The following is an extract from the memoirs of former Balham CC secretary and Gazette club magazine editor Ken Smith, covering the World War Two years. With little editing, it gives an insight into the lives of a group of young men from the Balham and South London cycling community in the 1940s – some of whom never came back from war to ride again.
“The September 3rd 1939 declaration of war with Germany had an immediate affect on cycling life, with race and social cancellations, and an uncertainty of what the future held. Conscription was already in effect. Several 20 year old riders from other clubs that I knew well had received their papers, or had already moved into the forces. It was a bleak prospect for someone completely committed to cycling.
The Balham continued its Sunday runs. We congregated as usual at Ramsden Road or Croydon Town Hall to speed off to various parts of Surrey, Kent and Sussex, to our favourite pubs and tea spots – they were all open for business, serving their usual customers, mostly cycling clubs of a dozen or more, drinking favourite beers or eating up platefuls of poached eggs on toast and mountains of bread and butter, washing all down with gallons of thick tea. The Saturday, Sunday and weekday social scene soon reverted to its usual shape after the Government reversed its stupid regulations banning all kinds of activities, fearing mass air raids.
On the Sunday in September when Chamberlain announced the declaration war, I arose late after a heavy night of drinking and eating with the Club in The Cock at Clapham and not arriving back home in Tooting until well into the morning hours. The late night supper was held in The Alexandra, opposite Clapham Common Undeground Station, it was not quite “the last supper” but it did have overtones of “let’s drink, for tomorrow we die”. Topics of conversation were not serious but how we could avoid all this stupidity that was due to engulf all of us? I think it was Steve Smith who suggested we should collect some camping gear, cooking utensils, stoves etc and ride up to the wilds of Scotland where we could camp out for the rest of the war unkown to everyone! It was not followed. Who was there that night? I can only rely on memory, but here goes: Bill West, Jimmy Church, Tom Turner, Steve Smith, Arthur Utting, Cyril Melhuish, Harold Sharpe, Fred Smith, Charlie and Bob Rance, Parvin (not a member but a costant hanger-on to this drinking club), there may have been more.
The next morning I scorned a usual heavy breakfast, much to my mother’s disgust, just tea and toast was enough, then rode down Fransiscan Road, through Mitcham over to Croydon and down past The Jolliffe at Coulsdon, on the well travelled Brighton Road. It was Redhill that the air raid siren blared its moaning warning. I was not far behind a country double decker bus that had not stopped with the conductor frantically waving at the occupants to get out. As I approached he lent over the back and shouted at me to take shelter. I told him what to do with his shelter and pushed on up the hill out of Redhill to Earlswood Common. I had no intention of stopping before I reached Crawley, let alone for the air raid siren!
On arrival in Crawley I saw three bikes leaning on the wall of The Sun, one of them I recognised. It was a Bates with those special front forks. It looked as if it might belong to Fred Willett, a prominent member of the Norwood Paragon who, with Stan Butler rode Bates on the top Paragon team. I went in the pub and there was Fred Willett, Ted Thomas and Parvin. Joining this school was not difficult and by 2pm closing time, and after consuming a number of best bitter pints and eating a couple of plates of bread, cheese and pickled onions (4d a plate) we left in a relaxed mood for a quiet ride across country to East Grinstead.
What did we talk about? Most of us had chewed over our options and knew we were bound for the military if the war continued. At this time no one knew how long the war would go on, or whether it would just fizzle out to a stalemate, there was certainly no bravado statements of fighting to the finish, our main concern was to get it over with so that we could return to our idyllic club life. It was impossible to imagine that all this would vanish or that the wonderful life of cycling was under threat. To us the bicycle was king, it was the key to the ‘open road’ to a way of life that existed nowhere else with its own tribal loyalties, its own language, its own rituals, its special comradeship. I arrived home after midnight after a club tea at East Grinstead and a beer stop in a pub near Caterham, saying goodbye to Parvin at the top of Anerley Hill.
In early 1940 the cycling season was still in full swing, club dinners and club dances with the Sunday evening tea dances at The Fountain in Garrett Lane, Tooting, were all doing roaring business. The Fountain was a regular final stop, arriving early we would pile our bikes in the yard at the back of the pub (no locks required in those days) and retire to the Public Bar where we would sup on jellied eels, cockles and other delicacies all washed down by quantities of best bitter. Some of those with girlfriends (and later I was one of those), would go home first, remove our cycling clothes and don a suit, collar and tie and appear a little later. Upstairs, in the small dance hall, girls on their own, and some couples would be sitting against the wall waiting to dance, but they were always secondary to many clubmen who would stand round the bar lining up beers as round followed round.
The Fountain was a friendly hang-out in those days although located in a raffish part of Tooting. A small band played in the hall, a three piece affair, older men always wearing red jackets. When the action was flagging, the leader would ring a bell and shout, “Everyone happy”, we usually were, war or no war.
