GREAT BICYCLE RACES OF ALL TIME - The 1898 Australian Natives' Association Wheel Race and Gold Stakes Scratch Race Series

The Australian Natives Association A.N.A Wheel Race, 1898 Five Mile Gold Stakes Final. Melbourne Exhibition cycle track, Carlton Victoria. One of the most iconic images in Australian cycling, the crowd assembled as a consequence of the nous and determination of the Australian Natives Association committee.

The Australian Natives Association A.N.A Wheel Race, 1898 Five Mile Gold Stakes Final. Melbourne Exhibition cycle track, Carlton Victoria. One of the most iconic images in Australian cycling, the crowd assembled as a consequence of the nous and determination of the Australian Natives Association committee.

"The World's Prize""In the open air an unusually immense crowd gathered to witness the important bicycle programme which ran into the night."

The Australian Natives' Association (A.N.A) Great Fete and Art Union celebrated Foundation Day, on January 26 1898, featuring one of the most highly attended bicycle race events in the history of Australian cycling. Well in excess of 70,000 spectators surrounded the concrete surfaced exhibition track in Melbourne. "In the open air an unusually immense crowd gathered to witness the important bicycle programme which ran into the night." The crowd witnessed a forty six race programme which began at midday and carried prize money for the winner of the A.N.AWheel Race of £220, the highest for any race in the world at the time. Victorian Governor General, Lord Brassey attended and late in the evening Brassey was at the start line to see off the riders in the two mile handicap, the Great A.N.A Wheel Race Grand Final. "His excellency the Governor has accorded his patronage and presence to the undertaking, and has consented to start the Great Wheel Race." Australian cycling legend Bobby Walne won the A.N.A Scratch Race Series Gold Stakes that year. The A.N.A Handicap Wheel Race was won by L.M.Jackson with controversy surrounding Jackson's win, some believing that 2nd place getter W.J.C Elliott had actually beaten Jackson to the line. The A.N.A's two mile handicap race with the richest purse on earth, became known as "The World's Prize".

JOHN RANDALL MANN'S EPIC and MONUMENTAL BICYCLE RACING PHOTOGRAPH

I've often wondered about the stories which surrounded the A.N.A day races of 1898. No detailed information about these bike races has ever been collected and compiled in a format which compliments Mann's image of such obvious importance. So I set about creating a record of the stories and series of events, leading up to the Great Fete and race day held on 26th of January 1898. Through John Randall Mann's epic photograph, it is hoped that this new research into the events surrounding the A.N.A event at Melbourne Exhibition Track, will offer a glimpse into what it was like to go bike racing in Australia, in the final years of the nineteenth century.

I thought the story was going to be about hard fought bike racing but I discovered that the real picture was about the building of a nation's identity.

John Randall Mann's photograph of the A.N.A Great Fete at the Exhibition Building bicycle track in Melbourne has been my favourite Australian cycling photo since I first came across it back in the late 1970's. There's so much detail in Mann's image, it reveals a bigger picture than National day sporting celebrations alone. In 1898Federation and a new Australian flag were not far off.

In Mann's picture, the national flag of the time the Union Jack flies above the exhibition building. Three years later at the Exhibition building on the 3rd of September 1901, was the first time anywhere that the new Australian National Flag was flown. There's standing room only in most parts of the grounds, grandstands are bursting, the rotunda's are a sea of arms and legs. Adjacent to Lemon Squash Stand #3, riders and their helpers prepare their bikes for racing. A blind eye was turned to betting at the time, in 1950 Bobby Lewis who'd raced during the late 1890's recalled that "Although betting was not openly condoned …… it was the accepted thing for well-known bookmakers to advertise openly that they would be in the Grand stand."In the bottom left third of the photograph you can see a bookmaker at work, three men huddle round his front side while another peers over his left shoulder - or perhaps he's just selling tickets in a sweepstake, but that's one hell of a big ticket book. Inside the oval an early heat of the A.N.A Gold Stakes Scratch race series is under way, the Gold Stakes series being the only scratch races on the programme.

