Although unofficial motor cycle racing started in America way back in 1902, Dirt Track Racing or Speedway originated in Australia a hundred years ago, in May 1923. The first meeting in this country was held five years later at a disused athletics and cycle track behind the King’s Oak pub at High Beech on Sunday, February 19, 1928. (Beech or Beach were interchangeable). It was organised by Ilford Motor Cycle and Light Car Club and a poster for the event proclaimed it as ‘The most thrilling speed events known’. Eight races were held, with several heats for each race, starting at 10.30am.

The organisers had no idea how many spectators they could expect and it was intended they would be contained inside the track but the huge numbers spread everywhere. The admission charge was 6d (2½p) and with lunch at the King’s Oak for 3s (15p) or high tea available at one of the local catering establishments, the crowds flocked to the site, even climbing trees to get a better view. In its heyday it attracted 30,000 people.

Epping Forest Guardian: The banking can still be seen.The banking can still be seen.

Writing in 1988 Syd Edmonds recalled his days as a champion Speedway rider, wining numerous trophies. While he was captain of the High Beech team he set and held the track record of 45mph. He received up to £5 for an appearance at a track and double that for international matches. Their high-speed cornering (sliding the back wheel out sideways and steadying the other side of the machine with a leg) often made for accidents but spectators were advised: “If competitors fall they must be left to the Marshals. On no account must the public invade the track.” Syd was lucky, escaping relatively unscathed, but he knew of about 25 riders who he raced against who were killed in track accidents. In those days riders just wore ripped jackets and flannel trousers with knee padding, none of the protective clothing worn by riders later.

Epping Forest Guardian: Syd Edmonds in 1928.Syd Edmonds in 1928.

The sport soon became a national favourite and races continued at High Beech until 1941, starting again after the war. By that time more sophisticated facilities were available at purpose-built venues and High Beech declined. A final special celebration was held in February 1968 by the Veteran Dirt Track Riders’ Association with a cavalcade of the veteran stars and displays of trophies and other memorabilia.

Epping Forest Guardian: The speedway track shown on 6 inch Ordnance Survey map, 1938 The speedway track shown on 6 inch Ordnance Survey map, 1938

Then in 1970 the City of London Corporation which actually owns the land, cleared the track and the Field Study Centre was built on the site as their contribution to European Conservation Year. It was planned as a self-contained unit for the study of the flora and fauna to help school children and local people understand the importance of Epping Forest. It is run by the Field Studies Council and originally served as an information point for the public at weekends. Then on July 26, 1993 the Epping Forest Information Centre was opened across the compound to serve the public and allow the Field Studies Council to concentrate on their teaching brief. However, the old bank around the perimeter of the track can still be seen just inside the fencing of the area.

Epping Forest Guardian:  The plaque at High Beach unveiled in June 1987 by members of the Veteran Speedway Riders Association. The plaque at High Beach unveiled in June 1987 by members of the Veteran Speedway Riders Association.

Today there are 15 active stadiums in England, with events organised by British Speedway. In June 1987 a plaque was unveiled at the Information Centre by members of the Veteran Speedway Riders Association, including Jack Barnet and Syd Edmonds who took part in the early races.

  • Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and is the author of several local history books. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.