Tucked away in the corner of of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery is a squat, unremarkable family tomb, it is easy to ignore when passing but it is the family grave of the Hilliers and contains the remains of George Lacy Hillier, one of leading Victorian amateur cyclists and cycling administrators.
A biographer of an American cyclist Arthur Zimmerman puts Lacy Hillier into some context
It is hardly possible to overestimate the important of George Lacy Hillier in British cycling in the 1880s and 1890s … A fierce propagator and defender of ideological amateurism and denigrator of commercialism and professionalism….
The biographer, Andrew Ritchie, went on to note that in addition to being a multi-distance champion in 1881, he was a member of the Racing Committee of the National Cyclists Union, he was the editor of Bicycling News – for which he wrote ‘acerbic and verbose articles’, he promoted and judged race meetings and a was a ’tireless and outspoken critic of those whom he disagreed, which was almost everyone.’
George Lacy Hillier was born in Sydenham on 6 June 1856 (1) – his father was from Bloomsbury and a member of the Stock Exchange, his mother from Bognor Regis. He seems to have been a sickly child and he was sent away to school (2) – the 1871 census had him at the Temple School in Brighton, perhaps to get the ‘air’.
By the next census in April 1881, he was back living with his parents who were then residing in Anerley Park – just to the south of Crystal Palace Park – and already a member of the Stock Exchange. His rise to fame in the cycling world seems to have been a fairly meteoric one – there were only a few mentions of him in the Victorian press before the 1881 ‘season.’
He had competed in the 50 mile Championships in 1880, but there was no mention of him finishing – he certainly didn’t get onto the ‘podium’(3). There were some glimpses on what was to come in the autumn of 1880, he won a mile handicap race at Crystal Palace (4) and was placed second in a tryicycle race from Finchley to Hitchin and back against some of the leading amateurs of the day (5). But in early season races in Leicester (6), at the Kennington Oval, in front of 4,000 spectators (7), and at Alexandra Palace (8) he was winning races comfortably at a variety of distances.
The Leicester race was at the new Belgrave Road Cricket and Bicycle Ground which was later home to the nascent Leicester City for a season. It was also to host both the mile and 25 mile cycling championship that summer. With the mile event, there were two rounds and then a final against C E Liles of the Temple Club (9)
With the 25 mile race Lacy Hillier seems to have been content to let others stay on the front making his decisive move on the 21st mile, holding the lead until the end (10). About a week later he added the 50 mile Championship at Surbiton to his palmarès, winning by 40 yards at the finish (11).
He continued actively to compete for another six or seven years, but he never came close to reliving the glories of the summer of 1881. He represented Britain in an international match in Leipzig in 1885 (12)
He ran too, competing at cross country for South London Harriers (13); he race walked for the London Athletic Club (14), and, according to his obituary (15) he was also a good swimmer. A hundred years later he might have been an international triathlete.
He was frequently reported in the 1880s and 1890s press reports as an official and timekeeper; he also wrote a massive Handbook of Cycling, which one of the reviews suggested that while ‘ the quantity is great, the quality does not equal it.’ (16). He was passionate about the amateur ethos of the sport – as a wealthy member of the Stock Exchange throughout his riding career, he could afford to be, at one point wanting those who earned their living as delivery cyclists classed as professionals (17).
While not competing, he continued riding – he was prosecuted in 1897 for the fantastic offence of ‘riding a bicycle furiously’ with the police estimating his speed on College Road in Dulwich at a moderate 12 to 14 miles an hour (18).
Lacy Hillier died in 1941- his Times Obituary (19) also lists him as writing two novels ‘The Potterers Club’, a now out of print cycling novel, which he launched at the 1900 Cycle Show; the other was ‘The Weston Diamond’ about which little is known. Despite having moved to Chichester in his latter years, he is buried in the family grave close to the north-eastern corner of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery.
- “Obituaries.” Times [London, England] 24 Feb. 1941: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 15 Apr. 2016
- Daily News (London, England), Friday, July 9, 1880; Issue 10679
- Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, October 10, 1880; Issue 1574
- Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, November 7, 1880; Issue 1578,
- Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, England), Saturday, April 23, 1881; pg. 2; Issue 3658.
- The Graphic (London, England), Saturday, May 7, 1881; Issue 597.
- Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, July 10, 1881; Issue 2016
- Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, England), Saturday, July 23, 1881; pg. 2; Issue 3671.
- The Newcastle Courant etc (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England), Friday, July 29, 1881; Issue 10778.
- The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Saturday, September 12, 1885; Issue 14799.
- Penny Illustrated Paper (London, England), Saturday, December 05, 1885; pg. 362.
- Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, April 13, 1884; Issue 1757.
- Times [London, England] 24 Feb. 1941 op cit
- The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Friday, May 20, 1887; Issue 6918.
- The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post (Bristol, England), Monday, December 7, 1891;
- “Police.” Times [London, England] 11 Aug. 1897: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
- Times [London, England] 24 Feb. 1941 op cit
The census and related information come from Find My Past.