J.R Mann went to great lengths to create his monumental depiction of the A.N.A celebrations. Mann's image was as deliberate as it's subsequent copyright registration with the Victorian Patents Office. The high camera placement he chose to capture the full extent of proceedings, would have required a lot of planning, previous huge success of A.N.A events setting the precedent. After the event Mann had an artist paint in the missing areas of shadow where little detail had been recorded on film. A brief description accompanies the records of Mann's image at the State Library of Victoria. "Photograph of a huge crowd around an oval outside the Exhibition Building, Carlton. A bicycle race is in progress around the track and some people stand or sit at a table in centre of oval. A rotunda can be seen u.l. of picture. Text reads: "A.N.A. Day 26th Jany [sic.] / Exhibition Building, Melbourne / One part only of the great fete." The description doesn't give much away, yet the secret to the entire story is emblazoned across Mann's image "ONE . PART . ONLY . OF . THE . GREAT . FETE."

THE A.N.A GREAT FETE AND IT'S TIES TO AUSTRALIA DAY

So how did such a huge crowd come together to watch bicycle races on a perfect, cool and clear Foundation Day in 1898. The answer lies in the A.N.A Art Union and how it was combined with the Great Fete.

The A.N.A bicycle racing programme, the A.N.A Art Union and Great Fete, had it's genesis in the history of Australia Day. The Australian Natives' Association was founded in 1871 and continued until September 1993, "Natives" meaning "native-born" and of European descent. A.N.A Branches existed in cities and towns throughout Australia. Primarily a friendly society providing medical, sickness and funeral benefits, the A.N.A "had also become a powerful voice for the federation of the Australian colonies and the celebration of a national day."

"In the city the Natives have made the 26th famous by their great fete, art union and bicycle carnival in the exhibition grounds. ….. The Natives' (A.N.A) watch word "Federation" pealed out in sonorous tones over the festive board at which were seated the members of the all-important Convention. The speeches from first to last were instinct with patriotic feeling and while Anniversary Day continues to be such an echo of national sentiment it is likely to be preserved as one of the most sacred holidays the people enjoy."

The aims of the A.N.A in conjunction with the Great Fete is clearly demonstrated by their announcement for the 1898 Foundation Day event. "Our chief object for the past 25 years has been to assist in bringing out the Federation of the Colonies….. In conjunction with the Great Fete."

The art union, great fete and bicycle race programme was celebrated on the 26th of January in observance of the established tradition, "The tradition of noticing 26 January began early in the nineteenth century with Sydney almanacs referring to First Landing Day or Foundation Day."  Sporting events provided the perfect setting for the celebration of a national holiday, Sydney celebrations were held in conjunction with a regatta, in Melbourne at the A.N.A organised Art Union and Great Fete bicycle races became the focus of attention.

"The 26th January took it's hue from the opening of the Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne nearly ten years ago and has remained a red letter day in the Colonial calendar ever since."

THE GREAT A.N.A ART UNION PROMOTION, 1890's MARKETING GENIUS

Australian Natives' Association Art Union and Wheel races
Australian Natives' Association Art Union and Wheel races

The art union was both the strength of the A.N.A bicycle race programme and for a time the bane of the existence of the organisation. Running an art union allowed the A.N.A to provide the richest prize money in the world and at the same time attract the largest number of spectators to a single event. "One of the most important features of the whole demonstration is the great art union."(Traralgon Record 1895) "This was run ona most extensive scale in conjunction with an art union, and visitors from all parts of the colony helped to swell the enormous crowds of the metropolis."(Adelaide Chronicle 1897) The way that the art union attracted spectators to the Great Fete was ingenious. With A.N.A branches in many cities and towns throughout Australia, art union tickets could be promoted and sold through local branches, each had their own advertising campaign in local newspapers. The tickets were sold for one shilling, for a low price this allowed each ticket holder a chance to win the grand prize, in 1898 1st prize in the A.N.A art union was a gold vase valued at £1,000.  To top that off each ticket allowed the holder entry into the Great Fete. The A.N.A weren't done with that, they worked vigorously to encourage rail and shipping lines to offer dirt cheap fares from Sydney, Adelaide and Tasmania. Special cheap excursion trains brought spectators straight to Melbourne. Twenty trains arrived from regional Victoria, some from Adelaide and Sydney. Upon arrival in Melbourne where else were excited art union ticket holders going to go but straight to see the running of the World's Prize at the exhibition grounds, after all they already had their cheap art union tickets in hand, inclusive of guaranteed entry.

