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Saying goodbye to the Tom Thumb of Norwich speedway

PUBLISHED: 16:57 30 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:17 01 October 2017

Australian speedway hero Johnnie Chamberlain, who rode for his country along with Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Ipswich in the 1950s and 60s. Photo: Mike Kemp Collection.

Australian speedway hero Johnnie Chamberlain, who rode for his country along with Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Ipswich in the 1950s and 60s. Photo: Mike Kemp Collection.

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Derek James salutes Norwich Stars speedway great Johnnie Chamberlain, the ‘Tom Thumb’ of the track.

Some of the Norwich Stars fans who flocked to The Firs to see ace riders such as Johnnie Chamberlain. Picture: Mike Kemp Collection Some of the Norwich Stars fans who flocked to The Firs to see ace riders such as Johnnie Chamberlain. Picture: Mike Kemp Collection

He was a Kangaroo who turned into a Bloater and then a Star... they called him Tom Thumb and he was said to be the smallest rider ever to race in speedway.

Standing 4ft 9in in his cotton socks Johnnie Chamberlain was a giant on the speedway track and one of the most exciting riders in Great Yarmouth, Ipswich and finally Norwich of the 1950s and 60s.

The 1959 Norwich Stars line up at The Firs in front of thousands of cheering fans. Left to right: Phil Clarke, Billy Bales, Harry Edwards, Aub Lawson, Johnnie Chamberlain, Reg Trott, Gordon Parkins, Cyril Roger and Ove Fundin. Photo: Mike Kemp Collection. The 1959 Norwich Stars line up at The Firs in front of thousands of cheering fans. Left to right: Phil Clarke, Billy Bales, Harry Edwards, Aub Lawson, Johnnie Chamberlain, Reg Trott, Gordon Parkins, Cyril Roger and Ove Fundin. Photo: Mike Kemp Collection.

How the people loved him. He always had time for his fans.

Those were the days when more than 20,000 people would pack out the fabulous Firs Stadium on a Saturday night to watch the Norwich Stars in action.

Several of the best riders were Australians, a fast and fearless bunch. Johnnie was a local hero and today I am sad to say that he has died at his home in Perth, Australia. He had been suffering from dementia for many years.

It is important that people like Johnnie are not forgotten. He was part of a team which was one of the best supported in the whole of the speedway world at a time when the sport played a leading role in so many lives.

Back in 1953 Norwich was chosen to hold a full Test match between England and Australia for the first time. Several of the Aussies rode in the UK, including Johnnie who was part of the team. The attendance was 27,051. Australia won 62-46.

Norwich speedway historian and author Mike Kemp said: “I was sorry to hear about Johnnie’s death. He was a very exciting rider to watch – only being 4ft 9in tall he had many crashes.”

He established himself in this country at Great Yarmouth where he joined The Bloaters in 1952/3. He moved to Ipswich in 1954 and then came back to these parts to ride for Norwich in 1958 until the summer of 1961.

Johnnie gave strong back-up support to the likes of Ove Fundin, from Sweden, Aub Lawson, from Australian, and Billy Bales, who lived just round the corner at Hellesdon.

“He played a major part in what was the Stars’ best season up to that time, as they finished runners-up in both the National League and the National trophy,” he added.

In those days the speedway riders were as popular as the Carrow Road boys, and Ove Fundin, the Flying Fox and the best rider in the world, could earn more in one day than the footballers made in a week.

Johnnie rode like the wind and always gave 100 per cent. He was a real crowd-pleaser – and how the fans loved him. During his time with Norwich he was chosen to represent Australasia in two test matches.

Then, on August 26 1961, during a Lions v Kangaroos match, he went through the safety fence, breaking both his wrists in one of the most spectacular crashes ever seen at The Firs.

He never rode again.

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