Cycle Speedway in the Forties and Fifties

Recollections from George Miles

By George Miles

The end of World War II was greeted with joy and relief by most of us, but it also brought us back to reality with the continuation of rationing, the need for austerity, reorganisation of businesses and a fresh start for many families where the menfolk had been away from home - in many cases, for years.

Children and young adults had become used to making their own fun and keeping themselves amused with very little in the way of material things – even an old worn tennis ball was a cherished possession for those of us who played long-lasting games of football or cricket in the car-free streets.

 There were many bomb-sites all around Greater London which would not be re-developed for years, and these proved to be the starting point for a new sport which developed rapidly in the late forties – Cycle Speedway.

Motor-cycle speedway had started soon after the war years and race meetings at locations such as Wembley, West Ham, Wimbledon, New Cross and Harringay were attended by packed houses of entertainment- and sport-starved thrill-seekers who spent around two shillings (10p in modern money) for the privilege of standing on the terraces of an adapted greyhound race track.  So it was natural for teen-agers of those times to want to emulate their heroes.

My first experience of Cycle Speedway was when I wandered along the wastes of the “rubber dump” (now the Willow Lane Industrial Estate) at Mitcham Junction one Sunday morning in about 1947and found myself at a small oval track where there was a match being raced between the Mitcham Racers and the Mitcham Broadsiders.  The competing riders had strange bikes stripped to their very basics – no mudguards, big handlebars and no brakes – and the gears were very low so that the riders were pedalling like crazy round the small track with its brick-lined inner boundary.  This was the adopted home of the Mitcham Racers – the Broadsiders had a disused tennis court in Streatham as their base.

Photo:St. Helier Saints Cycle Speedway Team

St. Helier Saints Cycle Speedway Team

Donated by George Miles


A year later my friends (Len Taylor, Bill Fells, Ding-dong Dyson and Les Musgrave) and I had created our own track alongside Robertsbridge Road, and had named our new venture “Carshalton Crusaders”.  We had acquired bits and pieces of bicycles from rubbish tips and various other sources – acceleration was the key to being a winning rider, so it was important to have very low gearing (44 tooth chainwheel and 22 tooth driven gear on the back wheel) for this purpose, and wide handlebars helped steer round tight corners as well as giving good leverage for the rider to pull upwards with his hands as he pedalled downwards with his feet.  A truly strange combination to be witnessed by any stranger.

On our motley collection of machines we organised races amongst ourselves and occasionally against other teams we encountered, such as Tooting Tigers – a team which became a dominant force in the sport in our region (their star rider being Ron Holby) thanks mainly to the dedication and enthusiasm of their manager Bill Cattle.

As the sport increased rapidly in popularity – there was plenty of unused land around to appropriate for tracks, and it cost very little to make the very basic bike we used – teams sprung up rapidly all over the country.  The time had come to get everything organised, and a small number of dads got together and organised us into leagues, producing some basic rules for the sport.  The “Surrey and South-West London Cycle Speedway League” came into being, my dad (Lewis Miles) being the organising Secretary, and there were enough teams competing to form three divisions, with promotion and relegation at the end of each season and knock-out cup competitions.  We emulated Speedway by having matches comprising 14 races (heats) with two from each team in each three-lap race  (“proper” speedway was over four laps, but they didn’t have to pedal like fury from start to finish!!).  The winner of each race scored 3 points for his team, the second scored two and the third man got one point, so that the best result you could get from any race was a 5-1 win.

Photo:Cycling on a Makeshift Track

Cycling on a Makeshift Track

Donated by George Miles


By this time the Carshalton Crusaders had ceased to exist, as our track was not up to standard, so we “acquired” a piece of land and built our own track on the huge Mitcham Junction Rubber Dump site, a short distance behind the “Goat” public house.  We called our team the “St. Helier Saints”, and we had so many lads wanting to ride for us that we ran three teams, one in each division of the league.  Our established riders included Les Musgrave, Mick Ranford, Alan Cooper, Derek Goodall, George Winterbone, Arthur Field, Roy Mann and George and Norman Miles.  The league covered a diverse area, competing clubs including Tooting Tigers, Wandsworth Aces, Washington Wasps, Cheam Cherokees, Chessington Aces, Battersea Broadsiders, Battersea Racers, Clapham Racers, Clapham Phantoms, Beddington Hammers, Carshalton Comets, Tolworth Tigers, Raynes Park Racers, St. Helier Saints,and Morden Stars.

It is fortunate that there was very little road traffic in those years, as our teams used to cycle in formation to their away matches on their track bikes – i.e. without any brakes.  This did not go down too well with the police, of course,  The police cars would drive past our column of bikes and stop sharply in front of the leading bike, expecting us to run into the back of their car.  Of course, we lads had already figured out a way of stopping quickly when on the road – the left foot was taken off the pedal and jammed against the tyre of the back wheel, and we could stop as quickly and easily as a bike with conventional brakes.  The evidence was clear to see in the groove worn into the heel of the left boot (much to our mother’s dismay!

Photo:Norman Miles cycling on the Estate

Norman Miles cycling on the Estate

Donated by George Miles


Cycle Speedway was very popular for about a ten year period in the late forties and early fifties, amongst teenagers of that era.  When boys reached the age of 18 they had to undertake their two-year spell of National Service in the Army, RAF or Navy, which made them grow into manhood rather quickly, so that on their demobilisation at the age of 20 or 21 their interest in Cycle Speedway had waned.  At the same time, the WW2 bomb sites were being re-developed and waste land which could be used as a track became very hard to find.  A few enlightened local authorities such as Surbiton and Orpington built “proper” tracks but the sport by then was very much on the decline as youngsters turned to the traditional sports of Football and Cricket.


 

 

 

This page was added by Beverley Walker on 22/08/2012.
Comments about this page

Hello George, I remember the Robertsbridge track as we used to watch the races there. It was opposite St Benets Grove. We couldn't compete, no bikes! I recall that we used to be able to hire a bike for about a tanner from a house in Malmsbury Road.Not sure for how long, possibly an hour or two.

By Ray Crawley
On 13/01/2013

Hi Ray, George, I also remember well the bike track on the field at Robertsbridge road and the races, like Ray I had no bike, I remember the dust that used to be raised in clouds as they cornered, wasn't a particular interest of mine, yet must have known a lot of the participants by sight. thanks for an interesting bit of history that had slipped my mind.

By Ted Blowers
On 20/05/2013

Do you remember the cycle track in Morden Park, by the big hill?

By John Wilkin
On 11/07/2013

I enjoyed reading this well written and comprehensive item about cycle speedway. I was used to seeing the boys riding round on their customised bikes, after all it is my front door that is pictured behind Norman in the photograph and he in turn is outside his own front gate. However I had no idea of the wide spread appeal of the sport or of the structure of the organisation behind it. The sport came and went but it is an important part of the social history of the estate. Evocative of the period as it was, this item also reminded me of the hours spent with others in the Miles family's front room, listening to those fabulous hits of the Fifties, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Les Paul and Mary Ford et al. Good friends good memories.

By Jennifer Ball (nee Morgan)
On 31/08/2013

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