The day I saved the Grand National

MBCH-12-07-13- Bill Wilson. Sandy.''Bill Willson at home in Sandy for Memory Lane article.
MBCH-12-07-13- Bill Wilson. Sandy.''Bill Willson at home in Sandy for Memory Lane article.

When the Second World War broke out, public sporting activities temporarily came to an end and did not resume again until August 1945.

During the war, Bill was a wireless operator stationed at a signal office in the cellar of 91 Harley Street, London. His Cub Scout skills in morse code had been pounced upon by the army and his duties were to transmit and receive coded messages.

At the end of the war, Bill was moved to a barracks in St John’s Wood and appointed regimental company clerk working for Captain Hayles. It was here that he received a phone call from Mirabel Topham, the owner of Aintree Racecourse which had long been host to the ‘most prestigious and probably the toughest horse race in the world’ – the Grand National Steeplechase.

Mrs Topham and Captain Hayles were friends of long standing and she had phoned to ask for advice about a serious problem with had arisen in connection with the race.

Her contract with the Grand National organisers included not only the hire of the racecourse but the provision of all 32 fences and a system of telephone links from each of the jumps with a central emergency accident control.

With the fences and landline telephone system in place, her problem was that all 16 of her telephone operators had decided to go on strike.

Captain Hayles told her he could provide volunteer servicemen to act as telephone operators and asked Bill to be one of them.

“Needless to say, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to be involved with the Grand National and so were 15 others of my company” says Bill.

The volunteers were taken to the barracks at the rear of Chester Castle and housed there for the three days of the meeting while other races took place such as flat racing and point to point. Once at Aintree, and after being introduced to Mrs Topham, Bill and his team were shown around the racecourse and the telephone system explained. They were then allocated individual positions at the fences. Their duty was to report by telephone which horses had cleared the fence and which were ‘fallers’, telephoning for ‘man’ or ‘horse’ ambulances as necessary.

The four and a half mile race consisted of two laps around the racecourse. Bill was allocated jump no. 12 on the first circuit which automatically became jump no. 28 on the second.

It was explained that there would be around 40 horses and jockeys in the race and that ‘accidents were inevitable’.

Bill completed his duties and was pleased to say that no accident occurred at his jump on either circuit. He recalls: “The horses thundered over and were gone in a flash. On the second circuit it was even more brief due to there being fewer horses because of fallers in the meantime.”

Mrs Topham was very grateful to the volunteers, giving them each a fiver and Bill was later able to enjoy watching the race in full on a British Movitone newsreel at the cinema where he spotted himself on screen performing his telephone duty.

Bill remembers it as a “wonderful and momentous occasion” and certainly it was a rare worm’s eye view of what is arguably horse racing’s most famous steeplechase.