DAGENHAM is thought to have been the biggest hotbed of speedway talent in the UK before its track all but fell into oblivion at the onset of World War Two.
A band of daredevil bikers roared to national and international stardom after launching careers on one-gear machines without breaks on a track in Ripple Road, Barking.
By May 1939, five months before the war, a correspondent wrote in Speedway News, asking if everyone was fully appreciative of the beneficial effect Dagenham Speedway had had on the sport as it "must have produced more stars than any other one track" and naming nearly 20 riders who took part in world championships, Commonwealth tournaments and home competitions. Among "the Daggers" was Malcolm Craven, who was number 17 in the 1939 Individual Speedway World Championships semi-finals. The final was cancelled because of the war, but the leading biker competed again in the world championships in Britain between 1949 and 1951.
Other home-grown champions competed against "the Dominions", Doug Wells and Jim Boyd in 1938, and Jim Baylais in 1939.
Dagenham favourite Frank Hodgson continued to lift the speedway stardust after the war.
Hodgson led the pack when speedway fanatic Arthur Warwick launched the Amateur Dirt-Track Riders' Club in Dagenham in 1936.
Warwick took on 25 novices, three of whom had never mounted bikes, but all shared a common dream of becoming world champion.
He imposed a gruelling regime, teaching them theory, how to build engines and the mysteries of tuning on Mondays.
The beginners raced on the 320-yard track, first used in 1932, at speeds of up to 70mph on Thursdays and were put through a keep-fit ordeal with no smoking, drinking, regular exercise and early bedtime throughout the week.
Dagenham Speedway racing had up until that point been an amateur affair, but Warwick launched a Silver Cup that helped propel his team on to the national scene.
In 1937, Hodgson got some stick from his team mates for being "too good" and was also snapped up by rival side the Hackney Wick Wolves.
According to club secretary Gladys Thornton, Hodgson gave back the Dagenham Coronation Cup he had legitimately won, a testament to his "club spirit", and ended up being captain of both teams before Hackney shut on the outbreak of war.
Commonwealth biker Baylais and Hodgson fought neck and neck for the Eric Chitty Trophy at Dagenham in 1937, pointing to signs of rivalry within the team.
Hodgson was favourite to win, but only beat Baylais - another 1936 novice - by less than the width of a wheel.
Hodgson was regarded as a Dagenham hero in his own right, with an illustrious career that continued after the war and saw him take part in the Individual Speedway World Championship in 1951.
He is also credited with passing on his love of speedway to another famous Dagger, Nobby Stock, who was number 34 in the 1949 world championship.
According to biking expert Norman Jacobs, who penned the 2003 book, Speedway in the South-East, Hodgson was Stock's teenage hero.
Stock cleaned his mentor's bike and later Hodgson encouraged him to join the Daggers and Stock apparently took his word for it, spending all his �70 savings on an bike owned by 1938 London Riders' Champion Eric Chitty.
The Dagenham track opened as speedway developed in the UK, four years after it was staged in Epping Forest, having been imported from Australia were it was first staged in 1923.
As the sport grew in stature in the late 1930s, the track symbolically marked its 100th meeting with a special trophy won by captain Baylais, followed by Jack Tidbury and Stock, on April 16, 1939.
World champion in 1937, US biker Jack Milne, presented his Milne Cup at Dagenham on June 4, 1939.
Despite the club's home-grown success and competitions, Dagenham was threatened with closure.
Speedway News reported that the track shut in September 1938, before being relaunched with flying colours a month later, following a management overhaul, backing from top riders and a stadium facelift.
In 1939, Warwick's school temporarily closed over lease woes and plans were afoot to move speedway to the dog track next door. But the idea was scrapped and on July 23 a record crowd filled the stadium to watch Stock win the Wilson Cup.
The near fatal blow came with the onset of war, after Dagenham introduced successful Thursday night races in August, on top of Sunday meetings.
