Balham Cycling Club member Basil Bragg only took up cycling seriously in 1919, but within a year he had made the Great Britain road race squads for the 1920 Olympics and World Championships. A year later he was again in the squad for the World Championships.
A report on the Tunbridge Wells meeting in the 28 May 1920 edition of the Kent & Sussex Courier encapsulates the buzz around Basil at this time:
“The outstanding feature of the sports was the fine riding by B Bragg of the Balham Cycling Club, who won all the cycling events, viz., the mile handicap, the mile scratch, and the half-mile handicap. He displayed fine judgment and proved a great favourite with the crowd. His future career will be watched with great interest in the cycling world.”
Basil Bragg (actually known as Bill) was born in 1900 and grew up at 60 Barrington Road, Brixton with his mother Edith and father William, a building contractor. He joined Balham CC after the First World War. The war nearly brought the demise of the club but in 1916, a few enthusiasts led by then Secretary Wally Perotte, not only kept the club going but brought the club to prominence with a series of 25 mile time trials. These continued after the war and attracted the top riders of that period – and many new members for the Balham – one of whom was Basil.
Basil burst onto the scene in Balham colours by recording two of the fastest times in the 1919 Catford and Highgate 50 mile time trials. Of the 14 principal opens back then, eight were 50’s.
- Event: Catford CC 50 Date: June 1 Time: 2h 21m 41s
- Event: Highgate CC 50 Date: July 13th Time: 2h 20m 48s
Cycling magazine January 1st 1920 lists a number of riders who had a ‘crack’ season and were highlighted as top prospects for the year ahead. A photo of Basil (below) is captioned “Basil Bragg, on the threshold of a great career”.
1920 starts well with Basil recording the following fastest times:
- Event: Forest 25 Date: March 28 Time: 1h 9m 55s
- Event: North London 50 Date: May 8 Time: 2h 21m 30s
- Event: Catford 50 Date: May 16 Time: 2h 24m 31s
On June 19th he was racing in the Kentish Wheelers NCU 50 mile tandem paced championship for the Palmer Cup at Herne Hill. In the newspaper report Bragg is described as “the youthful marvel who has done wonderful deeds on the road”. Just after the 15-mile mark he crashed and brought down the tandem behind him and rider William Ormston. Both were severely cut and bruised.
The leading pair went through the 15 mile mark in 31m 55s. Even by today’s standards that’s some going.
Whilst suffering severely from the effects of his Herne Hill crash he still entered the Speedwell BC 100. This was Basil’s first ever 100 and he recorded the third fastest time.
- Event: Speedwell BC 100 Date: July 3 Time: 5h 5m 11s
The Midland Speedwell BC 100 was normally an end of season event but in 1920 the promoters brought the race forward as this would be the last race before the final selection for the Olympic road race was made. The race wouldn’t normally be patronised by the London clubs but in 1920 it became one of the most important events of the year and most of the top 100 milers were in the race.
Three days before the race Bragg couldn’t ride at all, still feeling the after effects of his Herne Hill crash. Half way through the Speedwell he fell striking his badly injured knee and arm on the road, and opening up his wounds again. Despite this, he finished only one second behind second placed Charley Davey (Vegetarian CC) on handicap.
On July 20th, 1920 The North Road CC introduced a scratch ‘50’ in honour and remembrance to their war dead. This became the club’s memorial 50 and was by invitation only to the best 12 riders. It was won by Dave Marsh of Shaftesbury CC in 2h 22m 52s. Basil was seventh in 2h 28 22s. The race has entered British cycling folklore as several riders were stopped by an over-zealous police officer in the village of Eaton Socon, questioned and had their names and addresses taken. Consequently three riders – WA George, Etna CC; E Newall, Bath Road CC; and Maurice Selbach, Unity CC – were delayed so long they consequently stopped and retired. Two of them (which two we’re not sure) were charged with dangerous riding and fined at court. On advice of the club no attempt at defence was made and the club paid and met the fines.
