From the Dill Meadow
Around about the time that Vasco Bergamaschi was winning the 23rd edition of the Giro d’Italia in 1935 (18 stages, 3577 km, 32 kph average speed) Bert Dewar was pursuing his own, rather more humble cycling ambition. He established the Village Wheelers with the commendable idea of keeping the minds and bodies of the unemployed fit in this time of social and economic decline.
Then, as now Dulwich (Dilwihs = dill meadow) was a prosperous suburb. This was mainly due to the influence of Dulwich College, founded by actor Edward Alleyn in 1619, which encouraged the building of grand houses on the estate to maintain its value. But the worldwide financial crisis of the 1920’s and 30’s affected all parts of society and Bert’s higher purpose accorded with popular theory – mens sana in corpore sano.
In fact, by 1935 unemployment – which had run as high as 13.5% in London and the South-East during the worst of the Great Depression – was beginning to fall, helped by lower interest rates which sparked a surge in house-building. As the great suburban sprawl edged southwards, Bert and his fellow cyclists were refurbishing a disused stable in Dulwich, which became the Wheelers’ club-room and was open daily to its members.
Many cycling clubs sprang up at this time as a result of an explosion of popularity in cycling, to quote cycling journalist Matt Seaton in his book “Two Wheels–Thoughts From The Bike Lane”:
“… getting out of the Smoke has been one of the motives and privileges of cycling ever since the bicycle became part 0f the story of the industrial revolution. Once a bike could be bought for about the same price as a suit, it became synonymous with escape and temporary respite from the rigours of wage slavery in factory and office… Before the motor car… only the railways had accomplished anything like the revolution in democratic access to the countryside that the bicycle brought in…”
But cyclists were not always welcomed and perhaps the antipathy that some of us still experience has its roots in the 19th century, where the two-wheeled, weekend exodus was not always greeted with pleasure. Some rural landowners, fearful of their domains being invaded by hordes of the Great Unwashed racing their cycles on quiet country roads (and frightening the horses) were calling for a total ban on cycling. Cyclists were harassed and races broken up by police in country areas – and it wasn’t long before cycle-racing on public roads was outlawed altogether. What seems extraordinary now is that the embargo was introduced by cycle-sports’ own governing body.
The National Cyclists Union was formed in 1878 to organise and regulate cycle-racing in Great Britain and was genuinely worried that a bar on cycling as a whole was a very real possibility. Under immense pressure they reluctantly introduced the ban on cycle-racing that was still in place when Bert Dewar and his club-mates were venturing beyond the South London suburbs into the countryside, and which lasted until the early 1950’s.
As club-run captain Bert would lead the Wheelers out from the fountain in Dulwich Park, then swing west towards Streatham, where more riders would join at the horse-trough at the bottom of the Common, before heading into Kent and Surrey. In the summer of 1935 the ranks of the Wheelers were swollen by amalgamating with the Norbury and District CC whose members apparently introduced some decorum and a sense of sporting purpose to the club which by now had acquired something of a reputation for playing gramophone records and consorting with ‘good-time girls’.
By the end of the same year, the name Village Wheelers was dropped and the more impressive Dulwich Paragon Cycling and Social Club adopted.
The word paragon probably originates from the Old French ‘paragonare’ (itself based on the Old Italian ‘paragone’) meaning to test on a touchstone and may have its roots in the Greek ‘parakon’ to sharpen. In its latter-day definition as ‘a model of excellence or perfection’ it was a popular name with cycling clubs; the neighbouring Norwood Paragon, for instance, was founded under that name in 1911.
With amalgamation membership rose to thirty and included entrepreneur and socialite Jimmy Starling, who established himself as one of the club’s leading lights alongside Bert. Under his influence, the emphasis was very much on the social, and women were encouraged to join at a time when many clubs were male only. Other early members of the newly-formed DPC & SC included Doug Bennett, Wally Kirsch (in whose name the club still annually presents the Clubman of the Year trophy) Les Clinch, Fred Morley, Joe Stotter (the first racing secretary) Harry Pascoe and a number of ladies including Joe’s sisters Ivy and Lily and Dorothy Salter. The club’s previous president, the late Fred Robinson, also joined around this time.
Their aim was simple, but bold: to make the Paragon the foremost cycling club in the South East. To achieve this, however, the existing socially-oriented committee needed to be persuaded that cycling was just as important as hiking. There was something of a schism between the social and sporting types – and Fred Morley’s clashes with Bert over which should take precedence became legendary.
