George Waller – life as a champion

The first part of George Waller’s story can be found here.

Having retained (and so won outright) the 6-day Cycling World Championship belt, George William Waller was in great demand. The report below of an appearance later the same month at Burradon, Northumberland describes him entering the arena on the bike on which he had won the championship:

He received a warm greeting which was not lessened when he mounted his machine. Accompanied by a number of bicyclists, he twice made the circuit of the field and while doing so, he was much admired but he very nearly had a serious accident, as, owing to the roughness of the track, he got what is known as a cropper, which might have done him a serious injury.

George Waller on Penny farthing

George Waller

Fortunately he wasn’t badly hurt and appearances on the track came thick and fast. Waller rode mainly in the North but further afield too. For example, on 4 October 1879, he won a 25 mile race in Coventry ‘ on a 15 inch DHF Premier’. His ‘massive championship belt ‘ and the ‘machine’ on which he won it were exhibited at the ground. On 10 November, he competed in a 100 mile race in Birmingham but retired after 82. And on Saturday 13 December, he competed, riding a ‘Dan Rudge’ bicycle , at the same distance in Nottingham.  Closer to home, there were races in places like Sunderland, South Shields, Darlington, Middlesbough and  York.

The champion was also honoured by local fans and patrons.  On 24 March 1880, a ‘testimonial’ was held in his honour  at ‘Mr W Gilroy’s Three Crown’s Inn, Buxton Street, Newcastle’. Waller  was presented with a purse of gold containing upwards of £70, which had been collected by ‘his numerous admirers in the North’.

However, he didn’t join his rivals in March 1880 on the starting line for the following year’s 6 day Championship but instead appeared later the same month in a six-dayer, which he himself had organised, in his home city of Newcastle. It’s interesting to see where the races took place.  An early favourite in Newcastle was Northumberland Cricket Ground on Bath Road.

And increasingly Waller began to make public challenges to other riders. His offer in 1880 to compete in a six day contest ‘ against any man in the world ‘ … ‘for any sum over £200 a side’ was reported at least as far afield as Cornwall. And riders challenged him to take part in shorter distance races, where they had a better chance of winning. There were always considerable sums of money at stake and Waller won more than his fair share. Often in shorter events, he negotiated a start for himself and he’d grant his opponent one over the longer distances.

Waller was clearly aware of his own value to the events he promoted. While he did compete on many occasions, even when he wasn’t fully fit, he would ride a number of exhibition laps or show his bikes and medals. And he usually announced he’d be riding, even when he didn’t in the end appear. Throughout and beyond his career, he was referred to as ‘world champion’ never ‘ former champion’ or ‘one-time champion’ even though he didn’t attempt to to defend his 1879 title. Thus from the outset, he showed a commercial acumen of which today’s agents would be proud. Later, there were many announcements of his ‘farewell ride’ in this town or that. Again, this wouldn’t have done the gate money any harm.

Celebrity

At the Newcastle Race Week six dayer on 25th June 1880, Waller broke his collar bone. This was reported in newspapers throughout the country much as an injury to Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish  or Chris Froome might be ahead of this year’s Tour de France or Wayne Rooney or Luis Suarez in the build-up to football’s World Cup:

 ‘Waller was at once driven to the Infirmary, where he received the necessary treatment, and afterwards he was taken to his own residence. Latest reports last night were that he was doing well. Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 26 June

After his removal from the Newcastle Infirmary to his home, Waller passed a bad night, and as the collar bone again slipped, it had to be reset on Saturday morning. This having been accomplished satisfactorily, Waller suffered less pain and he expects to be in the saddle again in a short time. York Herald, 30 June

The six days’ bicycle champion, G W Waller, has so far recovered from the injuries he received from the injuries he sustained in the accident which befell him in the latter part of June last as to be able to mount his machine. However, as his arm has not yet become quite strong again, his spins will for a time be of only a gentle character. Edinburgh Evening News, 12 August

He did recover though – and the races, challenges and public appearances continued apace. As with celebrities today, Waller was sometimes the centre of attention even when he wasn’t present at all:

Yesterday, the champion bicyclist Mr G W Waller, accompanied by five friends and a boy, engaged a coble at Tynemouth Haven… when the squall suddenly burst on them, the coble was upset and its occupants thrown into the water. …All the party were picked up… Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 25 July 1881

There followed an almost passing reference to an actual victim of the tragedy:

