A Jubilee Ride by Deborah Gower
“When my Uncle passed away a few years ago, I found an old rusted bike hanging from a rafter out in the shed. Intrigued by the word “jubilee” that I could just make out above the peeling red paint, and with a vague memory about the bike being “special” I went in search of old newspaper articles.
Trove revealed the long forgotten story of Commonwealth Jubilee bicycle courier Les Cecil who in 1951 (at the age of 50) cycled from Cairns to Canberra – 2250 miles through deeply corrugated roads, strong head-winds and flooded creeks – collecting some 100,000 messages of loyalty to the Crown along the way.”
When my Uncle passed away he left me a shed full of treasures to unearth. One of those treasures was hanging – tied securely to a rafter in the form of an old bike rusting away along with its story of jubilee from 1951.
Being inquisitive, I did some research on this bike. I had a vague memory of my Uncle telling me about stopping to help a pale man slumped in a gutter at the Ekka (Brisbane Exhibition) in the 1980’s. While people trailed past with fairy floss in their teeth and sample bags on their arms, only my Uncle stopped to ask the man if he was ok. He wasn’t. As they waited for the ambulance Uncle Ernie and the man (Mr Cecil) discovered they only lived a few streets away and so began a strong (if short) friendship between the two men.
Before he died, Les Cecil gave Uncle Ernie a gift as a reward for helping him when everyone else walked on by. Modestly all he said was that he had ridden the bicycle as part of the Jubilee celebrations in 1951. After researching National Archives, Trove and some old newspaper clippings I discovered this was no ordinary bike, it was no ordinary ride and Les Cecil was indeed no ordinary man.
Sydney Herald 31st December 1950 carried the story that in 1951-£350,000 would be spent by the Australian Government “to commemorate the founding of the Australian Common- wealth fifty years ago tomorrow. It will be a year of great public rejoicing-with bands, flags, guns, bonfires, fireworks, and military parades . . . historic plays and pageants . . . religious and cultural festivals . . . athletic games“ and a bike ride.
The Jubilee Bike Ride involved four main riders who cycled from Darwin, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne to deliver some 300,000 messages of loyalty to the Prime Minister Robert Menzies in Canberra on 8 May 1951. Sergeant Vic Waltham, Western Australian Police set off from Darwin with a rifle strapped to his back to ward of wild buffalos. Jack Montgomery, of Sale, Victoria, set out from Alice Springs, Eddie Baron, rode across the Nullabor Plain from Perth and Les Cecil set off from Cairns. Along the way they connected with some 10,000 courier riders and 200,000 cyclists who escorted them into “every available city, town and hamlet” “hundreds of remote stations, tribes and centres” that they passed along the way.
All have their own tale to tell but I stood in the shed looking at the rusty old bike in my shed. Imagine – that bike had made that journey from Cairns to Canberra in 1951.
According to the old press reports, Les left Cairns on 9 April 1951. He was 50 years old, just over 5ft tall, weighed 9 stone and was about to ride some 2250 miles across some of the roughest roads in Queensland and New South Wales.
The bike had been made by members of the Queensland Wholesale Cycle and Manufacturers Association to specifications given by Cecil. He trained on a diet of green vegetables and grilled steak. A brewery worker by day and Specialist Cyclist by choice, Cecil knew what he was doing. He had ridden with and against the great Sir Hubert Opperman (Oppy) OBE M.B.E., O.B.E., K.C.S.j., Champion racing cyclist, R.A.A.F. Officer, Politician and Diplomat.
On his trip from Cairns to Canberra, Cecil collected some 100, 000 messages of goodwill and loyalty to the Crown. Two army trucks accompanied him with two trained signal sergeants from the 51st Battalion. The trucks carried spare parts for the bicycle, the bulky messages of loyalty from towns and cities on the route, and a two-way wireless transceiver.
April 11 Cecil reached Cardwell where he “lay in a tub of methylated spirit tonight easing his aches after a 65-mile bone-shaking ride from Innisfail. Cecil rode over 40 miles of deep corrugated road against strong headwinds. He left Innisfail at 9 am and arrived at Cardwell at 4.30p.m, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. ‘It was the first methylated spirits bath I have taken—but it was certainly one of the best baths I have ever had,’ he said … Cecil will have to sleep in his riding gear to-night— the army truck carrying his clothes and money broke down at Ingham…. ‘I don’t mind sleeping in my riding gear for one night, but I only hope the car catches up with me to-morrow.’
