Post by Administrator on Aug 7, 2018 14:17:44 GMT
BY JOHN HYAM
SPEEDWAY racing ‘down the Old Kent Road’ in south east London is just a long distant memory.
New Cross Stadium is now parkland. But for thousands of ‘Wednesday nighters’, great names like Ron Johnson, George Newton, Jack Milne and Tommy Farndon still roared round the 262-yard speedway, one of the smallest tracks to built in Britain.
Speedway racing came to New Cross Stadium as backing for greyhound racing, and it proved an ‘ideal sporing marriage’ to help the arena pay its way.
The bikes roared into action at New Cross on April 18, 1934, when promoter Fred Mockford moved the Crystal Palace team into the new stadium at Hornshay Street, just off the Old Kent Road. New Cross beat West Ham 32-21 in a National League match before 15,000 fans.
That same year, Mockford also introduced the starting gate. Harry Shepherd and his mechanic Alf Smith played a big part in the development which replaced flag starting.
Shepherd had good local connections. For years he was a partner in a building firm at Loampit Vale, Lewisham, with team-mate Triss Sharp. Another local was Joe Francis, like Shepherd and Sharp, a pioneer member of the New Cross Rangers. He was a motorcycle dealer at Eltham, less than 10 miles from the track.
Australioan rider Ron Johnson, who lost the tops of two fingers on his right hand at Crystal Palace when he bent down to adjust a clip on his bike’s primary chain, was one of the top men until well into the 1940s.
And losing parts of the hand did not worry the old-timers. American ace Jack Milne lost his right thumb in a track accident in 1937, and while in hospital practiced a new-style throttle control on his hospital bed rail.
He came out and carried on the season in brilliant form, ending the season as world champion. He took the crown from the Australian rider Lionel van Praag, who was then with Wembley.
Ten years later, after the closedown of the 1939-45 World War Two years for speedway, Praag rode for New Cross in the 1947 season. A qualified pilot, he served with the Australian air force in the war and was awarded the British Empire Medal. He rescued one of his crew from the shark-infested Tinor Sea after their plane had been shot down by a Japanese fighter.
The big pre-war hero was Tommy Farndon, hailed as England’s best rider at the time, an opinion still endorsed by many today.
Farndon was the only rider to die after an accident at New Cross. It happene in 1935, during an unimportant second-half race, after Farndon had raced unbeaten in the preceding league match. Farndon’s machine locked with close rival Ron Johnson’s bike as they went in to the pits bend. He was thrown in to the safety fence and taken unconcious to the Miller General Hospital at Greenwich.
Crowds waited for days outside the hospital for news of Farndon’s condition, and when it was announced that he had died, many fell to their knees, crying in an guish. For years after that, Farndon’s memory was kept alive by a trophy named after him,
Farndon was one of many English riders at the track who gained international honours. Another was the wildly spectacular George Newton who, like Farndon, was a legtrailer.
Newton’s best pre-war season was 1938, when he set a track record of 58 seconds that stood for 10 years. But, at the end of 1938, Newton was forced to retire because of a lung infection.
In 1948, Newton made a come-back, minus one lung. His first meeting proved a disaster, He fell in all five races, twice on the starting gate. But he persisted and by mid-season was hitting big scores until he was rushed to hospital with peritonitis. In 1949, he came back for a few meetings, then went into the Second Division and rode until the end of 1953.
The 1938 season was New Cross’ best pre-war effort, when they won the National League First Division title by five points from West Ham. Ten years later they had their only other season as champions when they finished two points ahead of a Vic Duggan-inspired Harringay.
Like most tracks, New Cross closed in September 1939 when World War Two started, and were among the first to reopen in 1945. They ran a series of open meetings before the league started in 1946.
Ron Johnson, Geoff Pymar, Les Wotton and Eric French were the backbone of the 1946 team. They also had a South African, Keith Harvey, who at 50 years was the oldest rider in the sport.
From nearby Lee Green, the local element was supplied by garage mechanic Mick Mitchell, who broke into speedway in 1939 when Crystal Palace reopned in the secon division.
Then, in 1947, amidst much publicity New Cross signed the Australian ‘White Ghost’ Ken le Breton, so called because of his white leathers. He didn’t stay long at New Cross, going to second division Newcastle with a £1,000 cheque in an exchange deal that brought Jeff Lloyd into the Rangers’ orange and black race jacket.
There was a roar of laughter when le Breton stepped on to the New Cross centre green to be introduced, a week before making his debut for the club. He was nattily dressed in a pin-stripe suit, a bowler hat and carried a neatly rolled umbrella.
Le Breton was then the sport’s suprem e showman and developed riding ability to match it. But for an untimely race track crash in Sydney, Australia, in January 1951 which cost him his life, he would probably have been a world champion.
New Cross were famous for their brotherhoods. Pre-war, George Newton was joined by his brother Ernie, and Tommy Farndon’s brother Sid also tried his hand. And pre-war Australian rider Clem Mitchell’s brother Lindsay also raced at New Cross in the 1950s.
Ray and Derek Ellis were two post-war brothers who raced for New Cross, but the most famous brotherhood of the lot was a trio - the first in the sport to race for the same club ib Cyril, Bert and Bob Roger. All rode for England and became world finalists,
Another with local associations was Ron Johnson’s post-war protege Ray Moore, who joined the track as a novice after demob from the RAF in 1946. By 1948, Moore was an England international. His slump in form coincided with a loss of form by Johnson, who was never the same rider after fracturing his skull in a crash at Wimbledon in 1949.
For years after his retirement in 1954, Moore ran a car sales business in Albany Road, Peckham, next door to the famous ‘boxing’ pub the Thomas A’Becket where Moore was a ‘regular.’ He turned to car racing after a fleeting 1959 speedway return for Johnnie Hoskins at New Cross. He was killed in a car racing accident at Aintree in 1963.
Speedway flourished for many years, and the track was also the scene for many international events. The decline in spectator interest came with the sport’s change of surface for tracks from deep cinders to slick shale. The spectacular legtrail style of riding vanished, riders went foot-forward, and race results became more predictable.
The end of speedway in a big way at New Cross came on June 10, 1953, when Freddie Mockford withdrew them from the National League. In their last match, they drew 42-42 against Bradford.
Johnnie Hoskins, the veteran promoter who was reputed to have ‘started it all’ at West Maitland, Australia, in 1923, later promoted for a couple of seasons, but even he could not pull back the crowds. Hoskins’ first New Cross promotion was on August 19, 1959.
Hoskins relinquished his interest at the end of 1961. Speedway was back on April 12, 1963, when promoter Wally Mawdsley entered the team in the Provincial League, but they folded in mid-season. The last match was on August 2 when visiting Poole won 41-37.
Stock cars came in 1954, the first ever British meeting was on Good Friday, April 16. After three weeks they moved to Harringay. There was a brief late 1960s revival.
Greyhound racing had a longer life at New Cross in 1933. It started in 1933 and continued until 1969. Then the Greyhound Racing Association switched its attention to nearby Catford.
Eventually, Lewisham Council bought the land from the owners British Rail. In March, 1974, the demolition men moved in and knocked down the stadium prior to laying parkland. It signalled the end of an era that for more than 40 years had been very much a part of life for south Londoners.