Posted by: barbaraneill | February 25, 2013

A Family History of Trick Cycling


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



Maidstone Man Who Was Trick Cycling Pioneer




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.”


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.


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.


  1. Well I never! What a coincidence!!!!!

    My great grandmother was part of the Vecchi cycle troupe, who toured the world as trick cyclists in the early 1900’s!



  2. Well I also never!! My first cousin 2x removed was also the leader of a Trick Cycling Troupe in UK and Europe 1899-1914. They were called the Daunton Shaw Troupe. This too was a family group, Archie Shaw and his sisters first, then his wife and daughters also joined. They continued their riding in Australia after 1914 for a few years.
    I can really understand your excitement at finding an original photo of such a fascinating part of f your family history, they are sometimes so rare for we family historians.
    Great to find and read your post. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment. It’s fascinating to hear from others who have ‘trick cycling’ in their family history. Apologies for taking so long to respond. I wasn’t notified of your comment and have only just discovered it.

    • Hi Torikar – I’m a relative of Archie’s wife, I’ve given a few talks about the troupe’s life after 1914, would love to chat properly!

      • Hello Fern, ive just found your reply after much time away from my blog. My personal email is I’d also love to find out more abou Archie and his family and of course his fantastic troupe.

      • Hallo Fern, Archie was my great grandfather on my mother’s side.
        I’m very keen to hear one of your talks. Hope to hear from you.
        🙂 tom winter
        tomwinter (at) web (dot) de

  3. Hi Barbara, I’m researching my family history at the moment. I was just wondering whether William Munro Neill married an Elizabeth Cameron? She married a man of the same name and would have been my great, great, great aunt. Thanks

    • Hi Fiona,

      He did, indeed, marry Eluzabeth Cameron. She was my great grandmother. Are you on by any chance?

      • Ah excellent! I saw the name through a distant relative’s family tree on Genes Reunited. I will look into getting on Ancestry 🙂

  4. Hi Barbara & Fiona, My Great Aunt was your Elizabeth Cameron. My great grandfather was Duncan Cameron, Elizabeth’s brother. I have updated the information with a few certificates on Ancestry. Wonderful to uncover the trick cyclist story and discover ancestors! Gayle (King) Dudeck

    • Thank you for getting in contact, Gayle. I’d love to hear more about Elizabeth Cameron. Kind regards,

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