Weekly runs – sometimes led by tandems – were often over 100 miles and well-supported. They usually involved a cafe stop (“elevenses at Dorking” being a regular feature, as noted in a handbook of the time ) and frequently returned well after dusk. The social emphasis of the club is apparent through the admirable accident fund it instigated, into which each member paid sixpence a week (2.5p) to cover loss of earnings for any rider injured whilst cycling.
By 1936 the membership was growing and once the racing season was over everyone participated eagerly in the social scene – the divide between the Sunday trundlers and racers apparently bridged during the dark months of winter. Regular meetings were held on Friday evenings in the Rye Hotel, Peckham but it became clear that the club needed its own premises, and in August 1936 spacious new headquarters were opened above the giant boiler of the Champion Hill Steam Laundry on the corner of Bassano Street and Lordship Lane. These sumptuous surroundings clearly lent new impetus to the social calendar and in September a coach trip to the coast was organised – unheard of for a cycling club, but later copied by many. It was a great success despite only grudging support from the racing lobby.
Later in the year, Lily Stotter and Dorothy Salter set up a canteen in the club-room, which proved both popular and profitable. Club nights were well-attended and the talk wasn’t always of gear ratios – the romantic goings-on were reported in ‘Cupid’s Corner’, a regular feature of the newly-established club magazine The Dulwich Paragon News. Starting out as eight, hand-typed pages, (under the strict condition from the treasurer that it should incur the club no expense) it grew to be the official voice of the club and a valued lifeline for members overseas in the war years, when it was posted out to twenty-three countries.
The final word about the inaugural year of the club comes from “21 Years With The Dulwich Paragon News” written in 1957:
“… As the year drew to a close it was pleasant to reflect that the first full year of the Dulwich Paragon had met with success. Enthusiasm had been aroused, the true club spirit was born and from such a foundation it was now possible to go ahead and build the finest of all cycling clubs…”
The club’s collective appetite for a good time was evidently limitless and early in 1937 the first annual club dinner was held, with Claude Butler and Bill Mills being amongst those who attended. If the organising committee had any doubts about its success these were swept away on a tide of food, drink and good cheer. A week or so later came the AGM. It was, as reports say “… A truly lively affair, due in no small measure to the keenness of Fred Morley, Les Clinch and co…” Imagination lends much to the space between those words. A new committee was duly elected, all keen sporting rather than social cyclists. The racers were beginning to take over and the club was now set on the path that would lead to an accent on competition.
All the same, the indefatigable Jimmy Starling continued to pursue a social agenda: he organised jumble sales, theatre visits and dances at the East Dulwich baths, where the more terpsichorally-adept members of the club could show-off their moves. Those more interested in what to do on two wheels, rather than two (left?) feet were a bit daunted, one member being heard to remark: “Dancing was invented before tunes came out and I am going to keep it that way.” The dances, which were open to the public, were a huge success, quickly selling out and bringing useful income to club funds.
The 1938 dinner-dance was attended by eighty-three members and followed a week later by the AGM, which saw Gus Gidden take over as Racing Secretary. In December 1938, a raffle in the Dulwich Paragon News included the following prizes (and the unmistakable influence of Jimmy):
- Cash voucher £5 (minimum weekly wage was about £1.75 at the time)
- 50 cigarettes
- Half a pint of beer with Percy Brown every Saturday in January.
- Lunch in the City with Jimmy any day in January.
- A cocktail with J. Starling at the Club Dinners.
- A bath at Ivy Pascoe’s house any Saturday in 1938.
- A glass of beer after dark with Claude Butler at Lewisham, once a week for a month.
- A pint of Vitacream posted to any address.
By the end of 1938 membership of Dulwich Paragon had risen to one hundred, and Bracewell Smith, Conservative MP for Dulwich, had been appointed as the first club president. Rollers had also been purchased by the club for use in the club-room and the aforesaid accident fund established. Club records do not say if these two events were linked.
Europe was a deeply troubled place by this time and the threat of war with Germany was growing as the club entered its fourth year in 1939. Nevertheless the third annual dinner was held in a spirit of optimism and a bigger venue was commandeered as almost the entire membership turned out in its finery. The highlight of the evening was the surprise presentation of a gold watch to Jimmy Starling for all his work over the years . Sceptical club officers, who hitherto despaired of ever seeing their efforts properly appreciated, wept openly.
