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Book Review: Walthamstow Wolves

Speedway continues to inspire keen historians to research and publish stories from its rich past. The latest addition comes from Keith Corns with his new book - "Walthamstow Wolves - London's Forgotten Speedway Team".

The book is published by London League Publications who have already brought us books on Glasgow Tigers, Bert Harkins, Motherwell Eagles, Dave Jessup, Split Waterman and Wembley Lions. You can check out reviews on our books page.

This new book covers one of the least celebrated of the many tracks that used to operate in London. Walthamstow Stadium, with its iconic art-deco entrance, was most famous as a venue for greyhound racing but was also a speedway track in two different spells during the last century.

The first of these was in 1934 when Lea Bridge switched their operation to 'the Stow' in mid-August. The book tells us that the first crowd was variously reported to be 25,000 or 11,000 or various points in between. The spectators were able to watch riders with fabulous monikers like 'Squib' Burton and 'Dusty' Haigh. We hear that contemporary reports suggested the track was too slick and riders struggled with conditions. The team racing constituted only nine heats of the evening's entertainment and the Wolves ran out 29 to 25 winners over the visiting Wimbledon Dons.

Due to the late arrival of the sport, only eight home fixtures were staged with the last being held on 10th October, less than two months after the opening night.

The author covers each of the meetings that were staged, along with details of the away meetings the Wolves competed in. It's written in a very accessible style, carefully avoiding the trap of just listing scores and scorers.

Sadly this first incarnation of Walthamstow Speedway was very short-lived, opposition from local residents leading to an injunction to prevent further racing taking place. A series of conditions were imposed on the speedway promotion before any further racing would be allowed. The most troublesome one being that silencers should be fitted to the bikes, quite contrary to the speedway regulations at the time.

In the end, it was decided that continuing at Walthamstow was impossible and the team moved to nearby Hackney Wick to becomes the Hackney Wolves. This disappointing juncture in the Stow's story is well covered in the book.

For many years it appeared that Walthamstow Speedway would be little more than a footnote in the sport's history. That changed in 1949 when the Wolves reappeared as members of the second division of the British league. The pre-war noise objections from residents had seemingly been forgotten and the bikes were back.

Although London was still the speedway hotbed, it was felt that a track offering second division racing would attract fans who were used to seeing the same faces over and over. Riders like Jim Boyd, Charlie May and Wilf Jay were recruited to lead the new team.

The book covers the story of the season in two different chapters, broken down into month-by-month sections and illustrated with a selection of pictures and programme covers. It can definitely be considered a successful return season, with the club in a comfortable position in the league and the venture considered a financial success.

The Wolves were back for the 1950 season, having to adapt to the new concrete starting grid that was introduced at all tracks and a narrower rear tyre.

The season is covered in the same style as the previous year, split between two chapters that are broken up into monthly sub-sections.

Pre-war star George Newton had been added to the team roster and his spectacular leg-trailing style made him a crowd favourite, despite him seldom being top of the scoring charts.

Although the author concentrates mainly on the Walthamstow story, he also drops in many interesting mentions of wider happenings within the sport e.g. tracks that were in danger of closing and riders that may therefore become available etc.

It's also interesting to hear about the exploits of the supporters club, which was sufficiently large to have sub-groups dedicated to swimming, cricket and even arranging air travel to away meetings! Singer Petula Clark was also a keen and regular fan, she may well be one of the few people still around who watched racing at The Stow.

Prior to the 1951 season the Walthamstow promotion applied to move up the first division, hoping to attract higher attendances, not least because they would now have a number of local derbies that might be expected to attract visiting fans. Unfortunately the application was rejected and the Wolves had to settle for another season in the lower tier.

Pete Lansdale was recruited from Plymouth and would prove to be the top Wolf over the course of the season, with Jim Boyd and Archie Windmill offering sold support.

The financial side of the sport was not looking so rosy at this stage in proceedings, with attendances down and the entertainment tax diverting a huge proportion of turnstile takings directly into government coffers. Admission prices were changed in an attempt to avoid paying so much tax.

The Wolves finished the season in fifth place in the league, respectable but perhaps a slight underachievement given the talent within the squad.

The club once again applied for first division status for 1952, but were again rejected. That proved to be the final straw for the promotion and they announced the immediate closure of the track, never to re-open. The short history of speedway in E17 was over.

The author reflects on the reasons for closure:

"With hindsight, Walthamstow returned to the sport just as the post-war boom was levelling out in 1949. Speedway had ongoing financial difficulties due to the level of Entertainment Tax and then endured particularly poor weather during the summers of 1950 and 1951....By the end of the 1950s around 75 percent of homes in Britain had a television set and people who had flocked to local outdoor sporting activities in the immediate post-war years now had an alternative form of entertainment at comparatively modest cost....Promotion to the First Division may have led to a short-term increase in attendances, but operating costs would have also increased."

Although the story is over, the book continues with biographies of all the riders who turned out for the Wolves and a detailed statistical section that covers the meeting results, rider averages, league tables etc.

It's remarkable that over seventy years since the final meeting, a book on Walthamstow Speedway should be published now. Immense credit must go to the author Keith Corns and the folks at London League Publications for bringing this book to market. It's a fascinating read about a track that had been largely forgotten and of which little has been previously written. Even if you don't have a particular interest in this track, we commend this book to you as a fascinating insight into one of the sport's most interesting eras.

You can order your copy from the London League Publications website.

 

This article was first published on 29th October 2023

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