In an exclusive interview, we had a chance to talk to one of the founding members of the Durham Wasps in 2004. Jim Hall, – born and bred in County Durham – first donned a pair of skates when the wartime Durham Ice Rink was an open-air rink covered by a giant tent. Learning to play hockey from some of Canada’s finest players stationed in the region, Jim and a bunch of dedicated local lads went on to form a team of their own – the Wasps.
So then Jim, how did you first get involved in playing ice hockey?
Well I began skating from the age of around 16 when the Durham rink was just an open-air pad covered by the big marquee. Because the War was on at the time, a lot of the Royal Canadian Air Forcemen stationed down at Middleton St. George used to play at Durham. If the team were one or two short, the Canadian players used to ask us local lads on the ice to make up the numbers. So we ended up forming our own team in the end.
And this team became the Wasps?
Pretty much yes. We were never an official team for a few years. It wasn’t until the second Durham rink was built – the one that everyone will be familiar with that the Wasps ‘proper’ came about. But it was a lot of the lads that started playing hockey back in those days that went on to form the first Wasps team, yes.
So the old rink – I hear it had poles in the middle of the ice. Is that true?
Absolutely! The old rink was made up of the ice pad and barriers which were circled by a tin sheet and spectators stood on a platform around the edge of the ice. There were four posts which ran down the middle of the ice and two posts at each end held the marquee roof up. Quite often, you’d turn up to skate and the roof had blown off! There was a young lad who worked in the skate-hire whose job it was to tighten the guy ropes whenever it got a bit blustery. Sometimes, when the rink was exposed to the elements and it was in winter, you’d have to shovel a couple of inches of snow off the ice pad before you could even skate on it!
Did the posts get in the way?
They did…. but more so for visiting hockey teams. The ones in middle of the ice were generally regarded as two extra defencemen as visiting players weren’t used to them being there! As well as that, with it being wartime, there were a number of times when they had to black the rink out whenever there was an air-raid warning, so you’d end up skating around in the pitch black, hoping you’d not collide with a post!
You sounded like a pretty hardy bunch!
Oh yes. Us skaters used to walk miles from the villages to get to the rink. And if we got the chance we’d try and find somewhere to kip in the City on a Saturday night, so we could get to the rink early on Sunday morning. One lad, Lance Ripley was a fire-warden at the time during the war, and they had a base in the old Methodist Hall at the top of North Road where we’d quite often stay overnight. We used to sleep anywhere just so that we could stay in Durham and be able to play hockey or skate the next morning! One of the lads we skated with was from Middleton in Teesdale… and he used to walk ten miles to get to a bus route which would take him to Durham – just to skate!
And then the you became the Durham Wasps?
Yes. I can’t remember why the name ‘Wasps’ came about. I think it was Icy Smith’s idea. Possibly because the first jerseys we had were striped, so we looked a little like Wasps. Ansyway, however it came about, it stuck. We played our opening game in the ‘new’ rink against Kirckaldy Flyers – It was quite a big thing in Durham when the new rink opened, I tell you!
Flyers won, 5-4. I don’t recall who scored – it was a long time ago!
Who else did we play back then?
Well because Durham was a bit of a hockey out-post back then, we played the majority of our games at home, and teams used to come and visit us. Initially we played a lot of the Scottish League teams like Kirckaldy, Glasgow, Ayr, Paisley, Falkirk and what-have-you and also the Southern League clubs who had amateur teams like Nottingham, Wembley and Brighton. The problem was though, these so-called ‘amateur’ sides would generally sneak in some of there first-team lads, so us Wasps would end up lining up against some real top class players – the likes of Bobby Bauer, and Chick Zamick from Nottingham who was a superb player. But to be fair, we learnt a hell of a lot from them!
Who were the toughest opposition?
Hmmm…Falkirk Cubs were one team that we always seemed to have difficulty with. The trouble was, they were kids! Many of them no older than 14 or 15 years old. Well we didn’t dare body check them, so they used to run rings round us – and they were dirty beggars aswell! We always had a job on to beat them.
And at Durham – did the Wasps have any star players back in the 40s?
