Your editor Roy Spilsbury shuffles forward……
Around thirteen years ago in 2006, an Alan Johnson presented us with photocopies of this 19th century sketchbook diary , Alan, retired and living in Spain had had the copies in his possession since the 1950’s. He was a member of the Birkenhead North End Cycling Club, A fellow member, Eddie Pearce, a Hoylake butcher, had found the diary in a junk shop.. Realising the contents were a unique record of life a’wheel in cycling’s infancy, Alan duly copied the sketches and retained them over the years. It was only upon sorting out his effects to move to Spain was he reminded of their value and ofered them to us . We are therefore indebted to Alan for sharing them, and enabling us to share them with you.
My late colleague Maurice Clarke and I duly uploaded the sketches to our now archived website, not knowing whether the diary still existed. With the assistance of my daughter Judith Spilsbury, with her skills in tracing family history, we gained tantalizing glimpses of not only Walt’s life and times, but also a little of the individuals who shared the cycling culture of Liverpool.
But the story does not end here. There is yet more to come with the unexpected appearance of the diary for the first time on BBC television.
Read on my friend – and relish. And if you able to add to this fascinating story, please do contact us.
Walter ‘Walt’ Dutton (1862-1909), sister Amy, and brother Arthur (Arth’)Moore Dutton.
In 1887 Walter H Dutton was a 25 year old bachelor living at 13, Sandstone Road in the West Derby area of Liverpool. He and his 21 year old sister, Amy, his 23 year old brother, Arthur, and his 16 year old brother Tom were all keen cyclists. Amy, Tom and possibly Arthur lived with Walter, their elder brother.
Walt had a certain artistic ability (the 1891 census identifies him as a book-keeper and artist in oil and water colour) and in March 1887, when he acquired a new tricycle tandem and the latest safety bicycle, he decided to keep a sketchbook diary of the cycling activities of himself, family and friends. At this point we do not know whether we have all the original sketches.
The early years of cycling.
In the 1870s and ’80s cycling had grown considerably in popularity. For the first time ordinary people like the Duttons, who probably could not afford to own and stable a horse, let alone a horse and carriage, had the means for quick, independent and comparatively cheap travel. It is evident from the sketches how much they relished the new opportunities cycling offered – to go on exhilarating rides, to tour, compete and just to have fun with friends.
Their machines seem primitive by modern standards. The pneumatic tyre was re-patented the following year (1888) and within 4 years, especially after the development of clincher tyres, had become hugely popular and so sounded the death knell of the penny-farthing.
Though the safety bike, which had more or less similar sized wheels, had been developed in 1884/5 and Walt had just acquired a new one (his ‘bicyclette’), at the time of the diary ordinaries (penny-farthings) were still widely used, as were tricycles, which were safer than ordinaries. and which could accommodate the ladies’ long dresses (but see ‘Ye Catastrophe’ on page 19). There are also glimpses in the sketchbook of both single and tandem versions of the bizarre looking Coventry Rotary, an asymmetrically aligned tricycle, and the Duttons most probably owned one since Amy is several times portrayed riding it, though in July she acquires a more conventional trike. The Coventry Rotary, first produced in 1878, was revolutionary in that it was the first cycle of any kind to have a chain, thus paving the way for the development of the safety bike and modern machines.
Arthur too had one of the new safety bikes. Amy and Walt often did outings and tours together on their new Traveller tricycle tandem (see sketch below) which several times attracted the curiosity of a crowd. Walt also seems also to have had a single trike since in August he used one for a ‘health tour’, which left him and his companion exhausted (pages 24-25).
Sketches tell the stories.
These sketches with their pithy, hand-written captions and wry humour provide a fascinating and entertaining insight to the cycling world of 120 years ago. There were no helmets and lycra, but tails and bowler hats were sometimes worn. The roads were frequently unmetalled and so were often muddy or dusty or ‘loose’, and route finding could be a problem. Aggressive dogs were even more a danger then than now, especially to the vulnerable riders of ordinaries, and they were robustly repelled with whip, boot and wheel. It was a time when cyclists were joining together to form clubs, and in April Walter and his friends inaugurated the Wirral Bicycle Club, though they also rode on occasion with the Anfield BC and other Liverpool clubs.