The Balham Cycling Club Open 50 Miles Handicap and Team Trial
The Balham did not run its usual programme of races. The opening Rough Riders 25 was run with a smaller entry, The Open 2nd Class 100 was replaced by an Open 50 on the Bath Road. I was coerced to ride in this with the team of Frank Syred and Jack Osborne. I should have resisted, I was not racing fit and did a terrible ride on a reasonably easy day. Previously I had ridden a Club 25 returning a slow time of 1.9.45. This was won by a rising Balham star, John Osborn with a 1.5
This was my last ride before joining the RAF. Should not have ridden as was hoplessley out of condition for racing. I remember consuming a good many pints of best bitter the night before in the public bar of “The Lamb”, the favourite haunt for Bath Road events in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.
The RAF calls
I had previously volunteered for the RAF and was expecting call up anytime so did not plan a training programme although did ride a couple of Club 25s. On the Saturday before the Open 50 I rode to Luton to visit my Grandmother and aunts., Edie, Millie and Kathy. I reckoned that I would not be able to visit them for some time if I was called up. A bike ride that I had turned into a fast training run.
After the 50 I rode home and this was my last event for six years, in fact it was not until 1947 that I next rode an open event, a long time span out of my life which had been geared to an ever increasing racing and competitive career.
Calcutta 1944-46 Phoenix Pedallers Cycling Club
In 1944 in Calcutta I met Wally Watson (Leamington C&AC), a staff photographer for South East Asia Command (SEAC) and together we formed a cycling club, mainly a correspondence club as most of those interested were in the jungles of Burma or elsewhere. The nucleus in Calcutta kept the operation going for some months with regular meetings on a Thursday evening, and Sunday outings. The club was called The Phoenix Pedallers. This was from the SEAC emblem which depicted a phoenix arising from the ashes.
At one time it had a ‘membership’ of over 500. It was surprising how many clubmen were out in the jungle of Burma and at remote stations. There was an active group of a couple of dozen or so in Calcutta who had held regular meetings at a service club in Chowringhee (see photo below) and then we had clubruns on Sunday, borrowing heavy Hercules type machines from a local dealer. It was too hot to ride far but as can be seen from the photos we enjoyed the outings on Sunday mornings
Alf Malnick was our Public Relations man and kept up a regular correspondence with “Cycling” and “Bicycle” and we did receive considerable publicity both in the UK and in India.
Bengal Olympic Sport Meeting 8/9/10 February 1945
Photographs taken by Wally Watson (Leamington C&AC) of the SEAC newpaper. Events were 1000 sprint, 1000 metre and 10,000metre. I believe that a G. Thompson (in the white hat) won most of the events. This was grass track racing and most of them rode well on limited equipment.
Demobilisation and 1946
1946 saw a new beginning, I returned from India in March. The club still met but it wasn’t the same as before as everything was changed and many familiar faces were missing. The world was different and so was the cycling scene.
Bill Shore, the Balham rock like Assistant Secretary who, in 1939 took on the job of keeping in contact with those in the Forces had died on an operating table. A cancer victim. He was a jolly person, liked his beer and had a great love for the Balham. He kept it together. It was a great loss during the war and for the rebuilding process necessary in 1946.
Fred Willett, who I saw on several occasions at a club dances and dinners after our ‘day the war broke out’ meeting in The Sun at Crawley, failed to return from a bombing operation over Krefield on the night of June 22/23 1943. Fred was a Sgt. Air Observer on 156 Pathfinder Squadron. The Lancaster he was flying was never found. A great loss to post-war cycling. Fred was a classy rider adept at all aspects of the sports, time trials, a second in the Bath 100, road races and on the track.
So many others sufferered death or injury. Two on the Brooklands Circuit stars were lost, Alec Bevan, Fountain CC and Ron Berry, Clarencourt CC.
Those of us who survived the war, and I should mention, lucky to survive, lost six to seven years of cycling. Prior to the war, all my actions, all my thoughts, all my ambitions had gone into the sport, racing, touring, social everything. I did take it up again. Did what I could to get back into the sport but it wasn’t quite the same. I spent a lot of time working for the Club as Secretary and Magazine Editor. It was work I enjoyed and the club did prosper for many years. When I left for Canada in 1957 it was healthy with a good group of new members.
However, pre-war cycle sport was an era that became history, misunderstood by many who came later who could not understand how we tolerated riding in black tights and alpaca jackets, on courses at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. A wonderful time.”
Have you or any family members got any photos or club memorabilia from the Balham CC years? Email me at email@example.com or drop me a line in the comments box. I would love to hear from you.
Ken Smith’s scrapbook
The South East Asian Command Wikipedia Page