The drone of speedway bikes once reverberated around the ‘frying pan’; the Millwall track was lost in 1963, demolished by 1969.
Motorcycle racing is frequently associated with the glamour and ceremony of the superbike events that tour the globe. Speedway is a cousin, with limited pomp and procession. Instead, there’s dirt and danger aboard a bike with limited technology and no brakes. It was recently declared that speedway is facing its demise, in desperate need of investment and reinvention that is unlikely to come.
For a period, the sport of speedway racing attracted audiences that could rival the attendances at football matches. London laid claim to 10 clubs, from the New Cross Rangers to the White City Rebels, this form of motorcycle racing was popular in Britain for over 50 years. Though it continues today, it has failed to rival the growth and popularity of other motorsports.
In the mid 1920s, Fred Mockford and Cecil Smith, owners of London Motor Sport Ltd, sought to create a mile-long track in Crystal Palace. Their hope of establishing a form of motorcycle racing was granted by the trustees of the historic Crystal Palace. They had brought Speedway to Britain from Australia. It was a death-defying spectacle featuring leather clad men, a thrill for spectators. The first event to take place on the track pitted the home country against the founding father, Australia and its popularity was cemented for decades to come. The club, however, was forced to relocate in 1933 and a new home in New Cross was built. Mockford and Smith founded the New Cross Rangers in time for the 1934 season.
The track was an iconic site of early speedway racing. Banked edges that surrounded the muddy periphery were a unique feature; the ‘frying pan’ had sweeping bends and short straights, resulting in tense races, injury and tragedy. The ground was home to greyhound racing; tightly positioned behind rows of terraced housing, factories and railway tracks. The followers of Crystal Palace became the Supporters’ Club of New Cross; fans wore the orange and black team colours throughout the move. The Maltese Cross became the badge associated with south east London’s newest speedway team.
Speedway was a popular sporting event throughout the early 20th century. The sport excited audiences in a similar manner to that of football in the Premier League era. There was money to be made from gate receipts as capacity crowds of 30,000 descended upon the terraces of the old Millwall track.The ‘Lambs’ as they came to be known (conceived because the track was positioned between Canterbury Road and the Old Den), had talented riders in their midst. The heroic Tom Farndon was adored by fans. A brave, fearless rider, Farndon jostled against champion riders throughout the 1934 season. He was indispensable to the team as they secured the London Cup and a third-place league finish. The team paraded their wares down the Old Kent Road in front of an adoring public.
In their second season, 1935, difficulties would arise for the club. Performances were not at the level of the previous season. A poor performance in the league was compounded by a dismal display in knockout tournaments. This was overshadowed by a crash involving Tom Farndon. The young prospect, poster boy of the Rangers, Farndon crashed into his fallen teammate Ron Johnson. He was propelled from his bike; the landing proved fatal. His final days were spent in a hospital in Greenwich. His celebrity was such that thousands of fans waited at the gates to be updated of his condition. News of his passing caused significant grief to the hoards of Rangers supporters. The death of Tom Farndon was the first tragedy in British speedway history. Worse was the fact that Farndon was close to cementing himself as the greatest rider of his generation. Such was the stature of speedway racing, that the people of Millwall lined the streets on the day of his funeral. The remainder of the season was insignificant; New Cross lost all the remaining fixtures of the 1935 campaign.
The club experienced success in the 1938 season, winning the league for the first time. By the time of the Second World War and abandonment of the 1939 season, New Cross’s fortunes had reversed. They were rooted to the bottom of the table. The club experienced success in the post-war period but their future would not endure the coming decades. The Den was consistently the finest track in British speedway, with Mockford and Smith investing heavily on a premium surface. The results of their investment would be short term. New Cross struggled to survive after the recommencement of speedway. In 1953, 25 years after Mockford and Smith had established the Crystal Palace franchise, their beloved Rangers were experiencing hardship. A combination of television competition, entertainment tax and a shortage of spending money forced Mockford into closing the ‘frying pan’. The effects of the New Cross closure were profound for the entire sport, precipitating a decline in speedway across the country.
A resurgence of the New Cross team occurred in 1959. Abandoned tracks across the country were reopened. Johnnie Hoskins, the manager of Wembley, West Ham and Newcastle in previous years, had the desire to oversee the rebirth of New Cross. It had been 6 years, but speedway returned with a match between New Cross and Wimbledon. The hope that surrounded these tremors of activity were decidedly short lived. A couple of seasons spent in the lower leagues delayed the inevitable. Their matches failed to attract interest; support had waned for a team that lacked quality riders. The golden era of Farndon and Johnson, hurtling around the track in a battle for first place, was gone. New Cross Rangers, in their famous orange and black attire, had their last meet at the ‘frying pan’ on the 5th August 1962. The track was sold, with stock cars dueling it out until 1969. It was finally demolished in 1975, as disputes between the stadium owners British Rail and the leaseholders ended the speedway association to south east London.