Tracks in Time
Prior to WW2, it was not uncommon for the larger Sydney clubs to have their own circuits, usually on private land with permission from the owner (often a club member) or on a lease arrangement from local government or industry. The facilities hosted everything from gymkhanas to Observed Trails, Grass Track racing, Scrambles and occasionally, Miniature TT racing, the forerunner of what became Short Circuit.
Western Suburbs Motor Cycle Club was one of the biggest (in terms of membership) and most active clubs in the state, with many high-profile competitors as members, and their own Miniature TT track, known as “The Poplars” after the property owned by club member Mr Doug Galbraith. His two sons, Sam and David, were both members of Western Suburbs MCC, and the name came from three poplar trees which stood on a hill in the centre of the course. The property was situated on the main road between Prospect and Blacktown, just half a mile from Blacktown railway station. For some time the property was used for low profile club events, but the plan was always to establish a Miniature TT circuit. Club members worked feverishly clearing stumps and saplings to have the new track, which measured nine-tenths of a mile, ready for the opening meeting on the Eight Hour Day Holiday weekend in October 1937.
Far from being just a squirt around a paddock, the new circuit featured a carefully prepared surface and a wide main straight. The highlight of the lap was a sizeable hill just after the start which sent riders down towards Windy Corner, a left hander, then through a right hand bend followed by a long sweeping left (known as the Quarry Bends) leading onto the long main straight, which had a tight left hander at the end and was the scene of much first-corner jostling. Located only a few minute’s walk to the north along Main Road was the Robin Hood Inn, opposite Blacktown Railway Station. This imposing edifice featured several bars with tiled walls (known as hose-outs) on street level, with upstairs accommodation. This pub replaced the original Royal Hotel and was constructed in 1936, and became a favourite watering hole for patrons of The Poplars circuit on Saturdays, prior to the legalisation of Sunday trading. The Robin Hood Inn was demolished in controversial circumstances in 1984. It became notorious as the hangout for the district’s “Larrikin element”, with “regular punch-ups on the footpath outside attracting the attention of the local constabulary.” To the amazement of customers, the inn’s bottle shop staged a clearance sale of its wares on the Saturday, then around 2am the following day, was flattened by heavy machinery, leaving only a pile of debris and empty beer kegs. There had been no prior notice given by council of the impending destruction, and soon after, work began on a new building; what is now the multi-story State Government Office Block. The hero of that first meeting in 1937 was the one-eyed wonder, Harry Hinton, with his pair of self-tuned BSAs.
Hinton completed over 100 miles of racing on the day and was the only competitor to ride in every event on the programme. From seven starts, he scored three firsts, including the Lightweight (250cc) and the Senior (500cc), and three thirds. The winner of the Junior (350cc) TT was Tommy Jemison on a Velocette. The meeting drew 3,000 spectators and the first race was flagged away by the property’s owner, Doug Gailbraith. However the opening meeting at The Poplars hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when a spectator was killed. Gordon Kraft, with his girlfriend on the pillion of his motorcycle, rode out onto the circuit just as a racing sidecar appeared and was taken to Parramatta hospital with multiple injuries, where he later died. Regular meetings took place pre-war, with Ron Kessing, on a new Gold Star BSA, and Bat Byrnes (Norton) starring in August 1938. At the conclusion of the racing, a series of lap record attempts were staged and Kessing left the mark at 63 seconds. The following year began with a big meeting on Anniversary Day (now Australia Day) where Hinton again took the lion’s share of the prize money by winning the 250cc and 500cc finals, with veteran Don Bain (Velocette) taking out the 350cc. Even with WW2 in full swing and many former riders now serving in the armed forces, racing continued into 1940, but inevitably the fun ceased and it was November 1946 before The Poplars once again reverberated to the sound of open megaphones. After six long years in silence, it was no surprise that the place was packed – official reports said 8,000 spectators filed in to witness the NSW Miniature TT Championships. Western Suburbs club had added five feet to the entire track width and the surface was liberally sprayed with old sump oil to allay the dust menace. Even after the hiatus, the old names were again to the fore – Hinton winning the Junior TT, his great mate Eric McPherson taking out the Lightweight, and Tony McAlpine, no longer the pre-war teenage tearaway but still just as spectacular and intrepid, defeating Bat Byrnes and Ron Kessing to win the Senior. A new name – jockey sized Sid Willis – won both the Junior and Senior Non Expert races.
But it was not just the race-starved public that had taken keen interest in the November ’46 meeting. The NSW Police, under the control of the fearsome and violently anti-motor sport Commissioner McKay, were there too, and making their presence felt. A few months later, Mr McKay refused to grant permits for both the car and motorcycle promoters to conduct racing at Mount Panorama over Easter 1947 – a move that saw all parties head to the courts. Admittedly, Mount Panorama’s circuit was comprised of public roads which
were specially closed for the races, but all motor racing in the state came under the hash scrutiny of the Commissioner. The opening Poplars meeting for 1947 saw a formidable police presence, but organisers and the large crowd were on their best behaviour and no trouble was encountered. Again, a massive spectator turnout of over 6,000 lined the fences to see McAlpine once again serve it up to the established stars, winning the Senior from Jack Forrest and Bat Byrnes and lowering the long-standing lap record in the process. With the shock cancellation of the Bathurst races, Western Suburbs MCC quickly convened a meeting over Easter 1947. Deprived of their annual outing on a tarred circuit, the state’s top road racers turned out in force and despite two days of rain prior to the Easter Saturday, put on a great show for the fans. Tony McAlpine once again showed his invincibility by winning the Senior TT, but Jack Forrest caused an upset by defeating Hinton to win the Junior. Ted Carey, on his home-built DOHC Velocette beat McPherson in the Lightweight, while the Senior and Junior Non Expert events both went to Terry Moore. The crowd’s favourite event, the All Powers Handicap, had to be abandoned when rain began falling and the police declared the circuit unsafe. Almost twelve months passed before the next big open meeting, during which time the promoters worked hard to satisfy the demands of the police in regard to spectator safety. New fences were installed, restricting the viewing public to the main straight area, with the wooded ‘Esses’ section now offlimits. By way of compensation, a commentator equipped with a two-way radio relayed happenings from the back of the course to the control tower’s commentary team. Sid Willis took out both the Lightweight and Junior TTs, while the Senior went to veteran Bat Byrnes after an entertaining tussle with Frank Mayes and Dick Appleyard.
