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:: [ Reigate Hill Climb 1880/2020    -     Part 2 ] ::

In view of the ban on public meetings, the Coronavirus has put paid to the normal range of Surrey Vintage Vehicle Society outside and inside gatherings. We have therefore encouraged all our members to take photographs instead of any of their allowable distancing machinery and share them on our website. Many of our Members are of the 'elderly variety' so were hankered deep down thinking of survival rather than escape, but some have been exercising their cars in very small select covid-secure ways and some have even been 'socially cycling' and have sent reports and photos to us.

Reigate Hill Climb, 1880 - Part 2.
by Chas Moody

The 140th Anniversary of the "Reigate Hill Climb" was on 4th September this year, 2020. As this was many years before motor vehicles were invented, the race was for  Penny Farthings.  In Part One  last month we described the event which started at The Grapes Hotel in Bell Street, Reigate, going north towards the Tunnel, then through Reigate Tunnel, over the railway line and up the hill, a narrow road constructed of graded stones, finishing at the 'suspension bridge' at the top of Reigate Hill.  Part One  also describes the history of the hotel, Reigate Tunnel, and the suspension bridge.

Current map showing same route, when the Tunnel was main A217 London road and before motorways had been thought of.

Chas Moody has a Penny Farthing, a 1885 Victor Ordinary, but but due modern traffic had to use his 1909 New Hudson Safety 

It's 8.45am on August Bank Holiday Monday. I'm in Bell Street, Reigate, about to cycle up Reigate Hill, as mentioned in part one of this article, in order to mark the 140th Anniversary of the hill climb which took place in 1880. Opposite, is the site of what was once The Grapes Hotel, the starting point for the hill climb contest. The only evidence of the Hotel's location is the lantern fixed to the front of the present building, in recent years occupied by Knight's the Drapers and now Oliver Bonas, a ladies dress shop. The front glass pane of the lantern bears the legend "The Old Grapes Inn c.1768 - 1911". Most of the buildings in sight existed in 1880, although are now substantially altered with different uses. 


The riders of 1880 would be surprised to see the asphalted roads of today and the electric traffic lights, which I await to signal my start. The 'Wheelmen' might also be amazed to see my chosen mount as, much as I would have liked to attempt the ride on my 1885 54" wheel Victor 'Ordinary', good sense has prevailed regarding safety, etc. and I am using the 1909 New Hudson 'Safety Bicycle' which had yet to be invented in 1880 (see photo at top of the page). The bike has an Armstrong 3-speed gear, the lowest ratio of which is expressed as 54 inches, which means that for one rotation of the pedals it would travel the same distance as a penny farthing with a 54 inch front wheel, which could well have been the driving wheel size of many of the high-wheelers taking part in 1880. The New Hudson weighs 37 lbs which is not far from the 40 to 45 lbs for an Ordinary Bicycle recommended by the eventual winner, Charles Crute in his treatise on Hill Climbing in 'The Wheel World' Christmas Annual 1880, shown below. 

My early start time is to avoid the traffic, which of course was of a totally different nature in 1880, when the start time of the first rider was 4.28 pm, presumably arranged not to interfere with the business of the day, Saturday market shopping, etc. A list of the 74 riders, which had been reduced from an initial entry of 155 by ballot, was published in the Mid Surrey Mirror on 4th September 1880, the day of the hill climb. The following week the same newspaper printed a report which gives interesting details of the proceedings and begins: "Under most inspiriting conditions, favoured with very fine weather, and viewed by a large number of spectators, the event we announced in our last duly took place on Saturday afternoon." The report appears in full at the bottom of the page. It is interesting to note the following comments:- "The whole line of route was thronged with spectators." "The level crossing at the Railway Station was the centre of a crowd of people, who no doubt anticipated accidents." "The starting point, in the Market Place, was by no means an exciting situation, the middle of the tramway and the summit, the most difficult points, being the most in favour by the public."


