Truly, there are few more exquisite pleasures in the history of London speedway than getting on Hackney’s wick.
For a deep purple patch of the Swinging Sixties, I inevitably became the Man Hackney Loved to Hate simply because I was asked to be the figurehead of the most stirring revival the sport in the capital had witnessed: the return of the hated big brother Hammers of custom House, just six miles away over the Stratford High Road.
Although Britain and London in particular, was exploding in a cultural, fashion and musical revolution in the sixties, it is an inescapable fact that speedway was just about scratching along at the start of the decade.
Only Wimbledon, with Ronnie Greene lording it like some God on Mount Olympus, remained of the mighty Metropolitan giants who had made speedway such a phenomenal immediate post-war box office success, with legendary circuits operating on every weeknight; with approaching 250,000 fans squeezing through the turnstiles every week; when you could go to speedway on the underground!
Indeed, when Speedway Was Rock n’Roll.
Dear old Johnnie Hoskins tried to jerk New Cross back into life, but the colourful folk who used to walk to the Old Kent Road frying pan had been moved out post-war to the new towns of Kent. Attendances were desperately, disastrously disappointing.
It seemed the good old days had gone forever.
Thus it was a copper-bottomed boost when, right out of the blue and flying in the face of commercial trends, Hackney, who had curiously laid dormant throughout the gilt-edged years of the post-war bonanza, announced their willingness to reopen in speedway in 1963.
Under the Mike Parker banner, the Hawks initially prospered only moderately in tortuous political times for speedway, when the National League, the sport’s premier sphere looked like going out of business following the closure of their champions Southampton and the flat refusal of the Provincial League, where Hackney operated, to allow any of their clubs to be ‘promoted’ to make competitive league operation a feasibility.
A bad-tempered split developed.
The old Provincial League opted to break away, to run unlicensed by the ACU/Speedway Control Board. The National League, desperate to make up the numbers, was literally forced to persuade West Ham, closed for speedway since 1955, back in, and were able to do so almost entirely through Coventry supremo Charles Ochiltree’s long-time association with Alan Sandersen on the Board of Custom House stadium.
England’s first world champion Tommy Price, whose career long association with Wembley made him intensely disliked in the East End, was asked to front the Hammers. With my experience at Poole and Ipswich as a publicity wallah, I was asked to do the donkey work and ballyhoo for the Hammers as Tommy’s sidekick.
But only the most cockeyed optimist would have dreamed of the Hammermania that was created.
In truth, when West Ham reopened in 1964 it was anticipated to attract a regular audience of 3,000 (which would have been a good night at Hackney).
But everything went gloriously woop-di-do.
Spearheaded by the gloriously glamorous Bjorn Knutsson, the Hammers attracted undreamed of support; the 100,000 mark was reached in the first 12 meetings!
Why then the difference between two tracks within a tanner’s bus ride?
In retrospect, it has to be factored in that these were particularly golden days for West Ham. The soccer Hammers across at Upton Park were in a peak of popularity winning European silverware and culminating when three of their players won the World Cup for England in 1966.
There were shared Board members at both Upton Park and Custom House and a great deal of cross fertilisation between the two.
But perhaps the craziest most unfair to Hackney fact was that at precisely this time West Ham was basking in a ridiculously unique, unexpected period of fashionability.
Alf Garnett, of all people, glamorised ‘yer ‘ammers’ every week for a TV audience of 20 million. He even declared that the Queen had a picture of ‘the lads’ on her bedroom door.
Dagenham lad Dudley Moore mentioned attending West Ham speedway in another mass audience TV success, Not Only but Also.
There seemed to be Hammer country personalities everywhere: England manager Alf Ramsey, Millicent Martin, huge with millions more viewers in That Was the Week That Was, Sandie Shaw, Kenny Ball, The Tremoloes, Doctor Who’s sidekick, Carole Ford.
Your West Ham was as trendy as Carnaby Street.
Naturally the speedway Hammers milked the situation. It was rotten for Hackney. They simply couldn’t compete for media attention. They were destined to be the East end’s poor relations.
On the track they hadn’t a rider remotely in the class of Bjorn Knutsson who rivalled Bobby Moore in the eastender hero-worship stakes. Few tracks had. In the bitter interleague political hatred that soured the sport in 1964, it was the White Hammers and the Black Hawks.
