90 years of Eastbourne Speedway
Author Ken Burnett traces the history of Eastbourne Speedway from its origins in 1929. In the first part, Ken tells the story of the early pioneering days.
On 5 October, 1928, Eastbourne’s local newspaper, the Eastbourne Courier, made the following announcement: “The Eastbourne Motor-Cycle Sports Club have purchased a field at Arlington, with a view to building a dirt track.” It took up just two lines but was to lead to an association with speedway which is still going strong today.
The field in question was on land originally owned by the Duke of Devonshire known as ‘The Hyde’, situated near Hailsham.
After much hard work, the track was ready to open its gates to the public the following year on Monday, August 5, 1929. The sports lovers who turned up that day out of curiosity to see this new sport that was sweeping the country were welcomed by Mrs P.C.Bird, the wife of the club’s president, Major P C Bird.
In a short, but interesting speech, she wished the riders every success and pointed out to the exceptionally large attendance that all the preparatory work in connection with the track had been carried out on a voluntary basis.
She also added that the venture was in a large measure due to the untiring enthusiasm and zeal of Mr. H. J. Heanley, the secretary of the Eastbourne Motor-Cycle Sports Club.
Considering it was the first time most of the riders had even seen a speedway track, they showed extraordinary skill and courage. There were a number of falls but those thrown from their machines mounted again without a moment’s hesitation.
The results of that first ever meeting were as follows:
Arlington Scratch Race:
Heat 1: Winner Jack Polley
Heat 2: Winner Not Known
Heat 3: Winner Bert Hele
Heat 4: Winner Les Ashdown
Heat 5: Winner Eddie Allchorn
1st Semi Final: Bert Hele
2nd Semi Final: Les Ashdown
Final: Les Ashdown (Time: 119.4 seconds)
Two match races were won by Jimmy Horton in times of 94.4 and 92.6. A “team” race was won by London with Eastbourne second and Arlington third.
In a handicap event, Horton came out on top once more, winning the race in a time of 97.8.
The ACU steward was Mr H. P. Taylor and other officials were Mr S. Yelo (Timekeeper); Mr J. Coleman (Starter) and Mr G. Weddle (Clerk of the Course).
About one thousand spectators turned up to watch the second meeting which took place on August 29. By this time, speedway, like greyhound racing, had seized the public imagination with tracks appearing all over the country.
The only difference as far as Eastbourne was concerned was that the Arlington meetings were being run by volunteers and not a professional company.
A dozen riders took part in this second meeting. Only a few of them had real dirt track machines, but this in itself made for interesting racing.
Jimmy Horton, Bert Hele and Rod Dutton were the most successful participants.
Dutton shattered the four lap track record, covering the full 1,200 yards in 87.8 seconds. In the Hailsham Handicap Final it seemed as though he would break his new record, but, unfortunately, he hit the safety fence on the last lap.
A great gasp went up from the crowd as he was thrown from his machine and lay inert on the ground. Horton, who was not far behind him, just managed to avoid him and went on to win the race.
Meanwhile, Dutton had recovered sufficiently to tell the first-aid helpers that he was all right and did not need their assistance. Although there was no damage done to him, his gearbox was smashed and he was unable to ride again.
Other winners that afternoon were Bert Spears, who won the Special 350cc class on his new Imperial, and Dutton who won the Arlington Scratch Race. Two match races were held between Horton and Hele with each winning one race.
The third and last meeting of that first season was held on September 14. This meeting attracted a number of visiting riders including Sparks Burgess, Les Bourne and Bert Gerrish. Spears once again won the Special 350cc race while Horton won the Arlington Scratch Race in the fastest time of the afternoon, 91.8. Bourne won the Hailsham Handicap, but was beaten by Horton in a special match race held between the winners of the two main events.
As the short season wound up, everyone agreed that the Arlington Motor Sports Club had done a great job, particularly the two promoters, Mr Henley and Major Bird.
