Walter Greaves

The one-armed cycling phenomena

By Stuart Collins

I visited Bradford Industrial Museum for the first time for a while in 2003 . Of four bikes there, a Baines Flying Gate had grabbed most of my adoration; a rather tired looking yellow machine rather less so. The info board about the latter said "Little is known about this bike .....". It further claimed that it was the bike on which Walter Greaves had broken the World endurance record. A little trawling unearthed (on Ebay) a poster showing Walter having passed the British Record using the Three Spires bike. I informed the museum and they amended their info. The whole thing got me somewhat hooked but there was very little on the internet.
The extent of my research was published on this site in 2004. Subsequently there was a growing amount of Walter coverage. Some of it was my stuff (no matter with that). Thankfully, some new material unearthed new perspectives of the enigmatic Walter Greaves. One of the most interesting discoveries was a posting by Andrew Eatch which helps fill in the life story of that faded and lonely yellow cycle in the museum. I appreciated the help of staff at Bradford Library on a recent visit. The library has been condemned and there is a great risk of the material I looked at being lost for ever.

Walter William Greaves was born in 1907 in the Bierley district of Bradford. At the age of 14 his arm got so damaged in an accident that it had to be amputated just below the elbow. The nature of the accident is shrouded in mystery. One version has it that he was leaping from his drunken father's car, regarding this as a safer bet than staying put. A more prosaic, and less likely, version was that it was caused by dangling his arm out of a train window. A further reason, vouchsafed by a work colleague was that he had lost his arm after an incident involving a door and his drunkard of a market-stallholder father.

It seems that he was either reluctant (understandably) to say what had happened or, out of perversity, would tell enquirers a different story.

Walter said of his childhood in an interview, "I was a chip off the old block, I suppose, though a small chip". He talked about his grandfathers, who must have been somewhat larger chips. One of them was a publican. He reportedly carried under each arm a 22 stone sack for a distance of a mile. 22 stone is over 300 lb. For those who went with metrication 40 years ago, that is 140Kg. For those who are fans of rugby that is two very big second row forwards. The other grandfather, a blacksmith, perfomed standing jumps over an anvil and block (about 3ft / 1 metre or so high). He did this whilst carrying another anvil of weight 28lb (13Kg). So Walter may have thought that his "short ride" was nothing special.

Perhaps because of his father's excesses, Walter became teetotal. From 20 years of age he was a vegetarian. He has been said to have an "anti-establishment gene". Reputedly he tried to get most people he met to enrol with the Communist Party. He was a fearsome debator. He may have created the mould out of which Margaret Thatcher and Brian Clough emerged - he was always right! These characteristics had an impact on his employability as an engineer. His ultra-socialist political leanings may not have helped and he was ever badgering folk to sign up people for the party and / or turn vegetarian. He was, quite obviously, very keen on cycling. He was a member of Bradford Cycling Club in 1932. It seems he tried quite a few other clubs but somehow they weren't for him, or he wasn't right for them.

He got into lecture mode quite readily. "Walter says ..." was not always music to the ears of his fellow cyclists and workers. There was talk of him being on a "black-list" amongst would-be employers and during 1935 he obtained little work. He determined to get himself some sponsorship to do a short ride during 1936.

He then lived with his mum in the Undercliffe area of Bradford. It is believed he was "courting" (what a nice expression), though his plans for 1936 wouldn't be ideal for further concerted wooing.

For 1936 he decided to attempt the World endurance record i.e. riding the most miles in a (calendar) year. This record might be regarded as the preserve of mad dogs and Englishmen. In fact it was held by neither, but by an Australian called Ossie Nicholson. The contrast between Ossie and Walter could not have been starker. The former was professional, had a manager and a back-up team with vehicle, several bikes and a masseur. Much of his record was done on a track and enjoyed in the fine climate of Australia. On the other hand Walter did many of his miles in the Pennines and in much worse weather than usual, even for that part of the country!

Walter had been promised a Coventry Cycles Three Spires machine by Ron Kitchen (indeed, the one). Bike firms were quite keen on the idea of supporting these challenges. The notion of an indestructable bike being ridden by an indestructable human was good advertising and represented a year's-worth of publicity.

His machine was not a lightweight and had mudguards, rather fat tyres, carrier, saddlebag (full of food), battery lights and spare batteries. Both brakes were activated by one lever. It can be seen later in this webpage. The handlebars were chopped off at the stem on the left side. The 3-speed TriVelox gear was operated by a customised twist-grip device. The TriVelox was a much patented, copied, disputed over English rear- gear changer. The "Tri" bit was Triumph, but they seemed to have lost interest. Walter used the unique model 1a. It looked a little like modern deraillers but it was the cog cluster which moved laterally rather than the chain being shifted. The cogs (1) were dragged sideways along splines (2) by a cable and using a thin chain similar to Sturmey Archer 3 speeds (3). The sprung loaded hanger (4) kept the chain in line and tension with double jockey-wheels. It didn't move sideways. The claimed advantage of moving the cogs served the twin tenets of pedantic design. First benefit was a constant, perfect chain line - to reduce chain wear. Secondly, the design allowed the wheel bearings to be equidistant from the centre-line and be wider apart - reducing axle stress and breakage. Unfortunately the design necessitated a hollow axle and this would have weakened it. It was all said to be "friction-free" allowing "all the rider's efforts to go into propulsion". Incredible!