Running the art union was problematic for the A.N.A, in 1893 A.N.A staff were arrested for incorrectly running the art union, hence thereafter the clear instruction "our reason for having a gold vase for first and second prize is so that the art union will be strictly in accordance with the law". In 1899 A.N.A committees across the country were up in arms about the art union. A.C Pratt of the Hobart A.N.A branch said "the fetes ought to be discontinued, because they savoured of gambling". In September 1899 the art union was vetoed in favour of a new plan to conduct the annual fete and sporting events. The rich prize money continued for a few years without the art unions, eventually declining to £100 in 1947. In 1898 the prize money was £310.

THE FIRST A.N.A WHEEL RACES

The A.N.A held their first Great Fete at the Friendly Societies grounds in Carlton in 1890, the first A.N.A Wheel race ran around a grass track and was won by R.Mitchell. In 1891 the event was moved to the exhibition building and grounds in Carlton where the brand new cycling track was first opened that year. The new venue provided the perfect setting for the multitude of events organised to keep patriotic revelers entertained. Inside the exhibition building there were literary, painting and drawing competitions plus acrobatic and variety performances. Outside harriers entertained alongside athletic events which included 220 yds, half mile and mile handicaps. By 1893 attendances rose to about 55,000.  "In 1893 on the occasion of the fourth fete, the number…. totaled 55,000 … a number the V.R.C would be proud of on Derby day." (Traralgon Record 1895) By 1898 the A.N.A event at the Exhibition track had monopolised celebrations anywhere in Melbourne. "The national holiday in conjunction with the foundation of the colony was celebrated in the usual way, the Australian Natives' Association monopolising public attention". Other major events held in Melbourne on the 26th were overshadowed by the clout of the A.N.A marketing arm. The Victorian Intercontinental Regatta and the Williamstown Races were well attended, revelers also celebrated at St Kilda, yet none came close to the success of the A.N.A Great Fete.

A VIBRANT AND RICH BICYCLE RACING SCENE IN THE MIDST OF A CYCLING CRAZE

Australian Natives' Association Wheel race Results 1898
Australian Natives' Association Wheel race Results 1898

Despite the prestige of the longer running Austral Wheel Race, the A.N.A wheel race carried the richest purse in the world and boasted superior attendance. Superiority of attendance records extended to other sports and the A.N.A bike races eclipsed attendance records for horse racing during that era too. In 1897 the A.N.A had the lions share of great racing events, beating the promoters of the Austral Wheel Race to the rights to hold the Victorian Five Mile Championship."Perhaps the most classical event is the second, which is called the "Five Mile Cycling Track Championship of Australia." This is unquestionalbly the champion race of the year, because it is the only Australasian championship run in Victoria this season which is recognised by the League of Victorian Wheelmen. The Melbourne Bicycle Club, which controls the Austral Wheel Race, made every effort to include the event on their programme, but the League of Wheelmen determined upon handing it over to the A.N.A."(Traralgon Record 1895)  Indeed the A.N.A's ties with the V.L.C extended to both organisations sharing the same office for A.N.A Race entries. "A.N.A Wheel Race Entries close to-night at the League of Victorian Wheelmen rooms and fete office, 287 Collins Street, at 10 o'clock, for the races to be run in connection with the A.N.A fete, to be held at the Exhibition track on January 26" (The Argus 1898)

In 1898 Australia was deep in the middle of a cycling craze "The reason for the strong public favour in which cycling is held is not far to seek. It lies in the fact that the sport itself combines usefulness with pleasure. In addition, a man or woman who has learned to bike takes a muchkeener interest in the professional sport he goes to witness. He has, you see, learned many of the tricks of the game. He is, or thinks he is, a keen judge, can tell when a man is or is not "on the job". Then again, the promoters of the sport have wisely kept the entrance fees at "popular prices." At any big meeting you see a lot of sport for a shilling. And when such a maximum of knowledge and sport can be had for such a minimum cost, little wonder remains that cycling should be so popular." (1897 'Items of News.', Traralgon Record) Little wonder that the crowd, which the A.N.A so skillfully mustered up via their massive Art Union marketing campaign, was also bike race savvy, adding further interest and fervor.

