Custom House Years

Home of the 'Appy Ammers'

Ron Butcher

 

 

In 1940 at the age of 8 years my family moved to Beckton Road now Tollgate Road to a flat about 100yards from the speedway stadium, where we lived through the war until 1946. From 1946 I was speedway mad and made up my mind that I would become a speedway rider. Having separated from my Farther my Mother was always against my riding ambitions.

 

That sets the scene for 1949

1949

Now living in East Ham and working as a fitter for Arthur Warwick (Pre War West ham rider) I descended onto the Fearman family where Aub Lawson was lodging during his English Season. Reggie's family where kindness itself, consequently, I was riding on an old cycle speedway track with a vintage Douglas and having great fun, It was the bike Reg had been weaned off for a JAP.

Ron's old Douggie

On Sunday Aub, Reg and Cliff Watson turned up and Aub stated that I was ready to take the next step and advised me to pop down to the stadium the following day.

Not needing to be told twice I arrived at the stadium at midday Monday, to find Aub signing autograph books and photographs. "Ah! Just the man sign some of these books mate" But! I started, but Aub went on "Get yourself known" Jean Grey, Ken Brett's secretary sitting at the desk gave me a knowing smile and a wink. I must say after signing a few books my ego rose several degrees.

I asked what sort of money was involved. "Well Ron it would be £100, we'll go around to the workshops after lunch". "But I'm on a diner break" I said. "Good come up to the restaurant, it's on the house". Trying to eat my food whilst several of my heroes where sitting around the table and with the panoramic view of the beautiful stadium in the sun, proved to be almost impossible. I was on cloud 9 after getting back to work very late.

More good news on arriving home, Mum, in spite of her misgivings had secured from a Xmas club the chance of a loan. In a couple of days together with my brother, I arrived at the workshop in the Custom House track, with the words of my Mother ringing in my ears "Don't you dare let that money out of your hands until you get that blasted bike!".

Ron Trying out leg trailing on his Douggie 1949

Aub was waiting outside the workshop with the machine; it was an Alec Mosley job with a copper plated frame. Aub had warmed it up and armed only with a steel shoe my brother rode a few circuits on the car park cinders. Then I got astride the bike and it seemed like I had ridden it since birth. Reluctantly I bought the bike back after a few laps. John and Aub had gone into the workshops to sign the bill of sale, while I put my hand in my leather jacket pocket. IT WAS EMPTY! My blood froze, my mind did cartwheels. How could I have lost it, Mum's fury would not be wasted on me. Then fluttering in the grooves I had cut out into the cinders was a buff envelope. I raced to the site and back as my brother appeared out of the workshop. He said "what's up with you", "nothing" I snapped "I thought I had forgot something" and duly handed over the 100 pound notes.

At 6.30 that Wednesday morning my brother and I turned up at the Custom House track for practice. I spent the following few days prior to going of to serve King and Country pestering the long suffering Team Manager for a ride in a meeting, he relented and on the evening of my first competitive ride in a meeting all be it in a scratch event, I pushed my bike the two and a bit miles from home as I had no transport.

Here I was in the pits waiting to set the world alight, and then the pit official gave me my helmet and body colours, John helped me on with them. When the riders of the previous glided through the pit gates John wheeled our bike onto the track, two track graders waited for me at the bike. I felt like a Knight of old going to do battle for his fair lady, Lord knows where she was? Up in the stands I supposed. But now my legs had turned to jelly though I tried to act in a nonchalant manner, the announcer called out " And in blue Ron Butcher" and with an involuntary "I'm here" the two pushers shouted in unison "WE BLEEDING HOPE SO" They pushed me off to a clean start and after a long half lap the tapes came into view. I thought come on God give me a break and glided up to the tapes, where my engine died on me. Two or three graders rushed to my assistance, but to no avail, the spark plug had juiced up. The blue light shone brightly telling me to get off the track, so despairingly I pushed my bike off the track onto the centre green and when the cannon went for the end of the race, I looked at the winning time which did not improve my mood when I realised I could have bettered it. The whole debacle proved to me that God had no knowledge of the workings of an internal combustion engine, so it would be me and the bike in future.

