Heritage: The James Bond figure who raced cheetahs in Romford

Kenneth Gandar-Dower thought cheetahs would be happy to race at Romford Greyhound Stadium. He was wr

Kenneth Gandar-Dower thought cheetahs would be happy to race at Romford Greyhound Stadium. He was wrong. Picture: Paul Bennett - Credit: Archant

An adventurer’s efforts to bring wild cat racing to Romford Greyhound Stadium was not a success, as Prof Ged Martin explains

Kenneth Gandar-Dower was a 1930s hero figure, a real-life James Bond. Of course, it helped that he was born very rich. He wasn’t the sort of toff you’d encounter in Romford – or was he?

In 1927, “Gandar” – as everyone called him – won a scholarship from a top public school, Harrow, to study at Trinity College Cambridge.

Gandar took Cambridge by storm. He represented the university in seven different sports, from tennis to billiards. It was said that he turned down the chance of an eighth “Blue”, for cricket, because he couldn’t be bothered.

In the Cambridge Union debating society, his elegant and seemingly impromptu gibes (all carefully rehearsed) demolished opposing speakers. He could have been elected president, but it was too much effort.

He did edit the student magazine, which probably explains why he missed graduating with First Class Honours.

With no need to find a job, he embarked on a life of pleasure, playing tennis at Wimbledon, and qualifying as a pilot.

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Most pilots flew at weekends for fun. Gandar headed for India.

He turned explorer, climbing volcanoes in the Congo.

On hearing legends of the marozi, a shy spotted lion, he led an expedition to Kenya’s remote Aberdare mountains. He never saw his marozi. Nor has anybody else.

But in Kenya he fell in love with another big cat. The cheetah was a four-legged Gandar, elegant, athletic – the fastest animal on the planet.

Gandar tamed twelve of them, and brought them to England. Greyhound racing was popular in the 1930s. Why not race cheetahs as well?

In Africa, cheetahs work with jackals, wild dogs that help corner their prey and share in the carcass.

Hence Gandar’s cheetahs had no problems with greyhounds – they were simply smarter, cleaner jackals.

After quarantine, and training in racing technique, the cheetahs made their first public appearance – at Romford Greyhound Stadium, on Saturday, December 11, 1937.

“The cheetahs which will appear at Romford answer to their names, follow readily, walk into their starting boxes, and are absolutely safe with strangers,” Gandar assured the public.

The first race, over 265 yards, pitted a female, Helen, against two greyhounds.

She bounded out of her special cage into a fifty yard lead before the dogs had even left their traps. With “effortless ease”, Helen finished in 15.86 seconds, breaking the course record.

Less successful was the second race, between two Gussie and James, over hurdles.

Unlike lions, which operate in packs, cheetahs hunt alone. Thus when Gussie got well ahead, James simply stopped running, and refused to finish the course.

Cheetah racing was a failure. Greyhounds are dogs, happy to oblige humans by doing daft things. But cheetahs are cats. Just like any domestic moggy, they please themselves.

In the wild, they’re brilliant at leaping sideways to confuse their prey, but they’re not much good at running in narrow lanes around a curving dog track.

Cheetahs were also quick to spot that there’s no food value in an electric hare.

It’s hard now to imagine these wonderful creatures pounding the track at Romford Stadium.

Kenneth Gandar-Dowar became unpopular in fashionable circles after he took a pet cheetah on a leash into the bar of Queen’s Club, London’s posh tennis venue.

He returned to Africa, photographing gorillas in the Congo. When war broke out in 1939, Gandar finally got a job as a press photographer and war correspondent in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).

He joined the first invasion wave of the Allied occupation of Madagascar, jumping ashore in a bowler hat, carrying his camera and typewriter. Luckily, there was no resistance.

Soon after, in 1944, he joined a troop ship sailing from Mombasa to Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, and Kenneth Gandar-Dowar was among the 1,297 people who drowned.