It wasn't just race days that drew a crowd, thousands queued up to watch professional riders on training days around Melbourne. The exhibition track was a popular training track from 1891. In an interview for the Argus in 1950 the great champion Bobby Lewis recalled that "training at the St Kilda Cricket Ground would draw an admiring gallery of at least two thousand, they'd line the fences to see their favourites at work." Other popular training tracks were the Scotch College path, the Warehouseman's, the Brunswick cricket ground, and a track at Gurney's training and athletic grounds, Flemington-road. Surfaces could comprise ofgrass, cinders, asphalt or concrete. Board tracks weren't introduced to Australia until the late 1920's when Frank Corry working for Velodromes Ltd of Sydney, built wooden velodromes at Canterbury in Sydney and another velodrome at Fortitude Valley in Brisbane.

Professional riders of the era were paid wages from bicycle and tire manufacturers. Lesna the French cyclist raced in Australia, racing on a French Gladiator bike, and drew the highest salary of any rider in 1898. "Porta now draws £5 10s a week from the Dux Company ; Martin takes £8 from the makers of Red Birds bicycles. Lesna, however is a prince beside them, for The Gladiator people pay him £25 per week." In the lead up to one race meet, The Gladiator expected the Victorian League of Wheelmen, who sponsored him, to pay £28 to the pacers who he'd trained behind all week. Talk about cycling nicknames and poetic license, 19th century cycling journalists were writing them up back then. One journalist, writing under the pseudonym of Velox, went one step further and called Lesna "The Gladiator" after the bike he raced on. The nickname "Gladiator" could have existed only briefly.

THE GREAT A.N.A BICYCLE RACE MEET OF 1898

In the lead up to the race, throughout the cities and towns of Australia newspapers were reporting the handicaps and chances of their local riders, their very own cracks or scorchers. Most were going to be left by the wayside in the heats of the A.N.A wheel race. In Coburg for example the local paper wrote, "Only one Coburg cyclist, Offort, managed to win a place in the final of the A.N.A., Wheel race, however, and at the finish line he was not far behind the prize taker." Only 20 "Cracks", the best of the Australasian and international riders, had been invited to participate in the A.N.A Gold Stakes scratch race series. Popularity of the A.N.A races with riders indicated by the sheer volume of entries, there were 63 more entries in the 1898 A.N.A wheel race than there were in the Austral Wheel Race.

Commencing at midday, the racing programme began with "The Second and Third Class combined Handicap .. decided in eight heats, which brought out large fields ; first and two fastest seconds in each heat to run in the final." The prize money for the lesser handicap £30, illustrating just how large the world's prize of £220 in the A.N.A wheel race final was. Racing was fiercely contested in a bid for the thirty pound prize. In the fifth heat of the Second and Third class combined handicap - "Wilksch was leading till the last lap, when he was bored onto the grass, and the rest coming past blocked him."

Professional and amateur racers in the 1890's did not wear helmets, the consequences well illustrated by racer E.R Abbott who fell in one of the heats, receiving 'only a deep wound' and 'slight concussion'. Look closely at the image of the 1897 finalist's photo and you can see the iron railings that Abbott bent with his head. In Mann's 1898 image the racers are riding without helmets.

"Darrell came down with a terrific thud on the asphalt and slid along on his side for about 10 yards. His machine went up the bank into the fence, and E.R Abbott who was behind Darrell, in trying to avoid a fall, ran over the fallen bicycle and was pitched head first into the iron railings which enclose the track. He rebounded off the fence and lay motionless.  All that was the matter was a deep wound in his head and a slight concussion of the brain. One of the iron railings of the fence was bent through the force with which Abbott's head came against it… In the third heat of the ANA Wheel Race Shepherd fell bringing down the field."

Next up on the programme were the heats of the First Class one mile handicap, in the final the Italian Porta racing on a Gladiator, came to the fore with the win. As well as Porta, international riders racing in Australia at the time were Jack Green also racing on a Gladiator, who was known as "Union Jack" from England and the Frenchman Lesna. In the fourth heat was a chance for the crowd to see Australian cycling legend for the first time on the day, Queenslander Bobby Walne who lined up from the scratch mark. Walne beat eventual winner Porta and Union Jack Green in his heat. Before Walne appeared on the racing scene in Australia Union Jack Green was winning everything, Walne soon changed that.