So, whilst Bell Street may well have been a hive of activity and splendour with many of the competitors dressed in military style club uniforms preparing to start with their 'high wheel' machines of various makes, their attendants, officials and local dignitaries - the general public were legging it up the hill to see some of the action! Many of the competitors would have journeyed with their machines by train to Reigate and possible stayed at the 'Grapes'. The eventual winner, Charles Crute, Captain of the Sutton Bicycle Club may well have ridden from Sutton by way of a 'warming up' run. These were fit, athletic young men - it is said that members of the Sutton Bicycle Club founded the Sutton and Epsom Rugby Football Club the following year in order to keep fit in the winter season, which explains the 'penny farthing' logo used by the rugby club to this day.

Back to the matter in hand. The lights turn green, I start the watch and set off. Yes, I'm timing the ride but should point out that I have never cycled competitively, apart from my famous victory in 1999 at the Herne Hill Velodrome in the slow bicycle race at the Veteran Cycle Club family fun day on this very machine! Into Tunnel Road, up through the tunnel, then, preparing to dismount to negotiate the pedestrian crossing onto the island which forms part of the one-way system.


A car obligingly beckons me across - thanks! Now crossing the island, no cars coming so I'm heading towards the railway level crossing (the only part that is level!), hopefully having timed my start correctly to miss the earlier train. After the level crossing, the next half mile is of moderate gradient but I notice that I have a slight head wind, unlike the riders of 1880 who had a following wind, described in the Mid Surrey Mirror report as:- "The wind blew straight up the hill, helping the machinists considerably" I am mindful of Charles Crute's warning in his article on Hill Climbing, about using too much energy at first then running out of steam before the finish!

The gradient increases from the infamous speed camera to the Yew Tree pub, which was there in 1880 (although the present building dates from 1938), giving a taste of what's to come. Incidentally, the spectators in 1880 had a choice of pubs at this point, as opposite the Yew Tree was The Rifle Volunteer which closed in 1907 and is now a private house. 

After the Yew Tree the gradient eases off for the next couple of hundred yards as the road swings right then steepens as we bear left to start the relentless drag towards the footbridge. The original 'tramway' was probably on this final half mile to the summit. The footbridge is now in sight but my pedalling speed has reduced while my rate of breathing has increased! Keeping the momentum going, albeit rather slowly, the gradient eases slightly as I pass under the footbridge and stop the clock.

My time? A rather miserable 12 minutes 18 seconds I'm afraid, compared with Charles Crute's winning time in 1880 of 8.5 minutes! The only excuse I can offer, apart from the head-wind is that I was probably giving away around 50 years to those young riders! It shows how superbly fit and skilful these riders were, riding on unmade roads and negotiating the narrow paving of the tramway.

I admire them immensely, particularly the efforts of Herbert Liddell Cortis, who came equal second in a time of nine minutes, despite riding with one arm in a sling, having been injured two days before the event in an attempt to ride 20 miles in one hour at the Surbiton track. When approaching the nineteenth mile and with the record looking achievable, two of his four man team of pacers touched wheels during a change-over and went down in front of him, with Cortis going over the top. The holder of many amateur championships and records, Cortis was the first cyclist to ride 20 Miles in the hour (20 miles 300 yards) In 1882 at the Crystal Palace track. He qualified as a Doctor at Guys hospital, got married and emigrated to Australia where sadly he died from a stomach ulcer at the age of 27. These days, Reigate Hill is far from 'unrideable to most cyclists' as described in 'The Cyclist' journal report of September 8th 1880. A regular cyclist on a modern multi-gear bike would ascend it without too much difficulty, although it would still require quite an effort to match Charles Crute's time of 8.5 minutes!

There were no spectators as such for my ride but I did have official SVVS photographers in the form of my wife Janet, our Editor Malcolm Ward and his son Darren with his family, to whom I am grateful for turning out at an early hour and for the pictures they have taken.
Chas Moody

The Mid Surrey Mirror          The Bicycle Ride of Reigate Hill            September 11th 1880, 

"We can readily believe that many of those attracted to Reigate Hill had no serious interest in bicycling matters and would fain have to confess a total ignorance of the distinguishing characteristics of the various machines passing them, save that they could swear to an "Xtraordinary" when they saw one - which was not often; but, given a delightful day, most charming scenery, a well-dressed crowd of promenaders, and intermittent excitement, it is not to be wondered that the occasion was made the excuse for flirtation ad. lib., and therefore was well patronised. 

