Speedway’s Mighty Atom Len Read rose to speedway heights after gruelling war ordeal
- Credit: Mike Kemp Collection
He was the boy from the backstreets of Norwich who grew up to become a Star, a Devil, a Chad and The Mighty Atom. Derek James pays tribute to Len Read
We were sitting in a cafe one day having a chat when a gentleman approached us. "Hello Len," he said. "Thank you very much."
Len nodded and smiled...the man shook his hand, patted him on the shoulder and left.
Today I would like to honour and remember this remarkable man who has died following a short illness at the age of 102. He was The Mighty Atom of the speedway world.
But that is just part of the Len Read story. He was also a survivor of the Japanese slave camps, a landlord of a public house and a driving instructor.
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Author Jeremy Jackson who wrote a book called The Mighty Atom: The Life & Times of Len Read descrived him as having the seven Cs (which has nothing to do with vitamin supplements).
1 A life worth Celebrating.
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2 Having great strength of Character.
3 Being a Caring individual.
4 Showing intent Concentration.
5 Being totally Committed.
6 Having Courage when men despair.
7 And finally, just beiong a Cheerful chap.
It was former speedway world champion Peter Collins who said of Len: "A remarkable man who enjoyed the richness and fullness of a long life made that bit special by being a speedway rider."
Let's take a look at the life of this wonderful gentleman who some of you reading this will have known or certainly heard about.
Leonard Read was born in January of 1918 in a humble home on Barrack Street, Norwich. It had a gas light downstairs but they had to light a candle to go to bed at night.
He had three brothers all born within three years of each other. Len didn't remember his dad who died of TB at the age of 32, probably caused by his service in the First World War.
His mum Blanche worked in a shoe factory to make ends meet but these were hard times and young Len and his brothers went to Clare House School which looked after children who needed more help than others.
Following a spell in hospital with scarlet fever Len left school at 14 working in a shoe factory and then at Mackintosh's and when he wasn't working he was going "hell for leather" on push-bikes he and his mates had made from scrap
Len met Doris and fell in love. They were married in 1939 and a couple of months later he received his call-up papers and joined the 6th Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment sending up in Singapore.
He worked up to 12 hours a day with many other men from Norfolk and Suffolk on the Death Railway. A living hell.
Holding heavy concrete beams in ther air, standing to attention in boiling heat and being beaten and then there were the "sweat boxes" sapping the strength and sanity of the men.
While so many of his comrades died Len finally made it home where he was determined to become a speedway rider.
Remember that in those days speedway was watched by tens of thousands of men, women and children every week and many of the riders made more money then professional footballers.
He did odd jobs at The Firs in Norwich before getting his opportunity to ride. And he rode like the wind but crashed in the 1946 season and found it tough to get back in the side. He had broken his foot.
Len signed for Plymouth where the man they called The Mighty Atom was a right little Devil - the team's nickname - the crowds loved him as he raced around the track.
Plymouth were having large crowds and how they loved the pint-sized pocket rocket from Norwich. A scoring machine.
He eventually moved on to Liverpool where he became one of The Chads - remember the cheeky cartoon character?
By 1953 Len as back riding for Plymouth before quitting the sport he loved and heading back to his beloved wife Doris and family in Norwich - despite never actually leaving the city.
He became landlord of The Red Lion on Magdalen Street but that didn't work out so he got a job at the St Andrew's Shoe Company - he knew his way around shoe factories.
Then he set up business as a driving instructor. Fancy being taught to drive by none other then The Mighty Atom.
"I was never scared riding in speedway but I've had my moments giving lessons," said Len.
In more recent times he has been a popular and respected regular at speedway reunions many organised by Mike Kemp and Pam and Trevor Hedge.
Len lost his dear wife Doris but has a son Len (Junior) in Australia, daughters Jenny and Penny and was a proud grandfather and great grandfather.
It was an honour and a privilege to have known Len. A true legend and such a wonderful man. We have lost a link to the past and a true gentleman.
Anyway back to that cafe where the man has shaken his hand and thanked him.
"Who was he?" I asked.
"I taught him to drive. He passed eventually," said Len.