If you were sceptical about the design then, in practice, the TriVelox 1A proved most unsatisfactory to purchasers. The cogs, at best, were reluctant to slide along. At worst, when "cacked up", they simply wouldn't move. The chain was reluctant to jump cogs. The manual suggests "overthrowing" the lever then returning it to the indexed position. Attempts at exercising more force (with curses) would cause damage to the cable, the little chain or a mechanism in the center of the hub (and cause even more curses). Movement the other way involved spring-power and a wing and a prayer. The ratios offered gave, in theory, a good choice and range. In practice the ratios had to be close (+/- 2 teeth) if you wanted effective changes. In 1936 the design was new. It emerged after 6 years of patenting conflict, litigation and broken promises. In an advert of 1948 it says "He (Walter Greaves) came to us when preparing for his great ride and a TriVelox was fitted to his machine". It didn't quite say that he wanted one or that he didn't even have a machine by then!! Amazing really that 12 years on they were still milking Walter's achievement and saying it would "never be beaten" when it long since had been. Also surprising was that TriVelox was still pushing the model 1a after producing models 2 and 3 which at least had a chance of working. The blurb suggests that the TriVelox "should change easily" but if not, it would probably be due to "derangement". Quite!

The gear cost 22% of the whole bike. The TriVelox literature boasted that Walter only wore out two chains and two sets of cogs. Regarding the latter he rode ratios of 79", 71" and 59" and later to 78" , 73" and 65, as he got fitter!!! (but gear-wise, in truth, not much different)

Some time into his ride a special adaptation was made for him It involved a complete handlebar and a bit to engage with a prosthetic stump (perhaps as shown [right]). This must have helped his balance, comfort and posture but it wouldn't have enabled pulling-up whilst climbing. He carried a log-book which he got signed at departure and destination points. He got quite a few mayors to sign but it is not likely many publicans were asked. Cycling magazine served as a validation body, to ensure that his record claim would be accepted by all, and by the Guinness Book of Records people in particular.

Where he slept involved "pot luck", as he would have put it. That detail wasn't very important to him. Mr T.P.Fox, a famous walker, made many of the arrangements and this allowed Walter to do what he could do best. Ride his bike! The nice Mr Fox acted as his honorary manager throughout the ride. Increasing interest generated by Cycling magazine ensured offers were forthcoming, both for interviews and bednights. The Vegetarian Society was a very firm supporter, in every way. Whilst in Brighton he stayed at the Benares Food Reform Hotel. 14 days with a roof over his head, a readily obtained diet and some good South Downs riding did much for his mileage and morale.

His training regime was thorough, he says. He did many consecutive days of 50+ miles and some night riding. He targeted on maintaining 15mph in most conditions - reducing to 10mph in hilly terrain.

The other consideration was his diet. Not only was he vegetarian but he was a fussy one. He was asked what he ate so many times that his answers varied quite a bit. His daily comsumption was roughly as follows
  • 1½ lb of Brown / wholemeal bread
  • ¾ lb of Butter
  • 1½ ib of tomatoes
  • Several apples
  • Up to 8 pints of (preferably warm) milk
  • Additional drinks when available :- Ginger Beer, orange juice
He admitted that getting hold of the above was quite often a problem. He also stated, a little illogically, that such a diet was unsuitable for most people, but didn't say why. He was to carry quite a bit of food with him, plus emergency rations. In general he said that if he could get apples he would be reasonably contented.
The photo [right] shows Walter getting some stocks and goodwill on his famous ride. It only looks like two apples - not a good haul. Surely a "Picture taken with Walter Greaves" was worth more than that!

The Three Spires bike (shown above) wasn't delivered for the start of the year. It was a general view that Walter, though often commudgeonly, did not resort to foul language. However, one cannot imagine that Walter was sanguine about this delay. Nothing has been recorded about his demeanour - it is perhaps just as well. On the afternoon of the 5th of January the machine appeared.
The start - From Bradford Town hall - 6th Jan - 0 miles so far.
Before he pulled away from the Town Hall he was given a letter by the Mr Jonas Pearson, the Mayor of Bradford, addressed to the Mayor of York. I assume that this was a symbolic gesture and not an economy measure! Walter replied to an enquirer that he did have a "job" and this was a year's cycling holiday. He did indeed have a "job on".

From the start the weather was terrible, with much snow and ice. On Monday the 13th January he battled into an icy wind to register only 80 miles. He fell off repeatedly because of the hostile conditions. It must be born in mind that many roads had a loose surface and that tarmacadam was not in general use. Early on, he was tracked by the local Telegraph and Argus newspapers. He was jettisoned into road-side snow twice between Bradford and Leeds by bad drivers. In Leeds, he demonstrated to the following press his aptitude for calamity - and fell off once more. The incident involved his being unsighted by emissions from a steam-powered vehicle and coming to grief on the tram tracks. After 10 days of riding Walter was back in Bradford, having done his first 1000 miles. He had visited York, Beverley and the North Yorkshire Moors. It was gruelling work in such bad weather, and with few hours of daylight available. He had fallen off 19 times by the 24th January (some say in the first week). He had established a personal record of falling off 9 times in one day. He had covered 2223 miles by then so had improved remarkably upon his daily average of miles. He was getting saddle sore - it was kind of Coventry Cycles to provide him with a wonderful brand-new Brooks saddle!.