The Early Racing Scene
Although predominately a touring club in its early years, some of the younger fellows were always itching to burn it up on club runs, and these tearaways often prompted letters of complaint from the steadier riders. Sunday club runs were immensely popular (most of the working population toiled until Saturday lunchtime in those days) and average attendance was around forty – almost half the membership. There were also regular mid-week rides out to Green Street Green or Epsom, where the racing lads would hammer it on the return .
The craving for competition was never going to be satisfied by club rides and serious racing began towards the end of 1935 when Dulwich Paragon entered the first inter-club event with the Jubilee Wheelers. With the NCU’s ban on massed-start road-racing, the only accepted forms of racing were either on the track (fine if you lived in reasonable proximity of a velodrome) or time-trialling.
Frederick Bidlake hit on the idea in 1895 as a way cyclists could compete inconspicuously against each other on the public highway. Starting at one-minute intervals, riders would race against the clock over a set course – and the rider with the fastest time would be the winner. Thus was born the Road Racing Council which later became the RTTC – Road Time Trials Council. Meetings were held under extraordinary conditions of secrecy so as not to alert the police. They often started at dawn on some bleak stretch of road located by coded map-reference rather than place-name. Riders would wear all-black, full-length alpaca garb thus maintaining the air of mystery that continued to surround time-trialling right up until the 1960’s. Indeed, there are examples of riders not being allowed to ride because the jerseys they were wearing were considered too bright (and thus conspicuous) as late as the mid-50’s.
The Bidlake Memorial Prize, founded in Frederick’s memory (he died in 1933 after a collision with a car in Barnet) is still presented each year for the most outstanding performance or contribution to cycling. Recent winners include Nicole Cook, although what he would have made of this is a matter for speculation – he was bitterly opposed to women racing.
On March 22nd 1936 Joe Stotter promoted the club’s first time-trial – a ‘steels’ medium-gear 25-mile. It started at the crack of dawn, attracted a field of just seven and was won by Fred Morley in 1.17.17 followed by Gus Gidden in 1.18.11.
Interest in racing continued to grow, along with the membership. Gus bettered his 25 time with 1.13.51 while the first club 50 saw Fred fulfilling his youthful promise with an impressive 2.38.56. Not super-quick by today’s standards perhaps, but if you consider equipment, road surfaces, clothing, training techniques and nutrition, they are fast times; those gentlemen were strong riders.
Racing Secretary Joe Stotter lined-up a competitive programme for 1937, but the opening event – a low-gear 25 – had to be cancelled due to the snow and ice which kept all but five entrants from the start. Soon after Gus Gidden got his season off to a promising start with a 1.10.50 in a 25m, with Frank Gosney close on his heels in second place.
When King George VI was crowned on May 12 1937 the club celebrated by holding a sports meeting and party at the Old Mill in Shoreham, Kent. Races were held on a grass track, which was little more than a ploughed field. Nevertheless competition was keen and ninety-two members and friends turned out to make a splendid day of it. How many of them came for the slap-up feed of sandwiches, cakes, sausage-and-mash and beer is hard to say. What is certain is that a big party followed – and the sight of all those riders wobbling home through the dusk must have been an interesting one to say the least.
The same month the club promoted its initial inter-club 25: Gosney was in the winning team with Geoff Selby and Wally Kirsch. Selby also triumphed in the Tadworth Open 25 – becoming the first club member to win an open event – and with the support of Gidden and Kirsch, helped Dulwich take the team prize. A handicap 30 later in the season saw the young Fred Robinson achieve his first victory when he took the first handicap prize.
Meanwhile on the track, Doug Bennett was participating in numerous events at Herne Hill and on the grass. He was becoming something of a pioneer for the Paragon in this branch of the sport, but his major success that year was in winning the club hill climb in the autumn.
Dulwich was new to the 12-hour event, but still turned out five competitors for the Anerley 12 – with Frank Gosney recording an impressive 222 miles. A fine all-round cyclist, Frank was Club Champion for 1937 with a notable average speed of 21.02 mph (33.8 kph) for all events.
Further success was to follow for Frank (who later became club president) in 1938, when he won the Brighton Mitre 50 in 2.11.26. He followed that with a second place in both the Southern Counties Cyclists Union 50 and the Catford 50.
