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In 1946 our neighbouring farmer named Joe, a hard working and kind man with an enthusiastic personality introduced me to speedway racing. Joe had been a keen supporter of Newcastle Diamonds speedway before World War II in the days of Canadian George Pepper. Living in a farming community then, meant school summer holidays were spent assisting with the annual harvest, the work was heavy and totally manual from dawn to dusk during fine weather, if it rained we cut thistles.  The only farm horsepower had four legs and a tail, mechanised farming had not yet arrived.  My surprise reward took away all aches and pains when Joe invited me along with three sturdy farmers to a special speedway gala meeting at Brough Park; our transport a Ford ten saloon.  The 40 mile journey seemed endless sandwiched between two burly farmers in the back seat. No one elaborated on what to expect and my parents were not familiar with speedway. I was told the programme included local riders Jeff Lloyd and captain Norman Evans competing with some of the best riders in the country, however Joe had a quiet admiration towards one special rider.  

This was my first experience of a stadium packed full of people, it was daunting being squashed together waiting for the event to start and where I lived three was a crowd. More concerning was when my hosts instructed me to stay in that spot and ‘do not move’ whilst they disappeared. I stood there looking up at people from different aspects of working life I distinctly remember the sound system playing “The Twelfth Street Rag” by Pee Wee Hunt, it was lively music fitting the occasion perfectly it also introduced me to traditional jazz. Team supporters with knitted scarfs and wooden rotating rattles in Newcastle Diamonds colours was also new to me.  The noise of speedway machines warming up was my first smell of that wonderful alexia, Castrol R adding further excitement to the night.  My hosts returned in a more jovial mood than when leaving and breathing another unfamiliar smell, I later found out they went to something called a bar that served a particular medicine namely Newcastle Brown Ale. I must point out we lived in a strict temperance area of about 30 square miles in the lowlands of the Cheviot hills and I was extremely naïve outside of country life.  

At 7.30pm Johnny S Hoskins went into action with a fast rider parade (without helmets), followed directly by the first race. When the tapes went up I was truly stunned by the spectacular action and when eventual darkness came with only track lights on during racing, the event became even more dramatic highlighting the riders in black with their respective team colours. Anticipation from the crowd came in the third race and clearly surrounded one rider namely Oliver Hart. I was hoisted onto the shoulders of two farmers each grabbing a leg and told to watch closely at Oliver’s different riding style. At least at that height I escaped Joe’s excitable reaction of being hit over the head with his flat cap (the standard northern male headdress) Oliver riding from number 4 gate position went into the first bend giving me the impression he was going around the outside dog track, he somehow emerged round the bottom of the fence in the deep cinders fully displaying the artistry of leg trailing, I could not believe it possible. Spontaneous crowd ovation followed the race; a clear indication of Oliver’s popularity and this happened everywhere he rode. Johnny Hoskins the master of any ceremony kept the event moving quickly with little time allowance to fill in the programme before the next race.  

The interval was a show on its own with Oliver the prankster venting Johnnie’s hat with a shotgun and burning his coat with methanol (health and safety came much later). Bill Kitchen was the event winner but Oliver was the spectator’s winner. The Newcastle team rider Pat Smith was a big man, a farmer from near Rothley about 8 miles from Joe’s farm on the B6342. As they knew each other Joe probably thought some friendly encouragement would help, by shouting “come on stiffy” Not the language you might hear today, it had no effect as Pat remained a 2-point rider. Pat had a very big brother Barney, a well known Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestler. It is a discipline of skill, strength and tactics, whereby two opponents take hold of each other. Left arm over the shoulder and right under opponents left shoulder, with hands clasped tightly around each other’s backs this hold brings their heads together side by side. Given the impression of two men cuddling, then at some point both apply their tactics to try and floor the other to become the winner.

With my first speedway meeting over and Joe still in racing mode we ran for the car, it was keep up or get lost in the crowds of flat caps and headscarves running for the waiting tramcars. I had the speed but not the height, once in the car I could only reflect and dream of things to come. Would I ever be able to ride one of those very different machines as I was already acquainted with my fathers Norton from an early age straddled on the flat tank operating the hand gear change.

 The long journey home meant a necessary stop for greasy fish and chips in newspaper. I continued with my questions regarding the merits of spectacular leg trailing compared with the less spectacular foot forward method. Also that wonderful smell and noise from the machines and what was so special about the riders; We left the lights of Newcastle and arrived home about 11.15pm in complete darkness, the only lighting at home apart from a full moon was from oil hurricane lamps for outdoors and oil table lamps indoors. I explained the whole experience to my mother by reliving the nights adventure and had great difficulty going to sleep that night. I continued to support Newcastle by cycling some 5 miles to meet a special bus service from Otterburn, a utility Bedford with wooden slat seats capable of 45 mph and a driver with only one eye. This service allowed me to see most great riders of the day including another late leg trailer Syd Littlewood. Speedway had a detrimental effect on schooling; my thinking being if you are going to ride speedway why was school so important. Most everything I witnessed that evening was a first experience.  