After 2 months of arctic weather he had got his overall riding-day average up to 120 miles. He got frostbitten ears in Doncaster; a place not noted for souveniers, nor frozen ears. He had to get some medical attention.
Into March - Weather changing - 1st March - 6300 miles completed
The severe cold gave way to gales and rain. With longer days and indomitable spirit he hoisted his schedule back towards its record breaking level (including compensating for his 5 inactive days). After doing journeys within the north he extended his range to Scotland, Brighton, Lincoln, Birmingham, London and many other places. What is clear was that he mostly planned routes he expected to enjoy. He proceeded with the spirit of a touring cyclist, rather than that of a record-breaker. He certainly didn't avoid hills, which he might have done. In any case any journey out of Bradford was uphill. Increasingly he seemed to be guided more by invitations, arranged for him by Mr Fox, and Cycling magazine readers. He was continually worried about the finances of his ride. It was noted that "his clothing looked like rags".

During the late spring he claims to have clocked 275 miles one day and on another occasion did 375 between sleeps. Even though the weather was still poor he must have felt that the worst was behind him. Upon enquiries as to how he felt his stock reply was "A1". This may have made people wonder if he had heard their question and thought it was an enquiry as to which road he would be going on next. It is said that whenever he was spotted by someone he would smile and nod, and probably would have liked to have waved. His affability surprised some. He certainly seemed to be into the spirit and didn't give the impression that record attempt was a burden. Very slowly he became news and some new sponsors signed up. (I'm not too sure that many would use Ellimans rub if they had to do what Walter had before they could use it). There were earlier reports of him looking very scruffy and dishevilled but improved support must have involved some new garments. He certainly looks rather smart in the [photo right, above] sporting his Vegetarian Society badge.
Into "Summer" - 1st June - Wet most days - c19000 miles completed
In Mid June he surpassed 21300 miles whilst in London. That meant he was nearly half way and still some days of June to rack up more miles. He did several laps of the Herne Hill Velodrome. I wonder if he met any Olympic-bound cyclists at that time? It does seem likely.

Much of the summer was merely "mostly wet". He came second best to a car on about July 2nd in Yarm, extreme North Yorkshire (Now Teeside). A lorry and a lamppost are also mentioned as collision objects. I assume he really knew which.
He rode on but a few days later was hospitalised for 2 weeks as a result of his injuries getting ulcerated. It is likely that his wounds weren't suitably treated and covered. The mileage chart I have produced shows a marked reduction during the 5 days before his unwanted residence in Bradford Infirmary.

Back on the road after hospital stay - c19000 miles completed
As soon as he was released he was dedicated to doing 160 mile days to get back onto his target. Dare I speculate that the weather wasn't quite as bad as at other times? After 5 weeks of the 160 regime he had nearly clawed his way back to World Record target. He had exceeded 30000 miles on September 1st.

On October 8th he surpassed the British Record. This occurred about 8 miles north of Newark at Dunham-on-Trent. He was met by some local cycling enthusiasts and they happily, and proudly, accompanied him to Lincoln. He had press waiting for him there, and the rare luxury of a four star hotel bed. He had done 36024 miles at this point and was on schedule to break the World Record. He was presented with a "horseshoe of flowers". I can imagine him having a photo taken with these but not him continuing his journey bedecked with "flora" made of cast iron.

Ron Kitchen arranged for Walter to be on display, literally, at the British Bike Show in Olympia from 10th to 15th of November [see poster left]. I wonder how he faired? Given his nature, and having done 130-odd miles to get there that day, I don't think he would have revelled in all the fawning and formality. I expect he felt like a dancing bear (about which, more, later). Patience, tactfulness, enjoying fuss - not Walter's scene. The open road and solitude of the following day would have been a relief.

Into Winter - Weather changing, but not better - Nearly 40000 on November 1st.
The November weather was characterised by being "mostly foggy" i.e. smog. No problem there then! But Walter was reported as saying that November was the worst month of all. He broke the world record on December 13th whilst again in London. He did a few celebratory laps of Hyde Park accompanied by hundreds of cyclists. He had by now captured the public's imagination. There was a great reception at the Grosvenor Hotel. On a stage he publicly rejected the offered Champagne, renouncing it as poison. Instead he ate a grapefruit he had been carrying. Next day he did a triumphant lap of honour round the Herne Hill track. His record was further bolstered by nearly 2400 miles, right up to his arrival at the door of Bradford Town Hall on the 31st of December. He had completed 45383.7 miles!! The rounded-down figure of 45383 was the new target. He passed to the Mayor a letter from his York counterpart - replying to his letter of a year ago. The Mayor had changed and was now Mr George Carter. That's what happens when you take so long to deliver it! I trust the Mayor of Bradford understood the reason for the delay. There was a huge and enthusiastic crowd there to meet him. A small female had to wait to get to see Walter as he was swamped by well-wishers. The newspapers abounded with rumours of Walter getting married. After being otherwise engaged for 1936 he probably couldn't come up with any more excuses. On her part she does seem to have been patient enough.

Walter remained amazingly affable right to the end of his ride. He smiled at everyone and was unerringly modest, as if to suggest "anyone could do this". His ride had been extremely heroic, an epic demonstration of overcoming every kind of adversity. Only earthquakes and pestulance were held in reserve!