Due to the success of speedway at Arlington, a grass track stadium was opened at Thornwell at nearby Wilmington and a meeting there on 22 September attracted over 1,000 spectators.
The second season at Arlington began on Easter Monday, Apri 21. Once again the Eastbourne Motor-Cycle Sports Club was congratulated on the wide interest and enthusiasm of the captivated spectators. The most exciting part of the day’s events was the exhibition by Bryan Donkin.
Donkin was a local lad and member of the Eastbourne Motor-Cycle Club who, before the advent of speedway, had been an expert trials rider in and around the Sussex area. When speedway arrived in London in 1928 he had gone off to try out the new sport and had progressed so well that by 1929 he had become a member of the Crystal Palace team then racing in the Southern League.
This experience put him in a class of his own compared to the local amateurs and his method of taking corners was a revelation to them and the spectators alike as he proved the theory that the faster you take corners the safer you are.
In his first ride he literally screamed round the four laps, flattening out at corners with the throttle full on. The crowd couldn’t believe what they were seeing and when the time for the four laps was announced it was discovered that Donkin had broken the track record by almost 10 seconds, lowering it to 78.4.
Later in the meeting he went one better, knocking a further second off his own new track record.
It was the first time that Arlington had seen ‘real’ speedway and several of the riders tried to copy Donkin’s method. The most successful was Jimmy Horton who managed to win the President’s Challenge Cup in 88.4 seconds. Other successful riders that afternoon were Rev Reynolds and Bert Hele.
Two thousand five hundred turned up on Whit Monday to see some splendid racing from Bryn Lewis, E. Willis, Perry Gallivant and Tiny Lewis. There were many thrills and falls due mainly to the fact that more than 2,000 gallons of water had been poured on the track to keep the dust down.
A further meeting took place on August 4 when there were more thrills for the crowd to enjoy as the racing yielded some good performances. There was however a disappointing showing from Bryan Donkin, who did not show his usual reckless form and repeatedly fell at the same point on the track.
Two new arrivals from Australia took part in the afternoon’s racing, Steve Langton and Phil ‘Tiger’ Hart. Langton’s style was described in the local paper, the Eastbourne Courier, as “unique”: “He stands on his right footrest and puts his left leg out stiff.”
It sounds to the modern ear like a prototype foot forward style. Langton beat Donkin in a special match race. Langton also won both the Arlington Scratch Race final and the Eastbourne Handicap final. As well as Donkin, Langton and Hart, the usual Arlington riders were out in force including Hele, Horton, Reynolds and Polley as well as Sparks Burgess.
Admission to Arlington was one shilling and twopence (7p) for adults and sixpence (2½p) for children.
Buses left Hailsham Station every five minutes direct to the track. There were also special coaches from the Pier, Victoria Place and the Parade.
No racing took place at Arlington in 1931. Both the local riders and the local supporters seem to have migrated to a new grass track venue nearby at Horsebridge, also run under the auspices of the Eastbourne Motor-Cycle Club by their secretary Stuart William “Tiny” Lewis.
Other “Arlington” riders to appear during the year included Jack Polley, Rev Reynolds and D. Brock. A team event was held on May 24, which saw Eastbourne defeat a team from Hastings by 16 points to 6.
Another match took place on July 5 when the Eastbourne team met a much more experienced team from Oxford called Layton’s Motor Sports Club. Included in the Eastbourne team were Reynolds and Brock. Although the local team lost 15-9, they started off with a heat one victory.
According to the Eastbourne Courier: “D Brock scored a magnificent win, on the post, from F. French, racing up on the inside to win by inches, to the great surprise of French.”Four thousand people attended this match.
Scandal hit the Eastbourne Motor-Cycle Club in August, when the Secretary, Tiny Lewis, was remanded on bail in the Magistrates’ Court. He was charged with embezzlement and making a false entry in the ledger of his employers, Messrs F Ray and Sons.
