#01 in the list of senior British men to have represented GB (1936)
James Henry "Jimmy" Reed (# 1 in the list of senior men to represent Great Britain) epitomises the early years of roller speed skating for many people. He was born on 12th November 1908 in Edmonton, London. The oldest of six children he used to go to work with his father, a milkman, in the dairy when he was just six years old. Then in 1914 war broke out and his father soon enlisted. Like so many unfortunate children of that time young Jimmy lost his dad to the war at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Reed started skating around the age of 12, mainly to get away from his home life and his stepfather who he didn't see eye to eye with. He eventually got a job as a labourer but every spare hour was spent at the Alexandra Palace rink. He was soon a popular and well recognised figure at the rink and it wasn't long before he joined the speed team and started to race.
On the 8th January 1928, just weeks after his 17th birthday, Reed won the first of his many British Championship medals when he finished 3rd in the Half Mile on Holland Park. A year later and Reed was unstoppable, winning all three championships, the Half Mile, One Mile and Five Mile over two weekends. Prior to 1924 there was only the One Mile and Five Mile, but with the addition of the Half Mile he became the third skater to win all three titles in a single season (Benny Lee in 1924 and Reg Symondson in 1926 being the others).
In 1930 he would add another two titles, the One Mile and Five Mile and also form part of the winning relay team for the very first time. For a short, stocky man Reed was superbly agile on his skates. He was an excellent dancer on skates receiving test medals for his figure skating, but Reed thought it "too feminine" and concentrated on his speed skating. His agility and flexibility saw him well, his party trick being to do the splits on skates and then appear to pull himself up by the trousers!
In 1931 he was again victorious in the relay but took no individual medals. A lean year by his own standards, but his circumstances may well account for that. The depression had struck and in 1931 he found himself without work. He used to regularly walk from his house in Wood Green to the dole office in Hyde Park to get coupons for food and coal. Despite these hardships 1932 saw him back on song. It started with a second place in the Half Mile behind team mate Eddie Stumbke before taking gold in the One Mile on the 4th February. This victory saw him take his sixth title and make him the most successful British speed skater to date. With another silver (again behind Stumbke) in the Five Mile and another gold in the relay, Reed was well and truly back to winning ways.
1933 was also to be a successful year with yet more gold medals, again in the One Mile, Five Mile and relay, whilst the Half Mile eluded him once more as he could only manage the silver behind Stumbke for a second year in succession. On the track there was none better but times were still hard for the Reed family. That year his second daughter, Gladys, was born but Reed was still out of work and becoming desperate. The family was means tested and in his desperation to put food on the table he sold his beloved skates leading him to quit racing for a while.
One particular day Reed cycled out from Wood Green and found himself out in the country in Elsenham. Here a farmer was selling off 4 1/2 acres of his land. Reed had the bright idea of building his own house and the land for sale was ideal. The down side, of course, was that he couldn't afford it but the farmer came to his rescue. Reed worked for the farmer and he used his wages to pay for the land and he set about building a family home. Coupled with that he soon got a job at the Alexandra Palace rink as a floor attendant. Jimmy Reed was back where he belonged.
Reed was straight back into the thick of it taking a silver in the One Mile Championship and a return to the winning relay team. Finishing ahead of Reed in the One Mile was Harold Wilkinson, formerly of Brixton All Blacks but now skating for Broadway. Wilkinson was a former title winner back in 1931 and had featured occasionally in the medals, but in 1935 Wilkinson added his name to the list of "treble winners".
1936 was a lean year for Reed. Not only did he fail to take an individual medal but the Alexandra Palace club also lost their stranglehold on the relay when Broadway win the event on 14th February. It was Palace's first loss since 1929. Despite these performances Reed would still become instrumental in paving the way for British international speed skating.
Later that year Bill Ross (Alexandra Palace), Harold Wilkinson (Broadway) and Jimmy Reed got called up to represent Great Britain at the European Championships in Stuttgart in Germany. This was the third time a European Championships had been held, but the first time on a track (Anvers, Belgium in 1930 and Monza, Italy in 1935 had both been on a road circuit). It was also notable in so far as it was the very first time that Great Britain sent a national team to a major international championships. In all there were eight events and Great Britain placed itself firmly on the speed skating map with victories in five of them. Bill Ross was victorious in the 500 metres and 10000 metres whilst Harold Wilkinson would go on and win the 1500 metres and 2000 metres. Reed himself would came away with a gold medal in the 5000 metres. It was an almighty performance and remains to this day the most number of senior gold medals taken by a British international team in a single championships. Reed and the rest of the British team pioneered performances and set the scene for British speed skating for years to come.