The stats are as follows. Average speed 124 miles a day, but 130 to 160 when he actually rode from dawn to dusk. His normal speed was about 15mph, slowing to 10 mph on hilly terrain. It is likely that some verbal claims of progress were exaggerated slightly to generate hope and optimism amongst supporters and sponsors. He featured in quite a few adverts and got mentioned in the nationals. He was given £4 a week by Coventry Cycles, the Three Spears maker, but he claimed it only covered his costs. He had a few other sponsors who were only going to reward him when had actually finished. One of these is shown (right). I have to say I wouldn't use this rub if I had to do all those miles to earn it. He was promised a job with Coventry Cycles. I'm not certain of the reasons this offer wasn't taken up but I imagine the patient Irene had comething to say in the matter. He was a Bradford man through and through and with some more courtship to do, he needed to make up for lost time. Of course, he was greatly advantaged by it being a leap year! The following was given as the statistical summary of the year - it might differ from other stats elsewhere.
His longest day was 275 miles (or 224 or 274). He did 375 (or 274) miles between sleeps on one occasion. “Un-shippings” - 19 in five days. His day record was 8 in the North York Moors. Thereafter, he probably lost count. Rode on 358 days out of the year.

His efforts earned him an inclusion in the Cycling magazines' Golden Book of Cycling.

Within hours of 1937 three other cyclists were accumulating miles towards their record attempts.

[ Click on cover above to read the Walter Greaves entry (opens in a new window) ]

What happened next in the rarified world of Endurance Cycling?

The 1937 weather was much better. Englishman Bernard Bennett, went on to do 45801 miles and thus take the British Record. The margin was a mere 418 miles more. But record it was. Walter was with Bernard on part of his ride and publicly pledged to beat 60000 miles in 1938. He never did attempt it. In the event Ollie Nicholson pushed the World Record to over 62000 miles. This narrowly surpassed the 61000+ miles of 46 year old Frenchman, René Menzies. René had been the Chauffeur to President De Gaulle and had Scottish ancestry. He had done much riding in the UK but also ventured over the channel, in search of better weather. Walter also accompanied him for one day. Clearly there was great bonhommie between some of the riders, as if the foes were the distance, sacrifice and courage rather than putting one over another rider. Little of this fondness was extended towards Nicholson. He was deemed to be clinical, uncommunicative, professional and was a fair-weather cyclist. And, well, he was Australian! And Australia is a long way to go. It might even have been thought that Ossie was avenging the deeds of Harold Larwood, a few years earlier!

Tommy Godwin of Stoke pushed the record up beyond 75000 miles. He was managed, sponsored and cosetted. Ken Webb of Sussex claimed over 80000 miles in 1972. Guinness initially accepted this but there were protests. Godwin's team suggested there had been bad record-keeping, with some claiming the distance had been fiddled. Ken's supporters accused the Godwin effort of being over-organised, were bad losers and were unwilling to cede the record. Guinness renegued and the Webb record was erased by the next edition. It is a pity that such extra-ordinary and heroic "Boys Own" pursuits should end in such acrimony. René Menzies was to make another 12 month ride in 1952. He was determined to beat Nicholson's best. Aussie Ossie's deeds had plainly got under his skin! He wanted to ride the Tour de France course of that year but was discouraged from doing so. It was only at just after 10am on the last day that he proudly exceded Nicholson's 1937 record-breaking ride. He then did another 128 miles! He claimed it was all to celebrate his 63rd birthday. It didn't get him an official record but was still a monumental effort and a "vets-best". It was to be the last successful, ratified year-long ride. Sadly he was killed on his bike 19 years later, going round Hyde Park Corner.

It is still a little surprizing that Godwin's record still stands but who, really, would want to sacrifice a whole year of their life in such a way? The picture [right] shows Tommy Godwin on his record bid - getting Greaves-like weather.
(There will be a piece on Tommy Godwin on this website)
The table below has been titled "Record Holders". Bennett and Menzies would never have held the 1937 record, since Nicholson registered more miles than them in 31st December 1937, the day of judgement. However they beat the existing record and deserve a mention in my table. I do think it was important that they get a mention. There's noone left to protest! In my pedantry I'm calling the table "Record Beaters".

The World Endurance Record Beaters table

Year Record Beater Nationality Distance (miles) Distance (kms)
1911 Marcel Planes France 34,666 miles 55,790 km
1932 Arthur Humbles Great Britain 36,007 miles 57,948 km
1933 Ossie Nicholson Australia 43,966 miles 70,756 km
1936 Walter Greaves Great Britain 45,383 miles 73,037 km
1937 Bernard Bennett England 45,801 miles 73,710 km
1937 René Menzies France 61,561 miles 99,073 km
1937 Ossie Nicholson Australia 62,657 miles 100,837 km
1939 Bernard Bennett England 65,127 miles 104,812 km
1939 Tommy Godwin England 75,065 miles 120,805 km

Stats of Walter Greaves's historic ride of 1936

I imagine that during 1936 Walter had a lot of thinking time. My report above tells of various interactions, meetings and events. But most of the time he would have been on his own, with his thoughts and plans for the future. He was, whatever else, a man of ideas and determination. What follows are various strands of his post 1936 life. I have followed each strand to its destination rather than make it all a chronological mish-mash.

The strands are
  • Co-founding Airedale Cycling Club.
  • Co-founding the British League of Racing Cyclists.
  • Becoming a member of the Vegetarian Cycling and Sports Club.
  • The last of his cycle-racing days
  • Race promoter for the BLRC
  • His first bike shop.
  • Determination for Bradford to have its own surfaced and banked cycle track.
  • No monkey business
  • Latterday offerings to Yorkshire culture, folk song and verse.
  • Sad decline and death
Oh,and he got married!

