We’re not averse to basing an article on just one photo, or indeed a whole blog on one. So here’s a photo of Balham High Road (exact date unknown but between 1900-1910). Look carefully and on the left you can see a sign for Dan Leno’s Motor and Cycle Works. With Dan Leno featuring in The Limehouse Golem, one of the major films of the year, we thought it timely to investigate the connection between Balham, Leno and Cycling and the story behind the shop that carried his name.
Dan Leno (real name George Galvin) was one of the finest and most popular music hall and pantomime entertainers of all time. Loved across the classes Leno’s nickname, ‘The King’s Jester’, stuck after appearing by royal command before Edward VII at Sandringham House in 1901.
Born in London, he returned to the capital in the mid-1880s after spells in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield. At the height of his fame he resided in South London, living at 27 Cavendish Road in 1891 and 345 Clapham Road from 1894 to 1897. In 1898 he moved to 46 Akerman Road, Brixton before moving eighteen months later to Springfield House in Atkins Road, Balham (then Clapham Park), where he lived until his death in 1904.
Saaf Lundun Cycling Scene
Throughout his time in South London, cycling was all the rage. By the 1900s the bicycle is an important mode of transport for suburban commuters and a leisure activity enjoyed by both sexes. Despite rapid urbanisation, Balham and the surrounding area is still known as one of the healthiest spots in London and ideal for cycling.
South London sees a plethora of cycling tracks appear (and some disappear just as quickly) including Balham Hyde Farm, Putney, Catford, Crystal Palace and Herne Hill. Events attract thousands of spectators including Balham CC’s very own championships.
Music Hall goes cycling crazy
Music Hall and popular culture are quick to latch on to the latest craze to increase sales and revenue. In Andrew Horrall’s book Popular culture in London c1890-1918 we learn that: “Once a craze erupted, tyros, established artistes, playwrights and songwriters would incorporate it into their work. Up to date references to the craze could then be heard in music halls, stadiums and from ballad singers”
And so it was with the bicycle. They feature in stage shows, are used for tricks in displays and are part of charity sports events. Songs about cycling and bicycles are very popular. It’s also worth noting that a number of music halls had cycle lock ups to accommodate patrons.
Leno and the bicycle
Leno the cyclist was a popularly promoted and acknowledged figure. In 1897 Cycling magazine published a cartoon of Dan Leno as one of his characters Widow Twankey cycling in a dress. In June 1898 Dan Leno was depicted as a cyclist in a photograph with his wife and children. In the accompanying interview Dan claims to have introduced the father of modern pantomime Sir Augustus Harris to the sport, and that he relaxed by riding between his Brixton home and Hampton Court. This interview coincided with an issue of Dan Leno’s Comic Journal that depicted six Lenos, all wearing different costumes, atop the same bike. Cycling companies were the most prominent advertisers in his comic journal and in November 1898 a correspondent to the edition of Cycling about new types of head lamps for bikes signed himself ‘Dan Aceti-Leno’. Among several films Leno made for the Warwick Biograph Company was a cinematic one shot in 1900 entitled Dan Leno’s Attempt to Master the Bicycle.
For all of Leno’s judicious product placements, sources suggest that he was a genuine bike enthusiast. He was the Actors Association Cycling President, and an article in the Sporting Life 21 September 1898 on the Hammelton CC Garden Party article reveals that Dan was the president of the club.
He was also seen out and about with the family on them. In The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius, we learn that “Sometimes Dan and Lydia escorted their children on bicycle excursions, riding through the tree lined streets of Clapham Park to the open spaces of Clapham, Tooting and Wandsworth Common.”
The Motor and Cycle Works
So the country is cycling crazy, Balham is cycling friendly and its favourite resident is a cycling fan. The existence of the Dan Leno Motor and Cycle Works makes more sense, but who owns it and what was Dan’s involvement?
We know the following from a number of sources:
- Dan’s only daughter Georgina Galvin marries Sidney Reginald Lubbock an accountant turned cycle manufacturer from Tooting at the Ascension, Balham on September 15, 1903.
- A news in brief article in St James’ Gazette 22nd August 1904 tells us that “The Dan Leno Motor and Cycle Works has just been established at Balham by Dan Leno’s son, John”. We are also told in The King’s Jester that “In the early 1900s John sets up his own motorcycle business, later becoming sales manager at Hamptons cars”.
- Dan Leno dies 31 October 1904
- Sidney Lubbock dies 15 December 1905. Georgina is listed as living at 34 Balham High Road. In The Era 16 December 1905 we’re told that Sidney dies aged just 24 after a serious operation. The article describes Sidney as ‘Connected with the Dan Leno Motor Works, Balham High Road”
- When John Galvin marries in 1910 the Marriage Banns list his profession as ‘Motor Business’. He lives at 26 Drakefield Road just a stones throw from the Balham High Road shop
So we can’t be sure about the exact arrangements but we do know Dan was alive when it existed, although by this stage his health was in decline. We also know that his son John established the Dan Leno Motor and Cycle Works, almost certainly setting up the business with the assistance of his brother-in-law Sidney.
It would be nice to think it was frequented by some of the Balham CC members of that time.
Leno’s funeral procession through Balham – along with the WW2 bomb blast with bus and The Prince of Wales (later to become King George V) opening the electric tramways in 1903 – is one of the most iconic images of the neighbourhood (see above).
The date of the Motor and Cycle Works’ demise is unknown.
In 1904, La Retraite Convent bought Springfield from the Leno’s. The convent incorporated two villas into the estate before it and another, Burlington House after it. The La Retraite RC Girls’ School is still there and last we heard Springfield is used as the sixth form centre.
Can you add to the story of The Dan Leno Motor and Cycle Works? Email me at email@example.com or drop me a line in the comments box. I would love to hear from you.
Sources – Books and articles
Author’s own postcard collection
Popular culture in London c.1890-1918, Andrew Horrall
The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius, Barry Anthony
Dan Leno Wikipedia Page
Balham and Tooting in Old Photographs, Patrick Loobey
The Buildings of Clapham, The Clapham Society
Music Hall Mimesis in British Film, 1895-1960: On the Halls on the Screen by Paul Matthew St Pierre
Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs, Nick Barratt
Dan Leno, J. Hickory Wood
Marriage and Death dates and information from FindMyPast as are the newspaper clippings below:
Sources – Newspapers
Sporting Life, 21 September 1898
South London Press 15 October 1898
The Sketch, 23 May 1901
St James’ Gazette, 22nd August 1904
The Era, 16 December 1905