Wills on Fire: South Londoner smashes coveted 60-in-60 motor-paced world record

Motor-paced racing was a dangerous sport in the early 20th century and not just for the riders. One source estimates that between 1899 and 1928, 33 riders and 14 pacemakers were killed on European and American tracks. In Berlin in 1909, a motor pacer left the track resulting in nine deaths and 50 injuries among spectators (see below).

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Albert Wills, the former Balham CC and Putney AC amateur turned professional had taken to motor-pacing in the latter part of his career. He focused on the prestigious one-hour distance record and was all too aware of the dangers that came with it.

“The hour record is not easy, as motor-pacing makes it very risky, and you carry your life in your hands as long as you keep going, owing to the very high rate of speed,” he said in an interview.

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AE Wills and his pacer Jean Bertin, photographed in 1908

On the 17th August 1908, after waiting two weeks in Munich for the right weather, Wills and pacer Jean Bertin prepared themselves for a record attempt. Albert takes up the story:

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Wills in Munich, 1908

“When the afternoon came, at about 5 o’clock we sent for the timekeeper, and started on what was to be the event of my life. I almost shudder when I think of my experience in that hour. I was like a man mesmerized, my actions being automatic. The vibration and rapid pedaling seemed to take all the life out of me, but the worst part of the ride was not known until I had finished. Previous to starting Bertin warned me that if I saw a white strip appear on the tread of his back tire I was to let him know at once, so that he could stop the engines. That white strip was the canvas lining of the outer cover, and its appearance would be the sign that the rubber had worn through. To keep going would almost surely mean a burst tire, and, at over 60 miles an hour, probably death to both of us. Well, we continued round and round at the enormous pace, and, at three miles to go, I saw the white strip. I felt somehow that we should last out, and I did not let Bertin know, but I prepared to throw myself off the bicycle when the burst came. It did not come, and we finished all right, getting the hour and the 100 kilometres. But when Bertin saw that back tyre he said enough to cure me of not doing as he instructed me in future.”

Wills had increased the world motor-paced hour cycling record to 61.91miles (99.057 kilometres) beating the previous record of 59.86 miles (95.026 kilometres) held by Paul Guignard, of France. At times he was riding at 67mph. Laps of 728 yards were covered in 23sec with Wills – notwithstanding his enormous gear – whirling his pedals around twice every second.

When asked why he put himself through such things he said: “There are many reasons why this should be so, but the chief one to a professional rider is that in the event of his being successful he can obtain big appearance money, and get plenty of engagements.”

Early days

Wills grew up with cycling. He was born in Lambeth on 21 March 1879, his father Jabez, an engine fitter and mother Jane on domestic duties raising the family. They were living at 44 Gilbert Road, five minutes from the Kennington Oval cycle track at a time of a South London cycling boom. Sometime between 1893 and 1901 the family moved to 69 Clapham South Side. Built in 1893 it is still there, now The Rookery Bar & Kitchen (see pic).

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Clapham Common South Side in the early 1900s
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The Rookery Bar & Kitchen at 69 Clapham South Side. The building was both home and work place for AE Wills in the late 1890s / early 1900s. All three buildings are original from 1893.

In the 1901 census the family are listed as being in the bicycle trade. His father – now registered as John –  is a bicycle maker, an employee but working from home. Albert and his brothers Francis and William were also bicycle makers but named as workers. Francis would later ride with Albert in tandem races.

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The 1901 census with the three Wills’ registered as bicycle makers

It was a good location. Weekend cyclists would be heading for the coast and Surrey Hills and it was convenient for those taking a ride across Clapham Common or slightly further afield at Tooting or Streatham Commons. Public Houses such as The Windmill, The Alexandra, The Cock Tavern and The Plough were used as headquarters by a number of cycling clubs including Clapham CC, Clapham Park and Clapham Ramblers.

About this time Wills was making a name for himself as an exceptional amateur. Racing in the Balham colours he won its 50-mile race in 1899, 1900 and 1901, winning the challenge cup outright. He subsequently joined Putney AC and moved out that way. This was possibly because of the nearby high class Putney Velodrome (below) which opened in 1891 (and subsequently closed in 1907). The 1911 census has Albert now registered as a professional cyclist, living with his wife Ellen at 21 Glendarvon St, Putney (below) with sons Albert aged 7, Cyril 4 and daughter Dorothy 6.

According to newspaper reports, during his sprinting career he was noted for ‘handicap powers’, particularly over short distances, a quarter of a mile being his forte. He is stated to have won more handicaps from scratch that any other amateur but also showed that he could stay by accounting for the NCU 25-mile championship in 1904 and again in 1905. He also established a record of 28 2/3sec for a quarter-mile standing start paced. In about 1906 he turned professional and went to France. It is here where he took up motor-paced racing with varied success, mainly over middle distances. He secured the services of Bertin, a gigantic French pacemaker, who saw Wills’ possibilities if properly managed.

The record books show just how fast Wills was. The Sporting Chronicle Annual for 1912 still had his name down next to three world records. Guignard claimed back the record in 1909 having ridden 63 miles 255 yards in the hour and 100km in 59min 1sec.

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By 1939 – the last record I can find for AE Wills – he was working in the Twickenham area as an engine fitter. Retired from the professional circuit and known forever as the first man ever to cover 60 miles in 60 minutes motor-paced.

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Albert Wills. Date and source of photo currently unknown
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Bertin and Wills thought to be in 1908

Where there’s a Wills there’s a race report

Below are a number of race reports from Wills’ time on two wheels

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AE Wills at the Putney Velodrome in 1902
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Albert and Francis Wills win the NCU London Centre two mile tandem championship in 1904
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Wills enters the 1905 ten mile NCU London Centre Championship
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Wills in New York, 1908
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Albert wins the 1905 25 Mile English  Championship in Newcastle
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Race description has Wills controversially beaten by a couple of lengths in 1904
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Your SCCU 1902 One and Five Mile Champion AE Wills
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Albert  wins the 1904 25mile British Empire Amateur Championship
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20,000 spectators witness AE Wills winning the 1905 Ten Mile London Centre Championship

Your Help

Can you add or clarify anything from the AE Wills story?  Email me at balhamcyclingclub@btinternet.com or drop me a line in the comments box. I would love to hear from you.


Sources

Various newspaper reports were used in the making of this article

Photographs of AE Wills, Bertin and his bike are from the Coventry Transport Museum collection

The Sporting Chronicle Annual for 1912 can be found here

Info on 69-71 Clapham South Side gleaned from The Buildings of Clapham. My pic taken while taking my son to Clapham Common Skatepark. He didn’t appreciate the detour.

Death and accident stats in the opening para are from Andrew Ritchie’s Quest For Speed

Photo of Wills is from Letterlust flickr site which is well worth a visit

Photo of the crash in Berlin from the gold mine that is Piedmont Velo Sports blog

 

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