Airedale Cycling Club

Walter reversed the saying “if you can’t beat them, join them”. He had crossed so many clubs, officials and cyclists in the Leeds / Bradford area; whether or not he had joined them. So in 1948 he co-founded his own club, the Airedale Olympic CC. He got his way with the name, as Airedale could not be confused with the many Bradford clubs, and it was London Olympic year. His connection came to an end with Walter saying to Secretary Peter Duncan "I'll punch your head in and do it publicly." That was the end of an argument, a friendship, his club membership and an era.

The British League of Racing Cyclists

Another "club" he helped found was the "rebel" British League of Cyclists (BLRC) which became a sort of militant wing of organised cycle-racing. They rejected the government's attempts to regulate / ban road races. Their main aim was to run mass-start races on the open roads, in a clandestine style if possible. The club was formed at a meeting of 22 men and 2 women at a hotel in Buxton. His wife Irene, listed as Mrs WW Greaves, was one of the group. There is no certainty that she rode, let alone raced a bike. The ring-leader was one Percy Stallard who, it was said, was "extremely agreeable unless he was being disagreeable". He was a true leader, a major force and would take anyone on. And "taking on" was what the BLRC did.

Though it was not stated policy, the League members often held up traffic. It was not unheard of for the Leaguers and motorists to hold heated roadside "discussions". These debates usually ended with mock agreement when the race had passed through. I offer a quote, I can't remember from where :-
"They stand there on the road-side like bedraggled, flat-capped highwaymen, casting glances hither and thither, waiting to pounce on a motorist and delay his journey to church". A more philosophical quoted attitude goes "prominent 'route markers' became a renowned distraction to normal traffic". Should the police ever get involved then the members would be recommended to adopt a "three wise monkeys" approach. (It wasn't felt that the police should know about the races) On one occasion Walter painted white paint on the road to guide the riders off the A59, down a narrow lane to Broughton. The consequence was some confused and/or angry motorists. The markings were visible for some time and the confusion continued, as did the amusement of cyclist in the know. Walter knew all about good permanent "paint-jobs". The BLRC and WWG were perfect bed-partners! The cutting (above) is from the BLRC handbook

He wanted to fix up a dancing bear for his British League of Racing Cyclists' social "do". For once he was over-ruled.

Over an undetermined overlapping period, he was also a member of the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club. Many of the Airedale Olympian riders went with him after his row with AOCC.

The last of his cycle racing days

He had been a pretty good rider e.g. 25 miles in 1hr 7m, 182 miles in 12 hours and 327½ miles for 24 hours. The longer, the better. He had, like many others, lost his best competitive years because of the war. However when his beloved BLRC organised the first Brighton to Glasgow 7 day race in 1945 (pre-cursor of the Tour of Britain), he was on the start line. His number, 41, nearly matching his age, 38. He is said to have come 23rd out of 71 starters, though official results have seemingly vanished.
62% registered a DNF in the results. Walter finished, of course, and beat 4 others.

[ The above picture is taken at the Bradford start of stage 4 of the 1945 Brighton to Glasgow 7 day stage race. He had some fans! I assume he is being allowed to lead out, it being his hometown. You can see he was having difficulty getting going. Behind him is "Blond Adonis" Ernie Clements who went onto fame and fortune. ]

[ This picture shows him still leading. I imagine he would be hanging on as long as he could, being his last chance of some racing glory. He was 38 then and riding for Vegetarians C.C. Note the three bottles, each having a straw. Pathe News was covering the race. ]

He must have crammed in quite a few races as he approached the age of 40. After this he seems to have raced much less. With all the activities and the onset of married life that was not surprizing. After his succesful participation in the 1945 Brighton to Glasgow he was ideally placed to play a major organisation role in the 1946 edition.

He organised quite a few events for the BLRC, most them new to the calendar. One race went from Bradford to Morcambe and back and featured a "mystery cyclist" (mentioned again and pictured later) who also did the 1951 "Tour of Britain" equivalent. The latter race was run by the BLRC but much of the "organisation" was spread around in the way it still is - and with the same result, chaos. The race had been a 7 day one. Anyone could enter, vetting was low key. New sponsors were needed and Butlins were adopted. The way they saw it, the ride was to be between all their holiday camps and it thus became a 14 day race for that year, with accomodation thrown in. The Daily Express were sponsors also, but preferred the old format. Nobody knew what it was called so readers of the Mirror thought there were two races, "The Butlins Tour" and the "Tour of Britain". They managed without mentioning the Daily Express. Walter felt that it had "gone daft" and he lessened his big-race involvement. He had other sprats to catch.

The fairly pointless picture [left] was taken in Morcambe. There is no chance at whatsoever of it being connected to Walter, aspecially with its' "Last drop" strapline.

His first bike shop.

In about 1938 he had started up a bike shop on the junction of Toller Lane and Whetley Lane, about 1 mile northwest of the city. Not satisfied just with a wife he also had a monkey. A local man recorded that Walter's wife, Irene, was “feisty”. She used to call Walter "buggerlugs", an early example of this typically Yorkshire endearment. The shop was on a junction of bus and trolley routes and made his trade sign visible from any approach. He had very few spares or stock but became respected for his knowledge and engineering skills. It didn't do to be be in a hurry for repairs, but you knew it would be a good job. He was ideally placed to dispense his stories and opinions. For some years (perhaps up to 1959) he produced quite a few frames, mostly made to measure. Unusually, at that time, all the frames were lug-less. He could build them one-handedly, with some remarkable self-made jigs and clamps. His King of the Mountains frame had eccentric geometry. This was to shorten the wheelbase and position the rear of the rider over the back wheel as much as possible (a la Baines Flying Gate or Saxon bi-tube efforts). His other model the "La Victoire" was generally more conventional.

