THE MILLWALL FLYERS CYCLE SPEEDWAY TEAM
by Con Maloney
It’s hard to believe now but, between the late 1920’s and the second world war, motorcycle speedway was one of the most popular sports in the UK, second only to football. Over 80,000 cheering spectators watched the World Final held at Wembley and the stands were usually packed at local league matches too. Just as budding footballers played matches in the street back then, young speedway fans were inspired by their heroes to race each other on their bicycles on waste ground.
Cycle Speedway took off on the bomb sites of post-war British cities. The young riders raced each other on outdoor dirt tracks, on modified bikes without brakes or multiple gears. London, being covered in bomb sites, was the first city to hold organized races in 1945 and the very first recorded leagues were formed a year later in both East London and Glasgow.
By 1950 there were more than 200 clubs in East London alone and this exciting sport soon spread across the country. The National Amateur Cycle Speedway Association was formed and consistent rules were laid down, which opened the way to national competitions, championships and international tournaments.
Local and national newspapers began to cover the sport and a magazine was produced called Cycle Speedway Gazette. The ‘Skid Kids’ had well and truly arrived!
click for full-sized version
If you’re curious about the history of cycle speedway, take a look here: http://www.cyclespeedwayhistory.org.uk/
Islander Arthur Ayres, who raced for the Millwall Flyers Cycle Speedway team, takes up the story:
The team was started in 1949 by Ernie Longhurst, who lived in Tooke Street. We were a bunch of teenagers who were keen Motorcycle Speedway supporters mostly at West Ham on Tuesday evenings. I used to go there with my schoolmate Ronnie Hook, who lived in a prefab in Plevna Street. We knew that kids had started to build speedway tracks on waste ground; the earliest one I knew was in the old playground of the bombed Millwall Central School in Janet Street. The place was derelict, it had been used as a fire station during the war and the cycle racing was done on concrete. After the war there were so many sites like that all over London and local kids built dirt tracks with the track boundaries marked by bricks (usually loose bricks just put down).
Meanwhile ‘Hooky’ had found a hole in the fence in the old St John’s Churchyard, which was just off Plevna Street and no longer used for services. Hooky and his mates had built a little dirt track there. I went to watch but didn’t have a bike and someone asked if I wanted to have a go. I did and was hooked! A little while after that, I spotted an advert in Crane’s newsagent’s shop window ‘Cycle Speedway Riders Wanted’ with an emblem similar to the Matchless Motorcycle one, an M with a pair of wings.
I went along to 21 Tooke Street, the address on the advert, and met Ernie Longhurst and his wife Cis. Ernie told me he was trying to start a team. There was only me and Ronnie Hook, Eddie Wilson and a few others at that stage. Ernie arranged for us to visit the Beckton Aces track at Ellesmere Street. Their track was much larger than most and, like most tracks, the surface varied between dirt brick dust with a couple of paving stones which happened to be there. We borrowed bikes from the ‘Aces’ and had a go. My first race ended on the first corner when I encountered a paving stone covered with a thin layer of dirt and the next thing I knew I was on the deck. Everyone was helpful there and we learned about gear ratios, starting techniques and all kinds of useful things. We were also taught some rules, such as never to race in short sleeves or with bare arms, you always wore long sleeves and gloves. Other than that, you were free as a bird. So if you wanted to race in bare feet or fall off and bash your brains out, that was down to you!
Arthur Ayres (left) and Tommy Calvo
My bike was assembled by myself from bits and pieces which had been dumped. The frame was a ladies Raleigh on which Alf Smith (who worked at Bellamy’s) welded an extra crossbar for added strength. No brakes, gears, lights or mudguards were allowed. Most handlebars were home-made from pieces of gas pipe bent in a drainhole but they couldn’t be more than 2’6” wide. If you borrowed a bike it was on the ‘DP’ system – any damages must be paid for!
A few more riders joined us, including Tommy Calvo who’d we met Beckton Aces, he lived in a prefab in Leven Road in Poplar. At first we took part in challenge matches at Ellesmere Street as we didn’t have our own track and were hopelessly outclassed as we were still learning. Eventually we built a home-made track in East Ferry Road near the junction of Launch Street, not far from the George pub, it used to be a timber yard at one time.
