Writing Australia’s cycling history – interview with Jim Fitzpatrick
- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 20 December 2013
Books on cycling are niche; books on Australian cycling are more so. Jim Fitzpatrick, with his recent publication of Wheeling Matilda, has written four books in this niche area and all of them are fascinating reads. I came across Jim’s The Bicycle and the Bush many years ago when I rediscovered cycling. I am an avid reader of “popular history” and, being a cyclist, eagerly devoured the contents of that book and set about annoying everyone I knew with stories of Australia’s early cycling pioneers.
Jim’s The Bicycle in Wartime was equally enthralling, but I couldn’t find a copy for sale at the time, relying on a library copy for reference. As far as I knew, these books were out of print and I thought that was the end of it. A few months ago, I found out that (a) Jim was alive, and (b) he was still writing books. I was asked to review Wheeling Matilda and I took the opportunity to buy The Bicycle in Wartime as well as Major Taylor in Australia, which I didn’t know existed. Armed with the Jim Fitzpatrick oeuvre, I asked him if he would like to talk to BNA about his books and research methods and, since you’re reading this article, he agreed.
BNA: What originally led you to write “The Bicycle and the Bush” and what has continued to inspire you to write another 3 books expanding aspects of the same topic?
Jim: I was planning a PhD thesis topic at ANU and thought I would initially do something on urban planning, cycle routes, etc. I had worked as a planner in Santa Ana, California (then the 6th largest city in the state) and we had implemented a bike route plan in the city. That was in the early 1970s when it was still a relatively new thing, unlike the extensive activity going on widely today.
However, two things led me to look at the bike in the bush. One was ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’, the poetic spoof of a bushie trying to learn to ride. There was nothing I could find about bushies cycling. No books, articles, nothing. Then I ran across C.E.W. Bean’s On the Wool Track, a study of the wool industry in 1908, and he had a whole chapter on shearers, including comments about the bike’s ubiquity and them using it. That didn’t jibe with the lack of anything else on bush biking. It went from there, via exploring early newspapers, cycle journals, reminiscences of bush workers and travelers, etc. I also put ads in newspapers via letters-to-the editors, and got some fascinating responses from bushies or their relatives about their cycle exploits about rural Australia, diaries, photos etc. It became obvious there was a fascinating story in it. That became my PH.D. thesis.
Some academics were initially doubtful, to put it mildly. One head of a history department said ‘That’ll be good for three pages. What else will you write?’ I remember it clearly.
When the book came out, published by Oxford University Press, Melbourne, it had a striking collection of photos, and was widely reviewed. In 1981 it was cited in the judges report of the Australian National Book Council Awards, and was among the final 18 books from which they chose the book of the year.
During the course of researching the bicycle in the bush, I kept notes on an extensive array of cycling matters. In particular, from the 1890s through the First World War there was a lot about military attempts to use the bicycle in one way or another. As well, the use of the bicycle by the Vietnamese and the Japanese in their invasion Malaya-Singapore, was common knowledge. So in the early 1980s I set aside a period to work in the Australian War Memorial and then went to England and America to research in the various military libraries there. Like the bike in the bush, it was a topic about which no one had written a significant book, and there were only a relative handful of articles.
What turned out to be particularly interesting is that of the four major uses of the bicycle in wartime (the Boer War, World War I, the Japanese invasion of Malaya-Singapore, and in Vietnam) Australian soldiers were the only ones officially involved in all four. Indeed, in the Boer War, Australians were in the forefront of demonstrating the bicycle’s military value on the high veldt of South Africa.
In 1990 I submitted it to the editor of Brassey’s, the large military history publisher out of Washington and London. I received a call from him on a Sunday evening. He said he received 50 manuscripts a year on Hitler, but had never received a single one on the bicycle in war. They published it in 1998, and eventually it went out of print. In 2011 we published a revised edition, and it became available in Australia for the first time.
Major Taylor in Australia, is an interesting—and tragic–story. He was a cyclist and the first African-American athlete to win an international sporting championship, in 1899. You have to remember this was the heyday of bicycling, when cycle racing was the richest professional sporting activity in the world, by far; was followed widely around the world; and Major Taylor was the highest paid athlete in the world in that era. He came to Australia in 1903 and 1904, after the richest cycle race in the world was created to entice him down under.