The wind blew straight up the hill, helping the machinists considerably. We don't want to disparage the performance of the successful competitors, but we must admit that there is considerable justice in the remark of a correspondent to a sporting newspaper, who contends that the stone tramway with which the road is laid helps the practised rider very much, but to the novice is like enough to prove a snare. In short, that those who practice the hill will stand the best chance, those who come strange to it the worst.

Results, we think we are correct in stating, proved the wisdom of the verdict; for Crute, of Sutton, one of those who made the ascent in good style, has of late, it would seem, devoted a considerable amount of time to the subjection of the hill. The riders had the choice of either kerbing, which is rather more than a foot wide, but once on they could not, except at the risk of a dismount, leave the narrow track. It is true Hutchins (Brixton Ramblers) went off, but he cleverly regained the track; D. W. Major (Twickenham) came to grief on
the stones. The appearance of this causeway argued that care had been taken to get rid of all likely obstacles, so that everything may be said to have been in favour of the bicyclists. The apparent ease with which H. L. Cortis, who rode with one hand in a sling, although having withdrawn from the competition achieved the feat of ascending the hill, in some people's eyes rather lessened the value of the efforts put forth by competitors who enjoyed more helpful conditions, but these were they who forgot Cortis's remarkable powers - powers which earned him the amateur championship and suggested the title, "Demon", by which he is dubbed by the Referee. The particulars of his accident, two days before, at Surbiton, when he attempted to ride 20 miles in an hour, but was involved in a general smash after he had completed 18 miles, with disastrous consequences to himself and two other men, were pretty well known, and attracted to the plucky rider much sympathy, especially at the hands - or hearts? - of the fair sex.

Before going any further we may briefly review the circumstances under which the race was arranged. The Surrey Bicycle Club must have the credit of its origin. The race was suggested in consequence of the frequency of the reports, circulated by this and that claimant, that he had ridden Reigate Hill. Taking it, perhaps, for granted that Reigate Hill was worth riding, the old club determined upon the arrangement of a trial ride, in which those who alleged having surmounted the hill, without a dismount, should be invited to repeat the feat, and to receive, on doing so, a handsome bronze medal, in proof of its achievement. 

Entries were very numerous - some 155 in all - and the committee had a very delicate task in the selection of a favoured 74; these competitors were balloted for and every care was made to ensure the general representative character of the contest; the result being that the official list (which we published gratis, in the absence of a Club Programme) showed the names of several clubs from all parts of England, represented in most cases by no more than one member. "Unattached" cyclists  were also permitted to ride.

Of these 74 we, on the authority of the Bicycling Times (to the courtesy of whose editor we are indebted for authentic information), 43 actually essayed the ascent, and 20 succeeded in getting to the top. Some chose the left and some the right hand kerbing. Members of the Surrey Bicycle Club were stationed along the line of route to watch competitors, and report, if necessary, deception; stewards were also appointed to jot down remarks, and take the times of the riders when they reached particular points.

The distance from the starting point, at the Grapes, and the finish, a dozen yards or so beyond the Suspension Bridge, was 7,920 ft., the steepest gradient being 12 ft. in the 100. The average being 4 ft. 6 in. in the 100. The average gradient on the tram-line is 10 ft. in the 100. Mr. W. J. Keen acted as starter and took each competitor's time. Each rider bore an official card number, and thus it was easy for him to be distinguished by the stewards. At the turnpike observations were taken, and again at the commencement of the tramway. Here also the exact time of each arrival was noted, and a calculation showed the period occupied by each upon the journey so far. Half way up the tramway other detectives were placed, and finally at the goal the successful riders were received by Mr. C. J. Fox, jun., editor of the Bicycling Times, who acted as timekeeper. The level crossing at the Railway Station was the centre of a crowd of people, who no doubt anticipated accidents; the trains, however, were not allowed to interfere with the proceedings, the bicyclists being started at times calculated not to clash with them. The police are to be credited with much attention.

The whole line of route was thronged with spectators, who remained until the proceedings began to get monotonous, when they thinned considerably. The starting point, in the Market Place, was by no means an exciting situation, the middle of the tramway and the summit, the most difficult points, being the most in favour by the public. As the riders neared these they were cheered on by their intimate friends, and excited to use fresh exertions, and as they succeeded they were warmly greeted by those at the top.

We subjoin a summary of the official report on each rider.