A.N.A Wheel Race 1897 Final
A.N.A Wheel Race 1897 Final

ENTER BOBBY WALNE AUSTRALIAN CYCLING LEGEND

Bobby Walne was in top form on January 8 1898 when he won the Great Brassard trophy, which entitled him to a weekly salary of  £5. That wasn't the only payments he received in addition to his extensive prize money takings. Walne was racing on a Dayton bicycle and sponsored by the Dunlop Tyre company as well. Dayton bicycle company advertisements of the day stated that "R.H Walne, the champion, climbed to fame on a 'Dayton'." Walne's racing ability and results saw him become the greatest Australian rider of the era. Decades later champion Bobby Lewis, a contemporary of Walne's thought highly of Walne, "He (Lewis) has no hesitation in naming the famous American Major Taylor, as the best rider he ever saw. The best Australian, he thinks was Bob Walne from Queensland." In 1939 Sid Barber shared the same sentiment, "Of the cycling aces on the asphalt or board tracks I regard the American .. Major taylor, as the fastest visiting rider, and R.H (Bobby) Walne the Queenslander, as the fastest Australian." An anonymous writer said, "Queensland Champion Cyclist Bobby Walne was probably the greatest cyclist ever produced." Look through the results of any major race of the era and you can bet Walne's name will be printed next to first place. Walne was "the all distance champion of Australasia, his career marked by wonderful pace and sterling finishing ability, qualities which hard work and perseverance have brought him. In the greatest handicap of the Australian track - the A.N.A Wheel Race, he gives away starts to 251 men in all classes, and including the champions of every distance and every province that the continent can gather together…all acknowledge the fact that he is head and shoulders above the crowd". Unfortunately Walne's career was cut short in Adelaide in 1903 when he damaged his knee so badly in a fall that he required a year off, when he came back he was never the same.

THE 3rd Annual A.N.A GOLD STAKES SCRATCH RACE SERIES of 1898 - One Mile, Five Mile and Ten Mile scratch races with a 3 Mile FINAL

Bobby Walne Cyclist
Bobby Walne Cyclist

In 1898 the 3rd annual A.N.A Gold Stakes was a tough scratch race series to win. "To absolutely win the prize they will have to ride one, five, ten and three miles, which will be a considerable strain on the men, especially if he desires to compete in the wheel race, which means three two mile races."  In 1903, Major Taylor illustrated how tough this series was. On that occasion Taylor had a slight cold and was a bitter disappointment to the crowd. After Taylor was beaten in his heat of a handicap he "scratched" from the Gold Stakes series, "Remarking that he did not fancy riding so many miles for a few dollars and a gold badge. 'Besides, … I never heard of such funny conditions and distances in a race.'" Invitation only, the twenty best international and colonial riders could compete. Each race in the series carried twenty five points for the winner and fifteen points for second place. The first race was a one miler and riders had to race in heats. Straight after the one miler, the twenty cracks lined up for a five mile scratch race. Later in the programme a ten miler, and late in the evening the decider, a three mile scratch race. To qualify for the three mile scratch race A.N.A Gold Stakes final you had to be one of nine men with the highest points accrued in the first three races.  Total prize pool £160 : 1st £100, second £50 and 3rd £10. Naturally amongst the nine men who'd fought hard for their place in the final, was Bobby Walne, the result, "A.N.A Gold Stakes - Three mile final. - R.H Walne (Queensland), 1; J. Green (England), 2; C.B Kellow (Victoria), 3. Won by a length after a beautiful finish. Time 7min 16 sec."

"The World's Prize"the Great A.N.A Wheel Race Grand Final.

On the Tuesday after the 1898 Two Mile A.N.A Wheel Race final, Brighton Cycling Club gave a heroes reception with a "Smoke Night" dedicated to cyclist L.M Jackson who had just won the most highly sought after cycling prize in Australia. The victory celebrated at the Brighton Cycling Club's clubhouse. In the same fortnight Jackson had won a combined total of £300 including the £220 prize for his A.N.A win. Jackson was sponsored by Melbourne department store Tye and Co who supplied his American, Barnes and Co - New york built "White Flyer " bicycle, which was clad with Dunlop Tyres via his other main sponsor.