In summary, as a black in America at that time, he suffered severe racism and terrible treatment by white riders (a major factor in attracting massive crowds to stadiums in America, Europe and Australia, for which the promoters paid him well). In 1904 in Australia Taylor was subjected to the worst treatment of his career, suffered the worst fall of his career, and at the end of the season in 1904 suffered a nervous breakdown. He did not race again for three years, and effectively never again raced in America. It is arguably one of the most controversial series of cycle races ever seen anywhere. Sadly, because of his race, he essentially disappeared from the American sports pantheon. In 1932 when he died, his body lay unclaimed on a slab in the morgue in Chicago for a week, before being buried in a pauper’s grave.
While researching The Bicycle and the Bush, I kept running across references to this black American athlete winning these astonishing amounts of money, particularly in the 1903 and 1904 seasons in Australia. I grew up in America and was well aware of Jackie Robinson, who broke the racial barrier in American baseball, Jesse Owens, who won various gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, and so on. I had never heard of Major Taylor. At that time there were only a handful of obscure articles written about him, and not a single book. I recall sitting in the reading room at the New South Wales State Library, with the newspaper open before me, saying, out loud, ‘Who the hell is Major Taylor?’
I did much more research on him but only had a collection of notes when in 1987 a series of circumstances led me to put a proposal to a West Australian film producer. He immediately recognised the racial implications, as the producer was from Canada, and took up the project. It eventually premiered on the Disney Channel in America in February 1992, on ABC (US) right before the 1992 Olympics, and then in July 1992 on Channel 7 Australia. It won the 1993 Australian Logie award for most popular telemovie or miniseries. It starred Cameron Daddo, number one male TV personality at that time in Australia, and was the first film for Richard Roxburgh.
However I could find no publisher willing to take on the book (‘No one’s ever heard of him, so it will not sell’). After retiring, my company published it in 2011, and I did a lecture tour across America. By then, there was a Major Taylor Association in America, several dozen bicycle clubs named after him or in his honour, and several books. However, none of the books written in America explained why and how Major Taylor’s American career (he eventually reached three more years in Europe ) came to such an end in Australia, because none of them came down here to do any research. The book was widely received in those circles in North America when it came out, because it explained what went wrong down here, and essentially the destruction of his career for several years.
BNA: How would someone go about researching the history of the cycling in Australia? My cycling club is turning 100 soon and I’d love to find out more about its past.
Jim: As for going about historical research into cycling clubs’ histories, people are much more fortunate today than in the 70s when I did most of mine. The internet has changed the game to a great degree. The best single place to start would be Trove (trove.nla.gov.au), run by the National Library of Australia, in which there is digital access to newspapers, books, documents, photographs and so on from libraries and other sources throughout Australia. However, everything is not in there, of course. One might also look for documents still held by former members of a club or their relatives. If the club originated in a relatively small town, you could place a letter to the editor in a local newspaper. In the 1970s this proved particularly valuable for me, and I received numerous photographs, articles, comments and stories from both riders who had pedaled in the early 20th century, and their relatives. As mine was a national fishing expedition, I actually sent letters to the editors at some 200 newspapers, and many ran them.
It really is hard to draw up any particular research program without having a specific club in mind, some idea as to when and where it was founded, and those who may have been involved.
BNA: You’ve looked at some very neglected areas of Australian cycling history and I’m guessing there are more out there to be explored. What stories do you think still need to be told?
Jim: When it comes to neglected areas of Australian cycling history I think the single most important one is the city of Melbourne, which I believe merits a very close look by someone. It really is the cradle of Australian cycling history and certainly has not been given its due.
BNA would like to thank Jim for taking the time to respond to our questions. You can purchase Jim’s books through Star Hill Studios for $28.95 each with free standard postage. If you ask Jim nicely, he might even autograph the books for you! You can read our review of Wheeling Matilda on BNA.
Photos are used with permission and © copyright remains with the copyright holder