Oddballs, superstition and songs: Coral settler Brian Belton recalls Clapton Dog Track
PUBLISHED: 22:51 01 January 2019 | UPDATED: 22:53 01 January 2019
Brian Belton tells Emma Bartholomew about the characters you’d find at Clapton Dog Track – where Joe Coral, a former bookkeeper there, had founded his betting empire – before it closed 45 years ago on New Year’s Day.
Brian Belton didn’t realise his trip to Clapton Dog Track just before Christmas 1973 while working as a trainee settler for Coral would be his last.
Just a few days later it shut its doors for good on New Year’s Day 1974.
For Brian – who has written about the stadium in the Hackney Society 50th anniversary book, Portrait of a Community – greyhound racing played a major part in his upbringing.
“You’d get taken as a babe in arms,” he said. “My grandparents would say: ‘Let’s have a night out,’ and get on the bus there. Ever since I can remember we would go to the dogs.
“Looking back you become inculcated with the culture, and by the time I was a teenager I was a dedicated gambler. You infuse a lot of information about the dogs and owners and you watch other people gambling.”
In its heyday, Clapton stadium was more popular than football, and would hold tens of thousands of people. Also known as Millfields Road, the arena was originally the home of Clapton Orient from 1896 to 1930 and was probably the landmark of Lower Clapton.
In 1927 Clapton Stadium Syndicate became joint tenants and spent £80,000 putting in an oval track encircling the soccer pitch to make one of the fastest race-ways in Britain.
“Whether or not you could afford the dog racing it was a place you could meet friends and see a bit of life,” said Brian.
“You’ve got to remember up to 20 years after the post-war era, people wanted to be with other people. It was about being social, being with a crowd and seeing people you knew. What people talk about still are ‘characters’, and you would remember bookies or people who could sing.”
One character in particular Brian remembers there was known as Billy the Bowler.
“I never saw him wearing said head-gear,” said Brian, “although sometimes he wore an old fashioned crash helmet when it was raining.
“He got around on a dilapidated motorised bike, and would nearly always approach people with something of an icebreaker. One I recollect was ‘You wanna tip?’ – an offer you’d be unlikely to refuse – and then he’d say: ‘Always warm the pot before you put the tea in.’ Then he’d ask if they had a light, and he’d them ask if they had a cigarette.
“The mythology was that if he did this the next bet you had would be a winner. Such was the place of superstition people were loath not to go along with the ritual.”
Famous people like James Bond actor Sean Connery or the Avengers actress Honor Blackman could sometimes be spotted, and people might bet on dogs they knew were owned by a particular celebrity.
“You wouldn’t think the bars and restaurants were glamorous now but at the time they were the place to be,” said Brian.
In between watching a race you might find a table to play poker, and Brian recalls a group of Chinese men who would play mahjong at Clapton.
As soon as he could legally work he fulfilled his ambition to learn how to “settle” at greyhound stadiums – which means working out complicated bets like a “patent”, or a bet of five dogs.
“I went to William Hill to learn how to settle and that was an experience in itself,” said Brian. “There were these gurus sitting in a basement and everyone smoked. The entire room would be breathing in this mist and you’d hardly be able to see each other.”
Compared with the other stadiums in London, Clapton had a more noticeable community atmosphere.
“In the early ’70s people would sing at Clapton,” said Brian. “Someone would start singing and other people would join in. It was left over from the wartime, and you heard these strange songs. One was Who Said Nora, which was a cross between a chant and a song. I’m guessing it came from a dog’s name. Everyone would laugh because of the familiarity of it.”
Because of that Brian thinks Clapton lasted longer than other stadiums which had closed by the 1970s. “It’s a funny thing,” he said. “People treasure these places and look back with nostalgia but at the time they don’t go.”
Now 63 and a youth work university lecturer, time at the tracks would be classified as an “informal education” in his line of work.
“It’s about being in situations where young people socialise and learn who they are. I don’t see the equivalent today, and it feels as though it was a plus, that’s for sure.”