A newspaper report gives us our last insight into Basil’s season stating he did not ride the Balham CC 50 on July 25th as he was feeling the effects from a heavy racing season. It states that he was club champion at the time.
From here on our evidence of what happened next becomes a little sketchy. We know he was picked for the British Olympic road race squad, being named road race reserve along with Charlie Davey. Bragg was again made a reserve rider for the 1921 World Championships in Denmark.
We also know he also raced for Etna CC a prestigious South London cycling club of the period although its unclear whether he continued to race for Balham CC at the same time. If he did leave the club it must have been on good terms as he is named as honorary life member in the club’s 1949 club handbook.
We do know he went on to have a successful speedway career, beginning on the first cinder track at Epping Forest and progressing all the way to Stamford bridge (Chelsea FC) where he became the captain of ‘The Pensioners’ . They used to race during the week – football of course taking place on Saturday – attracting crowds of up to 40,000. He took part in an England versus Australia speedway test series but his career came to an abrupt end after a crash which left him with a bad leg.
Basil was always tinkering with his engines and this led to him developing and making an improved engine for speedway. He was never given recognition for this pioneering work, a contentious time and story covered on a number of specialist speedway websites and various books.
He ran a garage and a 1937 Trade Directory lists the following: 1937 Bragg Basil, Motor Car Garage, 24 & 26 Ingleton Street SW9.
The 1939 Register describes him as a motor engineer living with his parents at 35 Abbotswood Road, Wandsworth. One reason for the change of address could have been a burglary 12 years earlier. The 23 August 1927 edition of the Gloucester Citizen reports of 34 stolen cycling and motor cycling medals highlighting his dual success (see cutting).
We finish our story of Basil Bragg back in his BCC days with a couple of reminiscences from the Club Newsletter. In the August 1948 edition we’re told “Bill Bragg remains as the cleverest rider the Balham has had… I did see him once cycle in the tramlines down to the Plough at Clapham. This takes a feat of balance. It could be really hazardous a fair speed.”
Club stalwart Arthur Chatting bumped into him at a cycle/motorcycle show and told of the experience in the November 1949 issue. “He was dressed up in a pair of motor cycle boots, a huge highly coloured scarf, and a cap pulled down over one ear…He was one of the brightest stars the Balham has had, though probably the most erratic…The Club gave him a gold badge of honour to commemorate the occasion [of him being picked for Britain]. It’s the only one of its kind the Balham has ever had the pleasure of presenting, and Bill Bragg was wearing it at the show probably for sentimental reasons. He told me he was more proud of that badge than of any of his numerous motor-cycling trophies he has won subsequently. Perhaps one day we will present another such badge, so heres to the day.”
Edited 18th/19th June 2019
Added content on his speedway career; correction on his attendance at the Olympic games (previously stated he didn’t travel); additional info that Basil was known by the name Bill. Added Photos of Basil at Stamford Bridge, trophies and British team
With thanks to Simon Cross.
Also added Balham Club Newsletter material
With thanks to Mick Butler who trawled his collection of Cycling magazines to help me build a picture of Basil’s career. The pic is from Cycling.
The 1939 Register was a critical tool in coordinating the WW2 effort at home. It would be used to issue identity cards, organise rationing and more. Description and B Bragg details from FindMyPast
The splendid veteran cycle library had the Basil Bragg photo in his British jersey (members only section).
Information supplied by Simon Cross (18 June 2019)
The Principal Opens were run in the following order:
- May Century RC 50
- June Catford CC 50
- June Anfield BC 50
- June Kingsland CC 50
- July Highgate CC 50
- July Forest CC 50
- July Yorkshire RC 50
- August Bath Road 100
- August East Liverpool Wheelers 50
- August Anerley BC 12 hour
- August Polytechnic CC 12 Hour
- September Anfield BC 24 Hour
- September Speedwell BC 100
- September University 50
- September North Road CC 24 Hour
Have you or any family members got any photos or club memorabilia from the Balham CC years? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop me a line in the comments box. I would love to hear from you.