The first to start (at 4.38 p.m.)* was G. H. Coleman, Leytonstone, who went easy to the turnpike, and continued steadily up the tramway to the goal, which he reached in twelve minutes. The next to succeed was A. P. C. Percival, Wanderers, who arrived at the tramway in eight minutes, and came up it very fast, beating his predecessor by one minute, in point of time taken on the whole journey. Four minutes afterwards came G. H. Godbolt, Civil Service, who, having gone steadily nearly the whole distance, grew rather shaky as he approached the Suspension Bridge, which he also gained in eleven minutes. Crute, of Sutton, was the next man up, and his splendid going earned him justly accorded applause. Unfortunately his time, manifestly fast, appeared not "gettable". E. J. Abraham, Isle of Wight, who had been passed by Crute, arrived half a minute later; he appeared to find it hard work on the causeway; his time is given as six and a half minutes. [to the tramway, CM]. The 6th man was J. R. Hamilton, Druids, who rode all the way up in good style and occupied nine minutes. C. W. Coe, S.L.A. and B.C., followed, and took it very easy until on the tramway, when he began to "wobble;" he went up it, however, fairly well, and finished seventh in 13.5 minutes. C. Gingell, Invicta, took eleven minutes, getting on well on the tramway as soon as he had become accustomed to it. The same remarks apply to C. H. Pagniez, Athenĉum. For seven minutes the track was pretty well clear, then came George Hunter, Leatherhead, who went well all the way, and made the spectators think the ride was rather easy, however one or two failures altered that opinion, but the appearance of F. P. Durant, of Dorking, who took 10 minutes - the same time as his immediate forerunner - going easy and well, again led the public to underrate the difficulties of the ascent. Those who saw R. E. Phillips who followed, but failed, wobbling about, and in manifest difficulty, held however, different views. 

F. Hutchins was the next to finish, taking 12 minutes, and not until he had finally left the causeway did he get out of difficulties. P. Neville, no club, and H. R. Reynolds, D.D. and L, 11minutes after came up together, the latter rather done, feeling, no doubt, the effect of his struggling at the turnpike. The former's time is not given, the latter's was 15 minutes. Further excitement was occasioned , by another pair, who raced in together, both having started and both finishing in the same time, completing the distance in 10 minutes. These were F. G. Neville, London, and F. M. Payne, C.B.I.C.. G. Morgan, of Bristol, three and a half minutes later, rode in gamely, but he took 11.5 minutes. R. L. Philpot, Sevenoaks, finished 18th in 11 minutes. Then came M. D. Rücker, jun., whose whole performance was first rate, although his time was 12 minutes. The last to arrive was G. McCaffrey, Brixton, who finished very well at 6.18, having started at 6.7, occupying in his moderately easily ridden ascent, 11 minutes. Soon afterwards Mr. Fox was brought word by a non-entered bicyclist, who succeeded in riding the Hill, that "all was over."

 With regard to the non-successful riders, C. W. Cramphorn, of Sydenham, fell on the tramway: Darlington, Budd, Whitaker, and Oliver found it too much before getting half-way; Chiesman and Oram failed at middle distance; C. W. Watkins, H. Blackwell, jun., C. W. Major, J. P. Hitchcock, W. Lewin (who fell off at the corner), S. G. Tomkins, R. E. Philips, J. B. Sanders, F. W. Ashford, W. Cunningham (who missed the tramway repeatedly), H. Williams, jun., G. E. Watson, G. B. Brown, and A. P. Shaw (who came over the handles), who, having succeeded with varying degrees of ease or difficulty in passing difficult points, nevertheless failed to put in an appearance at the finish and swelled the number of riders "jacked up" up by the roadside.

Only one machine broke - that of F. S. Buckingham (Brixton Ramblers), who had the backbone smash close up to the handles as he was entering the tramway.

The day closed with a "high tea," provided by Mrs. Pitcher, of the Grapes, at the Temperance Hall, which had been engaged to provide roomy accommodation for the guests; but which proved rather inconveniently crowded. It was then announced that the medals will be given at the next Surrey race meeting.

*Note - G. H. Coleman started at 4.28 pm and not at 4.38pm as reported.

Nice to see that some things about the Surrey Mirror haven't changed

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