Nine of the riders at the starting line of the World Cycling Championships in London on 28 April 1879 knew each other well. They had competed against each other just 5 months before when the winner, Sheffield’s William Cann, had ridden over 1,060 miles in 6 days. Naturally Cann started as favourite again with French champion, Charles Terront, considered to be his closest rival for the fabulous prizes on offer – £105 in cash and a belt said to be worth another £100 (worth many thousands of pounds in today’s money). The contestants could be forgiven for not giving more than a sideways glance to the one newcomer among them, George Waller, a young rider from Newcastle, who had previously won prizes only in minor contests in the north and midlands.
Who was Waller?
George William Waller was born on 12 April 1855 at 11 Back Lane, Gallowgate in Newcastle upon Tyne. His father, James, was a mason from Yorkshire and his mother, Catherine, a local woman. She was 12 years older than her husband and died, aged 58, when George was just 15.
The family lived in Elswick when George was a young boy but the 1871 census shows George and his father both working as masons and living at 13 Miller’s Hill, Byker.
We know that George worked for a time in York on the building of the Foss Islands Railway, which eventually opened in 1880. Apparently it was here that he first had the idea of long distance cycling. It was said that, wishing to visit home at weekends, he bought a ‘boneshaker’. His colleagues reportedly thought it a great joke at first but it was reported that he commuted between York and Newcastle with some ease after a hard week of physical labour and was back at work on time on Mondays. Whether this story is true we can’t be sure but it was certainly told during his lifetime and fits in with what we know about Waller: that he was extremely tough, although a modest 5 foot 8 inches tall and weighing only around 8 stones 11 pounds, a ‘compactly framed well set man with no extraordinary muscular development’.
‘of medium height and fair complexion and has a wiry and hardy appearance.’
Some reports mention that he was also a diver.
The first reference to Waller racing we have found so far dates from 1871 when, as a 16 year old, he came third and won 10 shillings in a handicap event promoted by Mr T Sutton at Fenham Park Grounds in a ‘poor race’ in a sport ‘only recently introduced to the North.’
In 1874 he finished third in his heat in the Great All-England one mile handicap held in Sheffield. The following year he won a heat in Wolverhampton but it was again described as a very poor race. In 1876, he won a heat again in a one mile race in the same city.
Test of endurance
The six day race at the Agricultural Halls in Islington was covered in detail in newspapers across the country. It lasted from Monday to Saturday with riders permitted to spend up to eighteen hours on the track. The reports describe brief rests during the day to ‘shampoo‘, change and eat and just six hours compulsory rest at night. With Cann, the champion and favourite, having crashed on the first day in a collision with Terront, Waller took an early lead, closely followed by the French rider. The crowd of spectators grew as the week went on, with 8,000 cheering on the riders by Wednesday by which time the leaders were taking few rests. By midnight, when the race adjourned for the night, Waller had ridden 878 miles and Terront just over 840.
By five pm on Friday, the fifth day, Waller had ridden 1,020 miles on his Hillman and Herbert DHF Premier and so became the first rider to win the prize of £20 offered to any rider who achieved 1,000 miles over six days. He was attended by his brother Tom, along with a Charley Smith and the one hundred miles champion, Walter Phillips.
On the final evening, the crowd had swelled to around 10,000 and was allowed into the centre of the tight circuit ‘on extra payment, of course‘. The leaders ‘shaking hands, sped away merrily to the inspiring strains of the Marseillaise’. Waller’s final distance was 1,172 miles, 44 miles more then Terrront.
Thank you to Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives for permission to reproduce these photographs.
Waller was instantly a sporting hero. He returned to Newcastle via York where ‘admirers gathered round the cab in which he was being conveyed to the station, took out the horse and dragged the vehicle, amid cheers, to the booking office’.
One newspaper expressed wonder at the distances travelled: ‘The bicycle is thus once again shown to be a much speedier means of locomotion than a horse and there is little doubt that an ordinary traveller accustomed to the vehicle could with ease compass 100 miles a day. It seems strange that it cannot be turned to greater practical advantage as a mode of travelling.’
The event was clearly considered a success as only a few months later on 1 September, most of the same cyclists took to the track again. There was even more media interest and bigger crowds. Performers, including Terront’s brother, again performed ‘circus tricks of bicycle riding’ in the centre of the track, helping to create a carnival atmosphere.
And this time, after his exploits the previous spring, Waller was hot favourite. There were colourful descriptions of him in the newspapers:
‘He wore a little round straw hat, with a fluttering green ribbon, and beneath it such a crop of bright, crisp yellow hair as his Saxon ancestors must have bequeathed him centuries ago, before the invention of either brush, comb or pomatum pot’ (Freeman’s Journal, Dublin).
