When speedway was king

SO far this summer this column has looked at soccer, mentioned green bowls and petanque, dipped into swimming, and touched on badminton…so today, please permit me to continue this sporting and recreational theme by looking at a long-gone Great Yarmouth favourite: speedway.

This is prompted by an inquiry from a regular contributor to Through the Porthole, Robin Hambling, of Lawn Avenue, Yarmouth, writing on behalf of his friend, Colin Hodds, of North Road, Hemsby.

For many years, my occasional posers about the Yarmouth Bloaters were speedily resolved by a phone call to Keith Farman, of Beccles Road, Gorleston, a devotee of the sport and an acknowledged expert.

His encyclopaedic memory was seldom found wanting, but if he was stumped, he could turn for help to his wealth of statistics, catalogued programmes, memorabilia and even his enduring friendship with some of the world’s top riders – for example, he was in regular contact with his chum Ove Fundin, a former Norwich rider who was world champion no fewer than five times.

Sadly, that is no longer possible because 74-year-old Keith succumbed to cancer in December 2009.

His death never came to my notice until a few weeks ago when I rang his home with a another routine speedway query and was taken aback when his widow, Heather, told me of her family’s loss.

I owe Keith a posthumous debt of gratitude, and I will long remember some of our chats about the Yarmouth Bloaters, for in my teenage years I was a great fan, hooked from my first visit to the Caister Road Stadium to watch the inaugural meeting in April 1948.

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It was a competition for the East Coast Trophy, and a combination of the snarling motorbikes spraying cinders as they lapped the small oval track, the courage and daring of the riders and the excited atmosphere generated by the spectators made me ever-present at home meetings that first summer, despite the fact that I was still a 13-year-old schoolboy with nightly homework.

Fortuitously, the Yarmouth team colours were red and black...the identical colours to my Yarmouth Grammar School scarf!

I suppose Yarmouth Speedway helped me a little with my English Geography, for some of the teams the Bloaters raced against came from places of which I had never heard – like Cradley Heath, Tamworth, Hanley and Wombell, for example – and I had to look them up in my atlas.

They were good times despite the postwar austerity, and gates in that opening season averaged 6000-7000. The Yarmouth Bloaters fared well, their riders like teenage skid-kid Billy Bales became speedway stars, and I continued to be on the terraces almost every week until National Service took me away.

But, back to Robin Hambling and Colin Hodds, who have sent me three postcard-size pictures of the Yarmouth Bloaters, seeking help not only in identifying some of the riders in one of them but also putting a date on it.

According to Robin: “It was one of the prized possessions of Colin’s wife Dawn, who died earlier this year.”

Whatever the year, there appear to be two notable absentees: the diminutive Billy Bales and the bespectacled Bill Carruthers, both top riders.

By elimination, Robin suggests the year could have been 1950, for Bales was doing National Service then and, he says, never returned to the team.

There is a website on line covering defunct speedway teams to which Keith Farman contributed a detailed season-by-season account of the Yarmouth Bloaters’ fortunes.

In it he claims that despite serving in the Royal Air Force in 1950, Billy Bales was expected to ride for the team, missed the three opening encounters but did appear for four others before being posted to Egypt.

By the way, Billy Bales - who will never be forgotten by his fans from decades ago - came to Gorleston to visit his ailing friend Keith who is survived by his widow, two daughters, three grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Speedway racing in Yarmouth lasted from 1948 until 1953, partly a victim of extortionate government tax; it was revived from 1957 to 1961.

The caption to the problem picture helping to illustrate this week’s column gives the names of the riders so far identified, those about which Robin is unsure, and those he cannot recognise or to which he cannot put a name.

Any reader who can help to name the “mystery” riders or specify the year the picture was taken can telephone 01493 663747 or write to me: Peggotty, Great Yarmouth Mercury, 169 King Street, Great Yarmouth NR30 2PA.

Finally, a last visit to Gorleston Pavilion which has been frequently mentioned in this column in 2011, the most recent being a reference to a painting by acclaimed artist Harry Rutherford of its so-called Comedians’ Corner there.

The issue was raised by Mary Fielder, the artist’s niece and daughter of Robert Rutherford, a pre-war performer in Pavilion summer shows.

But when I asked a current lessee if part of the Pavilion was still referred to as Comedians’ Corner, he replied that he had never heard the name.

On learning that, Mrs Fielder wrote from her home in Wales: “I’m not surprised the present Gorleston Pavilion tenant does not recognise the title.

“It was simply the section of the shelf/work-top that my Dad used to make up before performances. When we visited (a few years ago) the dressing room had not been disturbed down through the years and the long shelf running the length of the wall, with mirrors above it, was still in place.

“Nothing very dramatic!”