Blunsdon Beginnings

The very first heat at Blunsdon on 23 July 1949 as, from left to right, Ginger Nicholls (Swindon), Dennis Gray (Oxford), Bill Downton (Swindon) and Ernie Rawlins (Oxford) leave the starting gate.

The very first heat at Blunsdon on 23 July 1949 as, from left to right, Ginger Nicholls (Swindon), Dennis Gray (Oxford), Bill Downton (Swindon) and Ernie Rawlins (Oxford) leave the starting gate.

Robert Bamford was the proprietor of Eat and Sleep at 14 High Street Malmesbury from 1996 to 1999, but is probably better known for his connection with speedway, having written a number of books on the motorised sport. Here he talks about the opening of Swindon Speedway at Blunsdon:

Long after the demise of the Autodrome at Gorse Hill, which saw dirt-track racing in its original format of individual scratch races and handicap events, from 1928-30, Swindon was to have a new speedway venue at Blunsdon in 1949.

This came about as a result of the combined ideas of two gentleman named Bert Hearse and L.R. “Nobby” Clark. Both had a background in the building trade. The two were joined Reg Witcomb – who had gained much previous speedway experience as general manager of the sport at Bristol – as directors of the new Abbey Stadium venture.

Early in the year, work began on the construction of the stadium in Blunsdon and a track measuring 410-yards was eventually constructed with a cinder surface. The nickname of the “Robins” was chosen after that used by Swindon Town Football Club, although a “Stallions” moniker had been suggested at one point, this being a reference to White Horse Hill situated near Uffington.

It was on the warm summer evening of Saturday 23 July at 6.30 p.m., that the Swindon Robins, who were to operate as a non-league club, first took to the track in a challenge match against Oxford, a side who raced in the Third Division of the National League. Reg Lambourne, formerly with Fleetwood, was Swindon’s captain for the historic first meeting, with the rest of the side being made up by Bill Downton, Ginger Nicholls, Harry Hughes, Bob Jones, Ivor Atkinson and the two reserves, Paul Best and Tom Wilson.

The attendance was recorded as some 8,000 people, although stadium accountant at the time, Ted Nelson, always believed the crowd was nearer 10,000, many folk having probably sneaked in through the gaps in the hedge that surrounded the premises.

Some two hours later, after fourteen heats of exciting racing, the Robins had lost by 45-points to 39. Ginger Nicholls was very much the main man of the show – having got married earlier that day in Poole, he dashed back to ride for the Robins and won the first-ever race, established a track record of 82.8 seconds and top-scored with 11 points. Indeed, he only just missed out on a maximum, when narrowly beaten by Jim Wright in the final heat.

Nicholls’ track record didn’t last long since, seven days later, Poole’s Alan Chambers lowered it by 1.4 seconds when clocking 81.4 in the first heat of another challenge fixture. Ken Middleditch of Hastings subsequently equalled that best time in the third heat of a further challenge match on 20 August.

Just one week after that, the surface was changed from cinders to red shale and it certainly suited Bob Jones and his style of riding, for he immediately set a new track record of 77.4 seconds in the opening heat of an encounter with Plymouth. “Joner”, as he was affectionately known, was to go on and become a legend at Swindon and was widely regarded as the initial “Mr. Swindon Speedway”.

To give him his full name, Kenneth Robert Jones was born in Swindon in 1919 and was, in fact, the first rider to sign for the Robins. Indeed, having started his career with Bristol in 1947, it was said that he actually sat out most of the following season in order that he would be free to join his hometown track! Over the years, he served the club as a rider, mechanic, team manager and machine examiner.

After just two months of open licence meetings, Swindon received an unexpected boost when Third Division Hull were forced to close down, with the Robins invited to take over the remaining fixtures of the East Yorkshire side. Managing director Reg Witcomb was only too pleased to accept the offer on behalf of Swindon. In order to strengthen the Robins’ team, four of the defunct Hull side joined the Blunsdon set-up, those riders being Mick Mitchell, George Craig, Alf Webster and Derek Glover.

Cheered on by a coach load of supporters, the Robins began their league campaign with an away fixture at Poole on 5 September. Unfortunately, they lost that first official match heavily, 53-31, with their line-up from the historic event recorded thus: 1. Mick Mitchell; 2. Bill Downton; 3. Derek Glover; 4. Allen Briggs; 5. Alf Webster; 6. Reg Lambourne; 7. George Craig; 8. Bob Jones.

Swindon No. 1 Mitchell topped his side’s scoring with 10 points, but received very little backing against a powerful-looking Poole outfit for whom three riders scored double figures, namely Dennis “Ticker” James (12), Cyril Quick (11) and Fred Pawson (10). The hefty defeat wasn’t really a surprise; after all it was the first time the chosen eight riders had ridden together, as Witcomb explained to the travelling fans afterwards.

A further four away defeats followed at Hastings, Hanley, Plymouth and Leicester, before Swindon staged their first home league match. Hastings were the visitors to Blunsdon for the occasion on 17 September, but the Robins lost a thrilling meeting by just two points, 43-41. The following week, however, they did register a first league victory when defeating Oxford 42-41 in a thrilling derby encounter.

Prior to the aforementioned home match versus Hastings, Witcomb revealed that each club was only permitted to have twelve riders under contract, so aside from the four former Hull lads, the following eight speedsters were retained: Reg Lambourne, Bob Jones, Bill Downton, Harry Hughes, Tom Wilson, Arthur “Bonny” Good, Paul Best and Norman Meek.

The remainder, namely Mick Collett, Ginger Nicholls, Ivor Atkinson and Allen Briggs were given free transfers, with the biggest surprise being the failure of Nicholls to continue his good form of the opening meeting. Ginger, whose real name was actually Stan, had struggled badly and it was a major disappointment after his early success.

Swindon only completed thirteen league matches that year, as Hull had already ridden thirty-five of their scheduled fixtures at the time of their withdrawal. The combined record of the two tracks was enough for Swindon to finish in eleventh position in the 13-team league, with Mick Mitchell topping the Robins’ averages on 7.13. George Craig was next in line (6.69), with Bob Jones (6.08) being the only other rider to achieve an average in excess of 6 points per match.

The track record at the end of the season stood at 76.8 seconds, being established by Wembley skipper Bill Kitchen on 10 September. The Robins were actually riding an away league match at Hanley on the night but, to keep the Blunsdon regulars happy, a challenge match was staged featuring a combined Swindon and Poole side versus Liverpool. Before the meeting, there were two attempts to set a new best time, one by Poole’s Cyril Quick and the other by Kitchen, with the Wembley racer shaving six tenths of a second off Bob Jones’ previous record.

Robert Bamford © David Forward

Robert Bamford © David Forward

12 March, 2015

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