Well that was that, not a penny to show for it, not even starting money and with an ACU licence fee, insurance fee and the cost of fuel and oil, I was over £2 out of pocket, though I would have willingly paid to ride so the management would say we will need you after your national service which should have been 18month but lasted 2 years because of the Korean war. So it was now off to Catterick with dreams for the future.


1951

 

After basic training at Catterick I was transferred to Barnard Castle, Co.Durham to train for, guess what, a despatch rider in the Royal Signals. I could not believe my luck, even doing some racing at Redcar Sands.

It was great to get back astride my beloved dirt bike, following discharge from the services in June 1951 after 2 years.

I started pestering West Ham for rides only managing to get a few, however, I used the Dagenham dog track car park for circuits and clutch starts and also loaded my bike on the train to ride at Rye House. Sadly the end of the season came all too quickly.

Ron practicing clutch starts at Rye House (1953)

 


1952

On June 10th 1952 in a junior scurry event, I accompanied Stan Redford, Arthur Harrison and Johnnie Fry. Prior to the race Fry was very aggressive in his attitude to the rest of us. Luckily, I thought! I drew the outside gate position, my intention was to ride the fence on the 1st bend, (which I liked doing anyway) before coming back in line, thus keeping well away from Johnnie who had drawn the inside gate.

In 1952 we had tarmac starting grids which afforded you fast gating, which was my intention. I reached the apex of the broad West Ham 1st bend and that was the last I remembered as Johnnie came straight off the line as if attracted like a magnet to me. By all accounts, I took to the air landed 20ft on along the dog track followed by my bike which landed on top of me. I came too briefly in the first aid room and then again in the ambulance, all the time being watched over by my brother. I then spent the next couple of weeks in Poplar hospital with hairline fractures.

I never had the pleasure of Johnnie's company again. The irrepressible West Ham promoter Johnnie Hoskins wrote the following week that he was suing me for the cost of 20ft of safety fence. Shortly after, I asked for and got more bookings, despite having just used up one of my seven lives.

 


1953

Ron practicing at Rye House 1953 (early Martin Frame)

In 1953 I raced in the Junior league for West Ham; On the 28th of April we were up against Wimbledon's Ken Holmes and Don Perry. Ken whilst leading hit the fence just before the gate right in front of me! Although on the straight, I managed to lay the bike down, however, could not avoid him completely and missed the re run. By now my foot was feeling rather sore. The track doctor checked it and declared it to be OK. So I rode in the second heat still in pain, but managed to get a point.

The following morning an X Ray showed that 5 metatarsals in my right foot where fractured. I was out of action for some weeks with a full plaster cast from the toes up to below the knee. On visiting the West Ham office one day I was approached by Tiger Stevenson to help out with the clubs contribution to the West Ham carnival at the end of the week as the team were riding away at Belle Vue that day.

I've got to admit at this time, for some reason best known Tiger, we did not exactly hit it off, however, anything to do with the club was fine by me.

 


West Ham Carnival

 

Ron on the West Ham Float (1953)

I was picked up early Saturday morning by the two "Jessup's" men Bill and Ted with the flat back lorry that was used to grade the track. It turned up outside my house loaded with a bike, adorned with a massive circular structure in the shape of a crown and emblazoned with "Crowning" Sport West Ham Speedway. I was already in my riding gear, Having had to cut my leathers on the right leg to go over my plaster. Once on the bike, Bill and Ted adjusted my leathers so the plaster did not show. So off we set to take up our position in the mile long assembly of floats in the back streets of Forest Gate, with the curtains of each house being pulled back.

Tiger had already warned me if it looks like being a hot day take water aboard as it will take some four hours. It was already warm at 7am. After moving off at nine, I was greeted with a number of cries of "NAH! THAS NOT JACK YOUNG" as though I was some out of work actor.