The last race known to have taken place at Dagenham was on August 27, days before war broke out on September 1.
Speedway came full circle after the conflict, reappearing on an amateur level in 1946 under the auspices of Barking Racing Club, but closed for good to become a dog stadium car park.
In his speedway book, Jacobs writes: "The track remained open in 1947 for training purposes only, but at the end of that season it closed its doors to speedway forever."
This article is courtesy of the Barking and Dagenham Post
Thanks to Robert J. Rogers for facilitating our use of this article.
This article was first published on 29th April 2010
"Jacobs cleaned his mentor's bike and later Hodgson encouraged him to join the Daggers and Stock apparently took his word for it, spending all his �70 savings on an bike owned by 1938 London Riders' Champion Eric Chitty." I don't remember doing this. I must be older than I think!!! "
"I re-checked the article in the Newspaper, and that is certainly what it said `According to Biking expert Norman Jacobs who penned the 2003 Book, Speedway in the South-east, Hodgson was Stock`s Teenage Hero. Jacobs cleaned his mentors bike and later Hodgson encourage him to join the Daggers`. I see now it should have said STOCK cleaned his bike, sorry Norman, blame the B&D post!"
"Dagenham was one of several amateur tracks that staged meetings AFTER the start of World War 2. (Others include Oxford and California.) I have a programme for Dagenham v London dated 1 October 1939. It is partially filled in - the home team won convincingly with Frank Hodgson scoring a maximum. Other riders in the Dagenham team include Nobby Stock, Bill Gilbert and Benny King. From the editorial it is clear that this is the first meeting since war was declared. The editorial also contains a most interesting suggestion for the cause of World War 2 - apparently Hitler was in a bad mood because he didn't have a speedway track as fine as Dagenham! The programme advertises Dagenham v Rye House the following Sunday. Did it take place - Who knows? "
"I found Arnie's comments on war time speedway at Dagenham very interesting. The last meeting before the War for which I have the result is the meeting held on 27 August 1939 when Stan Greatrex's Rangers beat Arthur Warwick's Hawks 47-36. In that programme a "Great Four-Team Match Race" was advertised for 31 August but I have never seen any results for this meeting. There is no reason why it should not have taken place as it was before war was declared. I wonder if Arnie, or anyone else, can confirm (or otherwise) if the meeting took place and what the result was if it did?"
"How nice to read about the speedway which was near to the ship and shavel pub. I was told that one of the riders was killed and that's why the speedway was closed?"
"In 1938, two riders - Harry Rogers and David Jackson - died after accidents at Dagenham, These fatalities had no bearing on the continuation of racing at the track. It also operated in 1939 while, as previously mentioned, a few meetings also took place there in 1946."
"Just to clarify the Amateur Dirt Track Riders Club was formed by GO Thornton at Crayford on 16th August 1935, where the club raced for the remainder of that speedway season - Arthur Warwick, Claude Rye, Gus Kuhn and Tiger Stevenson all took an active interest in the Club. Claude Rye presenting his own trophy to the Crayford Club Champion RT Allen in November 1935. The Club moved to Dagenham in 1936"
"Around 1947/8 I was a follower of the Thameside Tigers cycle speedway team from Dagenham. Some of the boys were getting hold of old motorbikes that had been laid up during the war, these were being run on 'Red petrol' nicked from various lorries, and driven without lights or silencers thro the streets of the 'Becontree Estate' after dark, one I remember was a 'Rudge Ulster'. The point of this is that occasionally we would all go over to the Dagenham Speedway track, situated behind the Dog Track, in Ripple Road. The boys would then ride their bikes around 'what was left' of the track which from memory was only about HALF OF A TRACK. I presume that the track had not been used since the war. The Dog Track was certainly in use around 1937 when as a young 4 year old I used to accompany my mother there when she worked on the turnstiles. I was of course too young to remember the speedway at that time. Hope this may give a tit bit of info re the Track."
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