Reed came home and where once some were questioning whether his day had been and gone, in 1937 he showed everyone just what a class act he still was. On 12th December 1936 he won the Half Mile Championship at the Granby Halls, Leicester, ahead of newly found British team mate, Wilkinson. On 14th January 1937 he added the One Mile. The 4th February saw him help Alexandra Palace take their place as the most successful club by winning yet another relay title and then on the 24th February Reed won the Five Mile Championship becoming the first skater to do the "double triple". It also took his tally of British titles to eleven, a record that would not be beaten for another 27 years, and then only by the legendary Les Woodley.
From 1938 onwards his name disappears from the speed skating record books. It was also the year of the very first World Track Championships which were on home turf, at Wembley, London, but Reed was making a name for himself in another British shirt. As well as speed skating Reed was also a keen competitor in roller speedway (a precursor to todays roller derby), going by the nickname of "Bulldog". Initially he was teamed with Millie Carter but in a freak accident Millie broke her neck and spent the rest of her years paralysed. Reed kept in touch with Millie all through his life but as sad as it was he was soon looking for another speedway partner. He eventually found one in the form another speed skater, Ida Sachs. Ida would eventually go on and win medals in speed skating for the Broadway club in the 1940's and '50's. She would also marry Alexandra Palace speedster and British international, Alf Martin, but all that was in the future and for now she was the speedway partner of "Bulldog" Reed. The pair were so involved in roller speedway that they were due to travel with the British team to Chicago, but the outbreak of World War II put a stop to all that.
Initially Reed was considered to be too old for the army and became a fire warden, his fire watch being the Alexandra Palace. Where else?! The authorities then commandeered the land he had purchased for housing prisoners of war. Reed moved decided to move back to Elsenham and here he was put in charge of 25 P.O.W's, getting them to make pit props. As his daughter Gladys will tell you, "none of them escaped".
Reed also saw a personal opportunity with this ready made workforce. His house that he had been building for nigh on six years was still unfinished so he called on two of the P.O.W's (Hans and Fritz) to help him finish it. By 1942 the house was complete but the war wasn't going so well and the government needed more soldiers. Eventually the call came and Reed found himself drafted to go initially to Holland and then on to Rouen.
He was demobbed in 1945 and returned home to find that the authorities were refusing to give back his land. Reed was known to be a no nonsense sort of guy and the authorities soon found themselves on the receiving end of his determination. Eventually they backed down and Reed and the family moved back into their Elsenham home.
After the war he took up the role as speed coach for the local youngsters at the Alexandra Palace rink. Known as 'Jimmy Reed's Boys' the group of youngsters would become firm friends for many years with one or two of them having a degree of success. The most notable of these being Bob Halford, who would go on to represent Great Britain at World Championships.
In his professional life Reed became a farmer, eventually adding another 60 acres to his land in Elsenham. He even bought himself a horse and cart. He later moved to Devon and continued his farming there. In 1974 he made one last trip to Alexandra Palace to their annual dinner. Ill health meant that he had to give it up farming so he bought himself a hotel in Tintagel, Cornwall and cooked dinners for the residents, only retiring when he was 78. In August 1990, aged 81, Jimmy Reed passed away.
Despite his authority around a rink, Jimmy Reed was quite a quiet, shy and unasuming man who very much kept himself to himself, but fiery when his principles were threatened. In later life he rarely, if ever, talked about his days as an elite athlete, but let there be no doubt that Jimmy Reed was a trendsetter for British speed skating. He was by far the man to beat in the 1930's. The fact he won no fewer than eleven British titles in an era when there were only three to win in any one year is also a remarkable feat in itself. Jimmy Reed also remains the only man to this day to have twice won all senior British titles, including the relay, in any one year.
The 1930's was a transitional period for British speed skating as the country looked to send it's first representatives to major international competitions, and heading up that transition was British skating legend, Jimmy Reed.