Millwall Flyers’ cycle speedway track (click on image for full-sized version)
It was a small piece of land so we had to do a bit of back-filling and the surface varied a lot. When you left the starting gate, the width at the first bend was only about a foot; if you went further out than that, you were up to your wheel in dirt and got bogged down. As you left the bend you had to make sure you were straight, because you went on to a patch of cinder and if you tried to turn you’d soon be base over apex. Other tracks held their own perils. Walthamstow’s track had a deep hole down one side and although New Cross’s surface was like a billiard table you had to watch out for an open manhole with no cover!
We cleared the track up ourselves and no-one gave us permission to use it, basically it was squatter’s rights. There were four riders in each race and we did three laps of our track, you were knackered after that. After a while things developed and grown-ups came along to help. Bill Kilgour got involved, he drove lorries for the Burgoyne’s firm and was a great supporter of youth and community work on the Island.
We competed in the East London Cycle Speedway League Division 1. Although our bikes had no brakes, lights, mudguards or anything other than wheels and pedals, we rode them to away matches in convoy, with an escort of ‘road legal’ bikes. The matches at East Ferry Road always attracted a large and noisy crowd of supporters, which created a really exciting atmosphere. We would pass the hat round afterwards and the money collected would help with club expenses.
My career lasted for a couple of years. The team organised a ‘Match Race Championship’, where two riders race ‘head to head’ for the best of three races. They started with the bottom half of the team and I raced Tommy Calvo and won 2-0. At practice for my first defence, my front wheel fell apart and I went over the handlebars. I needed a new rear sprocket and the only spare gave an impossible high gear ratio. Practice continued and, having worked up speed over a couple of laps, I passed four riders in the length of the back straight. As I entered the bend, my front wheel hit a tyre and I came off in front of the pack. Alf Smith passed me as I was falling, I attempted to break my fall with my left arm but Bill Shears rode over it and broke both bones. My arm is still slightly bent. When they took the cast off later I still had the greasy chain mark from Bill’s bike on my arm.
So in 1950 I was obliged to succumb to parental pressure and give up. I had to give the cup back as I was unable to defend it. Islanders in the team were Alf Smith (lived in Roffey House), his brother Peter Smith, Eddie Wilson (Alpha Grove), Ronnie Hook (Plevna Street), Roy Martin (Launch Street) and Bill Shears (Mellish Street). There were other riders who came from Poplar, Stepney and elsewhere in what is now Tower Hamlets. When I broke my arm I was 16 years old, some riders were younger and some older. National Service interfered with things at age 18 and eventually redevelopment led to the destruction of many tracks, although in some boroughs the council constructed tracks’.
Meet The Millwall Flyers
The Club Chairman was Cubitt Town-born and bred Ted Davison. Ted ran his own sign-writing business, was a professional cartoonist for several local and national newspapers and also a Poplar Borough Councillor. This gave him good connections in local politics, newspaper journalism and show business. Ted drew a series of lighthearted cartoons of the Millwall Flyers for the East London Advertiser in 1949/50, featuring the riders and officials and also publicised the social events organized to raise funds both for the club and the local St Luke’s Pensioner’s Club. He also used his contacts in show business to bring stars of the day along to the social club events at St Luke’s Church Hall.
Alf is commonly known as ‘The Whippet’ for his speed out of the trap – sorry – gate. He is 17 and a plater’s mate by trade. Has been with the Flyers since November 1949. Since then he has been a great bolster to the team and is now considered one of Millwall’s best riders. Smithy has beaten some of London’s best cycle speedway riders and can congratulate himself on his prowess in this respect. We are looking forward to seeing him in some championship matches if he continues at his present progress rate.
Eddie is a lank angular chap of 17 ½ years and lives in Alpha Grove, Millwall. He is a plater’s mate at Lovell’s and decided to join the Flyers six months ago. His riding soon earned him the captaincy of the team. Eddies hobbies are playing the drums and generally making himself heard wherever jazz music is concerned. Is courting a very charming girl, although when they dance together, it is a mystery how she escapes damage from his huge feet. To see Eddie on the track, one wonders how he finds the strength to lift his great boots – they seem to dominate the whole landscape. However, Eddie is a very popular chap and a good skipper, besides being a consistent rider. He takes all the jokes thrown at him with that wry grin peculiar only to Eddie Wilson. Here’s hoping that he will skipper the Flyers for a long time to come. The cinder track will miss Eddie when he forsakes cycle speedway, at least, it will miss his boots.
