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Fair Play for Split Waterman

PEDESTRIANS outside the Royal Automobile Club’s offices in London’s Pall Mall were forced to move aside on a sunny  afternoon in July 1952 by four Harringay supporters carrying placards reading "Fair Play for Split Waterman."

It was part of Waterman's protest at what he regarded was unfair treatment in regard to the 'Golden Helmet' match race championship, then the biggest prize in British speedway after the world championship.

The hearing on July 8 eventually found against Waterman, who was legally represented, for refusing to race  against Jack Young after falling in the first heat of their challenge at  West Ham on June 24. It had been a controversial championship event. In the first race, Waterman fell when Young went inside him. In the rerun Waterman was an easy winner.

Then, to the amazement of Waterman and an 18,000 crowd, it was announced that there would be a third race to decide the leg - the first race having been awarded to Young because of Waterman falling. Waterman refused to accept this decision and withdrew from the challenge. For this he was reported to the Control Board and severely reprimanded.

However, the fracas at Custom House was all part of a long-running saga involving Waterman and the ‘Golden Helmet’ going back to him winning the championship from the holder Belle Vue’s Jack Parker in August 1951 and subsequently beating his first 1951 challenger Aub Lawson of West Ham.

The problems came the following season. In April, Waterman made a successful defence against Young, and the following month was due to defend against Wimbledon’s Ronnie Moore. However, Waterman was forced to withdraw from the tie and the championship was declared vacant. This was in accordance with a Control Board rule that if a champion was unable to defend within four weeks of his previous defence the title would be declared vacant.

The crucial dates were that Waterman had defeated Young in the second leg on April 25 and was set to face Moore for the first time on May 26. He asked for dispensation of one week to recover from injury. He then went on to meet Young for the vacant title in June which resulted in the controversy. An appeal by Waterman and Harringay about what happened at West Ham was rejected by the Control Board. The subsequent Board hearing, at which Waterman engaged the placard supporting Harringay fans, found him guilty  and he was  ‘severely reprimanded and warned as to his future conduct.’

The passing of the years, however, endorses the fact that Waterman was harshly treated and should, in all probability, have won his appeal. It is now known that an announcement was made to the crowd that the first heat between Waterman and Young would be rerun, whereas the referee had already made a decision to award the race to Young.

When the race was restaged, both riders started off the same gates as they had in the unfinished heat. If the restaging had in fact been a bona-fide second race both riders, according to he rules, should have started off alternate grids.

The award of the race to Young brought to light more conflict in regard to the referee’s action. Under the rules, if the race had been stopped because it was felt a rider was in danger it should have been restarted, while if Waterman was the cause of the stoppage he should have been excluded from the restart.

Over the years, the evidence makes it clear that Waterman was unfairly treated. For its part, the Control Board seemingly ignored what evidence there was in Waterman’s favour, and it looks substantial, making a decision that, to put it mildly, very harshly treated the Harringay star.

By John Hyam

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Eric Williams, Barry Briggs, & Split Waterman

Enjoying a story, New Cross circa 1960