Riding the Mitre meant he missed the club’s second 50, which left the field clear for Jack Neighbour, Don Bowdidge and Bob Gidden who finished first, second and third respectively. Don and Bob then joined forces with Albert Racket and together they gained the club’s first team medal by winning the Kent Road Open 50 in August. Later the same month, Frank won the club 100, clinching the club record over all distances and retaining his crown as Club Champion for 1938.
The track boys were not idle, either, with Doug Bennett and Sid James competing hard to keep the name of Dulwich Paragon to the fore at the Hill, but time-trialling was still the most popular form of competitive cycling, notwithstanding its ongoing hugger-mugger status.
Though competitors adhered strictly to the all-black alpaca clothing and coded locations, it’s hard to believe that the police were unaware of what was going on – especially when members of the force were keen racing-cyclists themselves. The club’s TT promotions in 1938 attracted average fields of twenty-two for each event, some of which were run on the Old Polhill time-trial course.
The route took riders from Polhill, through Brasted, Sundridge, Westerham, back up Old Polhill and onto Shire Lane. Frank Gosney was the first rider to do it in under 1.03.00 – on the 86” fixed-gear used by almost all riders at the time (in simple terms this means the bike will move forward 86”/219 cm for each complete revolution of the cranks) and he also recorded 1.09 on a 63” fixed-gear around the same course.
But the major event of the year was organised by the ever-enterprising Jimmy Starling. He helped make club history in 1938 by staging circuit races on a small part of the famous Brooklands motor racing circuit in Surrey as Dulwich Paragon became the first club to promote a 100-kilometre, handicapped, massed-start, team race.
The response to the race was overwhelming. The club was swamped with applications from over fifty clubs across the country. Ninety-six riders representing sixteen clubs were selected and over two thousand paying spectators attended. Nearly all the club’s members turned out to help, collecting money, selling programmes, marshalling riders and assisting as fitters.
Six groups of riders were set off at intervals of several minutes, with the scratch group starting just as the long-markers were approaching the end of their first lap. The pace of the races was such that the strong riders would “set a cracking pace for miles until they ‘burnt up’ the less able riders. This also created a class of riders known as the back-wheel boys whose ability to sit at the rear for practically the whole distance was a sight to be seen”.
The 1938 season finished with six wins, two second places and four thirds in open events, whilst Gus Gidden took a fourth place in a massed-start event and Doug Bennett secured a first and a second on the track.
Despite the worsening international situation, confidence was high as the new racing season opened in 1939. The first handicap 25 attracted twenty-nine starters and was won by Frank Gosney picking up from where he left off the year before. However, he was beaten by Percy Brown in the third 25 of the year, when he was forced to retire with a puncture – Percy going on to clock up 1.05.57.
The success of the first massed-start event at Brooklands in ’38 merited a second and it was run again on May 14th . Once again, there was a huge response and a big field. Pouring rain did not deter another a crowd of over a thousand – and the club’s profile was raised even further.
The early summer of 1939 was blighted for the club. The weather was terrible and the normally seamless Paragon organisation was put under strain. Continuous rain didn’t help and was doubtless a major factor in the club’s 50 becoming something of a shambles. Most of the riders went off-course, so a re-run was held the following week (with Don RC) Once again disaster struck: all but three of the riders went off-course in torrential rain and tempers frayed. The following week the Ladies 10 nearly fell foul of a combination of misunderstandings and faulty alarm-clocks. Fortunately it went ahead and a hat-trick of calamities was avoided, but a further set-back followed. With war an ever-increasing possibility Gus Gidden was forced to resign as Racing Secretary when he was called-up for militia training.
In July an inter-club massed-start race was held in conjunction with the (now-defunct) clubs Alif RC and Don RC. Ron Baily won for the Paragon, followed home by Frank Hart.
Doug Bennett and the boys were still flying the flag on the track. With Herne Hill Velodrome in its back yard the club voted to buy a cabin there in which the track-men could keep their equipment. Dulwich Paragon promoted three track events that year, with the veteran Bennett taking honours for the club with Ron Baily and Wally Whyatt.
The club continued to prosper with a membership now of over one hundred. Club life was thriving and the awful early summer was forgotten as the weather settled into a beautiful spell during August and September. But the world was about to be changed forever.
David Joss Buckley