was it actually born in the United States and taken later to Australia? Did the dirt track racing that undoubtedly took place in Britain before High Beech actually count as speedway? Was there even an Irish forerunner to the enterprise that still excites its much-diminished band of followers in England and, to a small extent, in Scotland, 86 years later? Those arguments are the territory of the even smaller army of adherents whose remarkable knowledge of speedway history is documented in books, magazines and, latterly, websites of wonderful detail.

They need not detain us here, except to note that such disagreements are not the sole preserve of modern researchers, sifting through the necessarily sparse records left to us from those pioneering days. Speedway writers were arguing about it from the very start.

1. When did it really start?

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Marcus Sheldon (England - left) battles Stewie St George (Australia) at Bristol’s opening meeting in 1928

Less than a fortnight after the dust had settled at High Beech (or King’s Oak) in 1928, the motoring correspondent of the Western Gazette was writing:

‘A few days ago, a race meeting for motorcycles was held in the South of England which attracted an enormous crowd and was productive of numerous thrills. For some reason or other it has been suggested that this meeting signalled the introduction of “dirt track racing” from Australia. As a matter of fact, however, cinder track racing was known in this country at least 25 years ago, and one well remembers seeing motorcycles being raced on a cinder or ash track quite 22 years ago. So far as one recollevcts, “dirt track racing” was first started in America, whence it spread to Australia and now it is being revived in this country.’

Disagreement from the beginning Exponential growth

Whatever its origins, one fact is undeniable: speedway in Britain grew at an exponential rate during 1928. Following the success at High Beech, tracks opened the length and breadth of the country in response to the huge swell of enthusiasm for this ‘new’ form of entertainment. From Glasgow to Southampton, from Manchester to Middlesbrough, close on 70 venues staged speedway racing in that initial year.

The Australian promoter Albert John ‘AJ’ Hunting, who had watched the High Beech meeting and been critical of its presentation, formed a new company, International Speedways Ltd., to introduce the sport to the capital. In May, a crowd of 6000 watched his inaugural meeting at White City Stadium on Wood Lane and, in the same month, International Speedways opened tracks at Wimbledon’s Plough Lane and Harringay Greyhound Stadium. Earlier in May, however, 30,000 London spectators had watched speedway under floodlights, promoted by another company at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground.

Hunting imported a group of what were always referred to as ‘crack’ Australian riders to teach novices the art of sliding as well as to provide some top-class racing. They landed at Southampton on the same ship that brought Johnnie Hoskins and his own Australians. Hoskins also made his presence felt in the capital that month, staging speedway racing at Crystal Palace alongside another of the sport’s great promoters, Fred Mockford.

Barnsley (Lundwood)

Belfast (Windsor Park)

Birmingham (Hall Green)

Birmingham (Alexander Stadium)

Birmingham (Greet Motordrome)

Blackpool (South Shore)

Bolton (Raikes Park)

Bradford (Shelf Moor)

Bradford (Fronby Avenue)

Bradford (Greenfield Autodrome)

Brighton (Hove Stadium)

Bristol (Knowle Stadium)

Broxburn, Lothian

Cardiff (White City)

Coventry (Lythalls Lane)

Dublin (Harold’s Cross)

Edinburgh (Marine Gardens)

Glasgow (Nelson Athletics Grounds)

Glasgow (Celtic Park)

Glasgow (Carntyne Stadium)

Glasgow (White City)

Greenford, Essex

Halifax (Thrum Hall)

Huddersfield (Quarmby Stadium)

Kettering (Red House)

Ley Bridge, Leyton

Leeds (Post Hill)

Leeds (Fullerton Park)

Leicester (Blackbird Road)

Liverpool (Stanley Stadium)

London (Crystal Palace)

London (Harringay)

London (Stamford Bridge)

London (West Ham, Custom House)

London (White City)

London (Wimbledon, Plough Lane)

Manchester (Audenshaw)

Manchester (Belle Vue)

Manchester (White City)

Mansfield (Park Hall)

Middlesbrough (Cleveland Park)

Rochdale (Athletic Grounds)

Salford (Albion Stadium)

Southampton (Banister Court)

Swindon (Autodrome)

Wolverhampton (Monmore Green)

The principal venues presenting speedway racing during 1928

First speedway schools set up

So rapidly did speedway’s popularity grow and so attractive were the rewards available to successful competitors that large numbers of young men were keen to give it a try.