Bradford cycle track

Walter’s big publicly delared passion was to get a cycle track in Bradford. Plans were generally agreed in 1937-1938 and the cost of £3000 was mooted. The campaign had made some progress but the war interceded. Walter and some communist colleagues renewed their efforts after the war. They, in effect, hijacked a radio broadcast about the issue and this served to get the Argos newspaper and the public energized. The cost had gone up to 10 times the original.

The campaigning body was called the YCL – the Young Communists League. Walter, despite not being so young, was appointed secretary. The YLC committee became aware of the interest of other sports and made their efforts a communal one for all sports expressing an interest (and just maybe with socialist sympathies?). The outcome of a submission to the Council was an agreement to provide facilities at Bradford Beck to the Territorial Army alone. This was clearly not a victory, but Walter and YCL kept aggitating. After more fuss and fudge, the TA ceded some of their “territory”. Playing fields for football, rugby and some spartan cricket were created but for whatever reasons, a cycle track wasn’t on the agenda. Meanwhile most other sports had turned their attentions elsewhere and cycling was still homeless.

Walter certainly wasn’t going to abandon the cause and fought to get a cycle track built within an established greyhound track at Legrams Lane, Princeville, Bradford. One assumes that the respective races were on different nights. Being chased by a dog happens regularly to cyclists but it wouldn’t have made a popular spectator sport. The joint facility was grandiosely titled the Bradford City Sports and Greyhound Stadium or plain Legrams Lane to the punters.

The track was apparently pretty rough and at 325 Yards, wouldn’t have been of regulation size. But Walter had got his track – even though it took about ten years. He publically declared, “So now we have a cycle race track in Bradford, not surfaced as we would like, but still the best track in Yorkshire”! (in case you haven't guessed, it was the only one, not counting a grass track near Leeds) It was used a lot from 1951 to 1953, including by World Champion Reg Harris. He appeared in many a needle match between BLRC racers , riders from other factions or anyone with a fat chequebook.

The rough surface was set to be improved in 1954. Reports suggest, that if it had been done, or not, it would still be too uneven to attract the best riders. Wednesday evenings saw informal track meetings during the 50’s and into the 60’s, masterminded by bike shop co-owner Johnny Mapplebeck. There was a small entrance fee and a "great feeling of belonging". In the late summer of 1963 there was a terrible fire and all the facilities were destroyed. The Stadium was condemned on the 30th October 1966. The subsequent demolition left West Yorkshire without a hard race track, once more.

The map shown below is dated 1955. Other maps reveal that the plot of land had been:-
  • open country,
  • enclosed semi-urban fields,
  • a shallow quarry,
  • the City (greyhound) Stadium and Cycle Track!!!!,
  • derelict land
    and finally,
  • a commercial park.

[Photo, above, taken probably in June 1966, months before being demolished]

No monkey business.

Back to Walter, and back in time. His Bradford shop was more or less burnt down. (can't find exact year). He moved out to the sticks near Snaygill and Bradley, just off the Keighley-Skipton road and alongside the Airedale Canal. With him went his family and the monkey. The building was known as "Winifred's Cafe" but was closed and run-down. He determined to incorporate a cyclist's cafe and create his workshop in the back. It was renamed the Forge (also known as Bradley Forge, after the nearby hamlet, and Craven Forge, latterly). His plan was to do repairs and offer catering to passing Bradford cyclists. He seems to have over-estimated his popularity with them. He couldn't afford many spares so he could offer rather limited bicycle services. There was no running water so he dug a bore-hole. A local expert divined (excuse the pun) that it was canal water he was getting! This venture foundered. His catering was given an early test when a training team from Bradford visited him. One of them examined a jelly and was quite certain there were monkey fæces within its wobbly confines. A couple of bites out of a sandwich sealed the decision to leave, and never to return. The monkey turd jelly, sandwiches of indeterminate filling, his argumentative nature, the spartan surroundings and some BLRC vs UIC bike politics were all cited as reasons for the failure of "Walter's Cafe". And that's not to mention the water the tea was made with!

[The map, above, shows the forge in 1955. The canal was higher than the house. The photo, left, shows the house which replaced the Greaves home, now on its third expansion.]

He got a job at a Skipton Engineering and castings firm and got together some money. One aspect of his plan remained and could now be explored. He set up the forge properly and made metal garden ornaments, fittings and furniture. His son helped him and eventually took over the business

He got involved in another aspect of "casting" in 1948. He was rung by a director and asked to gather together some cyclists / extras for a film to be called "Love on two wheels". When it was released in 1949 it became "A Boy, a Girl and a Bike", a "clunky" title indeed. It starred Honor Blackman and Diana Dors as well as a young Anthony Newley. For the latter two it was their film debut. It could have neither helped nor hindered their careers, as few saw the film. The black and white film was made in Hebden Bridge, Malham, Skipton and Bolton Abbey.