Ron can be safely classed as the pioneer of the club, although he is the youngest member – 15½ years. I can remember when he and other small boys – girls too – built their own track in a blitzed churchyard and rode like fury. Since then Ron has developed into a fine rider and can always be relied upon to turn up trumps in a tight situation. He is heat leader and the cheers of ‘Come on, Ron’ can be heard from all the Hook fans. His favourite hobby is reading but he can’t have much time for that, what with cycle speedway and his paper round. Although the youngest, he is by no means the smallest – quite the reverse – in fact he is one of the tallest. If a chap buckles his wheel or wants repairs or adjustments, it’s ‘Give it to Ron’ or ‘Hooky will fix it’ and Hook wastes no time but gets down to the job without any arguments. He is on the track whenever he has a spare moment, mastering those bends, and has made up his mind to be one of the top-liners. He’ll do it too, if I know Ronnie Hook. Has a slight advantage over other riders by getting his nose over the finishing line just a fraction in front, but, although chipped about his facial characteristics, he joins in the jokes like a true sportsman, realising that all the team have some prominent features themselves, much to a cartoonist’s delight.
Ted Fisher is another angular youth of 17 years and by profession is a coal heaver, working for Albert Coe, coal merchants. Has been with the Flyers for over four months and joined when they badly needed riders. He is a very useful rider and a jolly good trier. Usually comes into the pits after a race with a wide grin spread over his face whether he has won or lost. Ted is rather fussy over his machine and, as his hobby is cycling, it is quite understandable that next to Ted comes Ted’s bike. One outstanding feature about him is his ears – they compare with Wilson’s feet in proportion. It is noticeable that when a stiff wind is blowing, his ears knock a few knots off his speed, but when the wind is behind him – out spread those ears and it sends him along at a spanking pace. However, joking apart, he is firm in the belief that a rider cannot experiment on the track and insists on riding with a partner with whom he can give and take, and Fisher can always take it.
One of the two ‘Arts’ of the Flyers. Redman, a fresh-complexioned blonde, is another of Millwall’s top-line riders. Can always be heard singing ‘one of the latest’ as he rounds a bend and raises his front wheel. He first rode in 1945 for the Forest Gate Tigers and boasts that he was their only rider that could stay on their machine but he cannot compete with Calvo in this respect. Rode in the first ever test match and reached double figures. Was unfortunate in the East London Championships and later joined the Forces. He considers that he has smashed more Army bikes than he has had Army meals. Signed on for Beckton Aces in 1949 but now races for Millwall Flyers and is keen to see them do well in 1950. He has won several cups, all of which are now broken. Has since confessed that all these cups were won at fairs on Wanstead Flats. However, Arthur will have his little joke and it is a wonder how his fiancée, a very charming girl, can tell when he is really joking. The Flyers are looking forward to Arthur making some tip-top scores this season for them.
‘There was a boy, A very strange enchanted boy, And his name was Tommy Calvo’ This ‘Mighty Joe Young’ is 16 years of age and is by trade a metal polisher. Is the smallest rider in the team and one of the most popular. He has had a bike specially made to suit his small stature – a bit smaller and it would be a fairy cycle. Tommy is the gamest little rider it has ever been my pleasure to watch and he has knocked up a great many points since he joined the Flyers. His hobbies are cycle speedway and films, and ‘Nature Boy’ should be on the films himself, so funny are his antics. A tousle-haired blond, he is on the track at every opportunity much to the joy of the younger supporters, who delight to watch his brilliant green machine flash around with the name ‘Nature Boy’ emblazoned on the frame in bright red and gold letters. Good luck to you Tommy Boy and may you grow a few more inches in the coming year.
Tall, blonde, wavy-haired Roy Martin is the assistant team manager and is married with a baby daughter. He is a carpenter and joiner by trade. Is very popular among the supporters and his riding is definitely in the championship class and improving every week. If Roy’s riding continues as it is at present, I can foresee him being one of cycle speedway’s top-liners in the near future. Usually rides best when partnering George Stephens and the pair are a pleasure to watch. Roy’s neck scarf and hair flying never fails to raise a cheer from the girls. He ‘chips’ Calvo unmercifully at times and calls him ‘the horizontal champ’ due to Tommy’s numerous spills, but Roy’s brand of humour is very dry, and his drawling voice is rarely heard at meetings unless it’s something very important. Roy is a stickler for clean and fair riding and sometimes an unfair decision irritates him for the rest of the match. He should have been a cowboy – he looks like one.