The story of an incident in Morpeth while Waller was training for the race was recounted: apparently, a policeman caught the champion cycling on the footpath and, when Waller failed to stop, threw his truncheon at the bike. It caught in the spokes and brought down the rider, knocking him unconscious. The policeman helped Waller at the scene and nothing further was said about the crime.
Waller, as expected, took an early lead but Terront was never far behind. Again there were spills. On the first day, Waller’s ‘machine gave way and he fell heavily though fortunately without hurting himself’. By the second day ‘ this race has assumed an importance far in advance of anything previously known in the bicycle world’ as Waller and Terront had both smashed their previous records.
‘Waller combines speed and endurance in a really wonderful measure and the style in which he rode past opponents was really surprising’.
Again the race came down to a head to head between Terront and Waller, with no quarter given. On day three, it was Terront’s turn to fall, grazing his elbow but almost immediately returning to the saddle. On day four, Terront arrived at the track nine minutes late (at 6.09am!) saying that his attendants had failed to wake him on time. The competition between the two men was described as ‘severe’. Waller was reported to have rested only 4 minutes all day and Terront just 2 minutes and 10 seconds.
‘The Englishman remained cool and dry, betraying his exhaustion only by gradually bending his figure, which he had hitherto maintained stiff and upright, lower and lower towards the saddle’
On 7.45am on day five, Waller passed the 1,000 mile mark, with Terront achieving the same distance at 8.54am. By 9.43pm, Waller had passed his previous record. It was reported that neither man dismounted from his bicycle all day. The Frenchman was gaining on Waller, who was unable even to take food from the hands of his attendants. Each time he attempted to, it was said Terront put on a superhuman spurt and was heard to exclaim: I will prevent him from eating and try to starve him!
There was controversy too. Waller was accused of cutting corners and cautioned that he would forfeit a lap if he repeated the offence. The alleged misdemeanour was covered in many papers but a letter in ‘The Sportsman’ reprinted in the ‘Northern Evening Mail’ (9 September) denied that he had cheated. It said that all the riders were forced to cut corners at the bottom of the course but rode many yards extra elsewhere.
The two men continued their battle on day six and again neither ride stepped from his bike. Finally though, Terront had to admit defeat. In the final session, in front of a crowd of 12-13,000, the two men rode hand in hand, having ridden the incredible distance of 1,404 miles (Waller) and 1,390 (Terront) on penny farthings.
George Waller’s victory was celebrated not only in Newcastle but across the country, especially in places with which he had a connection:
‘His victory was celebrated at the dock extension in Hartlepools where his father and brother are engaged, by a show of flags from the new engine house at Middleton; and it is expected he will make a public appearance in this town shortly’
At Darlington the station was crowded and the carriage which the northern party occupied was quite besieged by an enthusiastic multitude’.
But in Newcastle, where news of Waller’s expected arrival time had been announced in that morning’s newspapers, thousands turned out at Newcastle Central Station. The scenes were amazing: ‘a reception as has never been surpassed even by the enthusiastic Tynesiders’.
‘Lamps were scaled and every accessible elevated point was occupied by people anxious to get the first glimpse of an athlete who has jumped so suddenly into prominence.’
Ringing cheers greeted the champion as he stepped from the carriage and he was at once surrounded by a dense crowd who carried him bodily away. The progress from the platform to the portico was painfully slow. The crowd surged about with such force that the lines of policeman were overpowered and driven away’.
Eventually a distressed Waller was helped into a cab and driven to his home in Gibson Street, Byker, where thousands more awaited him and demanded that he speak. Eventually a representative came to an upstairs window and thanked the crowd but said the world champion was too exhausted and bashful to talk to them and so he ‘had the pleasure of expressing [Waller’s] feeling of pleasure and pride at the noble reception which his townsmen had given him.
Immediately Hillman and Herbert, the manufacturers of his bicycle, capitalised on the triumph, placing adverts quoting from a letter said to have been written by Waller, expressing gratitude to the company, and using photographs of him on its posters.
Waller’s championship belt is held at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum but is not currently on display. The year the Tour de France is due to come to the north of England would seem like an appropriate time to find a way of celebrating the pioneering achievements of Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froomes’ illustrious predecessor.
To be continued: Waller’s life following his 1879 triumphs – cycling, promotion of the sport, his building company, move to Heaton Park Road and an untimely death can now be found here
Many thanks to to Alex Boyd of Tyne and Wear Museums for information, photographs and arranging access to George Waller’s championship belt, to Brian MacElvogue for information and the loan of material and to Carlton Reid for pointing the author towards Brian. Also this website is a mine of information – http://www.sixday.org.uk/html/the_beginnings.html