Meanwhile in Sydney, supporters of Second place getter W.J.C Elliott were a bit perturbed at their local boy finishing second, Elliott always finished second, it seemed it was his place in life and it had happened again, and to make matters worse the second year in a row that he'd finished second in the big A.N.A race. This time apparently the finish line judges were fooled by a trick of the lights and guessing which was a black or white bicycle, which bike was it? The Sydney Morning Herald reported

"Most of the Sydney men have now returned from the great A.N.A Wheel Race, which has caused so much excitement and interest in cycling circles this year. There appears to have been considerable doubt as to who the winner actually was. The judges however, placed L.M Jackson first and W. Elliott second ; but there appears to be some doubt as to the accuracy of such decision. Barden, Ken Lewis and J. Carpenter (All prominent racing men in Victoria), E. H Lenne and J. Colanso (handicappers of the League of Victorian Wheelmen), and J. Williams (the Sydney handicapper), were all on the mark at the finish, and they unanimously assert that Elliott won by a good foot. The race was run by electric light, and many prominent riders are of the opinion that Jackson, who was riding a white machine, was better observed than Elliott, who was riding a black one, and consequently could not be easily seen. After Elliott and Jackson had passed over the mark Elliott said to Jackson, "What is it?" and Jackson said, "I think a dead heat." Elliott, however, refused to split the prize, feeling confident that he had won, and, as he says, "I could scarcely speak when I was told that Jackson was placed before me."

Down in Tasmania they were celebrating the third place of F.S Beauchamp as if he'd won, putting his 3rd place down to his misfortune in having a bad position in the last lap, perhaps he just had the wrong coloured bike! "In F.S Beauchamp the Tasmanian's have a rider that bids fair to make a name for himself in the Australian cycling world. His riding and pacing in the heats and semi-finals of the A.N.A Wheel Race, Melbourne, were a treat to watch, and only for his misfortune in having a bad position in the last lap, he would have even bettered the third position obtained by him in the final. Few of the many thousands present at the Melbourne Exhibition Building saw the splendid run made by the Tasmanian, they being all engrossed with the struggle between Elliott and Jackson."

A note on Gearing : The gear which Jackson rode the final on was 92 inches. Quite a small gear for the time, for example Bobby Walne later that year on 3 June at the Sydney Cricket Ground, now mounted on a Swift bicycle chose a gear of 112 inches to set the Australasian one mile Record. Gears of up to 122 inches were commonly chosen during that era.

“Television stuffed it up in 1957”

The aim of the A.N.A in bringing about federation of the colonies, and in the process promoting an Australian national day of celebration of a nation, resulted in the promotion of the biggest bike race in the country. The Austral Wheel race was accorded the title of the other great race of the era, and it still survives today as the longest running track race in the world, yet the A.N.A races drew bigger crowds and had a richer prize. The A.N.A art union combined with savvy late 19th century marketing by the sporting arm of the A.N.A, and the clout of national A.N.A branches, saw the A.N.A bike races eclipse any other event in the world on prize money, and in Australia on sheer numbers through the turnstiles. Creating an electric atmosphere at the Exhibition bicycle track on Foundation Day which is now known as Australia Day.

Last week I started with a blank slate and just John Randall Mann's photograph in front of me, with no idea how the story was going to unfold. What I found was a fascinating window into the lives of past champions, how they raced and trained, their equipment and racing techniques they employed. Cycling then was the favourite sport of the people, two thousand people in a park to watch you go training, say no more! There's a parallel today with the fanaticism of cycling enthusiasts, everyone heads off in July to watch Cadel race over the mountains of France, in 1898 the exhibition track at Carlton was where you went, courtesy of the A.N.A, to watch Bobby Walne win the Gold Stakes scratch series.

From 1942, after the exhibition track was demolished, the race was run at the North Essendon board track. Riders like Cecil Walker, Jack Fitzgerald, Reg Harris, Sid Patterson and Russell Mockridge had taken to the start line. In 1960 Tony Marchant won the A.N.A wheel race, A.N.A backed races disappear out of the records after that.

In 1993 when they closed the last branch of the A.N.A in Perth, Jean Geddes, a member for 50 years and referring to the decline of the A.N.A, said "television stuffed it up in 1957". The same thing happened to the A.N.A and Australian Track Cycling, at the same time for the same reason.

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