Hold On A Minute...There Was Cheetah Racing In Green Lanes In The 1930s?

By Alex Foch Last edited 7 months ago
Hold On A Minute...There Was Cheetah Racing In Green Lanes In The 1930s?
Image © Illustrated London News Group/www.maryevans.com

Green Lanes has long been a melting pot of cultures, from the Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill to what is locally known as Palmers Greek, not to mention the Turks and Kurds living in relative harmony. The alleged torture chambers popping up behind barbers are a thing of the past and wheelchair-bound criminal Abdullah Baybasin (aka 'the Uncle'), once accused of masterminding 90% of Britain’s heroin trade, is seemingly less active, having had to fork over almost £700k after years of posing as a salesman of cheap toilet roll.

The area is full of surprises, the most exotic of which took place on the site that's currently home to Sainsbury’s. Harringay Stadium stood here until its closure in 1987, its fate foreshadowing those of the Walthamstow and Wimbledon tracks in more recent years.

The Green Lanes area. Photo: Alan Denney

Harringay Stadium is not to be confused with neighbouring Harringay Arena, which is now a shopping park having hosted wrestling at the 1948 Olympics, the Moscow State Circus and the launch of the Ford Zephyr. By contrast, Harringay Stadium was one of the finest and quirkiest tracks in the country, founded in 1927 alongside the iconic White City ground, following the marked success of the Belle Vue course in Manchester.

The stadium was known for being a local hive of activity and the passion of the crowd was never far from bubbling over — in 1938, the audience demanded its money back after the entertainment was brought to a halt by an accident. Protests resulted in a tractor being set alight, as well as damage to the structure of the stadium. Other revolts saw offices being pillaged and the fire department called in.

Decades before Baybasin’s heroin empire, gangster “Darby” Sabini (inspiration for Colleini in Brighton Rock and one for the Peaky Blinders buffs) used to patrol the local races. When Joe Coral was getting his bookmaking business off the ground, it was here that he famously brushed off the man widely known as the 'king of the racecourse gangs' by threatening him at gunpoint.

Kenneth Gandar-Dower with his cheetahs and his greyhounds. Image © Illustrated London News Group/www.maryevans.com

In an attempt to boost popularity among the excitable locals, twelve cheetahs were imported to the UK from Kenya by explorer Arthur Leggett and the eccentric, larger-than-life game hunter and keen sportsman Kenneth Gandar-Dower. After a six-month quarantine period, the cheetahs were given the all-clear and faced a year of acclimatisation.

Understandably, the transition from the dry, open grasslands of East Africa to the harsh sand tracks in London’s stadiums proved challenging to say the least, particularly given that the sand was susceptible to adverse weather conditions that must have seemed alien to the startled dozen, with a track heating system only put in place in the sixties. It also took some time for the concept of chasing a mechanised hare around a circuit to sink in. Eventually, rabbit flesh was tied to the hares to incentivise the future stars.

A cheetah and a greyhound in the trap. Image © Illustrated London News Group/www.maryevans.com

The sheer athleticism of the cheetahs resulted in the hares frequently being caught. This proved to be problematic, as once the first cheetah had snared its prey, the remaining cheetahs in the race would cease trying, assuming that their mate had poached the hare. One can also imagine the frustration of the rowdy punters that had put a sizeable chunk of their weekly earnings on the race. As a result, only one cheetah would race at a time to avoid confusion.

The cheetahs had their first outing in Romford, where a star was born. Helen the cheetah, nicknamed 'Queen of the Track' raced to a convincing win at an average speed of 55 mph. The incredulous reaction on the audience’s faces said it all. Helen mesmerised and captured the imagination of the gawping crowd, most of whom had never seen anything like it before.

Photo: Laura Reynolds

Another race added more spice with the introduction of hurdles. However, the big cats were frankly uninterested, circumventing the barriers in order to relentlessly pursue the electronic hare. Subsequent races made it apparent that the cheetahs were just not cut out for competitive racing and the novelty of the African cats somewhat wore off, as the cheetahs lacked the dogged zeal of the greyhounds, frequently pausing for naps. Locals were also alarmed by the possibility of the predators breaking loose and wreaking havoc in the densely-populated neighbouring streets.

A combination of these factors ultimately brought an end to this eye-catching fad within the first season. Nevertheless, Mr Gandar-Dower’s love for cheetahs never once waned, later evidenced by being on the receiving end of a stern warning at Queen’s Club for bringing one of his favourite feline pets in on a leash. Albeit short-lived, his quirky legacy remains to this day.

Last Updated 30 September 2019