With regard to the boat accident [on Sunday] it appears that it was not Mr G W Waller, the champion cyclist, but his brother T Waller who was in the boat. The body of one of the drowned men, named R Cowl, was recovered last night. Edinburgh Evening News, 26 July 1881

Promoter

Increasingly though, Waller turned his attention to the promotion of cycling. He continued to ride but also arranged races at a variety of venues, mainly in the North East but also the North West, Scotland and  the Midlands. On 23 July 1881 Waller’s own ‘Bicycle and Recreation Ground’ at Dalton Street, Byker, was opened ‘under the most favourable auspices’ . The Journal  on 10 April 1882 referred to  ‘Waller’s Bicycle and Recreation Grounds, Byker’ (Incidentally the same day’ s newspaper carried a report of events at  Heaton Bicycle and Recreation Grounds ‘these popular grounds’). An advert a few months later  for a race between Waller and his rival John Keen ‘of London’ gave the entry fee as 6d or 1 shilling and made play of the fact ‘ Byker tram passes the grounds’.  They would have been horse-drawn trams, a service which had begun in Newcastle just three years earlier. The popularity of the events were indicated by the fact the gates were to open an hour and a half before the race ‘to avoid any unnecessary crush’.

Innovator

Waller’s adverts often stressed technological innovation. While earlier events were lit by candles in the evening, soon there was a:

mammoth tent, illuminated by gas’

Although, on occasion, not everything went according to plan:

A gale of unusual violence broke over South Durham yesterday. At Bishop Auckland last night, a large covered marquee, extensively fitted up with gas mains and pipes for night illuminations and erected for a bicycle riding exhibition promoted by Mr G Waller, came to the ground a complete wreck. The professional bicyclists engaged, along with the crowd inside, made all possible haste outside, and, with the exception of some injury to a woman, no casualty occurred. Damage was also sustained to a refreshment bar and stalls inside the marquee, the canvass of which was to a large extent also reduced to shreds. Shields Daily Gazette, 11 August 1881

The following month, at an event before which, not for the only time, Waller’s farewell appearance was announced, an alternative source of lighting was introduced:

The grounds were illuminated with the electric light, which was under the charge of Mr Spark, electrician, George Street and worked remarkably well. Aberdeen Journal, 12 September 1881

There are rumours to the effect that at night the tent will be illuminated by the electric light. Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 15 September 1881 – amazing given that Swan had invented his lightbulb and William Armstrong’s Cragside had become the first house in the world to be lit by electricity only 3 years before. It must have been an amazing site to the average spectator.

But electricity wasn’t without problems of its own. A 26 hour race in September 1882 had to be postponed, ‘the machine which was to have supplied the electric light not having come to hand’

Entertainer

It wasn’t all about the cycling. At the annual gathering of the Ancient Order of Foresters at Crystal Palace in August 1882, the programme, in addition to the cycling in which Waller competed,  included  ‘acrobatic, musical and comical entertainment’, cricket, processions, ‘aquatic fun’ , dancing, and a balloon ascent which ended in near disaster.

Adverts were placed by Waller :

‘Wanted – good brass band’.

And there was an application in July 1881 for a licenceto serve alcohol in booths owned by him ’in a tent to be used for bicycle contests’ opposite the Royal Agricultural showground in Derby.

Novelty races included one in Gateshead between Waller on a bicycle and ‘Blue Peter, a roan trotting horse, driven in a sulky by Mr Rymer of Manchester.’ On this occasion the horse was the victor.

Charitable

However, Waller wasn’t only concerned with making money for himself: proceeds from one event  were donated to Sunderland Infirmary and in South Shields in December 1880

‘The proceeds were for the benefit of orphans and widows left destitute through the loss of the steam trawlers: Wonga (sic), Nation’s Hope and Flying Huntsman in the October gale.’

International

It’s possible that Waller, like a number of his contemporaries, also competed overseas. In November, 1881 a  farewell  ride  in Sunderland ‘before leaving for America’ was reported by Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. So far, we haven’t found any documentary evidence that Waller rode outside Britain and, if anyone has further information, it would be great to find out more.

Waller with belt

Waller with his 1879 World Championship belt

Retired

In September 1884, Waller was present at the opening of Byker and Heaton Conservative Working Men’s Club and the same November he ‘admirably ‘ replied to the toast of ‘Professional Cyclists’ at Jesmond Amateur Cycling Club’s fourth annual dinner. By this time, he seems to have retired from participation in the sport but continued to officiate.

