I am fortunate that since writing the book - 'Marguerite Wilson- The First Star of Woman's Cycling' several unexpected opportunities have come my way. These include an extensive photo archive and meeting Jim Ayley age 101, who was friends with Marguerite. I have helped a couple of authors who included Marguerite in their publications and a third book about the Lands End to John O'Groats is due for publication soon. Last summer, out of the blue, one of my patients gave me a message from a friend who had up until 1990 had interviewed those who know Marguerite and who owned her 1940 Claud Butler!
I lost no time in contacting Ben Sharp by e-mail, then telephone. Ben is a friendly and easy- going vintage bicycle collector. I visited his home which is effectively a Bicycle Museum, three floors crammed with rare and exotic machines. The walls covered with cycling posters and pictures, each room warm and cosy from two wood burning stoves.
Ben has been 'Marguerista' for many years since acquiring her 1940 Claud Butler - Miss Modern. As was the norm in the post war years, ownership a high quality frame passed between knowledgable cyclists with its connection to Marguerite celebrated. Ben was able to tell me about its provenance and chain of owners. I must admit that at first glance it was not obvious that this was MW's bike. It is a machine that has been in working order and used throughout its life, and thus has evolved from its original configuration. The wheels, mudguards and brakes are post-war. But on closer inspection all the rest is correct. The frame in the right size, in excellent condition, the stem and handlebars are correct as is the Williams Crank. The feature which 'seals the deal' for me is the pre-war Four Speed Sturmey Archer Hub and the extremely rare pre-war Sturmey Archer 4-speed gear trigger. This configuration was rare and specific to MW's Bicycle and it was no coincidence that Charley Davey her Racing Manager was also a Representative for Sturmey Archer.
After a tour of his museum we spent the afternoon making photos of Ben's original CB next to my faithful re-creation. Then we had had a cup of tea and looked through his archive material and chatted about Marguerite with Ben's partner Lisa. I had a great day. Thanks Ben & Lisa for having me.
The Claud Butler was built by my friend George Bolton, 90 year old retired aeronautical engineer and vintage/classic bike expert. Most of the parts were sourced from e-bay and specialist dealers. Everything is correct for the bike except for a few compromises. For example, the handlebar is a new Nito track bar from Japan - it looks close the the original judged from photos.
George gave me a pair of Bluemes muguards in mint condition, probably from the 1970s but the design little changed from 1940. The same applies to the new Brooks Saddle which gives the re-creation a top dollor finishing touch.
Prestige Plating of Mexborough did the chromwork. They don't advertise, all their work comes by personal recommendation. A husband and wife team, Diane takes the calls is knowledgable and very helpful, you feel confident that she knows exactly what is needed for specific vintage parts. They re-plated the Williams chainwheel and cranks, the stem, brake levers the Chater Lee Light Bracket and some components of the Resilion brakeset.
The Webb pedals came ready restored to a high standard. They have larger than standard bearings (5/16") and an aluminium alloy centre spindle with a neat quick release dust cap.
Resilion were the brakes to have in the 1930s. Their cantilever action provided powerful stopping power, although they were complex and heavy. They are so old and complex, that I think I did well to purchase the best complete set in good condition that I could find. They do come up from time to time, but you need to avoid buying a tandem set by mistake. I avoided dismantling the cables and callipers, but was able to remove some of the brightwork for plating. Overall a good compromise I think.
The four speed Sturmey Archer hub gear was a rarity pre-war. I purchased several, often finding that what looked like a complete unit turned out to have a vital part missing. George had a complete understanding and expertise of theses hubs which proved invaluable. Perhaps one of the rarest parts was the Sturmey Archer pre-war 4-speed trigger for changing gear. Finding one at all is hard, let alone one that is in working order is hard, mine came at quite a price!
Complete, my Miss Modern re-creation looks fantastic with its chrome-work and gorgeous leather saddle. It has plenty of talking points such as the cantilever brakes, the hub gears, wing nuts for the wheels and grease nipples on headset and bottom bracket. Despite being termed a 'Lightweight', its pretty hefty to lift.
Whats next? An assessment of how it rides. I hope this will be the subject of future post. And......
STOP PRESS! A Marguerite enthusiast has contacted me, and he has the original! - watch this space.
