by Gus Dalrymple
“I’m rich,” mused Tom Walls as he sat in a deckchair on a first-class deck sipping champagne poured by watchful stewards on the voyage home to England, “and now all the Aussies on board want my autograph! Bit different from when the bilge in steerage was all I could afford on a liner going to Canada.
“And now that I’m wealthy I’m getting a bee in my bonnet about owning and training the winner of the Derby. It’s an idea that’s fast becoming an obsession.”
Walls’ story began when as a young man he decided not to join the family plumbing business in Norwich. Instead he boarded a ship going to Nova Scotia and escaped from his cramped quarters by persuading the captain to let him work as a cabin boy.
He saved his tips and on landing paid for a long train ride to the Prairies where he took a job as a farmhand and began a life-long love of riding horses.
A year later he read in a British magazine that Scotland Yard’s new fingerprint
system was helping them catch criminals faster than before. Walls reckoned a detective’s job was more attractive than riding the range as a cowboy so he came home again.
He joined London’s Metropolitan Police but wasn’t sent to Scotland Yard’s fingerprint bureau. Instead he had to train to be a constable in the city’s East End.
On his first weekend off he made the momentous visit to Brighton races that changed his life.
After the last race he walked into “Doctor Brighton’s” famous sea-front pub and started chatting with another customer. They began swapping jokes and the more stories Walls told, the more he had his fellow-drinker falling about laughing.
The man told Tom he produced the Palace Pier’s stage show and asked him if he’d like to try out for a job as its second comedian.
Walls jumped at the chance and went on that night. When he brought down the house, the producer invited him to go on tour with his show at seaside resorts. The pay was so good, he stopped pounding a beat as a copper and became a full-time comedian.
The producer staged a new variety show, promoted Walls to play the lead and sent him on a tour of Australia. Once he was down under he spent his mornings visiting racehorse training establishments and often got the chance to ride work.
But when he arrived back in London in January he needed to find a job: his producer presented summer shows for seaside audiences only. He saw an ad in the theatrical newspaper The Stage that read: “We want comedians at once for small supporting roles. Apply Aldwych Theatre, Strand.”
He auditioned for actor-producer Ralph Lynn who listened to his stories and told him: “You have a very good straight-faced delivery I think is likely to raise the roof. You can start rehearsing our next show on Monday.”
Walls appeared in a number of hit plays such as Tons of Money, Dirty Work, Cuckoo in the Nest, and It Pays to Advertise. He became famous, was made a partner in Aldwych Theatre Productions, and was soon making big money again. He found theatregoers liked seeing him play the roles of flirtatious middle-aged men with a roving eye.
As he recalled: “To my intense surprise, people like seeing these comedies so much, some of them take friends to see them again and again. And I’ll prove it to you. One night I forgot my next line, the prompter called it out and so did several people in the audience. I was impressed when waves of laughter swept the house.
“A few evenings later I noticed that the performance wasn’t going as well as usual so I pretended to forget my next line and couldn’t hear the prompter call it to me. I put a hand to my ear and said ‘What was that?’ and people in the audience roared the words at me.
“The whole episode convulsed them with mirth, so I often used this device to inject life back into a play that was losing its bite.”
His bank balance grew so large that his thoughts turned to owning and training a Derby winner. But first he married an actress who gave him a son, another Tom.
He bought a small training establishment near Epsom and filled it with horses that won many races. The expense of running a stable, together with his lavish lifestyle, was a drain on his finances, but he went ahead, purchased a mansion and moved in a butler, a cook, several housemaids and a couple of gardeners.
His eyes then fell on a colt, April the Fifth, and he found out its unusual name came from being foaled on that day, the birthday of his breeder, Sydney McGregor. Walls bought a share in the horse on condition his well-known stage name appeared as the sole owner.
Walls regarded April the Fifth as a possible Derby type for the 1932 Derby, but as a two-year-old he failed to get even a place in three moderate races at Gatwick, Wolverhampton and Derby.
He appeared not to have made much improvement when fourth in a minor handicap at Birmingham on his three-year-old debut, but then ran well to finish sixth in the 2,000 Guineas, scored his maiden victory at Gatwick and won Lingfield’s Derby Trial decisively by two lengths.
On Derby Day itself, jockey Fred Lane settled the horse in about eighth place in a field of 21, didn’t take him into the lead until 50 yards out and won going away. April the Fifth became the first Epsom-trained Derby winner since Amato in 1838.
The huge crowd cheered the most popular actor in Britain as he led in his horse and was congratulated by King George V. Walls’ Derby ambition had not only come true, but he’d also won a fortune.
For the rest of the 1930s, however, things went downhill for the stage star who lived the lives of three men but spent the salaries of six. The treacherous land grabs by Hitler, the warnings from Churchill about the threat of imminent war, the desperate attempts by Prime Minister Chamberlain to gain time for Britain to rearm, all these dramatic events made theatre audiences lose interest in seeing comedies.
Attendance fell drastically at the Aldwych Theatre, yet Walls kept spending large amounts. Despite the outward signs of great wealth, several of his business ventures failed and April the Fifth wasn’t a success at stud either.
Walls’ fortune dwindled to near impecuniousness. Adding to his troubles, he was in almost constant pain due to a hunting accident.
He still appeared on the stage at the Aldwych Theatre despite the small audiences. He was taken to the wings of the theatre in his wheelchair, waited for his cue to enter, and when it came he got up and went on without any problem.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Once I’m on the pain disappears. By some miracle I’m able to walk normally as if I’d never been involved in an accident. But the moment I’m off and back in the wings again I have to make a dive for that wheelchair and grab it or I know I’ll fall on the floor.”
He always said that the proudest moment of his life came when his son Tom, an amateur rider, won Sandown’s Grand Military Gold Cup in 1934 on Crafty Alice.
“I may have been the owner and trainer of a Derby winner,” he reflected, “but gold never came to me. And now at last my son has brought a gold trophy into the family.”
Tom Walls was one of the most charismatic characters ever seen on the Stage and the Turf. But sadly, another character, Insolvency, put in an appearance as he neared the end of his life.
He died broke in 1949 at the age of 66. But he made sure he left enough money to pay for his ashes to be scattered across the winning line at Epsom, the scene of his greatest triumph.