Few opponents could catch Split Waterman, one of the finest motorcycle speedway racers of his generation, on two wheels. He later made headlines for a ride to East Sussex in a Triumph Herald car when he was stopped from boarding a ferry to France and customs officials made a dramatic discovery.

The daredevil streak that had served Waterman so well on the track was put to more dubious use after his retirement from speedway, as a judge at the Old Bailey observed when Waterman was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for smuggling gold and guns.

“You were a man by character prepared to face danger and to take risks, a gun runner in Africa, and a man with the quick, decisive mind of the speedway rider,” Sir Carl Aarvold, recorder of London, told him at the conclusion of the trial in 1968.

“Freelance Arms Dealer”

Waterman and his fiancée, Avril Priston, had sought to travel from Newhaven to Dieppe, but were under observation by police. Forensics officers found almost 790 ounces of gold, then worth about £10,000, expertly concealed in the chassis of the car.

The prosecution contended that the gold was part of a haul worth £711,000 that was snatched in east London the previous year during the robbery of a bullion van belonging to NM Rothschild & Sons that contained 140 gold bars. The court heard that Waterman, described by police as “a freelance arms dealer between Belgium and Africa”, had bought two furnaces to smelt the gold.

Waterman pleaded guilty to receiving the stolen gold and unlawfully attempting to export it, and admitted illegally possessing two sub-machineguns, two rifles, three pistols and ammunition, as well as dies that could be used to make coins. Priston, a dressmaker from Bedfordshire, was sentenced to six months in prison for her part in the scheme.

Inevitably, the Kray Twins

Waterman’s name cropped up in a sensational trial later in 1968, when Ronald and Reginald Kray and two others appeared at Bow Street magistrates’ court, charged with conspiracy to murder.

Paul Elvey, a would-be hitman for the twins who became a witness for the prosecution after he was arrested at Glasgow airport carrying sticks of gelignite, claimed that Waterman made an attaché case that was fitted with a hypodermic syringe loaded with hydrogen cyanide. This was so that Elvey might inconspicuously murder a nightclub owner named George Caruana — inside the Old Bailey, of all places — by swinging the case against his legs to inject the poison.

Wedding bells: Waterman and Avril Priston tie the knot in 1970.

“He claimed that in a hotel room Mr Waterman demonstrated the effectiveness of the device by first jabbing it into a soft armchair and then into his own legs several times,” The Times reported. Another witness alleged that he saw Waterman sell three machineguns to the Krays outside a cinema.

Squire Francis Waterman was born in 1923 in New Malden, southwest London. His father was a printer; an uncle raced a motorcycle at the now-defunct Crystal Palace circuit in the 1920s. Waterman was a toolmaker’s apprentice before his wartime service in the Royal Fusiliers. In 1944 he took part in one of the bloodiest episodes in the Italian campaign, the Battle of Monte Cassino, and killed a German paratrooper. After suffering shrapnel wounds he was transferred away from the front line to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

“They put up a notice asking for people who could ride motorcycles so I put my name down,” he said, according to Speedway Star magazine. “We did a hundred-mile road race from Naples and I won it, more by luck than judgment, then we started speedway in a running stadium. And I started winning things there.”

He became known as Split after a set of poorly stitched leathers came apart during a race, earning him the nickname “split arse”. He was later posted to Germany, where his commanding officer had served with Major Alec Jackson, the manager of the Wembley Lions club, and arranged an introduction.

“Cheeky, Cheery, Devil-May-Care”

After the war Waterman became a star on the all-conquering Wembley team, despite accidentally writing off Jackson’s new Vauxhall car in a crash while driving a Hudson Terraplane coupé. In 1948 he won the prestigious London Riders’ Championship and was described in a report in Speedway Express as a “cheeky, cheery, devil-may-care” character who raced “like a bolt out of the blue”. A documentary film about the Lions dubbed him a “genial gag-ster”.

Speedway was hugely popular in postwar Britain, with the Lions capable of attracting crowds in excess of 60,000 and London having five top-level tracks. In 1950 he switched to the Harringay Racers for a then-record transfer fee of £3,000 (the equivalent today of more than £100,000).

He was unfortunate not to win an individual world title, finishing as a runner-up in 1951 and 1953, and appeared for England in 30 Test matches, captaining his country in a series against Australia in 1953.

He met his future wife in 1949 at the ice rink at what became known as Wembley Arena. Her father was a friend of Sir Arthur Elvin, the businessman who bought Wembley Stadium in 1927 and added a speedway track two years later. After his release from prison, Waterman and Avril, who survives him, married in 1970 at Caxton Hall register office, Westminster, and emigrated to the Costa del Sol later that decade.

Waterman had the looks and magnetism of a Hollywood star and the couple moved in glamorous circles in their heyday; among their friends was the actor Stewart Granger, who married the actress Jean Simmons, and was one of the most famous British leading men of the 1940s and 1950s.

Waterman had the looks and magnetism of a Hollywood star and he and his wife moved in glamorous circles in their heyday.

Waterman was well known enough to be the face of a cigarette advertisement in 1952 that riffed on his fearless approach: “But when I smoke — I’m careful.” His popularity with the public, if not the authorities, was underlined during an inquiry held by the sport’s governing body after he walked out of a meeting (for which he was handed a severe reprimand) at West Ham that year in protest at the controversial award of a race to a rival whose tactics forced Waterman off his machine.

A half-dozen fans protested outside the venue, the Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall, wearing sandwich boards that demanded “Fair Play for Split Waterman”.

Waterman at work in 1951.

Unsurprisingly, given his riding style and the inherent dangers of the sport, Waterman was no stranger to injuries. In 1952 a crash at Odsal Stadium in Bradford, West Yorkshire, fractured a knee so severely that surgeons considered amputating his leg. He recovered and raced for a number of clubs after Harringay folded in 1954. After he retired in 1962 he went into the fabrication business: sheet metal-working and making plastic injection moulds for companies including Airfix.

“You Name It, I’ve Done It”

In the 1970s he spent time in an Italian prison for possession of counterfeit Spanish pesetas worth nearly half a million pounds. This came to light during a 1978 trial at the Old Bailey of two alleged forgers, one of whom reportedly told British police that Waterman “said he wanted enough forged pesetas to bring down the Franco government”.

On a visit from Spain for the annual dinner-dance of the Veteran (now World) Speedway Riders’ Association in Coventry in 2002, The Guardian found Waterman “second in the toasts only to the Queen” and noted that “his charisma at 79, in tinted aviators and royal-blue cummerbund, was still enough to send multitudes of septuagenarians sprinting to the top table, autograph books in hand”. His racing prowess was not the only topic of conversation. “I smuggled gold! I smuggled guns! Zambia, Rhodesia, the jungle,” he declared.

Waterman reflected that when his speedway career faded, so did his prospects of escaping the attention of the police. “The people who worked at Wembley were ex-Old Bill,” he said in a book, Speedway: The Greatest Moments. “And that’s how I used to get out of trouble. What sort of trouble? You name it, I’ve done it.”

Split Waterman, speedway racer and smuggler, was born on July 27, 1923. He died on October 8, 2019, aged 96