The last meeting of 1931 took place on September 25. Lewis was conspicuous by his absence.
Speedway returned to Arlington in 1932, the season starting on Good Friday, March 25, and once again a good size crowd of around 3,000 turned up. Bryan Donkin lowered the track record to 75 seconds in winning the scratch race final from Bill Thompson, Jack Riddle and Harry Davidson.
Three days later Davidson won the scratch race final when he beat Donkin. Donkin, however, gained quick revenge winning the handicap final.
On April 4 history was made when the first proper team event was held at Arlington. The match between Arlington and Staines was run over nine heats and won by the visitors 31- 23.
Speedway at Arlington now had strong opposition from grass track racing being held just down the road at Stone Cross with many of the cinder stars riding in both events.
In one interesting incident over 20,000 spectators were expected at the Folkington grass speedway by the Black Horse public house. Special trains were laid on for the spectators as were many buses. So worried were the Folkington track promoters they had minders looking after the track all night for protection.
The two meetings, though, were staged in pouring rain and the crowds of 3,000 and 6,000 were well below expectations.
Meanwhile over at Arlington, Charlie Budden, riding a 1928 Douglas machine, set a new handicap track record. Other riders appearing up to the end of the season, which carried 13 meetings, were Jack Stanselol, Pat Dixon, Lou Berger and Charlie Lumsden. In a pairs event won by Arlington, teams from Norwich, Cambridge, Wimbledon, Staines and Hammersmith took part.
1932 also saw the first staging of the Championship of Sussex which was won by George Wilkie after Lou Berger had fallen when well in the lead. Other riders appearing in this history making Championship were Frank Chitty, who fell and broke his collar bone, Jack Williams, Fred Quinnell, Clem French, Percy Gullivant and Smoky Vielar. Jack Polley, the first ever winner of a race at Arlington, was considered too good for amateur riding and rode under the pseudonym Jack Thomas. This was a common practice throughout the pre-war years.
The first two meetings of 1933 took place on Good Friday and Easter Monday in front of large crowds. Lou Berger won the Good Friday Scratch Race in a time of 79.6, while the honours on Easter Monday went to B. Linn in 84.8.
Two weeks later George Wilkie beat Lou Berger in a match race for the two fastest riders, Wilkie’s time being 80 seconds. The two main events of the day were the Golden Helmet Scratch Race, won by Wilkie and the now common Hailsham Handicap race, won by Lumsden.
Lumsden also attempted to break the track record which stood at 75 seconds, but unfortunately his time was five seconds outside.
However, on June 25, the track record was broken by a newcomer to Arlington calling himself Bill Bennett. By this time Eastbourne was being used by a number of the London clubs to try out their juniors and to give them experience.
One such to arrive was George Newton. The 18-year-old Newton had caused a sensation in 1932 when, in his first outing for Crystal Palace as reserve at West Ham, he had equalled Vic Huxley’s track record.
However, he was not able to live up to this promising start and, by 1933, he was struggling to hold on to the reserve spot. Freddie Mockford, the promoter of Crystal Palace thought the young Newton would benefit from a few outings at Arlington.
On his very first appearance, riding under the name of Bill Bennett, he lowered Donkin’s track record to 73.8 seconds.
At the same meeting, Freddie Douglas won the Friston Handicap while Lumsden won the Golden Helmet Scratch Race Final. Several riders failed to arrive for the next meeting, but luckily the crowd did see Stan Johns win the scratch race and handicap events in spite of being pushed all the way by Jock Elliott, Joe Brown, Cliff Ray and Rev Reynolds.
On September 9 another visiting rider, Plymouth-based Jack Morrison, left all the locals behind. He stormed to victory in the Big Five scratch race event, though a spectacular fall let Bert Linn win the Handicap event.
Using his real name, George Newton made a further attempt on the track record on September 17, but he just failed, covering the course in 74 seconds, just 0.2 of a second outside.