But when, on April 1889, the new Bull Park bicycle track was completed at what is now Exhibition Park, George did a test run and declared it one of the finest in the kingdom.

Builder

Waller had started his working life as a mason and his prize money had enabled him to start a construction business in Albion Row, Byker, with his brother Henry. It seems to have been extremely successful. Newcastle was expanding rapidly and in July 1896, he advertised far and wide from an 87 Raby Street , Byker address for bricklayers to be paid 10d an hour.

Ironically, however,  the first real evidence we have of Waller’s success in this field came with tragedy. On March 6 1897, the North East Daily Gazette reported that four men had been killed and nine others injured when a public house, called the Green Tree,  on Sandgate ‘ one of the most antique of houses…said to date from the time of Queen Elizabeth’ , which Waller had bought to renovate, collapsed while eighteen of  his men were working on it. By this time, Waller is described in the newspaper not as a cyclist but ‘a well-known builder in the city’. A few months later, the same paper reported a court case in which Mrs Jane Brogden, wife of one of the men killed, sued Waller for damages. She was awarded £225 compensation.

In the late 1880s, the champion  was living in Waller Street. (Did he name it himself or was it an honour bestowed by someone else?) But by 1890, he had moved to Heaton. It was common for builders to move in one of the new houses they had recently completed and so there is circumstantial evidence that Waller’s firm was responsible for building locally. He lived first of all at 78 Heaton Park Road and then at  number 92, a house next door to the photographer, Edward George Brewis. Heaton Park Road has since been  renumbered. Waller’s  old house is now number 188.

But, ever the entrepreneur, Waller continued to diversify. In August 1898 he applied for a licence to sell alcohol at houses in Raby Street (167 and 179), Byker.

Untimely end

On  9 July 1900, aged 45 George Waller was driving in a pony and trap from Jesmond Dene Hall, where he was supervising alteration work, towards his home in Heaton Park Road. Apparently, as the horse approached Jesmond Road, it  reared and turned towards the Armstrong Bridge, throwing Waller from his seat.

A near contemporary view of Armstrong Bridge near the spot where Waller was thrown from his trap

A near contemporary view of Armstrong Bridge near the spot where Waller was thrown from his trap

He was removed to Jesmond Dene House where he died from head injuries the following morning.

Waller had been accompanied by a boy called Joseph Cranston of Byker, who, giving evidence at an inquest the following day in Heaton’s Addison Hotel, said he had looked after the pony since Waller had bought it and that it had no history of bolting.

George Waller left a wife, Isabella, three sons, James, Herbert (who was to die in France during World War 1) and William. His daughter, Georgina, was born just weeks after her father’s death.

The very same day, his death was reported in newspapers right across the country. It was just over 20 years since his most famous sporting triumph. The sport had changed – the reports refer to his success on ‘the old high bicycle’ as if from another age – but he had certainly not been forgotten.

Memorial

And a final indicator of Waller’s ongoing fame and commercial value came just a week after his death and packed funeral service when the equally enterprising businessman, photographer Edward Brewis, rushed, seemingly for the only time in his life, to register copyright on two photographs he’d taken of his next-door neighbour. One of the photos is reproduced below. (The other can be seen in the article about Brewis himself.)

Waller by Brewis

One of the photos of George Waller by Edward Brewis

Wallercopyrightform It was while researching Brewis’ story, interesting in its own right,  that the document and the photographs came to light in the National Archive – and led to the even more fascinating character of George William Waller.

Waller’s grave can still be seen in All Saints Cemetery

George Waller's grave

but appears to be the only memorial to him. It would be fitting, during the year the Tour de France comes to the North of England where Waller did so much to promote cycling, to see his championship belt displayed at The Discovery Museum and perhaps a commemorative plaque at  his Heaton home .

Acknowledgements

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

If you can add to the story of George William Waller or if you’d like to see his achievements celebrated, we’d love to hear from you (See ‘Leave a reply’ just below the title of the article) or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

10 thoughts on “George Waller – life as a champion

  1. Judy

    This has been a thoroughly absorbing read and, for me, has added colour and detail to a part of our family history. My great-great-grandfather, Tom – George’s brother – worked alongside George in the promotion of the cycling events and stepped in when George was unable to ride. Although neither as speedy nor as high profile as his brother, he seemed to be able to cope with the hundreds of miles demanded of him! When he gave up competitive cycling and promotion, he became a marine dealer and City Alderman. His son, Harry Waller, who was a keen pigeon racer in his spare time, subsequently became Lord Mayor of Newcastle in 1955.