Two hours into the procession I was getting desperate for a pee, two hours later I was in agony and in my agony wrongly felt the crowds were aware of my predicament and enjoying it. At last we drew up to Beckton Park just as I got a terrific cramp in my good leg, but some how I got down from the float and hobbled across the park to the toilets and I can tell you it is not easy in this situation to accomplish the easiest of actions, especially when one small fan in the toilet asks you for your autograph.

After arriving home, I was determined this would not happen again or anything like it so taking a hacksaw blade, I pushed it down into my plaster and cut it off. I was already frustrated with Poplar Hospital for dillydallying with getting it off. Then after some exersising to get fit, I took myself down to Custom House looking for a ride.

 


The Harry Eyre Crash

 

I got booked for a ride on the 7th of July. Also racing that night where Arthur Harrison, Harry Eyre and Jim Chalkley. Harry was a friend of Pat and Colin Clark already regular first team members. He had graduated from Cycle Speedway as many others had done or tried to. I was led at the time to believe it was Harry's first on this track.

We lined up at the grid and when the tapes flew up, Harry got a flier, I remember thinking he had some motor there, however, he looked a bit erratic and that is saying something coming from me. Suddenly he struck the fence just before the starting grid and appeared to land on his feet; in a split second from behind I managed to change my line, but Jim hot on my heels and nearer the fence did not have the luxury I had.

I turned before the pits and it was all too obvious what had occurred. I felt relief I had missed Harry but too me, it was more than possible that he would not survive a 70mph crash and that Jim was seriously injured.

When we arrived at the Custom House office next morning, Jean Ken Brett's secretary informed me in a faltering voice that Harry was dead. The workshop was unusually quite and as I walked the track with Ken he put his arm around my shoulder to console me and possible himself as we reached the spot near the Gate. It all seemed surreal in the bright morning sunshine.

 

I was also in the pits on the night when Wimbledon's new American acquisition drove full throttle into the fence and died in Poplar hospital with severe head injuries.

I was later told that Jim had a badly broken leg. Days later the inquest was opened at Poplar coroners court which I attended with Tiger Stevenson, I must say I felt uncomfortable during the proceedings, but when it came to a question of my opinion, I stated forcibly that I felt then and now, that there was no way Jim could have avoided Harry and I hope he realised it as he did not attend the court.

I met Jim later at the track bar he was on crutches and did not look well after which I lost touch and was not aware if he was riding again. I quite wrongly of course thought that I was some sort of jinx and at that time friend and mentor Aub Lawson was riding for Norwich.


 

1954

 
 
 
 
Ron , Olle Nygren and Reg Fearman practicing at Custom House
Thanks to Reg Fearman for the Photo
 
I rode several weeks into the season but was unwell and suffered with chronic back pains and it was later diagnosed that I had squeezed out three discs in my lower back and the vertebra's were already fusing into one.
 
 
Ron and Reg practicing
Thanks to reg for the photo
 
I subsequently joinned the Merchant Navy but after a couple of years cotracted TB and was hospitalised for 10 months. 

I would like to pay tibute too Greenwich "Seamans Dreadnought Hospital" and Epping "Honey Lane Hospital" and  the many lovely people who worked there who played a large part in his recovery.

When fully fit again, I got married to a lovely lady and with two children moved to Basingstoke, Hampshireand and settled in by watching the lads at the Reading track. But I still have a very soft spot for my first love the Hammers.

 


 

Ron more recently

 

Ron at the Popham Airfield Hampshire for the Southern Classic Speedways

 

A bike that took Ron's fancy!

 

Ron trying to relive his youth 2007

 

 

Ron's final thoughts

 
One experiance that will never leave me, was on a racing evening, the walk from the dressing rooms through the dark of the tunnel into the sunshine, and the expanse of arena, then the walk across the starting gate, and over the immaculate centre green, to the pits, an entry that was unique at the time.
 
Sadly Ron passed away in Aug 2013
 
A tribute to Ron on the Speedway Museum website