Cecil rode in trunks and a red and white silk jumper refusing all offers of lifts on the road. In North Queensland he insisted on personally carrying his bike across creeks. The two 3-ton army trucks serving as tenders for Cecil’s Jubilee mail were disabled on the bush track part of the Bruce Highway. The roads were so rough that the special radio telephone truck intended for Jubilee communications could not be used. “Road corrugations between Tully and Cardwell were 10 inches deep,” Cecil said today. “The corrugal HOBS were so deep that my pedals touched the ground. They shook me till I felt sore all over.”
North Queensland proved quite a challenge to Cecil. He ran into dust a foot deep between Cairns and Townsville. He had to dismount and wait while a huge rock python crossed the highway in front of him. Between Bundaberg and Childers a 5 ft. black snake tangled itself in his pedals and he had to kick it free. I have often heard people say they breed them tough north of the border – and when I read the old newspaper reports about Les Cecil I see why.
On April 13 Cecil reached Ayr “after a rough ride from Townsville. At one stage, between Woodstock and Giru, he was paced by a Hereford Bull which finally veered across the front wheel, and almost caused an accident.”
April 17 Cecil, was escorted into Mackay by the largest number of cyclists to greet him so far on his trip from Cairns to Canberra. The procession, which was led by a ‘penny farthing’ bicycle, comprised more than 1,000 boys and girl cyclists. What a sight it must have been in some of the towns along the route.
April 21 at Yamba, Cecil was met by members of various Rockhampton cycling clubs. From Moore’s Creek he was escorted by nearly 2000 school children displaying courier’s badges on their cycles, scouts and guides and sports club members. The riders were six abreast and stretched for two miles. Together they rode to a civic welcome from the Mayor (Mr H Jeffries) at the Town Hall.
April 25 Cecil was farewelled from Bundaberg by his wife who had driven 258 miles to see her husband. Later she drove behind Cecil, and they lunched together at Childers. Cecil then continued on his journey alone.
April 26 preceded by fire engines with shrieking sirens and accompanied by hundreds of cyclists, Cecil arrived in Maryborough. Cecil, who has now completed exactly half of the journey, declared he was feeling as fit now as when he began his long ride.
April 27 Cecil was in Gympie being greeted by his two brothers and “a married sister” – their first reunion in twenty years.
April 30 Cecil reached Brisbane escorted by 110 Brisbane cyclists in racing rig, rode into the Brisbane Exhibition grounds where The Premier (Mr Hanlon) gave Cecil three messages for the Prime Minister. The Jubilee declarations of loyalty to the King from Mr Hanlon, the Anglican Archbishop (Dr Halse) and the Roman Catholic Archbishop (I Duhig) were added to the already collected messages many of which were given to Cecil by settlers living in lonely parts of the North, some of them in bark huts.
From Brisbane to Tenterfield, Gyra, Tamworth, Scone, Newcastle, Sydney, Goulburn and then he cycled onto Canberra.
May 8 1951 after some 30 days and some 2250 miles, delayed by bad weather and bad roads on the last lap, Cecil hit the worst section between Mittagong and Canberra. He battled cold 40-mile-an-hour cross-winds and despite sprinting over the last 14 miles of his trip in 41 minutes with a police escort, newspapers reported that Cecil rode into Canberra 30 minutes too late to accompany the other three jubilee cyclists from other States to present loyalty messages to the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies).
Former world champion cyclist Mr. Opperman, M.H.R., led the other three Jubilee cyclists to a reception at three o’clock. “Mr Menzies paid tribute to the cyclists and Message sticks, carved in an aboriginal motif, and carried hundreds of miles in four message carriers, excited much interest at the ceremony”
Although he was late for the official ceremony, Cecil had achieved a monumental task – to collect messages of loyalty from all manner of persons, riding a bicycle from Cairns to Canberra and faithfully delivering those messages to a Nation’s Capital.
Epilogue from Courier Mail BRISBANE, May 9.-“The day after finishing his 2400-miIes bicycle ride from Cairns to Canberra, the jubilee courier cyclist. Les Cecil, came home to Brisbane by plane and began mowing his lawn. He plans to take a week’s rest after his strenuous ride.”