International Speedways opened their first speedway training school at London’s White City stadium and, by the end of June, more than 200 riders were enrolled. A. J. Hunting told newspaper reporters:

‘Some men can learn to ride in a very short time but they have to have a level head, and plenty of grit and determination, if they are to succeed. Speedway riders must be ready to do and dare. Their successes are well rewarded, however, and a novice can earn big money in a month or so provided he shows sufficient keenness.

‘Frank Arthur, who is only 21, is a case in point. Little more than a year ago he was earning £1 a week as a garage hand. Now, after carrying off trophy after trophy, he has received £700 in prize money in just over three weeks. Not bad for a boy of his age, is it?’

There were seven instructors at White City, teaching Britain’s future stars. Novices usually started riding touring bikes but soon tired of them and any rider who showed special promise would be assisted in the purchase of a racing machine. The upkeep of a speedway bike cost between £1 and £5 a week, according to Hunting, and tuition at the school was provided free.

Douglas ran advertisements in a wide selection of local newspapers during 1928. Its machines dominated during speedway’s earliest years

British rider Roger Frogley falls during a Blackheath Cup race at Crystal Palace

Speedway tracks sprang up the length and breadth of the country during 1928

Stewie St George, one of the ‘crack’ Australian riders brought over to teach novices the art of sliding

Announcement of the ‘first genuine dirt track race meeting’ to be held at Audenshaw, Manchester in March 1928

The speedway at Audenshaw backed onto the Snipe Inn on Old Ashton Road

Audenshaw’s first programme advertising racing ‘on a larger scale than has ever been produced’

First speedway deaths in England

Unsurprisingly, for a sport with the inherent dangers of motorcycle speedway, the first death in a track accident was not long in coming. It occurred at Stamford Bridge in May - the same month as the track opened. Promising newcomer Charles Biddell, a 19-year-old, was taking part in a practice when he crashed.

Later the same year, this time in October, the Burnley Express and Advertiser recorded the death of Charles Mawson, killed in a crash at Rochdale. The reporter described it as speedway’s first fatality since the sport was introduced into Britain. Perhaps he meant the first death of a rider taking part in an official race. Mawson was a competitor in a six-man heat when the lead rider fell and the second placed man ploughed into his machine. Mawson veered to the right but could not avoid one of the bikes and was thrown against the fence.

In May 1929, the Western Morning News reported two speedway deaths on the same day and noted that the total number of track fatalities since the sport’s introduction in February, 1928 stood at four. By the end of the season, it would have reached double figures. Given that many riders were raw novices riding hastily converted road machines, wearing inadequate clothing and racing on poorly-prepared tracks with minimal safety considerations, it was hardly surprising that a writer in the Derby Daily Telegraph described speedway as ‘the most sensational racing spectacle since Roman days.’ Presumably, chariot racing killed off its competitors at the same appalling rate.

The Derby Daily Telegraph describes speedway as ‘the most sensational racing spectacle since Roman days’

International Speedways opened their first speedway riders’ training school at London’s White City stadium

Opportunity or exploitation?

It was quickly apparent that large numbers of spectators and aspiring riders were being drawn in by this new craze and, away from London, dirt-tracks proliferated. Not all were successful and not all were good. One that merits closer examination is Audenshaw in Manchester, based on a horse-trotting track known as the Snipe Grounds. It backed onto the Snipe Inn on Ashton Old Road, which still exists, close to Audenshaw colliery. In fact, piles of coal slag were used to mark out the boundary of the track instead of a safety fence.

The closure of this unlicensed track by the Manchester coroner in 1931, following the death of 28-year-old rider James Kenny, was right and proper but the story reveals much about the lure that speedway had for young men of the time. Kenny was from nearby Salford, the ‘Dirty Old Town’ of Ewan MacColl’s iconic song and the setting for Shelagh Delaney’s harrowing depiction of working class life, ‘A Taste Of Honey’. His situation was that of many in an age of mass unemployment: desperate for work of any kind, lured by the glamour and potentially high earnings of the speedways and at the mercy of unscrupulous entrepreneurs.


Speedway Beginnings 2: A Wild Orgy of Speed

Charles Biddell was the first speedway rider to die on the track in Britain during 1928. He was 19 years-old

Here, Clifford Mawson who was killed in October, is wrongly recorded as the first speedway fatality of 1928

The Western Morning News reports on two speedway deaths on Saturday May 11, 1929 in Edinburgh and Preston