Local rancour intensified when Hammers shamelessly signed up two of the Hackney brightest talents, Norman Hunter and Malcolm Simmons, who, because of their extracurricular motor cycle sport activities, could not afford to lose their ACU licences.
When the excitable, explosive Len Silver, who had cut his teeth as a Hammer, took over the reins at Waterden Road, the hate-thy-neighbour rivalry took a torrid new turn.
There is no war as bitter as a civil war.
And so to 1965, when speedway peace broke out again, one big league was formed and Hammers and Hawks became on track rivals as well as business opponents.
But while the Hawks ticked over cheerfully enough, Hammers swept the board, winning an unique treble, League, KO Cup and London Cup in 1965, losing only one home match, wonderfully and inevitably to Hackney.
Tommy Price disappeared after 1965, and as I had been doing all the work anyway, the West Ham board gave me total control and Len and I locked together in rivalry like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.
The daft angle was that we were really good mates. He lived round the corner from me in Manor Park (east London). I’d known him from my days at Ipswich when I used to programme him for second half rides at Foxhall Heath. When he became the big pooh-bah in the Provincial League I ghosted a column for him for the Speedway Star (or was it their monthly publication?)
Perhaps our deadliest minefield confrontation came over publicity. I’d been a lifetime in newspapers and magazines, working in Fleet Street, with excellent contacts thus West Ham, a little on the back of their illustrious soccer reputation, attracted gallons of print ink.
Len battled manfully to compete. He even hired a professional publicist, the competent Peter Douglas, who rather cleverly instigated two of the more ingenious speedway catchphrases ‘Make It A Date, Friday at Eight’ and ‘Traxcitement’. But it was rather an unfair battle: I had a much greater access to exposure both in print and on telly.
So Hammers remained king of the Cockneys. It’s a bit like the footy Hammers and Leyton Orient. But Hawks will argue they had the last laugh as they continued years after Custom House had bowed to the awful financial temptation of redevelopment.
And it is surely the supreme irony that West Ham United FC are now set to move to the new, impressive Olympic Stadium, geographically almost precisely on the site of the old Waterden Road raceway!
Which leads to another tantalising thought: if the enterprising folk who operate speedway’s contemporary Grand Prix can organise a temporary track in Cardiff, Wales where there is little speedway tradition, couldn’t they do the same and stage a London ‘cockney’ grand prix in an area which was the pulse-beat of the sport from way back in its inaugural year in 1928?
Len and I had a few vitriolic confrontations, but in absolute honesty, I cannot recall one of them lasting long. Guess we were both just trying to back our boys. I cannot remember a single thing about one conflict that Len wrote about which involved the use of guest riders, for Sverre Harrfeldt and Banger Jansson (incidentally a West Ham asset shamelessly acquired by Hackney!) without hesitation I rate Len Silver as one of finest promoters I have encountered in 60 years in speedway. He still is. Although we had some wonderful rows, Len Silver never, ever bore a grudge. When we went to BSPA meetings abroad, we regularly roomed together, dined together, competed as raconteurs together in bar room alcoves. He’s a dear chum. I was determined to base one of my colourful characters in my screenplay-novel Cinderfellas on him. Read the book, you can’t miss him.
But although Len and I had and still retained a mutual respect, a great many Hackney folk would cheerfully have dropped me over Dagenham Dock in a concrete waistcoat! It was all part of the fun, so sadly lacking in the most part these days.
I remember once at Waterden Road being completely smothered in custard pies at one of the dreaded last meeting bunfights completely ruining a Robbie Stanford Savile Row suit.
I remember being howled down by Hackney fans while trying to address East End supporters in Stratford Town Hall, while a particularly virulent squawking Hackney fanatic whom I christened ‘the parrot’ emptied most of the contents of her gin and orange over my head.
And in nightmares I still recall the night in 1967, when I swear West Ham had the most powerful team perhaps ever known in the sport post war after 1950’s Wimbledon, again being beaten at home by the Hawks, when Sverre Harrfeldt retired in the deciding heat because he claimed he saw a red light which was on a ship at the nearby docks. I retain my suspicions about that race....
Len had grabbed the chequered flag from the starting marshal to wave his boys home and then led what appeared to be the entire back straight singing: ‘we’re all supporting ‘Ackney, And the ‘Awks came marching home’.
We’ll never see days like ‘em again chums...
Dave Lanning November 2013.
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