Champion

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Herbert Liddell CORTIS was baptized in St Oswald’s Church, Filey, this day 1857. He would grow up to be admired and loved in the countries of his birth and death.

The image above is from a cigarette card that came to me a few months ago from the Veteran Cycle Club via Balham. It was a great thrill to see what my Filey Hero looked like! The card celebrated one of Herbert’s athletic feats: –

H.L. Cortis, Wanderers B.C. The first cyclist to ride 20 miles in an hour. (Crystal Palace Track, 27th July, 1882, 20 miles 300 yards.)

A week later Herbert married Mary Elizabeth Ann BRUCE. Readers of the Cape Times would not learn of this happy event until the 4th September.

MARRIAGE

CORTIS Herbert Liddell (son of DR. CORTIS) to BRUCE Mary (daughter of James BRUCE) on 3rd August 1882 at Kennington, London, England

Mary had been born in the Cape and if the news piqued the curiosity of people there who knew the Bruce family they may have been surprised to learn later that the couple had sailed to a new life in Australia.

Herbert has a LaF Wiki page, where you will find links to his pedigree on the FamilySearch Tree, and to three posts on the Looking at Filey blog.

His early death saddened the cycling fraternity in England and Australia and two subscription projects led to memorials honouring his name.

The area of Surrey around Ripley was a particular focus of cycling activity for about thirty years in the late 19th century. The Anchor Inn was the destination of choice, as much for the attentions of the Dibble sisters as the liquid refreshment. Across the road, the Parish Church was a natural home for Herbert’s memorial plaque.

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Photograph © Ripley Parish Church, courtesy Reverend Chris Elson

The “Mecca of all good cyclists”: Ripley Road is a rich and detailed account of a corner of the cycling world that had taken a son of Filey to their hearts.

Twelve thousand miles away the cyclists of New South Wales contributed to the cost of a red granite monument at his grave in Bathurst Cemetery.

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Photographer: Lindsay Clarke, January 2012

In memory of the English bicyclist, Herbert Liddell Cortis, died at Carcoar, N.S.W., December 28, 1885, aged 28. Primus Inter Pares, and amateur champion of the world. This stone is erected by the cyclists of New South Wales.

In a speech given at the monument’s unveiling, Mr. Arthur Fry said that they were gathered “to pay tribute to the cyclist who in his day was the finest rider the world had known”.

This sentiment was echoed in an article printed in The Hull Daily Mail in 1931.Under the title Sport I Have Seen in 50 Years, Sir Max Pemberton wrote: –

Herbert Cortis, a young doctor, was the hero of those days and, in my view, indisputably the greatest bicyclist that ever lived. I have often seen him at Stamford Bridge mow down a whole field in the straight after being a hundred yards behind at the beginning of the last lap. His sporting powers were terrific, and nobody of his day could live against them. He was the first bicyclist to ride twenty miles within the hour. Once, at a county meeting, an old friend of mine, George Jeffery, afterwards an international Rugby footballer, nearly beat Cortis by an unexpected rush in the straight, and the doctor’s surprise was amusing to see. “Who the devil are you?” he asked cheerfully when the race was over.

Herbert and his challengers rode high wheelers. These formidable machines haven’t disappeared entirely. The YouTube video embedded in this Guardian article makes it easier to imagine the races of 135 years ago.

In the place he was born, Herbert is largely forgotten or unknown. The only public remembrance of him is the inscription on the headstone placed on his mother’s grave sometime after his father’s death in New South Wales in 1906.

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