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.
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.
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.
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.
William Smithson CORTIS practiced medicine in Filey for over ten years. In that time his wife, Mary Jane née GREEN, gave birth to five children. Two of three sons survived into adulthood and both qualified as doctors. The elder, William Richard, blazed an adventurous trail to Australia and father, stepmother, brother, and two sisters duly followed him there. You may find a fourth son recorded in a British Census but “Albert” is a mistranscription of Herbert who, when not treating people for ailments, was thrilling those who turned up at cycle racing tracks in the early 1880s. Herbert Liddell CORTIS became widely recognized as the greatest cyclist of his generation and was still being remembered as such forty years after his death.
William Richard had a longer life, dying at 61 in Perth, Western Australia, at the beginning of 1909. He packed a great deal into his span – a shipwreck, fighting in a war, owning racehorses, becoming an MP, giving evidence in murder trials and being charged with an unlawful killing himself. He married three times and none of his brides were Anne Barnby HILL.
Blame “the system”! Humans make mistakes like this too, of course. When I happened upon this marriage a couple of days ago I was quite prepared to accept it. The Australia connection fooled me initially but I went back to old notes and recently donated information and began to find more credible pieces of the Cortis Family jigsaw.
Titanic was not the first White Star Line vessel to hit an iceberg. In 1864 one of the company’s first steam-powered sailing ships, Royal Standard, got into a scrape in the South Atlantic. The people onboard lived to tell the tale, the ship making her way to Rio de Janeiro for repairs and then returning to Liverpool, her home port. The ship’s luck ran out in October 1869 when she was wrecked on the coast of Brazil. William Richard Cortis, on his way to Australia, was among the survivors.
William returned home rather than continue his journey to the antipodes and within a year had married Mary Julia MOORE in Camberwell. The newlyweds almost immediately sailed for the Australian Colonies but Mary Julia soon died in Tambaroora of tuberculosis, aged 23.
On 15th January 1873, William married Florence FYANS, daughter of the late Captain FYANS (4th King’s Own Regiment and formerly Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Western District, Victoria), at Christ Church, St Kilda, Melbourne. By the time William is reckoned to have married Anne Barnby Hill, Florence had borne one son and was pregnant with another. They would go on to have nine children together – and then divorce about 1905.
I haven’t found any evidence that William took up with a younger woman while still married to Florence but, as he approached sixty, Edith (family name not yet found) became the doctor’s third wife. On the 5th October 1908, The West Australian was reporting her funeral “in the Anglican portion of the Karrakatta Cemetery”. The screen image of the death notice is too heavily printed to be sure but, aged 23 or 28, Edith died well before her time.
(Family Notice via Trove.)
Within three months, William Richard Cortis was also dead. On the 6th January 1909, The Geraldton Express reflected on “A Varied Career”.
Dr. William Richard Cortis died suddenly yesterday at the W. A. Club. He was over 60 years of age, and during his career had been a prominent surgeon, legislator, soldier, and magistrate. During the past six or eight months he acted as Resident Medical Officer at Kookynie. He came to the city about a month ago, having obtained leave. For two or three years he held the position of Resident Magistrate and Medical Officer at Derby. The post-mortem examination revealed the fact that the cause of death was angina pecoris (sic), and although the deceased had taken a quantity of morphia to alleviate the pain, this had nothing whatever to do with his end. Deceased was a man of fine physique, but during the last year he was overtaken by a trouble which no doubt undermined his health, and this was accelerated by the recent death of his wife, which preyed on his mind. Last year, while Resident Magistrate and Medical Officer at Derby, he was called upon to stand his trial on three separate occasions for the alleged unlawful killing of a man named Gerald Ascione.
William Richard’s short-term in Government is officially recognized here.
My thanks to Elizabeth Kennard (USA) and Peter Donkin (Australia) for kindly offering information on the Cortis Family that might otherwise have remained hidden from me. I have several more leads to follow and hope soon to make the necessary corrections to the pedigree on FamilySearch. I won’t be at all surprised to discover that the William who married Anne Barnby HILL and William Richard are cousins with a recent common ancestor just three generations back in north Lincolnshire. CORTIS isn’t a common name.