    Another snippet of information, which is more likely to be of interest to the family than anyone else, is that there is a famous Stevengraph (a picture woven from silk by the Coventry entrepreneur Thomas Stevens) called The Last Lap. This shows the race in 1879 at which George won his world championship title.

    Reply
    1. Ian brogden

      My ancestor was william brogdon bricklayer who was caught when the wall came down he walked to an ambalance but died a week after due to dust in his lungs the green tree Elizabethan public house disaster he was freeman of newcastle but dying prematurely in life did not register his sons (male issue)to the cordwaiiners guild so now we are not entitled to be freeman of newcastle he lived Albion row must have been neighbour

      Reply
      1. oldheaton Post author

        Hello Ian, Thank you for getting in touch. Interesting about your ancestor being a freeman and also a neighbour, as well as, presumably, an employee of George Waller. Commiserations on not being a freeman yourself!

  2. oldheaton Post author

    Hi Judy, Thank you very much for adding the extra details. Interesting about the Stevengraph too. I didn’t know about that. Chris

    Reply
  3. George Mark Waller

    Can I as George Waller’s great grandson via James Stanley Waller add one or two details to your fascinating story.
    First my grandfather used to tell me that the real reason why there was a second race was because Tarront accused GW of cheating in the first race ; so GW said well lets do it again!! You say something about cutting corners in the second race- there is the possibility of confusion!!
    Second we have a cutting from the Newcastle Chronicle for 14th July 1900 reporting GW’s funeral attended by many people including “Mr Waller’s workman to the number of about 200”; His workman it says also bore his coffin.He and his brother Henry built a very large number of houses but ultimately split the properties between them- I have a deed which is headed “Second Partition of joint property”. It refers to a very large number of houses in Streets such Albion Row,Wolseley Road and of course Waller Street. GW clearly became a substantial owner of properties ..
    The story of his death at an early age is as follows told to me by my grandfather but confirmed by a letter (which we have) sent to my father in 1956 from someone who as a child was a neighbour of the GW family. She describes it this way “George Waller bought an estate off the Collingwood-Jacksons ,I believe,, and on the morning of moving over to live in it(Jesmond Road)he went over in his trap, and the wheel caught a stone, and he was flung out and killed. I remember how upset Mother was because of the death and the funeral, and the houses all upset for moving”. So it seems he was about to move into a a big house at the time of his death but the move did not go ahead and of course the business of house building ceased and my Great Grandmother indeed for a while had quite a difficult time bringing up two sons and a daughter with whom she was pregnant at the time of GW’s death.

    Reply
    1. oldheaton Post author

      Hello George,

      Lovely to hear from you and thank you for adding more detail to what we already knew. I hadn’t heard before that the family were planning to move, for example. And I’ll recheck the part about cutting corners. I’m sure it was from a newspaper account of that race but the journalist might have wanted to beef up his article and not worried too much about accuracy. It wouldn’t be the first or last time! You don’t have any more photos of George, do you? Thank you again for getting in touch. Chris

      Reply
  4. Derek Henry Waller McCarthy

    Hi my name is Derek Henry Waller McCarthy . My grandfather was Harry Waller from Mundella Terrace in Heaton. My grandfather, grandmother and mother are all buried in a family grave in Heaton Cemetery. I have been fascinated to read about other members of our family of which I only had flimsy knowledge. I am now 80 and live on Hayling Island in Hampshire.

    Reply
    1. oldheaton Post author

      Hello Derek, Lovely to hear from you. So are you related to George Waller, the cyclist? It’s great that his achievements are becoming better known and that so many members of the family have posted here. Chris ( Secretary, Heaton History Group)

      Reply
  5. oldheaton Post author

    Last week, while looking for something else entirely, I came across an obituary in the Daily Telegraph (9 December 1914) which mentions the subject, Surgeon-Commander Herbert Ellis’s grandfather who ‘had won a gold medal for distance cycling on a penny farthing’. A quick check on Ancestry confirms this referred to George Waller. The article is well worth a read on its own account:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11283526/Surgeon-Commander-Herbert-Ellis-obituary.html
    Chris (Secretary, Heaton History Group)

    Reply

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