Camden’s John Mayall: The first man to cycle all the way to Brighton

PUBLISHED: 15:36 08 February 2019

John Mayall with his velocipede after completing his ride to Brighton. Picture; The Brighton Road / Public Domain

John Mayall with his velocipede after completing his ride to Brighton. Picture; The Brighton Road / Public Domain


One hundred and fifty years ago this week, a Camden man became the first in a long line to cycle from London to Brighton.

Kings Road, Brighton, where John Mayall's father was waiting for him. Picture: Public DomainKings Road, Brighton, where John Mayall's father was waiting for him. Picture: Public Domain

Swiss Cottage’s John Mayall did it on a ‘velocipede’ – a fixed wheel bike with a 34 inch front wheel.

His journey, on a machine justifiably known as a ‘bone-shaker’, took him 12 hours and was covered in The Times, but history does recall that he made it in time for a hearty dinner and a night at the opera house.

John Mayall was a photographer by trade, following in his father’s footsteps – but when the earliest bikes were beginning to show up in the UK, he fell in love with the contraptions.

John’s great-granddaughter Mimi Reynolds explained his father’s success in photography left the family well-off, and in between running a number of photography studios in London, the John became interested in new inventions.

The road from London to Brighton past Crawley. Picture: British LibraryThe road from London to Brighton past Crawley. Picture: British Library

One which caught his eye was the microscope – he became an early member of the the Royal Microscopical Society – another was the bicycle.

He bought one of the first to be seen in London, and then – after a false start or two – became the first man to successfully ride one from London to Brighton.

Mimi discovered the remarkable tale when she set out to investigate a side of her family she knew little about.

She now lives in Highgate, and after she returned to England as a young woman – she had been brought up in South Africa – the mystery of what her mother’s family had done loomed large.

An early 'boneshaker' bike. Picture: Daderot/Public DomainAn early 'boneshaker' bike. Picture: Daderot/Public Domain

“As a child, we never really knew there was a grandfather in England. I came back when I was about 24.

“Mum would come on holiday and once, on the the way back from the south coast in the car we she started off saying something about her grandfather having been a bit of a cyclist.”

This notion wormed its way into Mimi’s head, and she set to work.

After intermittently researching John Mayall’s life over the decades, she explained that she discovered a remarkable story about a man who was one of London’s very first cyclists.

“In the middle of 1965 at Spencer’s Gymnasium in Old Street a chap arrived with a big box and inside it was this machine, the velocipede. It had been imported from France – the French had invented them and this man, Mr Turner, was hoping to sell the things.”

After watching Mr Turner cycle around the gym, John Mayall bought it.

Mimi explained: “People would see him on it all over London.

“Over several days he rode from Portland Place to Regents Park. Primrose Hill and Angel. He’d fall of into the mud and onlookers just gawped at him. A bike was an astonishing thing back then!”

He tried cycling to Brighton almost immediately. But as he wove his way out of London his nascent relationship with the velocipede took a turn.

Writing in The Brighton Road in 1892, Charles Harper described how after a punishing ride of seventeen and a half miles to Redhill, Mayall gave up, exhausted, but not before “he rode about the platform, dodging the pillars, and narrowly escaping a fall on to the rails, until the London train came in”.

On February 17, however, Mayall, Spencer and Turner tried again.

Mimi described the scene. “The three men started in Trafalgar Square, but by Redhill the others gave up, but John made it all the way to Brighton.

“They were followed by a reporter from The Times in a carriage on the road, it was big.”

On arrival, John Mayall insisted on being photographed with his velociped, before heading off to more pressing engagements.

Mimi told the Ham&High: “It’s remarkable, he was described as ‘in good condition for dinner and the second part of Kuhe’s concert in the Grand Hall’!

“Sadly his record was beaten just a few weeks later, but he was the first.”

In sad news, John died young of pneumonia, aged just 49 in 1891.

He was survived by his wife and four youngest children, still living in Swiss Cottage in a house now demolished to make way for the Chalcot towers – but his legacy as a early cycling record-breaker had long been cemented by his exploits on the Brighton road,

Cycling from London to Brighton is now common, and often for charity. But when someone is fastening their helmet, and about to set off, they are following in the footsteps of a determined photographer from Adelaide Road.

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