At that period a family friend had become a prominent government minister and when visiting our home he always gave me half a crown before leaving “I liked him” He was always interested in my activities and he followed my instructions to become proficient at catching trout by hand (tickling) in our nearby river appropriately named “The Hart” but he knew little of speedway or of Oliver Hart.  At 12 years of age I was invited to his family home in Hampstead London for a three-week summer holiday to join their son of similar age.  Travelling from Newcastle central by steam train we shared a carriage with other colleagues that prompted many questions and suggestions of places to visit, such as Lords or the Oval. Speedway was not mentioned and that’s where my thoughts were, clearly it would take some convincing.

On the journey south I sat by the window opposite the then minister of agriculture, it was harvest time and whilst passing fields of cereal crops the agricultural minister remarked “what a wonderful field of wheat” and without thinking I replied “its barley not wheat” Fortunately the train slowed down for the quarter mile signal and the barley was plain to see.  The TUC chairman began teasing the agricultural minister of his visual mistake or not knowing, but still I was extremely embarrassed.  Arriving in London the minister of agriculture gave me 10 (bob) shillings; perhaps it was in retaliation to others, as they were obliged to equal his gesture, “I was rich”

Despite London’s grandeur I began campaigning for a visit to one of the cities 5 speedway tracks. Without knowing, my host quietly investigated and Odsal were at Harringay on July 23rd a Friday night of my stay. This time we went in a Woolsey 18 and on the way I gave a full briefing of speedway’s procedure telling them to watch carefully when Oliver Hart appears. Oliver was in fine form that night the shale was flying and he scored 45% of the Odsal points total. The Harringay crowd showed clear appreciation for Oliver while my wide-eyed host completely endorsed his spectacular performance and the speedway meeting in general. Once again we relived the event but without fish and chips this time, I felt my objective concluded, now for the cricket.

I wasn’t to escape lightly, a penance was to be paid and during one of our regular visits to the House of Commons, other prominent people had been briefed by my host of the Harringay night out. At lunch on the House of Commons embankment restaurant I was asked to explain speedway racing, as I knew it. At 12 years old and still in short pants with a northern accent I somehow became known as “the lad from the Cheviots”. My explanation must have been satisfactory considering I was invited back. (If only I had known then of the greedy governments unfair entertainment tax on speedway) On my return home I gave Joe a full appraisal of Oliver’s night at Harringay.

After army national service in Kenya chasing Mau Mau, I met my future wife and we decided to visit New Zealand in 1962. During our stay I had the opportunity to ride handicap speedway on harder surfaces than cinders or shale. I enjoyed the two seasons of riding speedway as it gave the opportunity to appreciate the art and discipline of riding, whilst endorsing my admiration for riders past and present. Back in England my work included world travel that kept me from speedway, apart from a period of working on the track at Poole in the late sixties. This was another wonderful period in speedway when the Polish and Russian riders rode in Britain.  

Since retirement from work my involvement with vintage speedway (Douglas and Rudge) has often brought reflections of past riders, but Oliver remains vivid in my memory of that night in 1946, leg trailing the wide line like no other. He could have changed to foot forward style as other riders did and benefited financially, but the family haulage business and farm was Oliver’s livelihood, speedway was his enjoyment. This unique position allowed Oliver to be singularly different as the last fast leg-trailing entertainer whilst still a major points scorer. In the 1948 British Riders Championship Final, Oliver scored 9 points against the best in the world, only a machine failure in heat two reduced his chances of a fourth place. Wembley 1949 records Oliver as the last leg-trailer to be seen in a world final at the stadium, his three rides were displays of his artistry to be remembered.  Riding in the shale out beyond the three quarter line accompanied by the safety fence was Oliver’s preferred racing line. As the great Jack Parker once remarked, “Oliver should be paid more because he travels further”. By knowing that his singular artistic style carried such popular public appeal, perhaps that was his self-satisfaction, he certainly gave value for money and promoters gained by his presence through the turnstiles. A rider who knew Oliver told me that other riders in the same meeting would go to the pits fence simply to watch him perform. Odsal speedway fans were fortunate to have that wonderful amphitheatre stadium with wide track, I can only imagine Oliver must have been a sight worth seeing.  

Some sixty years after that memorable night at Brough Park, I had the privilege of speaking with Oliver’s wife Mrs. Ann Hart before her passing. After reading my memories of Oliver, she gave me permission to write further on her husband’s life in speedway. My research through the Hart family produced considerable personal information I was not aware of. My tribute was serialised in the “Friends of Speedway” journal “The Voice” and then compiled into the booklet “Harts of Coppull”. Knowing the sale potential was to a limited age group many tributes followed proving I was only one of many to remember Oliver with admiration. It would have been enjoyable to explain my memories to him in person, and without knowing that his early accident was overcome by determination to produce an unmistakeable racing style that fascinated the speedway world, also a prominent government minister who later became an industrial Lord. Now content with a very special Norton single rotary engine project that I ride on grass hill climbs and display publicly.

As with Oliver Hart, it is one of my singular personal achievements.

My Leg Trailing Memories

By TAG Allison

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TAG Allison has also written a small book about the leg trailing Harts and their history and family, it is available from Stuart Towner the publisher of "Hart of Coppull"  Contact details; -

Stuart.towner@blueyonder.co.uk

Phone 0208 397 6599