[Words: Chris Illman]

Some 20-odd years ago, whilst browsing a Junk Shop in Greenwich (southeast London), I found a very scruffy suitcase gathering dust, filled with a pile of old newspapers. Closer inspection revealed some interesting stuff, including a mountain of photographs of pre-WW2 Speedway racing – a particular passion of mine! That set the heart racing; without wanting to appear too eager for fear of escalating the price, the obvious question was asked – “How much for this old suitcase full of Newspapers?”. The welcome retort was “Give us a fiver!”

Putt Mossman doing the ‘ladder trick’ aboard his Indian 4 – dig those crazy exhaust pipes!

My anticipation was agonizing during the drive home, as there was no way to properly assess the contents of my prize until they could be spread out and sifted through. That humble suitcase revealed a treasure trove of material related to just one man; Frederick Lindop Evans. Fred Evans was the Manager of Hackney Wick Speedway team, and it quickly became clear that the case contained personal effects from his time as Hackney ‘Wolves’ Manager, covering the period 1935 until the outbreak of the 1939-1945 conflict in Europe. Fred Evans survived the War, but apparently he was never reunited with his treasured possessions, which remains a complete mystery. To relate Fred’s story and explore the entire contents of the suitcase is beyond the scope of this post, but after years of dipping in and out of the thousands of items, many stories emerge.

Putt Mossman demonstrating his broadsliding technique, leg-trailing in 1920s style, aboard a JAP Speedway racer

And this is where Oren ‘Putt’ Mossman comes into the story. Putt was born in Iowa, USA in 1906, and traveled the world as a stunt rider, midget car racer, boxer, actor, and all around carny and showman. Fred Evans was great friends with Putt! During these Pre-War years, Speedway in England was big; indeed for a while, it was Britain’s top spectator sport. Fred and Putt shared much in common. The most significant pattern to emerge is a shared obsession with ‘Self Publicity’. As well as the obvious Speedway connection, they both loved to play Golf and as it happened, Fred was a member the exclusive Chorleywood Golf Club in Middlesex. From Fred’s diaries it seems that whenever Putt was in London, they tried to fit a game in at least once a week. Given that Fred and his Hackney Team were touring the Country at least 5 nights a week, where they found the time is beyond belief, as Putt’s schedule was probably just as hectic!

Putt Mossman and acrobatic partners atop a mid-1930s Indian Four

On occasions their schedules didn’t work out – see the note from Putt, with his wonderful Letter Headed paper proclaiming his achievements – saying sorry that golf would not be possible on July 17, 1938. Both appear to have been accomplished Practical Jokers, if examples of the outrageous tricks they played one another and on the Hackney Riders are anything to go by! Showman Putt needed an opportunity to present his exploits to big audiences, and it seems that our Fred was also keen to make the most of the large attendances at Hackney by adding new attractions to his Speedway meetings. The synergy was obvious and Putt’s Stunt Show fitted the bill perfectly for the intervals. The Hackney Wick crowd was already huge, but the added attractions swelled the gate, giving a mutual benefit to both parties. Putt of course would go on to spend a great deal of time in England, and his schedule of shows defies logic. My god, he must have had some stamina!

Putt Mossman’s schedule was packed with shows – he was a busy man and knew how to ‘make hay while the sun shines!’

A quick glance at the attached Press Cutting (above) will show how he managed to pack in more than 11 shows across the country in just 13 days – it is said that he once did 100 shows in England in just one year. Given his propensity to push himself to the limit and beyond, he had terrific self-confidence, not allowing himself the luxury of a few days recovery should he tumble (and tumble he did it appears, on many occasions!).

The 1936 Hackney Wick speedway program, with the Putt Mossman sideshow

As well as the Stunt Shows, Putt was a Speedway rider of some note, and appeared with the American team on a regular basis. A photograph of the Tram outside the famous Hackney Empire Music Hall and Theatre, clearly expresses the sentiment that ‘It pays to advertise’. Wonderfully evocative of pre-war London, it encapsulates the Mossman/Evans connection via a banner promoting an American Speedway Team vs. Hackney Wick match. The photo of Putt in full ‘Leg Trailing’ mode not only demonstrates his skill as an accomplished Speedway rider, but shows him casually wearing a pullover and a tie!

During one of his many visits to Britain, Putt participated in the 1938 Isle of Man Lightweight TT, on an OK Supreme. Sadly, he did not finish, falling at the 33rd Milestone and suffering a serious arm injury. As if to wear his failure as a glorious Badge of Office, he printed up the Post Card below, which, like so many of the others found in the case, is personally signed by Putt to Fred Evans.

Incidentally, whilst on the subject of the Isle of Man, it is a little known fact that Putt also did the Stunt Riding for the iconic film ‘No Limit’ that starred George Formby as a TT Rider which was actually shot in the I.O.M in 1935. Among his stunts, perhaps one of the most dramatic was staged at the Hackney Wick Stadium. A makeshift scaffold was erected, and a ramp descended from the top of the Grandstand, sweeping down to a take-off ramp, where Putt was propelled though the air to land in 15” deep pool of water. As if this feat was not daring enough, the pool of water was topped off with burning petrol! Although the leap was a spectacular success from the crowd’s perspective, personal recollections of a spectator reveals that a heavy landing resulted in a broken and bloody nose for Putt. In true showman’s spirit, he completely disregarded his injuries, picked himself up, and rode a lap of honour, to the great acclaim of the assembled masses.

Although well known for his Ladder Walk, the top photo in this article, which has been published on several occasions I believe, is again rather special as it is personally signed and dedicated ‘To my good friend & Pal, Fred’. The bike incidentally, is an Indian 4-cylinder job, with an amazing exhaust system! It was an expensive machine then; I wonder where it is now? These images are a small selection of the treasures associated with Putt that came from this wonderful goldmine of Pre-War Speedway ephemera. Stunt Riding was effectively a ‘Part Time’ job for him; amongst other things, Putt was, or had been, a Speedway Champion [Japan 1936] a Champion Shoe Thrower [Horseshoes], Midget Car Racer, Boxer, Baseball Player and Vaudeville artist.  His public swan song was an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show, pitching horseshoes between Johnny’s legs! What a man.

Putt Mossman beign dragged by his Indian 4
Putt on his chrome-tank Indian 4; note the clown behind him, who can be seen in the short film of Putt’s performance, trick-riding a small 2-stroke motorcycle
This London tram has a Hackney Wick show banner, which features Putt Mossman prominently

 

 

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