Reviews suggested it represented a good advert for cycling in the then West Riding. Except the real thing is often in colour, when the sun shines. Another cyclist, shown right and known as Oscar, was making his film debut as an extra. He was mentioned earlier as the "Mystery cyclist". Readers (both of you) are invited to guess his identity.

Walter recruited the required eight cyclists. They looked the part, but latterly they had to appear in a "race". Their plodding style and pedestrian speed did not pass muster and so "real racing cyclists" were drafted in for the scene. My report has it that the heads of Walter's crew were "superimposed on the bodies of the racers". I assume that this process was editorial rather than surgical! They were paid £8 a week, way above the normal wage. I expect Walter did a little better than that. Unfortunately, it didn't launch a latent film career for Walter, or the others.

Yorkshire culture, folk song and verse

He took to performing in a music duo at various locations, mostly pubs. It must have been quite alien to him, being in pubs and inns. He wasn't tempted! He probably couldn't resist telling the drinkers about the error of their ways. His partner was usually Geoff Clark of Pennine Cycles, a top cyclist of his era. On occasions the duo became a trio, with the additional person becoming unwittingly or unwillingly recruited. There were even reports in the Bradford Argus that the duo had been captured for television, playing in a pub in Kirkstall, near Leeds.

Part of his forge was set-aside as a performance area. Visitors were treated to impromptu performances when all they might have wanted was a plant-holder or advice on cycle chains. He played a "squeezebox" with a difficult technique involving the use of shoulder and a convenient pillar. As you see from the cutting he had fairly lofty ambitions and didn't consider age to be a barrier, any more that the ghastly weather of 1936 had been during his famous year. He thought himself to be the "definitive voice of Yorkshire Folk". He also did "readings" in a dense Yorkshire dialect.
Here is the chorus of a song dedicated to the granting of the old age pension. It was entitled "What Lloyd George Gave Me"

He took me out of t'workhouse,
And he gave me life that's free,
Five shilling a week for cheatin' death,
That's what Lloyd George gave me.

Whoever was No.1 in the "hit parade" at the time, would not have worried about their tenure. Ted Hughes probably didn't feel usurped as "Yorkshire's greatest poet".

The Craven News reported of Walter travelling round with a cart full of "Artifacts of Yesteryear". The "Yesteryear" was often not that long ago. Much content was to do with what he could get hold of for free.
He would give the locals a show and encourage them to pour over his treasures. The article suggests that , "even domestic appliances like three old vacuum cleaners were now as much a part of the curio world as more valuable antiques". He took his rolling museum "to informal workshops or seminars held by fellow devotees of the folk song and dance world".

He did not seem to lack entrepreneurial initiative, but he was still perpetually hard up.

Sad decline and death

1979 saw the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Having fought so much, in life and on two wheels, the disease cowed and quietened him.

Peter Duncan, his one-time close friend before their bust-up, is quoted as saying
I stopped my car in the lay-by near the café about three years ago waiting for a friend to catch me up. As I waited, a frail, ragged scarecrow emerged from one of the huts and tottered laboriously up the steps to the house. With a shock I noticed that the left sleeve of the ragged overcoat was empty and I realised that this walking skeleton was all that was left of the robust, fanatical Walter that I had known in the 40s or 50s

He died in 1987, aged 80, in a state of poverty from which he had never really escaped. The forge was demolished shortly after. Before it was knocked down, thieves stole a much admired metal figure of a blacksmith and an anvil and much else. The building has been described as very shabby pre-fabricated white asbestos with wooden beams and battens (artists impression, top left). Soon after the Greaves family departure Walter's abode was demolished.
On the site was built a house which was called "The Forge". It was later extended twice and re-named "Craven Forge". The photo of 2012, lower left, shows some further work is being done to extend it well past the humble state of Walter's days.

By chance I met the elderly groundman of Bradley Cricket Club who remembers Walter quite well but was amazed when I told him of Walter's feats. He recalled Walter's decline but that he turned down any help offered by concerned villagers. Another villager, Martyn Paley has told me that he went to school with Walter's son Jo. He was never aware that Walter was a cyclist, let alone a remarkable one. Martyn recalls swimming on the canal past the Forge and Walter was always willing to chat if he saw them.

It is strange, and quite sad, that only 25 years after his death, memories of him have diminished so much, but those held have scarcely mellowed. His grandson Matthew was noted locally as promising junior a few years ago, so the Greaves cycling flame still flickers somewhere.

The television program "Grumpy Old Men" started too late for one final career change for Walter. However, he might have been too far off the cantankerous end of “grumpy scale” for that second TV appearance.

Stuart Collins

Sources : Bradford Argus and Telegraph cutting, Bradford Library, Airdale CC website, Bradford Industrial Museum, Classic Cycles website, The Cyclist (USA), Cycling, Cycling Weekly, Golden book of Cycling, the Guinness Book of Records, The Vegetarian magazine, Craven News archive and an unkown man outside Ribble Cycles. Also Martyn Paley, Bradley CC groundsman and the Bradley pub landlord.

Further research - read on!!!!

Mystery photo

The photo, left, is an enigma. I have come across it in a few publications. In all but one instance it is said to be Walter Greaves. You can perhaps make out a prosthetic left arm and he looks like he is being argumentative. On the other hand the rider looks a bit "chunky", which vegetarian Walter never was. The scene looks more Alpine than Bradford. I don't know where this takes us!