One of the joys of the sketchbook is a fleeting gallery of incidental characters – the tricyclist who joined up with them and did not believe in going faster than 9 mph, don’t cher know, but who was always last at the next refreshment stop, the tramp who asked for tobacco and got it, the kindly carter who offered Walt and Amy a free lift and told them his life story in a short ten minutes, and the posh cyclists they rib from upper crust Bowdon. These and many other fascinating cameos capture the human face of cycling all those years ago.
But the overwhelming impression derived from the sketches is of the companionship and sheer joie de vivre Walt and his friends derived from their pastime: convivial visits to pubs and tea rooms, exploring the countryside of Cheshire and Lancashire, doing stunts (‘circuses’) on their machines, coasting downhill (‘beats the famed tobogganing’) and above all the thrill of racing (‘taking down’) anything else that moved, including a steam train on one occasion (Walt and Amy lost). One sketch of Walt and a fellow Merseysider lazing on a summer’s day in the lush countryside of mid-Cheshire after a generous and well-lubricated picnic is captioned ‘And are glad we are born’, which just about sums up the delight they took in their cycling.
It is therefore sad to learn that, just 20 years after the happy days of 1887, Walt was admitted to Lancaster Poor House /Lunatic Asylum, where he died tragically two years later.The above photograph was taken upon his admission.
Walt’s companions a’wheel.
Almost forty names are mentioned in the pages of the sketchbook; we expect these to attract the interest of family history buffs. We would be most interested to hear of any surviving cycling-related accounts or photographs of that time, not least of Walt himself. We do know he married and lived in a house on what is now the site of the John Moore’s Liverpool University. We also know that his marriage failed and another man took his place as head of the household and the family emigrated to South Africa. Unless one of those returned to the UK it may be surmised no direct descendant of Walt remains in the UK.
Of his brother Arthur (Arth), who figures widely in the diary, we know he emigrated to Canada for a time and returned to resume life in Liverpool. From an entry in the CTC Gazette for September 1939 it’s clear he became a well known veteran cyclist. as indeed did Lawrence Fletcher, another member of the Duttons’ circle of friends. Fletcher was a pioneer founder member of CTC (see his obituary, June 1933 in the CTC Gazette) and a fascinating illustrated article about him written by David Birchall and published in The Boneshaker).
A site visitor who is a descendant of Good Old Billy Slade and his son, W J Slade, has most generously provided us with some fascinating family history.
The long lost diary appears on BBC TV .
Over the years several unsuccessful attempts have been made to trace the diary, or indeed establish whether it still existed.
Amazingly it appeared on BBC’s Antique Roadshow on Sunday 17th March 2019. Purchased in a box of books for £10 many years ago, its value is now estimated to be between £2-3k, it seems ‘our’ Walt’s diary may be about to start a new chapter.
9th April 1887 Sunday Cycling
Our Easter Tour – first day 6th April 1887
Easter Tour – Second Day
Easter Tour – 2nd Day Continued and Concluded
Our Easter Tour – Third Day 7th April 1887
7th April 1887. Our Easter Tour – Fourth & Last Day – home.
A Few Recollections of the Wirral B C 1887 Opening Run
Wirral Bicycle Club. Round the Mersey Tour: 30th April & 1st May 1887
Round the Mersey. Sunday 1st May 1887
To Hawarden 14th May 1887
28th May 1887 Wirral Bicycle Club Tour to Knutsford
29th May 1887 Whit Sunday at Knutsford,
Names mentioned in the Sketchbook
Allonby Mr & Mrs
Armstrong W N (Billy)
Baker George L (The Nipper)
Bell David (Dave)
Bibby Bruce Robert (Bob)
Dutton Walter H
Edge T A
Ellis H P
Gordon N M
Jackson David (Dave)
Kettells (dom. Warmingham)
Kidd A J
Kidd Harry P
Polly W (Bob)
Bob & Polly
Uncle Walter (dom. Moston)
Uncle John (dom. Coppenhall)