My great grandfather, William Munro NEILL, led a very interesting life and his early endeavours included being one of the first ever trick cyclists.
I was first made aware of this when my Dad, (whose paternal grandfather was William Munro Neill), acquired a photocopy of an article that had appeared in our local newspaper, the Kent Messenger, in 1933. Several years later, I became interested in genealogy and, thanks to the advances of the Internet and the subsequent availability of information, I was eventually able to investigate further.
In 1868, at the age of twelve, William Munro Neill and his two cousins performed as trick cyclists in Glasgow, after initially being forbidden to ride the new machines that his uncle had brought to the UK from France. I was fascinated by his story, and by the photograph that had appeared in the Kent Messenger with the article. I searched online for any clue as to who the photographer might have been or any other information I might find about it. My search was in vain and I came to the conclusion that the original photograph must have been long gone.
A telephone conversation with my cousin in Scotland left me reeling when she casually announced that she had the original photograph in her possession, as it had been kept my great aunt Bessie; my cousin’s grandmother. I was due to visit Scotland that summer and was delighted when my cousin offered to pass the photograph on to me, as the family historian. I’ll never forget that moment, when I first held the photograph in my hands. It was overwhelming, and I knew I had taken on a great responsibility; to bring an important part of my ancestor’s story back to life.
After making contact with an extremely knowledgeable bicycle historian, I discovered the importance of the year in which William Munro Neill and his two cousins learned to ride the new machines, as it was previously believed that bicycles (or velocipedes as they were known at the time and, later, as boneshakers), did not gain popularity in the UK until 1869.
The photograph has now been exhibited at the ‘Who Do You Think You Are? Live’ show, in London in February 2013, having been chosen as one of the ten winners of a family history photograph competition. Perhaps not surprisingly, the photograph attracted considerable interest, perhaps in part because it was the oldest photograph to be featured.
Barbara with the winning photograph of her great grandfather and his two cousins
Below is a transcript of the article that appeared in the Kent Messenger on 16th September 1933
VETERAN’S VARIED LIFE
Maidstone Man Who Was Trick Cycling Pioneer
STAGE ARTISTE TO COUNTRY
Born of Irish parents in Scotland, few men have had a more romantic life than Mr William Munro Neill, of 149 London Road, Maidstone.
Looking back over the greater part of his 78 years, Mr Neill chatted with a “Kent Messenger” representative in a way strongly hinting of both nationalities.
Active, in spite of his age, he recounted in a whimsical manner some of the experiences that have been his in a crowded span of years.
At the early age of 12 Mr Neill claims that he was the pioneer of all trick cyclists.
This is how it came about. His father owned a coachbuilding business in Edinburgh, while his uncle was the proprietor of a cab business in connection with the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway. It was this uncle who introduced the Parisian Bicycle into Scotland following a visit abroad. It later became the well-known “Boneshaker.”
PRACTICED IN SECRET
In this connection, Mr Neill’s father opened the first bicycle-riding school in his coach building works.
Young Neill, with his two cousins, were never far away from the novel machines and when business was slack, in direct disobedience, they rode the cycles.
Furtive practice when their elders were absent, however, soon made them experts on these early boneshakers and they mastered a number of tricks that they performed for their own amusement.
One morning, the son of the local music hall proprietor saw their show. The result was a week’s contract as the “first trick cyclists ever to appear in Scotland.”
The other two lads were then aged eight and four. They took the name of the Three Petit Lavalles. A twelve weeks’ run at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, followed.
When it seemed as if the three lads were at the start of a stage career, Neill’s mother, who acted as manager to the trio, was taken ill and a contract to appear at Liverpool was cancelled.
FROM LAW TO SADDLE
The scene shifts to Belfast, where Mr Neill was assistant to his father in the coachbuilding business.
His parents wished him to study law, and at 17 he became a junior clerk to the Quarter Sessions at Edinburgh. But the Law disagreed with him and after a few months he was again in Ireland as assistant to a veterinary surgeon. Then he returned once more to Edinburgh in the cab business.
A move to London followed, and he was in a succession of businesses as a jobmaster, horse dealer, “vets.” assistant, and finally an instructor at the Royal Military Riding School at Earl’s Court.
It was there that he was connected with the then famous show “Savage South Africa.” He was in charge of 20 untamed horses.
He was again at Earl’s Court when Bronco Bill’s Congress of Rough Riders took London by storm, and was complimented by the great Bronco himself on his riding.
From London he moved to Eastbourne to another riding school. Here a serious accident in the hunting field put him out of action for several months.
The last chapters began when, at the outbreak of the Great War, Mr Neill was once again with his beloved horses as Sergeant in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, and later as Civilian Overseer at the Veterinary Hospital at Aylesford.
Since the war he has been well-known as a carrier and jobmaster at Aylesford. He retired some two years ago.
Old editions of the Kent Messenger are, unfortunately, not available for purchase, as all of their old papers are in Bound Volume form and very fragile and to try to photocopy from them breaks the spine of the book.
There are copies available to view at either Maidstone Library, St Faith’s Street, Maidstone tel: 01622 – 752344 or The British Newspaper library, Colindale Ave, London NW9 tel: 0207 4127353.