Remember Cycle Speedway?

The Totton Tigers at the Northam Warriors’ track in 1950. From left are Merv. Francis, Ann Martin, ‘Killer’ Kemp, Rob Datleen, the uniter, Ken Francis, Dave Porter, Mason Rees, Buzz Terry, Joyce Doggrell and Keith Humby.

The Totton Tigers at the Northam Warriors’ track in 1950. From left are Merv. Francis, Ann Martin, ‘Killer’ Kemp, Rob Datleen, the uniter, Ken Francis, Dave Porter, Mason Rees, Buzz Terry, Joyce Doggrell and Keith Humby.

THE late 1940s and early 1950s saw the birth of cycle speedway in the South of England. Its popularity grew so quickly that within a short period it had become a well-organised sport for teenagers.

In my home area, Southampton, it all started with the local lads competing with each other good-naturedly. On most evenings they’d congregate with their bikes on a piece of waste ground, making the turf fly with their activities and eventually forming a dirt track. They didn’t need much encouragement to build the track up a little, and the ‘back field’, as it was always known, became their ‘home ground’.

It soon became apparent that boys in the neighbouring villages were doing the same thing, and whenever they ventured into our territory friendly challenges would be issued. These would be taken quite seriously and things would start to become exciting.

In time it became obvious that some kind of management would be needed, and as my brother was one of the lads, dad had taken more than a passing interest in what was going on, and was soon invited to be their manager. Erom then on weekly meetings were held in our front room. Dad was later joined in management by his friend Lou, and together they got the team off the ground.

The first meeting was called to give the team a name, and ‘Totton Tigers’ sprang to life, complete with their own officially-appointed Captain. Once that formality was over there was never a shortage of items to be discussed at subsequent meetings. Transport to other tracks had to be arranged, programmes printed, first-aid kits bought and so on.

Where was the money going to come from? The Tigers were lucky as Dad had his own lorry and also knew someone in the printing trade. As they say, it’s not what you know but who you know that counts! One
suggestion for raising cash was that the girls hold raffles and sell refreshments during the home matches. It seemed like a good idea at the time!

While the Tigers had been busy with their own affairs, however, other adults had begun taking an interest – not just parents, but often local businessmen as well.

Between them they set up a Cycle Speedway League and some offered their services as stewards and track officials. Strict rules were laid down by the League: the boys had asked for help, and now that they had it they had to toe the line.

Perhaps the most important things were the bikes. They had to be kept up to scratch, which meant regular servicing. That was Lou’s job! They were simply old bikes, stripped down and fitted with ‘buffalo’-type handlebars. Invariably they were painted in bright colours, with the riders’ names emblazoned in prominent spots. This would often be the rider’s nickname.

The Tigers sported a ‘Killer’ among their team, much to everyone’s amusement because he was actually more of a lamb!

Riding gear was simple: heavy boots were a necessity, of course, with normal, everyday clothing covered by a tabard bearing the team’s name. Looking back now, I’m amazed that no-one in authority insisted on any kind of headgear being worn!

Once the red tape had been dealt with, the serious business of racing got under way. Most matches were held at weekends, but sometimes evening ones were arranged. Wherever and whenever the match was held, though, the supporters would be there screaming themselves hoarse at the side of the track. If it was an away match we’d all pile on to Dad’s lorry, but the bikes always had pride of place and had to be stacked securely first. They away we’d go. If we won, we’d be
singing our heads off on the homeward journey, but if we lost…well, there was always another match next week!

At home matches we girls would set about selling the goodies. The raffle prizes were small items usually donated by obliging mums. We could always count on the boys to buy a drink as it was hot work racing around the track, but we never made any profit – just about covered ourselves. Still, it was fun and made us feel useful!

The thrills and spills of the track were just as exciting to us as motorcycle speedway. It was inevitable, of course, that there would be accidents, but they were usually minor – nothing the first-aid box couldn’t cope with at the side of the track.

The sport did have its humorous side, however. During practising sessions, for instance, one doting mother persisted in running on to the track whenever her son fell off, much to his embarrassment and our utter delight! this couldn’t be allowed to happen during a match, so she had to be severely reprimanded. And was her poor son grateful!

Whichever team the Tigers were up against they could always hold their own, taking on all comers. Such names as Shirley Bombers, Millbrook Turfs, Langley Lions, Marchwood Aces, holbury Hawks and Swaythling Monarchs spring to mind immediately. Does anyone remember them? Of course there were many more besides.

The excitement as the riders lined up for the ‘off’ knew no bounds, but win or lose we always had a good time and went home looking forward to the next match.

Many local events held a display of cycle speedway expertise, and it would always draw a crowd, often resulting in more recruits for the teams.

We girls never got to ride in the races, but were often treated to a triumphant ‘lap of honour’ on the handlebars afterwards. Yours truly actually fell off the Captain’s handlebars once in the middle of a broadside, lie wasn’t very pleased with me for spoiling his act, but the onlookers thought it was hilarious.

With so many girl supporters following the teams and their heroes, it’s not surprising that a good deal of romance went on. There was a bit of rivalry and jealousy off the track too!

So cycle speedway provided us with much more than just racing. Our lives were enriched by it in so many other ways.

There’s nothing to compare with the sense of achievement that comes from making your own entertainment, playing a part in it and watching it thrive. There was never a dull moment, we were never bored, and we didn’t even think about alcohol! We could even get pen-friends from the Cycle Speedway Magazine, knowing they shared the same interest.

It would be impossible here to cover everything connected with cycle speedway, and these are just a few of my own memories to whet the appetite. Come on, all you ex-riders. I know there are plenty of you out there. Get your grandsons interested, show them how it’s done and let’s enjoy a cycle speedway revival. It will give you a new lease of life, and would be a nice tribute to those other people who worked so hard to get it all started, how about it?

Gwyneth C. Jenkins