Stan Lemon won the second Championship of Sussex when he beat Jack Riddle, Harvey Swanson and Rube Wilson who fell, in the grand final in a time of 81.2.
1934 was a significant year in the club’s history as it was in this year that Charlie Dugard, who had been riding at Arlington since 1932, together with Tiger Hart, bought a share in the club. The Dugard family have, of course, been associated with Eastbourne Speedway ever since.
The season started once again on Good Friday and Newton continued to dominate proceedings for the next few meetings, though he was surprisingly beaten by Jack Riddle in the opening meeting’s Scratch Race final. Riddle’s previous best time around Arlington had been 96.0. In beating Newton, he scorched round in a spectacular 79.6.
Shortly after the start of the season, Newton was recalled to London by Mockford, who had by now moved the Crystal Palace team lock, stock and barrel to New Cross.
Other riders now came to the fore including Riddle, Stan Lemon, a Wimbledon junior; Geo Saunders, Rube Wilson and Bill Roberts.
In June and July, a serious drought threatened the running of meetings at Arlington, with the meetings during these months having to be stopped on regular occasions to allow copious amounts of water to be poured on to the track.
Riddle went from strength to strength, winning the Hailsham Handicap on September 2, the same meeting in which Roberts managed to knock a whole second off Newton’s track record. Unfortunately for him, Roberts was badly injured in the last meeting, on September 16, breaking his arm. This left Rube Wilson and Jack Riddle to mop up, Wilson winning both the Hailsham Cup and the Lewes Handicap and Riddle the Championship of Sussex. Others present at the final meeting of the season included Dugard, Burger and Swanson.
A very large crowd turned out for the opening meeting on April 7 to once again listen to the deafening roar of the speedway bikes after a winter’s absence. Unfortunately the noise was accompanied by very heavy rain.
The track had several new alterations, which included widening the corners and laying some 20 tons of cinders all over the course. But, most important of all, was the erection of the starting gate in a bid to ensure perfect starts.
The combination of heavy rain and deep cinders made for plenty of thrills and spills and the crowd loved it. They also enjoyed seeing the success of Charlie Dugard turning in his best performances yet. But even he had to give second best to Phil Phillips who pipped him in the semi final and final of the handicap event.
Of the first five meetings only the fourth wasn’t badly affected by rain. That was the Jubilee meeting which was won by Jack Hawkins.
The meeting described as the best of the 1935 season took place on June 16. There were no serious crashes but plenty of spills and thrilling finishes and, what was even better, good weather for a change.
Once again the main event was the Hailsham Cup and the seventh round of this tournament was won by Rube Wilson. However, it was Joe Brown who really caught the eye with a time of 77.8 in a heat of the handicap event.
He then went on to win the final to crown a fine afternoon’s entertainment. Wilson was presented with the Hailsham Cup after the eighth round despite the fact that on this occasion he did not win the final. However, he now had an unassailable lead with 10 points to spare from previous rounds.
On July 28, the first evening meeting took place at Arlington, during which a collection was held for James Eden who was injured grass tracking at Wilmington the previous week. This raised £20 19s 2d. Although Wilson was still winning meetings on a regular basis, Joe Brown, Harry Lewis and Jack Smythe improved enough to make sure he didn’t have things all his own way through August.
The wettest September for years played havoc with the end of the season fixtures though it didn’t stop Jack Riddle from winning the Sussex Championship.
The erection of the starting gate in 1935 led to quicker times from a standing start and, during the season, the record was brought down to 75.2 by Rube Wilson. This was then equalled by George Newton and Joe Brown
The 1936 season got under way on Good Friday, April 10. There was a good crowd but a shortage of riders which handicapped the meeting somewhat. George Newton, back to riding under the name of Bill Bennett, dominated the meeting, just failing to beat the clutch start track record.
