A RECENT Nostalgia article about the Halifax Dukes speedway team revived memories for one Dukes fan who asks: "Do any of your readers remember the original Dukes team?"
By that Freda Vail means the first speedway team at the Shay, which raced for just three years, from 1949 to 1951.
Halifax people had enjoyed the noise, thrills and spills of speedway before, at Thrum Hall, when the sport was staged between 1928 and 1930 on a track laid round the cricket field.
But in an era or depression and high unemployment, the crowds – in common with attendances throughout the country – began to dwindle and the last meeting took place on September 4, 1930, when the main event was a nine-heat match between riders representing England and Australia, which England won by 31 points to 23.
But in February 1949 construction began on a new speedway track at the town's other stadium, the Shay.
The first meeting was held on Wednesday April 6, when the Dukes' opponents were Yarmouth Bloaters. Although the Dukes lost that first match, by 45 to 37, the team had a successful season, finishing fourth out of 13 teams in the National Leagues's third division, thanks to high scorers like Vic Emms, Dick Seers and Al Allison.
But Freda Vail's favourite was Bradford-born Arthur Forrest, otherwise known as "Flash". "His leathers were always gleaming," said Freda.
In his opening season, aged just 17, Forrest scored 19 maximums (unbeaten by an opponent) in 50 meetings. The following season the Dukes rode in the National League's second division and Forrest actually raised his average.
At the age of 18 he was called up to ride for England but after a third season with the Dukes in 1951 he joined his hometown club, the Bradford Tudors, in 1952. Forrest retired from speedway in 1959 aged only 26 years.
Freda Vail had got the speedway bug as a little girl, when her sister, Doris, took her to Belle Vue, Manchester.
In 1947 Freda married Derek and the couple lived at The Gardens – a stone's throw from the Shay.
"We could hear and smell it from The Gardens," said Freda, "It was lovely. We were enthral-led by it."
Freda remembers well famous visiting riders like Vic Duggan, the Australian champion racer who in England rode for the London club Harringay Racers, and Bradford riders Ron Clarke and Oliver Hart.
She also remembers the tragedies that went with the thrills, like the deaths on the same evening in 1950 of 24-year-old Halifax rider Jock Shead at a match in Norwich and Bradford's veteran racer, 47-year-old Joe Abbott, at Odsal.
In both 1951 and 1952 Halifax finished sixth in the second division and in the three years won 97 of their 166 matches, drawing four and losing 65 and winning several trophies along the way.
But it wasn't to last. Despite some encouraging crowds, including a record 14,251 who saw Halifax beat Hastings by 59-24 on Whit Monday, 1949, attendances fell away, averaging under 5,000 in 1951.
Promoter Bruce Booth declared: “If we could find a way to run it economically on gates of 5,000 people we would continue, but I don’t see how it can be done with heavy overhead expenses and the heavy entertainment tax imposed on the sport.”
In March 1952, just as the young Queen Elizabeth was acceding to the throne, Booth announced the end of speedway.
Freda Vail went to every speedway meeting at the Shay in the years from 1949 to 1951. “I did part with all my speedway programmes of every single meeting at the Shay. But I still have my photographs, badges and a pair of Arthur’s goggles. They were wonderful days.”
It was not until 1965 that speedway returned to the Shay, where it remained for the next 20 years, the Dukes producing great riders like Eric Boocock and the late Kenny Carter. Attendances were regularly higher than those of HaIifax Town Football Club and the Shay often hosted speedway internationals.
Freda went to the Shay again, but it was not the same. “There was not the same thrill,” she said.
Sadly, in 1986, after rows over money with Halifax Town, speedway left the Shay and moved to neighbouring Bradford’s Odsal stadium, never to return.