Tuesday, January 20, 2009


by Chris Illman

Chris writes:
"This contribution about an American hero is written by an Englishman! (well Paul, you often articulate on many of our British heroes, so time to turn the tables on you!). My dialogue takes us back to another era, when one of your fellow countrymen spent a considerable amount of his time in England displaying some of his many talents, which as far as I can ascertain, have never been documented in detail (I guess this is the point where someone will prove otherwise!)."

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!”

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.

And this is where Oren 'Putt' Mossman comes into the story. It relates to Fred’s association with Putt and the friendship that ensued! 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!

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. [Note the extensive publicity on Putt's letterhead!] 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!

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!).

As well as the Stunt Shows, Putt was a Speedway rider of some note, and appeared with the American team on a regular basis. This photograph (above) 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 (top photo) not only demonstrates his skill as an accomplished Speedway rider, but shows him casually wearing a pullover and a tie! [Click on the program below to catch the wonderful slang of a 1930's motorcycle racer]

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. (Click here for more details on the film).

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 & 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 accompanying Photo, 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.

[Recently this video of Putt's Motorcycle Stunt Show has come to light on youtube - note the 'ladder trick' among other stunts. As this was 1960, Putt would have been 54 years old].

Chris has been featured here sprinting a Norton-JAP at Brighton - he and his son Mark run the VMCC Sprinting webpage. Chris is also a great collector of motorcycle ephemera. Thanks for the contribution!


smitty said...

There haven't been any comments on this, but don't think it isn't appreciated, Chris. Is there any books about him?


vintagent said...

Don't know about books, but the bio on the Motorcycle Hall of Fame website is pretty interesting. He was inducted in 1998, perhaps the most famous motorcycle stunt man ever, until Evel Kneivel came along; and Putt was better! Click on Putt's name highlighted in the third paragraph of the story for a link to the Hall of Fame website.

FloridaSteve said...

What an extrordinary person. I have an ongoing conversation with a good friend of mine who is (like myself) a movie and documentary buff. We are always pointing out interesting characters or periods of history that would make for good films or documentaries. This post provides a perfect example.

Many Thanks!

Tom said...

I met Putt in Des Moines, Iowa in 1953. Being a teen-ager I thought this strange man was probably high on something. In fact he seldom drank and didn't do drugs. He was incredibly high on life, and himself.He was a treasure trove of stories about his life as a showman. His appearance on the the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was amazing. He challenged Eval Kaneval to match his feat of jumping over a house on a motorcycle, backwards and blindfolded! He was in his 60's at the time. Eval Kaneval never responded to my knowledge. I'll never forget the pleasure I got from seeing this legend. He was at the Iowa State Horseshoe championships when I met him. He no longer pitched competitively, but did trick shots, like placing a horseshoe on his instep and kicking it on the peg from 30 feet away. A truly amazing character.
Tom Johnson Battle Creek, Michigan, USA

ch.... said...

tom thats a great story!!. great article. i have an incredible original putt mossman show poster in my collection if any one is interested in seeing it let me know. chris @ truemath71@yahoo.com

Debbie said...

This showman was my Grandmother's cousin.I am a 58 year old female relative and I started riding motorcycles before I even knew about Putt. Even though I prefer the call of the open road, the more I read about Putt, the more fascinated I am to know more.

heather said...

Hi I am married to Tony Daleske. His Grandmother Shirly was age five when she did stunt riding with Putt. And Shirley's mother Peggy also did Stunt riding with him. I was amazed that a child had the will to do it! If you have any photo's of that I would love to see them!!!!

Kathy (Manship) Enslin said...

My mother Peggy Manship Waldo and my older sister Shirley (Manship) Daleske toured the USA and Canada with Putt Mossman during WWII while our dad was in the Marines. I have several photos of the show during that time. My sister also yodelled as part of the show. I recently posted 3 of the photos on my Facebook. These photos have gone from my Facebook to Putt's page. The November 2011 American Iron motorcycle magazine has published these photos sent in from my brother-in-law. My sister Rita and I have always laughed that our daring and risk-taking must have come naturally from our mother!

Anonymous said...

I first became aquainted with Putt in the late 50s. He later married my ex sister-in-law. I was in a few of his shoes and he always paid in silver dollars. Wish I had kept them now. I knew his son, Chip, also.

Anonymous said...

Hello putt was my grandfathers dad. Chip, we don't know too much about our family tree now that chip passed i would like to know more of the mossmans! My name is Hannah

Tracy Landis said...

Hello, I'am married to Spike, Our 14 th wedding anniversary is coming up in may. I would like to buy some memorabilia of his aunt grace Conrad as a surprise to him. Any information would be great.

Anonymous said...

Tracy Landis. Could you contact me


Grace Conrad was my mother's cousin & I remember her very well.