On Easter Sunday however he managed to lower the flying start record from 72.8 to 71.6 and the clutch start record from 75.2 to 74.8. Bennett’s success continued as, on April 26, a record crowd of 3,000, the largest for four years, witnessed his run away victory in the Sussex Championship.
The track, with its new banking which assisted riders, was particularly fast and most winners were singled out long before the winning post was reached. Bennett twice broke the track record and, by the end of the day it stood at 74.2.
Following Bennett’s runaway win, it was agreed that in future the Sussex Championship would be confined to second division riders. Several top second division riders now began to appear every week at Arlington including Tiger Hart, Roy Virgo and Charlie White.
On August 31, a new addition was made at the track – a bell which was rung from the judges’ box for the two minute warning. On September 20 an exciting challenge match between Eastbourne and an all-American team led by the World Champion stunt rider Putt Mossman took place. The thrilling Americans beat the Eastbourne team by 37-32.
The teams for this encounter were: Eastbourne: Jack Riddle (captain), Charlie Dugard, Harry Lewis, Dan Lee, C. Anderson and Jack Tidbury. All Americans: Putt Mossman (captain), Pee Wee Cullum, Pete Coleman, Dick Ince, Manuel Trujillo and Dick Lawton. So successful was this event that Mossman’s circus was invited back the following week but heavy rain caused the meeting to be abandoned.
To round off the season, Bennett returned to set up new track records of 70.2 flying start and 73.2 clutch start.
In many ways 1937 was the start of things to come. For the first time the season wasn’t dominated by the Hailsham Cup, as team racing came to Arlington, although 4000 watched the first round of the cup together with the Championship of Sussex, which was won by 1935 champion, Jack Riddle,
It was on June 26 that Arlington finally saw what many people thought speedway should all be about as Eastbourne got together its very own permanent team and called them the Eagles.
That very first crop of Eagles was hatched and took flight with a stunning victory over the Dagenham ‘Daggers’, led by their skipper Frank Hodgson, by 57 points to 25. The team consisted of Jimmy James, Charlie Blythe, Stan Johnson, Charlie Sargeant, Jack Kirby, Jack Nash, C. Anderson and Harvey Swanson.
After the success against Dagenham, the next matches were home and away ties against Rye House. The Eagles went down 47-25 at Hoddesdon where the racing was described as fast and exciting and a new track record of 90 seconds set.
The scorers were: Rye House, J. Boyd 12, T. Allott 11, R. Lovell 9, W. Lowther 8, F. L. Robinson 5, F. Curtis 2.
Eastbourne, D. Lee 7, S. Johns 6, B. Desmond 3, J. Riddle 4, J. Tidbury 2, K. Tidbury 2, C Dugard 1. Total: 25.
The return on September 4, proved to be an equally exciting match, with the Eagles putting in a great effort, winning 52-32 on the day but just going down on aggregate by two points,79-77.
To end the season ‘Tiger’ Hart was presented with the Hailsham Cup after totaling most points throughout the season.
It was during this season that, for the first time, the 70 seconds barrier was smashed as George Newton recorded a time of 68.8 seconds, a track record that was to last until 1955, when the track was shortened by ten yards. Following the success of the season’s challenge matches, it was hoped that the Eagles’ followers would be able to enjoy league racing in 1938 as talks took place between the smaller non-league clubs such as High Beech, Dagenham, Eastbourne, Rye House and Smallford to see if they could form an amateur league the following year.
The talks proved successful and a new league competition was introduced in 1938, the Sunday Amateur Dirt Track League.
Five teams entered the new league, Eastbourne, Smallford, Rye House, Dagenham and Romford, the latter two both using the Dagenham track as their home base.
High Beech chose not to take part but maintained a team for challenge matches.