Strangely it appears in the frontispiece of a book about the Tour de France (I think by William Fotheringham). The picture there bears no credit, reference or identification, whereas all the other pictures have. It is a brilliantly, thorough book. So ...... Walter Greaves / Tour de France? It almost ranks with the Da Vinci code as a mystery. Can anyone provide an answer???

P.S The Tommy Godwin mentioned earlier and the 1948 Olympian Tommy Godwin (still alive) are two different people. I wonder if they ever met? I'm tempted to think they must have. There is quite a lot of material on this website about both of them. They had opposite specialisms, in cycling terms, but both had great determination and modesty.

The bike shown below is in Bradford Industrial Museum. It has Walter Greaves' name on it. The information board said "Not very much is known about this bike......." simply claiming it to be his "1936 World Record" bike. I got very interested in it but soon discovered that it was just one he made. For the record ride he was given a Three Spires "Ace of Clubs" bike, in a sponsorship arrangement. I contacted the Museum and about a year later the info board was altered to read as shown, right. His ride was said to be 1936-1937 but was, of course, completed within 1936 to satisfy the rules. I have wondered whether it might ever have been ridden by him. He weighed about 10¾ stone (67Kg) so I estimate that he was about 5' 6" (168 cm) high. The bike frame is 23¾ So I didn't think he could have ridden it, let alone did. Even though he had a masochistic streak he wouldn't have squatted on the crossbar.

In May 2012 I visited Bradford and got some new cuttings etc. from the Bradford Library and talked to quite a few cyclists, in some instances by way-laying them. Upon my return I discovered the real story of the bike deeply buried in the Classic Cycles Website. There is blog by Andrew J. Eatch, responding to an article about Walter. He said he was a bit miffed by the Industrial Museum (mis)information about that bike. His particular evidence was pretty good since he once owned it! Andrew rode for East Bradford CC and his dad, Jack, had ridden for Bradford Co-op Velo.

The frame in question was built around 1948. My father owned this Greaves ‘King of the Mountains’ and kept it after he gave up cycling. It stood in our garage as a complete bike with an Osgear, and cobwebs all over it, when I was a child. It was predominantly green, with a sort of rainbow effect overspray paint job. Round about 1970, Dad took the ’King of the Mountains’ frame back to Walter, thinking that he might like to have it. Dad knew Walter from the League days and had kept in touch, albeit infrequently. When I became keen on cycling, around 1974, Dad took me out to The Forge, near Skipton, to see Walter, who gave us a performance of folk singing, accompanying himself with a small ‘squeeze box’ concertina. He used his shoulder and his one hand to play it. My other strong memory of that visit was the torrent of the most shocking and crude swear words which emerged from his mouth when, for some reason, the Royal Family was mentioned. It states on your site (Classiccycles) that Walter was not one for strong language, but he certainly excelled himself on that occasion. We ended up bringing the frame back with us. Walter had no interest in it. He gave us a full set of transfers.

Jack got the frame shot-blasted and enamelled with a "Spanish orange" colour and gave it to his son. Andrew built the bike up with a single Campagnolo chain-ring with a close ratio 5-speed block, a Shimano mechanism and a Unica saddle. It had a pair of Chater Lea pedals as has the "museum" bike; there may be some continuity here. Andrew later relegated it to a winter training bike and had a fixed wheel and a dynamo. Andrew states that he sold the bike in 1977 to someone, whose name he can't recall. It was probably Mr Ward. Whatever, it was presented by Mr.Ward to the museum in 1982, still within Walter's lifetime.

Andrew was very surprised to see it again, not least in the Industrial Museum. He, like me, knew that the info board was quite "fishy". He contacted the museum also. The result was a revision (shown left) but not incorporating Andrew's corrections and still headed "Little is known .....". The only mistake is the period of Greaves's record ride. It wasn't 1936-1937 - he would have been breaking the rules by riding into a second year.

As noted by Andrew Eatch the bike had probably been rebuilt to make it look as it might have looked in 1948; or perhaps how it might have been in 1936? Further to that, the bike has one right brake and a fitting on the left side which might have suited Walter's lack of an arm. One wonders who did the retro modifications - and was it to align with the claim it was Walter's record-breaking machine?

The brakes and bar are alumimium and suggest 60s. The chainset and pedals are both steel Chater Lee. The gearing is single-speed 52 x 14 (100" gear), so wouldn't have been ideal for the Bradford area. The saddle is a Brooks.

The steel seat-pillar is oval section and swan-necked and the most likely component to have been on the bike in 1948. In any case, it wouldn't have fitted on any other bike.

So the King of the Mountains cycle continues its lonely sojourn alongside Scott motorbikes and Jowett cars, nostalgic reminders of brilliant Yorkshire engineering.

Do visit the Bradford Industrial Museum. You'll need a map to find it - it is in the Moorside Mills, 2 miles northeast of the city centre. Hours are normally 10am to 4pm, 6 days a week. Admission is free. Wallow in nostalgia! It takes only about 1½ hours to get round and is worth every second. Add on an extra 20 minutes returning to look at the bike and marvel at, and pay homage to a man who was cussedly determined.

<-- the author with the 1948 Bike

[ Picture, left, shows Walter Greaves during his record-breaking ride. At Herne Hill?
Picture (right) Publicity photo for TriVelox gears seems to show Walter shrouded by a halo. The halo seems to have slipped, but then again, he was never thought to qualify for one ]
Link to page about the Greaves frame-building

written by Stuart Collins - "Webmaster"