What was Marguerite like to know? ‘Very much like my wife, very reserved, yes, I would say she was a bit on the reserved side, but not a snob or any thing like that, and there was nothing coarse or crude about her, she had a class, sort of, I don’t know, you can’t quit put your finger on it… I don’t know if anybody else has said that but she was a smart girl and I think I wasn’t the only one…
I think it must have been 1941, I had a bike frame. I scraped it all off, painted it, went down to Bill Harvel’s shop in Portsmouth, bought some wheels and bits and pieces. I was working damned long hours, but I could finish work say at seven, go home, put my shorts on and go out. It reminded me of Marguerite because I used to love to ride all round Braishfield, Romsey, Stockbridge and back to the Braishfield Arms. I used to just thoroughly enjoy that and from reading your book Marguerite was precisely the same, she used to just like riding.
One day a week we were allowed off, I forget what day it was, but I was going out along Hursley and, low-and-behold but who comes towards me but Marguerite! I was over the moon because I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years. I looked round and she was stopping, so I whipped round, and of course there was no cars, you could turn round easy then and I rode with her. She was going up to some place, I think it was to see her fiancee or boyfriend up near Alton, so I rode with her I think it was 20 odd miles up to near Four Marks. We said cheerio, I had to get back to Eastleigh, that was about 20 odd miles.
Oh Marguerite, we’d ride together, she said I can’t understand why your fastest time is only 1 hr 7 min, no, 1 hr 9 min it was then. She said ‘I can’t understand it, you’re killing me! ha,ha ha, I can’t keep up’, but I lacked the concentration on time trialling.
BIO- Jim Ayley was raised in Hampshire and was apprenticed to become a precision fitter in the aeronautical industry. His was in a reserved occupation during the war. Jim with his colleagues would often work night and day to prepare or modify fighter aircraft. He married in 1942. He and his wife Margaret raised a son and two daughters in Southampton. Jim's passion for cycling was passed on to his children,
his son Colin became a very accomplished Chamnipoinship winning cyclist. Valerie's childhood was equally steeped in the sport, she continued to be heavily involved in cycling in Canada. A true cycling family.
Among his varied career, he ran a bicycle shop, designing and building his own frames. In 1965 Jim was seconded to work in Detroit for the Ford Motor Company. Jim's skills were highly valued in the USA, where he worked both in the aerospace and automotive industries taking up American citizenship.
In his youth Jim raced against many of the leading cyclists of the era. He promoted track meetings and races. He was involved in some of the very first road races to emerge when breakaway groups from the NCU were formed. Jim was a founder member of the Southern Paragon Cycling club. After cycling Jim's interest moved on to other interests including fly-fishing.
Now widowed, Jim lives back in the UK. In common with many of his generation cycling laid the foundation for excellent health. He lives independently, doing his own shopping and cooking, also taking on new projects. When I visited in the summer of 2016 Jim had been busy designing and making a dolly with casters for his plasm screen tv. I really enjoyed meeting Jim and spending the day with him.. We had a pub lunch together, Jim enjoying a pint of bitter. What a rare opportunity, to speak to a contemporary of Marguerite and someone who was at the heart of the cycling in the 1930s and 40's.
Quite frankly William, I found I used to get more fun riding round like that on my own than I did from the club runs and all that. It got, well in ’37, ’38, it got bitchy and the pleasure was gone and I do feel that it's a shame when it's all money and sponsorship. But having said that I joined the Clarion. I wanted to ride a 25, it was at Barnstable, north Devon, the firm give me the time off and I caught a train on the Friday and a manager of Alfred’s arranged some digs for me, they were good too, cockles and cream, mussels and I had a nice long weekend and won 1st handicap in the 25. But to be able to do that I had to join a club, I joined the Clarion and I didn’t really know their political line, they were out and out, I don’t like to use the word, ‘commies’ really, and although they were on one hand like that, they were grabbing with the other. I stuck that for about a year, then we formed the Southern Paragon and I was in touch with Marguerite through dinners at Elford bridge and the annual club dinner. We made her president of the new Southern Paragon which went on to enjoy success .
