First Person

November 1, 2013 6:50 pm

First Person: Norman Roach

‘I saw the first and last-ever races at Walthamstow dogs’
Norman Roach©Emily Hope

Despite a life-long connection with the dog track, Norman Roach has only ever placed one bet

I saw the first-ever race at Walthamstow dog track and, years later, the last one too. I saw the stadium built, and now I’ll watch them take it apart. In that time, everything changed. The community was poor but it was the best. And now it’s gone.

I was born in Walthamstow in 1926, in the same week as the Queen. My dad was a gambler so the night the dog track opened, he took me along. It was 1933. I remember seeing Amy Johnson – she’d flown single-handed from England to Australia and was a star.

Sometimes Dad would come home, turn out his pockets and there’d be money in every one. Another day they’d be empty. He couldn’t resist gambling, so when four new houses were built opposite the stadium in 1935, he bought one. We could hear the noise on race nights. People would be outside selling winkles, cockles and all sorts.

I was only about 14 when war broke out but I joined a fire-watching post nearby. The stadium’s sign was removed so the Germans couldn’t read it during air raids but they would use the track’s shape to navigate as they came in. You’d hear the noise of the planes and then see the parachute flares. A bomb dropped in it, making a huge crater. The gates were taken away for scrap and the car park was designated a mortuary.

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When I was old enough, I ended up fighting in Burma; I was there till 1947. My mother said her son never really came home and she was right – I was very depressed. But I hadn’t drawn any pay out there so, like lots of men, I had some money to spend at home. That’s when the track had its heyday, packed to capacity on race nights.

Winston Churchill gave his final election speech there in 1945 and was booed – though I didn’t see it. But I did meet Lana Turner in 1949. Even David Beckham had a job when he was a teenager, collecting glasses. By then I had started working at the track but he didn’t mean much to me at the time. Working there was my wife’s idea. She said: “Why be part of the rat race when there’s a nice job for you just up the road?” So in the 1970s I became the stadium electrician. I’d go in at 9am and work till midday. I was in charge of the 120 track lights, so I’d go back at six, see every race and then shut everything down afterwards. Saturday nights were busiest but we had good security and not much trouble. By the 1980s, though, the generation who had kept the place alive was dying out.

I only ever placed one bet. But that track was in my blood and I loved working there. It was a family business. When the managing director, Percy Chandler, died in the 1980s, the big clock stopped. I went up, another electrician checked too. We couldn’t find anything wrong with it. It only started working again after his funeral.

I meant to retire in 1991 but they wouldn’t let me. I was called back for emergencies and to do the Christmas lights every year till the very end. Besides, retiring is a mistake: that’s when people’s health goes wrong.

By the end, I had my suspicions that things weren’t right. But I first heard that they were going to close on the television. Because of the publicity, the atmosphere returned in those last months. The final race day, on August 16 2008, wasn’t miserable. There were no goodbyes. When the race ended, people climbed on to the track to pick up souvenirs like the winning post. It was after 2am by the time I left. I walked home and the streets were empty.

In the track’s heyday, people went out in the evenings. Now, everyone stays inside watching TV. You can’t blame them. Where can you take a girl, now? Just a pub. There’s nowhere else to go.

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