The Pitstone Motor Racing Circuit

To place the proposed racing track in the context of the time the 1929 Wall Street Crash on Thursday 24th October, saw 13 million shares off loaded, at rock bottom prices by brokers seeking out the unwary.  The damage had been done by noon.  It was the ruin of small investors drawn into an ever rising market by the magnet of greedy capitalism.  The more experienced who held onto their profits for too long in anticipation of further gain also lost.  Prices were not the only thing to fall as eleven financiers committed suicide. The growing inter-dependence of the world’s nations meant the Great Depression, heralded by the Wall Street Crash spread from America around the globe.   Wages plummeted, banks and businesses failed and for millions the struggle for food, clothing and shelter was paramount in their lives.  Twelve months later 21 million people among the industrial nations, of the world, were unemployed. In the economic confusion that prevailed fascism prospered in the fertile ground of social unrest and the decade saw the deep rooted Great Depression survive until 1939 when it was eradicated by the greatest conflict the world had ever seen. From 1929 to 1931 Ramsey MacDonald lead the Labour Government in this country.  The financial crisis of 1931 saw his Labour administration replaced by a National Government of the three major parties.  Britain came off the Gold Standard and Government spending was cut back.  Unemployment was half that of Germany’s 5 million. 1932 saw Ramsey MacDonald, at the head of a Parliament dominated by the largest Conservative majority ever. In Germany businessmen lined up to support a supposedly anti-capitalist Hitler.  Benito Mussolini who came to power in Italy in 1911 was a role model for Germany’s Fuerer. But Benito spent his time undermining Hitler until a hastily arranged marriage of convenience, years later, proved fatal for them both. Stalin, after years of self imposed isolation for Russia, began courting allies in the West, signing non-aggression treaties with France, Poland, Finland, Estonia and Latvia. The year 1933 was welcomed with customary optimism by revellers on the streets and in the nightspots of London it was amongst the liveliest new year’s eve celebrations the capital had ever seen,  The note of optimism did not ring for long. In January 1933 Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany, while in Pitstone journalists from the worlds press were visiting the site for the proposed motor race course and on leaving the consensus was that they ‘were deeply impressed with its potentialities’. Unemployment in Britain reached a peak of 2.75 million in 1933.  The Government’s response was to announce a massive slum-clearance scheme, costing £95 million which would see 210,000 homes demolished to create, the space to house over one million people in modern accommodation. The Loch Ness Monster was ‘sighted’.  The film ‘King Kong’ opened with Fay Wray as the heroine in the clutches of the misappropriated ape rehoused from it’s own jungle habitat. On a global scale the unemployment among industrialized nations reached 30 million five times the 1929 level. One in four male American adults were unemployed and despite surplus production by farmers the country battled famine. For farmers facing an uncertain future, in Pitstone, the offer from speculators, drawn from the world of motor racing, to purchase low yield land from them, on which, to build a 435 acre racing circuit  had come at the right time.  Pitstone had a population of around 450 and the consortium, behind the scheme, felt that as no one lived on the proposed site there would be no one to complain. The land was absolutely open; no trees to be cut down and rooted up.  The subsoil of hard chalk suited the foundations required for both the circuit and it’s ancillary buildings. But voices were raised and letters appeared in the national press. Three prominent figures among the consortium were Captain George A. E. Oyston land speed record holder awarded the Seagrove Trophy in 1935, Mr. C. R. Whitecroft and Mr. H. N. Edwards, Secretary of  the British Racing Drivers Club their intention was to replace Britain’s fading Brooklands motor circuit with a  course to rival those of Europe where the Targa Floria in Italy and Germany’s Nurberg Ring vied for the premier reputation.  At four miles long, to facilitate timekeeping, the circuit was shorter than it’s main rivals but offered the spectator freedom of movement.  The consortium may have misjudged the depth of opposition in the area but they called upon the skill set of the then current luminaries of the sport, British and foreign drivers, invited to view the proposed plans and the actual site, and contribute to the design of a circuit that was both challenging for participants with rewarding vantage points for spectators. Pitstone was seen as a suitable site because a crowd could be drawn from a potential audience of 9,000,000 within a radius of 40 miles.  The Home Counties were seen as a great playground spread out at London’s very door.  Hyde Park Corner, only 32 miles away, was well served by arterial roads and Tring station was little more than a mile away. The project would employ 700 workers in the construction phase. Pitstone Hill included in the site rose 711 feet above sea level  The maximum gradient among the sharp hairpins would be 1 in 5 up, while downhill the steepest place would be 1 in 10 requiring a high degree of driver expertise to be successfully negotiated.  The road would have a concrete surface varying in width from 60 feet opposite the grandstand to allow for pit-work, to 18 feet on the hill-section.  The hill-climb-road would have a maximum gradient of 1 in 2.5.  By means of loop roads, five separate circuits were built into one.  100 acres of reserved enclosure would be available for spectators, in two of these, naturally sloping ground would enable spectators to witness the racing from their own cars.  The main grandstand would accommodate 10,000 individuals.  75 acres of outside parking would be available.  3000 vehicles per hour would pass through the special entrance. In February 1933 a share issue was floated to raise £200,000  £142,000 allocated for construction, £58,000 for working capital, unforeseen expense and prize money.  A fixture on the International Calendar was secured for later that year on August 19th. On April 13th a week before Hitlers forty-fourth birthday, Winston Churchill warned, in the House of Commons of the dangers of the conditions now ruling in Germany’ being extended by conquest to Poland, ‘and another persecution and pogrom of Jews begun in this new area’ The ‘Silver Birch’ cafe, off the B488, now a private house, was constructed in anticipation of the motor racing circuit getting on track but the consortium failed to spark enough interest, despite the purchase of land, to get it off the drawing board. Without further investigation I can only conclude that would be investors did not share the optimism of the consortium and steered clear of their share offering.  The consortium, could draw a line through the project and chalk it up to experience.  They were fortunate that the cement manufacturers F. L. Smidth stepped in with an offer for the land, which was accepted under the proviso the cement manufacturer would not attempt to build a motor racing circuit on the site. On the 2nd October 1948 the first British Grand Prix took place on a decommissioned RAF camp at Silverstone.  On a site completed with the speed of today’s Nightingale hospital which left the drivers spinning round oil drums on their way to victory. Tunnel Cement (Pitstone) Ltd began production of cement on the 20th September 1937, on a 500 acre site, no doubt buoyed by the Government’s enthusiasm for house and road building. From 1934 the Industry had marketed cement under a Common Price Arrangement which operated until February 1987 when Tunnel had to grapple with renewed competition.  In it’s last guise, the cement works, hoped for fortification, from Castle Cement but their involvement ended when the smoke stacks were stubbed out with the demolishment of the site on the 30th January 1999. The path was now clear for the Castlemead development to make progress under the develpers Wilcon with only the redundant administration offices of the cement works, on Westfield Road remaining as a defiant reminder of the sites previous history. And we are left to ponder if Pitstone’s loss, of a racing circuit, was a near miss in the circle of life for which we should remain forever grateful. Author: Klaus Ginda

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