Eastbourne were due to race their first-ever League fixture on May 1. The team chosen for the match against Smallford (St Albans) was Phil ‘Tiger’ Hart (captain), Bob Lovell, Danny Lee, Charlie Dugard, Stan Johns, Charlie Page and Jack Collins with C. Anderson, Harold Saunders and Law as reserves.
Unfortunately, the match had to be postponed due to rain.
With the home tie against Smallford being abandoned, Eastbourne began their campaign with an away match against Dagenham. The team saw a few changes from the one originally intended to start the campaign and comprised Tiger Hart (captain), Charlie Dugard, Bob Lovell, Stan Johns, Danny Lee, Charlie Page with Jack Collins and Harold Saunders as reserves.
The Eagles got off to a great start as they took a 4-2 in the first heat with Hart defeating the nigh on unbeatable Dagenham captain, Frank Hodgson.
Hart thus became the first rider ever to win a race for Eastbourne in an official league fixture. He went on to complete a superb maximum 12 points in the Eagles fine 44-39 away win. Unfortunately, there was another first for Eastbourne in the second heat as Collins became the first Eagle to be excluded. His crime was to break the tapes.
Eastbourne followed up their fine win with another superlative performance seven days later, when they performed the double over Dagenham, beating them 57-27 at home.
Once again, Hart played a true captain’s role by scoring a second maximum. The Eagles triumphant start to the campaign received something of a set-back the following week when they were heavily defeated at Smallford by 55 points to 27, but were back on track on May 29 with a home victory over Romford, 53-23.
Surprisingly, Eastbourne lost their next match away at Romford, by 46 points to 33. This was a very unexpected defeat as Romford had failed to win a single match before this though it has to be said that Eastbourne were without the services of Hart, Dugard and Collins for the match.
Normal service was resumed on June 28 when the Eagles beat their closest rivals, Smallford, by 55 points to 28. This was the restaging of the match postponed from May 1 and was the one Eagles supporters had been looking forward to eagerly.
However, it proved to be a bit of an anti-climax as Smallford arrived for the match with only five riders. The Eastbourne management demanded an explanation from Smallford, but never got one.
This victory took the Eagles to the top of the league and they never looked back all season as they went through the rest of the card undefeated to win their first league championship.
During the season, Eastbourne also fitted in a number of challenge matches including one against Reading and one against “The Internationals”, captained by Putt Mossman, who put on one of his famous stunt shows before the match.
The match itself was very one-sided as the Eagles ran out victors, 53-12, with The Internationals failing to score any points at all in five of the heats!
The Sunday League was abandoned in 1939 and Arlington returned to its normal diet of challenge matches and individual events.
The season opened on April 9 with a good crowd present to witness a fine meeting. Stan Johns won the Easter Scratch Race final, while Charlie Page took the Hailsham Handicap final. There was one unfortunate accident as Les Gore broke his collar bone following a fall.
A number of new riders began to make names for themselves at Arlington during the season, which made for better racing. The meeting on June 11 was described as the “finest meeting for some time.”
The main event was the Jempson Memorial Cup, presented by the Eastbourne Chairman, Mr A. A. Jempson, in memory of his son, Ken, who had been killed in a motor cycle accident in 1933.
After some of the best racing seen at Eastbourne for a long time, the winner proved to be the Dagenham captain, Jim Baylais, who beat Tiger Hart in to second place in the final.
On July 23, Eastbourne beat Wisbech 48-36 in a challenge match, while on August Bank Holiday a very large crowd turned out to see Dugard win the August Scratch Race final and Hart win the Summer Handicap final.
The meeting finished with two match races. Tiger Hart beat Stan Johns in the first, while in the second Ken Tidbury beat Cyril Brine. Although no-one realised it at the time was virtually the end of racing at Arlington for seven years.
When World War Two was declared on September 3, all speedway racing in this country came to a halt.
Some clubs managed to put on a few war time events, notably Belle Vue. The Eastbourne track was taken over by the Canadian Army and speedway was abandoned for the duration other than one meeting in 1940.