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Speedway in Shanghai 1930
By Tony Webb

In 2016 I was able to acquire a collection of newspaper cuttings, an original Shanghai Times newspaper and photographs of an ill-fated tour of China.

In April 1930 eleven Australian riders travelled from Brisbane to the Philippines to compete in a six week season of racing at the Nozeleda baseball ground Manila. By May not a wheeled had been turned on the track and the intrepid adventurers were en-route for Shanghai, China.

Shanghai was then a very cosmopolitan city and it had a large European population which also included military personnel. All the trappings of European culture were available including 2 dog tracks.

The riders concerned are unlikely to be known to British fans, they include Billy Lunn (Yeronga), Mannie Scofell (Brisbane), Les Lawrence (Brisbane), Harold Meston, Les Lawrence, Harry Radford (Brisbane), Tommy Tompkins (Townsville), Bernie Rein (Brisbane), Len Street (Brisbane), Jack Allen (England), Harry Lillingstone (Brisbane) and Arthur Yenson. Yenson had emigrated from Britain and did have some experience of motor cycle racing in GB.

All the riders with the exception of Levante were regulars at Davies Park and Deagon. Their departure decimated the pool of riders at Deagon and was considered a factor in its demise.

The promoting company was Velodromes Inc, registered in America. President. G.E. Mardon. Speedway manager A.W Beaumont. The promoter was Les Levante a traveller illusionist, known as the great Levante but real name Leslie Cole from Wangarratta (Victoria), who had been working in Queensland and saw the chance to cash in on the speedway promotion recruiting the riders from Deagon and Davies park with promises of fortunes to be made.

The Cole theatrical family, a trio composed of Cole, his wife Gladys Costin and Esme (acting as assistants for Cole), toured the globe.

They travelled out of Australia to the Philippines, Malaya (now split into Malaysia and Singapore), with the speedway party and then after the collapse of the shanghai project they continued on to Borneo, India, Russia, China, Japan and England. The world tour, which was Cole's first, lasted till 1940.

I have in my possession an original letter, signed by all the eleven riders. This document excludes all claims for compensation by the riders against the promoter and hold Levante responsible.

A strange document and one can only speculate on why the riders decided to throw their livelihood into the hands of Levante. As it transpired it was a foolish decision on the part of the riders as Levante absconded with the funds and the riders were left high and dry with no recourse to the promotion company!

They survived only by the support of ex pats and the local community.

Anyway I am getting ahead of myself here.

The opening night of the Speedway was on the 1st of June, attendance is recorded as being 4,000. The Shanghai Sunday Times of which I have an original copy outlined the program of events under the headline "Dirt Course Speedway". The program was eight events with cash prizes of $500, $300 and $50 for the final race of the night.

The Asiatic petroleum company put up a shell silver gauntlet and sash, other trophies were The John Haig Shield and Gande Price ltd Trophy.

Sadly I have no results, the track was at the stadium, venue of the Shanghai greyhound club.

The publicity had Les Lawrence riding a Bitza and billed as holding two world records. Yenson was billed as 'Scotty', Rein as 'Bull', Meston as 'Hurricane', Allen as 'Smiler' and Radford as 'Cyclone' all in line with the trend of names at the time.

The diet of the same 11 riders, some would say low grade riders, soon palled and by the first week in July racing ceased. Talk now was of building a new track in French town close to the under construction cycling velodrome (board track), by the end of August

There was still no sign of speedway racing. Stories in the press suggested five Chinese riders were on the way from Singapore, no doubt from the now defunct Alkaff Gardens Speedway. The new track may have been constructed but further research is required to find the details.

Levante had now departed from Shanghai along with a fair part of the riders' funds, leaving the riders stranded in Shanghia with the Japanese army approaching and a very unsafe place to be.

Most of the riders found some work in Shanghai and eventually they all returned to Brisbane in twos and threes.

Billy Lunn who owned a garage in Yeronga was the first to come home on the Taiping in early August. Harry Radford and Len Street were next on the Nel-Ore on August 22. A month elapsed before Bill Rein, Harry Lillistone and Townsville's star Tommy Tompkin arrived on the Tanda on September 29.

The remainder of the party Jack Allen, Arthur Yenson and Mannie Schofell came home the next week. All three started riding again at Davies Park on November 12 1930.

Harold Meston obtained a government position with Shanghai Water Corporation and stayed in China until 1938. Les Lawrence also stayed on in a Government position until 1938 when the advancing war made it unsafe. The wife and four children of Les Lawrence were rescued under heavy gun fire by the British battleship HMS Duncan and taken to the safety of a P and O Liner. Les stayed on for a bit longer.

What became of the riders after their adventure?

Tommy Tompkins, Arthur Yenson, Jack Allen and Harry Lillistone continued riding in Queensland until the mid thirties. Billy Lunn returned to the family garage in Yeronga, Morrie Scofell had a taxi business in Brisbane and Harold Meston resumed riding in 1938. Les Lawrence was the uncle of the late Charles Wheeler, a well respected speedway benefactor in later years. Of Yenson, Street, Rein and Radford little is known to the author

The Great Levante became a famous performer in theatres around the world and was the sole beneficiary of the ill-fated adventure.

Deagon never recovered from the loss of the main competitors for most of 1930.

Davies Park likewise had a brief spell of revival after the riders returned but never really recovered and closed its doors in March 1931.

 

This article was first published on 21st March 2021

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