I remember the Bournemouth 25. Marguerite had a private trial, she often done that, she wasn’t allowed to enter, (As a profesional cyclist she was barred from all amateur cycling Ed). I don’t known what time she did, but she often done that, she wasn’t allowed to enter them, and that was about the period when we got the racing tights abolished, we could wear shorts down to the knee, and stockings up to the knee -rubbish! - I was in the event, I was just staging a bit of a comeback, I watched her finish. After the race we went down to Burt’s cafe. A little group, we sat down out on the grass verge, the sun was shining, a lot of the club people, the racers and Marguerite our President was there. We all done pretty well, oh we won the team prize. And those wonderful legs!, they always seemed to be brown, I don’t know if she had some special paint ha ha ha, but I think a lot of it was cycling in shorts so much and yeh, we stopped there for quite a while just joking and talking, they were great days. And when it came to breaking it up I had to push the boy’s eyes in to get them to see to go home! Yeh she was some girl!'
One of the best things about writing the book has been meeting people and making new friends. Over the past two years I have struck up a friendship with George Bolton and his wife Joyce. They are both longterm cyclists with Bournemouth Arrow cc. This of course, was Marguerite's club. George recalls Marguerite effortlessly sweeping by his group of club mates on the way to Club Tea one Sunday. George is a retired aeronautical engineer and Joyce was Headmistress at their local primary school for many years. They live in what I nick-named 'The Enchanted Cottage' on the edge of the New forest.
George never throws anything away and has archive material from the club going all the way back to the 1930s. George has been so enthusiastic and helpful in providing information for the book. Just as importantly, he was able to give me a real sense of cycling culture and club life in the early days.
One day the topic of conversation turned to sprints. Sprints were light-weight, wood rimmed wheels used by Marguerite for her record breaking rides. And, as if by magic, George conjured up a sprint wheel (see below). He also showed me a pair of wheel carriers - off-set brackets which allow the precious sprints to be transported to a race attached to the front hub beside the forks, (there is an illustration of this in the book).
The wood rimmed sprint is certainly a thing of great beauty, and something that I was unaware of before meeting Gorge and writing the book. They are still manufactured in Italy by Ghisallo, (see the links below to view two fantastic films documenting their manufacture).
Through my work as a Doctor and through writing, I am inspired by people, and learn some of life's lessons from them. Not least from George, who is the full-time carer for Joyce who has dementia. I am inspired by his kindness and complete devotion to her, and this reminds me that my interest in cycling is as much about people and friendships as it is about bikes and riding.
A day to remember
In July 2015 I had the great privilege of spending a day with Mrs Eileen Sheridan. In case you don't know, Eileen is one of our greatest living cyclists. In the 1950's she re-wrote the record books, taking one by one, all of the records that had been recorded by Marguerite Wilson between 1938 and 1941. Just as importantly, she is the most delightful person you could ever hope to meet. Eileen wrote the foreword to my book, and of course, she writes brilliantly, with the authority of someone who knows what it takes to be a champion and to break the toughest of records.
I wrote a letter of introduction and before long I had a phone call. I'd just got back from a long ride when Christine, my wife, said 'your girlfriend rang!' It was none other than Mrs Eileen Sheridan, famous cyclist, in fact the most famous person I have ever spoken to. We had a lovely chat on the phone and by the end Eileen had to insist that I stop calling her Mrs Sheridan preferring just Eileen. Marguerite was a great hero in Eileen's eyes and she had no hesitation is agreeing to help me with the book.
One year later and the book was completed. I have presented a copy to all who helped in its production and first recipient of course had to be Eileen. I spent a lovely day with Eileen at her home beside the river Thames. Still sprightly and energetic despite being in her tenth decade, we spent the day talking about all sorts of things as well as cycling. She is so interesting and accomplished. Not only is she a record breaking sportswoman but she managed to bring up her children at the same time. After she retired from cycling she wrote her engaging autobiography Wonder Wheels. He second career was as a crystal glass engraver. Eileen showed me her workshop and examples of her engravings which are truly stunning in their artistry and craftsmanship- world class.
Eileen was delighted with the book and in return presented me with a copy of Eileen Sheridan - A cycling Life and signed it with her elegant signature. We enjoyed a pub lunch together beside the river, then went back for a cup of tea.
I spotted the WRRA London-Bath-London Trophy and saw that Eileen's and Marguerite's names were engraved side by side on shields at its base. I thought this would make a good photo. So ensued much hilarity as we tried to take a picture without my reflection in it. It ended up with me lying on the floor hiding from my own reflection whilst Eileen held the Trophy against variety of black velvet coats. Here is our best effort (left).
What comes across after speaking with Eileen was that Marguerite was greatly loved and admired by all who knew her. Marguerite and Eileen not only have their record breaking achievements in common, more importantly they combined it with great character.