We did. A few of the Canadian airmen stayed on in Durham after the war and married local girls. Names like Earl Carlson and Gordie Belmore. Earl was easily the best player we had. Our job was to feed the puck to Carlson. Belmore was a good goalscorer aswell but Carlson was without doubt the star player. We were there to assist. Earl used to pick up the puck behind our goal… and the cheers used to start. They’d get louder and louder as he’d skate down the ice towards their goal with the puck. We were lucky to have them with the Wasps. There were some real hard men on the team too… Hughie McIntyre was one of them. He would rather skate through you than around you!
I suppose hockey kit wasn’t as fancy in those days then?
No!… no-one wore any head gear, except the goalie. Our shirts were actually knitted by the women who supported the team and were made of wool. When they used to turn the plant off to level the ice, there used to be half and inch of water or so on the surface… well if you fell down and got wet, those jerseys were like a lead weight! Our padding was made from inch-thick felt fastened together… the same thing the crowds used to sit on! The other teams used to turn up with all their proper gear, and we made our own! We managed to get hold of some sticks from the Canadian airmen when we formed the team, but after that we had to save up to buy new sticks and skates. Our families used to yell “Break your leg – but for God’s sake, not your stick!”
What’s the story with the Wasps ‘Strike’ that happened in the 1940s?
The whole strike thing was a bit silly really. We used to all congregate in a little pub at the bottom of Claypath called the Wheatsheaf and it all started off in there one evening. A couple of the lads who didn’t make it onto the team decided to stir things up a little bit and put out a rumour that some of the Canadian lads were being paid to play by the Smiths. Well, because we were amateur, that would have been terrible. We never really found out if it was true or not, and I was totally against the idea of a strike anyway, so two of us went back to skate. Eventually everyone else came back and it was all forgotten about. And old Icy would never have given in anyway!
Could it have potentially been the end of the Wasps though?
I wouldn’t have thought so. We all loved skating and playing hockey too much.
So there were some character associated with the team then?
Oh yes. The team doctor was one of them! Doctor George his name was. He was generally straight in there with a needle whenever he had a chance! I remember one occasion, when I had bad toothache before a game.I ’d got kitted up, but I didn’t feel too clever so I said “I don’t feel like going on”.
“Come with me” said the Doc. So he sat me in a car and drove me into the town, walked me along a narrow alleyway – in full kit mind you – up to a little dentists surgery They whipped my tooth out while I lay there in my hockey gear, and had me back on the ice before the first period was out!”
And Icy Smith – he was a bit of a character too, so I understand?
He was a good soul. Icy was certainly a character and he had his own ways. It didn’t pay to cross him but he was placated easily enough. His bark was worse than his bite – and I’ll tell you…he had a bark!
So were the Wasps popular in the 40s? What were the crowds like?
When the Wasps first started, there used to be crowds of around 2,000. Within a year or so that was up to 4,000. It was packed. The Railways even used to run a special ‘Hockey Train’ which picked up at all the villages around Durham to get people to the games…there was no advertising done, word just got around, and people flocked to it.
Wow. So it really took off then?
Oh yes. Durham people had never seen ice hockey before you see, so it was something different. Games used to take place regularly on Saturday and Wednesday nights. Sometimes, there were three games in a week. People used to follow us all over the place to see us play as well. Then more kids started learning to skate and to play, and that led to the Durham Hornets being formed.
When did you leave the Wasps?
I joined the RAF in 1949 and left the area. One of the Commanding Officers though had gotten wind that I’d played for the Wasps in Durham so he requested to speak to me, and asked if I’d like to be posted to a different station which was near Wembley. So I relocated there and played for the RAF for a while. It was great – we didn’t do anything but play hockey! I ended up coming back to play against Durham too – which was interesting!
Do you still skate?
No – I haven’t skated for years! The younger members of the family keep trying to get me back on the ice, but I’m not going back on again. I’m not as steady these days!
What were your thoughts when you heard the Durham Rink had closed?
I’m very surprised they allowed the rink to close. It was a really big part of Durham. People used to enjoy it immensly – it was a community. I think there’s a lot of kids missing out now there’s no longer a rink in Durham and that’s a sad thing.
Best of luck.