Here is an household name in cycle speedway. George, who has a fine record, is an employee of Taylor Walkers and his hobby is the motor-cycle speedway. He was the first on the cycle speedway in 1946 when he was noticed by Poplar Eagles’ talent spotter and, after the Eagles disbanded, was chosen by Terry Brown to occupy reserve position in Beckton Aces. George points in his first races, then went on to win the East London match-race championship in 1948. He was capped for England against Scotland in 1949 and scored the highest points in that match of 15 points. Is now Millwall Flyers’ star rider and has expressed his wish to ride only for Millwall, who promptly elected him captain after the resignation of that position by Eddie Wilson. George is a very pleasant and popular chap on and off the track and takes a disqualification with silent wince. He has one peculiarity – he has his own personal mascot to wheel his bike to the starting gate, and that ritual is strictly observed. Usually paired with Roy Martin, and these two can always give the supporters their money’s worth. He was the inventor of telescopic forks for speedway cycles. Millwall is as proud of George’s record as he is himself, and all look forward to seeing him riding as a motor-cycle speedway rider.
Millwall’s first reserve is aged 16 and a junior clerk at a local ironworks. A tall rawboned youth, Arthur is notorious as a ‘leg trailer’ and will shortly be taking his place in the team. His jet black hair lopping over bushy eyebrows gives him a rather fierce appearance but actually his nature belies his looks as he has never yet been seen in a bad temper. Quite the reverse in fact, for he is somewhat of a comedian in his way. Arthur has often been disappointed when the team is short and a rider has turned up at the last minute, but he just grins and steps down in a sporting manner. Has recently tied a rabbit’s foot to his bike for good luck but it has yet to be tested. Is in and out of the workshop at all hours improving his machine but will leave spanners and tools lying about. However the Flyers would not like to lose Arthur and his present efforts on the track show a good standard of riding. Hobby – Aeromodelling and cycle speedway. We leave Arthur and his low-framed bike with – threepen’orth of bike and five bobs worth of Arthur.
Bill Shears has been with the Flyers from the very beginning and can always put up a good show. He is a baker’s assistant by trade and ‘dabbles in the dough’, the edible variety of course. Bill’s heart is as soft as the commodity he works with and he has a tendency to take things to heart too much. However, he is the first to sympathise with others in trouble. His hobby is cycle speedway and the accompanying cariacature was drawn while he was dreaming, maybe, that he was going round the track. His head certainly appeared in a whirl. I think he has made a New Year’s resolution to attend every Wednesday night’s meetings of the Flyers and I’m sure that he is going to keep to that promise.
click for full-sized version
click for full-sized version
click for full-sized version
click for full-sized version
A new insignia has been designed for the Millwall Flyers by their chairman, who has also designed a summer outfit for the lady supporters. The insignia is a humorous Pegasus flying horse and the accompanying sketch shows this attractive rig-out. It comprises white beret with detachable Pegasus Flyers badge, white jumper with a flying horse motif across the front, navy pleated skirt or slacks, according to taste, and shoes to match. This neat outfit may be worn on or off the track and already many of the girls are at work making and knitting this rig-out ready for the summer. Patterns of the flying horse jumper can be obtained at any newsagent or wool shop, Weldons no. A795. Get busy, girls!
The East London Advertiser reports on the Millwall Flyers ended in the summer of 1950. The local Council redeveloped the land in East Ferry Road and the sport declined right across the country as bomb sites were cleared and potential riders were drafted into the armed forces for National Service. Cycle Speedway once more became a local enthusiasm and many of the clubs closed. Although 40 clubs survive in the UK today, the golden era of the ‘Skid Kids’ had run its course.
A special thanks to our very own ‘Millwall Flyer’, Arthur Ayres, for sharing his precious memories. Nothing beats hearing a story from someone who was part of it. Thanks also to George Warren, Brian Grover and Debbie Levett of Friends of Island History Trust, for first raising the idea of bringing this almost-forgotten story back to life. George and Brian spent hours at the Tower Hamlets Borough Archives patiently wading through old copies of the East London Advertiser to unearth Ted Davison’s wonderful cartoons and articles, without which this piece would not have been possible. The excellent ‘Cycle Speedway Teams Down The Ages’ website provides invaluable historical material and it was only thanks to their page on the Millwall Flyers that I realised Arthur Ayres had been involved. As always, Mick Lemmerman’s help and advice in putting this online is greatly valued and appreciated.
‘Millwall Flyer’, Arthur Ayres