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!
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!
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.
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.
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.