On their traditional October long weekend date in 1948, Wests club staged probably the most successful Poplars meeting so far, when the longstanding lap record was shattered on several occasions. 30 races with nearly 300 entries were completed in just over five hours. The big shock of the day was the win in the Senior final by thenunknown John Astley, riding his 1000cc Vincent. The favourite Harry Hinton was left at the start and despite charging through to second place in the eight-lap final, could not catch the youngster. Hinton did turn the tables on Astley to win the Aces Scratch (which featured a rolling start) and also took out the Junior and Lightweight finals. By the time 1949 rolled around, the nearby Whynstanes circuit had run its last race after the owners of the land rescinded the lease. Blacktown staged another big meeting on January 31st, which began in intense heat and ended at 2.30 when a heavy storm washed out the remainder of the meeting. Before
rain stopped play, Dick Hardiman had won the Lightweight on his ancient Rudge, and Billy Ring had defeated Jack Forrest to win the Junior. The balance of the programme was rescheduled for the following Saturday, where Tony McAlpine took his customary win in the Senior and the Aces Scratch Race. One month later Western Suburbs club ran a special meeting, the proceeds of which went towards supporting Harry Hinton and Eric McPherson on their trip to represent Australia at the 1949 Isle of Man TT. There was no prize money, but members of the motorcycle trade, the press and other personalities donated trophies for the various races. The freshly-graded and oiled course was in top condition, but as the event came between the Victorian TT at Fishermen’s Bend and the annual Bathurst races, the quality of the entry was not up to the usual standards, and as the meeting was arranged at short notice, scant publicity resulted in a smaller than normal crowd. Nevertheless, a healthy £200 was raised for the TT fund, and those that attended
witnessed some fine racing. It turned out to be a day when relatively unknown names toppled the starts, beginning with the Lightweight which was won by Harold Burch on a Velocette, then the Junior where BSA-mounted W. Hobbs from Wollongong came home first. Order was restored in the Junior final, where Eric McPherson carved through from last place to snatch the win on the final corner. The Aces Scratch was another thriller, with Wollongong’s star rider Bill Morris narrowly defeating Bill Mayes.
The last race on the card, the final of the All Powers Handicap, went to Alan Boyle’s Velocette who just held off the fast-closing McPherson. And so the curtain came down on another hot and dusty day at Blacktown; and as it transpired, the final meeting at The Poplars. A few weeks later came the bombshell that the owners of the land, which was in effect a quarry, were not renewing the lease. Their core business was the manufacture of roof tiles, and the owners were continually following clay seams, the latest of which took out the lower section of the track. With the recent loss of Whynstanes, it was a crippling blow for the sport in New South Wales, but Western Suburbs Club quickly countered with a new property at nearby Baulkham Hills which was owned by club patron Reg Williams. To christen the venue, a major scrambles event, the NSW Grand National, was staged on 14th May, 1950, and the club announced that it would soon begin work on the construction of a 1-mile lap Miniature TT circuit to be known as “The New Poplars”. Unfortunately, nothing further was heard of the plan, and The Poplars passed into dim memory. For many years, aerial photographs of the area clearly showed the remnants of the track, which gradually became engulfed in scrub. In 1965, the new Blacktown Hospital, with 160 beds, opened on the site of the former circuit.
Tight bunch at Blacktown Corner, 1947. 2 Harry Hinton, 3 Bat Byrnes, 5 Dave Jenkins, 7 Bill Mayes, 10 Les Slaughter.
Start of a Junior heat in 1947 with Dave Jenkins (5) and Sid Willis (43).
BELOW Fairly casual spectator control at the ‘Big Hill’.
ABOVE BSA advertisement applauding Harry Hinton’s success in 1937. LEFT Harry Hinton corners his BSA in 1938. BELOW The infamous Robin Hood Inn opposite Blacktown railway station.
Eric McPherson at Quarry Bend in 1940. Bill Morris and Alan Bale charge through the dust. Fast and totally fearless, Tony McAlpine (9) leads Eric McPherson (12). LEFT The split second when Bill Morris’ BSA exploded. With the crankcase completely gone, the frame is about to split in half.
ABOVE CENTRE Ron Kessing gets the chequered flag from Harry Bartrop in 1946. ABOVE Art Senior (39) and Bat Byrnes on the line in 1947. BELOW Aerial view of the remains of the Poplars Circuit, taken in 1953. Blacktown Railway station is just out of the photo top left.
Jack Ahearn leads Ray Corbett through Quarry Bend in January 1949. Charlie Scaysbrook in the pits, October 1948.
ABOVE CENTRE Bill Mayes looking stylish on his Matchless in 1949. BELOW Bat Byrnes with his ace mechanic Frank Hammond in 1947. The Norton was brought to Australia by English speedway rider Bill Kitchen. Eric McPherson slides to earth at Easter 1947.
ABOVE J. Goldsmith abandons ship at Blacktown Corner in the 1949 Anniversary Day meeting. BELOW Don South drags the crankcases, January 1949.