Mlle Serpolette and the Lewis Cycle Works

An obvious question arises from Mlle Serpolette's visit to South Australia in 1898: Why, when it failed to perform, was her Gladiator motor tricycle taken to the Lewis Cycle Works and entrusted to works manager Tom O'Grady for repair?

After a lot of research, I can now go some way towards answering this question, but as usual there is more yet to discover...

Travelling with Mlle Serpolette was Monsieur Lucien Ullmo, the Australian representative for Gladiator. Although he was said to be a "Sydney man", he arrived from France on the boat with Serpolette, and since he was always referred to as "Monsieur" it's a fair bet that he was French. One of his roles was to sign up Gladiator agents in Australia, and he managed to do this in at least three states. On May 11, 1898, the day after Serpolette and Ullmo left Perth on their way to Adelaide, the West Australian announced: "M. Ullmo has appointed Messrs Splatt, Wall & Co. as local agents for the company (Gladiator), one of whose principal lines are the electric motor cars". In Sydney, it was the English & American Cycle Agency that got the nod, so it's hardly surprising that we find the following item in the May 27 edition of the S.A. Cyclist:

The Lewis Cycle Works have been selected by M. Ullmo, representative of the Gladiator Cycle and Motor Company, as its local agency. A new shipment of the latest models is arriving ex. the Messageries Maratimes S.S. Australien, and will be on view in a day or two.

It seems, then, that Lewis Cycle Works were indeed the local Gladiator agent at the time of Serpolette's demonstration on May 30, even if the appointment had been made only in the previous week! This knowledge helps us to paint a possible scenario about the visit to Adelaide.

Serpolette and Ullmo arrived in Adelaide aboard the Britannia on May 16, fully two weeks before the date set down for Serpolette's only public demonstration in Adelaide, and booked into The South Australian Hotel. While it's possible to imagine that the two Gladiator racing bicycles and the Gladiator motor tricycle would be unpacked and readied for action somewhere on the hotel premises, a bicycle workshop would be a much more desirable location. One could imagine Ullmo setting out in search of a suitable firm to assist with the task. Perhaps he had done some preparatory work, and had a list of businesses to assess for suitability. If so, the Lewis Cycle Works would have been among the likely candidates, being one of the longest-established and best-equipped cycle businesses in Adelaide, with their three-year-old McHenry Street works considered particularly up to date.

An intriguing possibility, and one that might represent a triumph in planning, is that the bicycles and the motor tricycle did not travel to Adelaide on the Britannia with Ullmo and Serpolette, but were instead dispatched from Fremantle to arrive later, allowing time to make arrangements for their stabling. The Buninyong, which arrived from Fremantle on May 20, had "two cases of bicycles" listed amongst the cargo.

Once an agreement was made between Ullmo and Lewis, we can assume that the Lewis Cycle Works became the base for the rest of Serpolette's visit to Adelaide, and no doubt the bicycle and motor cycle were taken there for fettling. With this knowledge the events of the Exhibition Oval demonstration on May 30 and the free public demonstration the following day then fall into context.

When, after some controversy, Mlle Serpolette finally took to the Exhibition Oval track on her (pedal) bicycle, she completed "a couple of laps, accompanied by Courtney". Bill Courtney was a racing cyclist at the time, but also – almost certainly – a Lewis employee. He was on the Lewis staff in 1900 when the first car was pictured, and remained part of the business in various roles, including manager of the motorcycle business, into the 1920s. It would be a reasonable assumption that  Courtney was riding with Mlle Serpolette as part of patronage from the Lewis Cycle Works. Married only six weeks earlier, I wonder what Bill's new wife Clara thought of him circulating with the pretty French cyclist?

When the tricycle failed to run, it was "all hands on deck". One of the more detailed accounts of the activity appeared in the Quiz and the Lantern of June 2:

Jack Summers, with an energy worthy of a better cause, gave a splendid exhibition behind a 160 lb.-weight motor car. In his earnest endeavours to get the thing to gee, Jack was assisted by the spectators who advised several remedies.

Finally the recalcitrant engine was dumped down in front of the referee's enclosure, and soon the whole of the intelligence assembled on the green mustered round and held a severe enquiry into its workings.

Jack summers was also a cyclist, and a member of the team which rode the Lewis pacing triplet, so no doubt he was also doing his part for the Lewis Cycle Works in support of Serpolette. Of course "the intelligence", described in another report as "the united efforts of all the mechanical engineers available on the ground", would likely have included Tom O'Grady. I'm sure that Murray Aunger, the crack cyclist and Lewis employee, would also have had an interest, but as he was racing that day he may have been otherwise engaged. Another participant in the fun, mentioned in the same issue of the Quiz, was Bob Morton:

Cyclists with a few minutes to spend might ask Bob Morton for a description of the working of a motor tricycle. He has been there, but never more.

Never more? We encounter Robert Morton later as a manager with Vivian Lewis Ltd., so he didn't manage to stay away from the motor industry for too long. After the ill-fated attempts at the oval in the afternoon, the tricycle was made to run that evening - presumably with assistance from Tom O'Grady and other Lewis people - and on the Tuesday morning Tom took the tricycle on a long, unaccompanied run. Even if the Lewis involvement with Serpolette had begun just the previous week, there was plenty of evidence that Lewis were committed to the task of making her stay as successful as possible.

And the support continued even after her departure. At a meeting of the Council of the League of S.A. Wheelmen, some unreported details of the Monday exhibition ride came out. It seems Mlle Serpolette had been physically stopped by the Secretary of the meeting when she tried to take to the track for her advertised exhibition on the (pedal) bicycle. Apparently only the motorcycle ride was sanctioned by the Racing Committee. The Referee subsequently ruled that she could take to the track, as her cycling exhibition was advertised and the public expected it, and thus the circuits in the company of Courtney. In an admirable demonstration of support for Mlle Serpolette, it was Tom O’Grady who seconded the motion to censure the Secretary for not allowing her on to the track on her bicycle.

Lewis Cycle Works: The James This Lewis advertisement appeared in The Advertiser on May 31, 1898, the day of Serpolette's motorcycle ride through the Adelaide streets. In common with other Lewis advertisements of the period, there is no mention of Gladiator Cycles.

Of course the question remains open about when Lewis first became involved with Serpolette's management. One possibility is that they knew nothing until M. Ullmo walked into the Freeman Street office one day in mid-May, but more likely there was some advanced notice of her arrival in town. Perhaps certain businesses were offered the opportunity to play a role in the visit, with the carrot of the Gladiator agency on offer? There is a hint that Lewis were involved a month or so before the visit.

In late April or early May 1898, the Ariel Cycling Club wrote to the Council of the League of South Australian Wheelmen seeking patronage for a race meeting to be held on the Queen’s Birthday Holiday, Monday May 30, 1898. According to a May 6 report, the application wasn’t greeted with too much enthusiasm as it was deemed to soon after the previous meeting, and clashed with an event organised by the Jamestown Club for the same day. Tom O’Grady spoke strongly in favour of the proposal, which was eventually accepted. Why was O’Grady so keen for the Ariel race meeting to occur on May 30? Did he know that Mlle Serpolette would be in town that day? Surely the itinerary for her visit was locked in by this stage! Did he want a city venue, with a large public holiday crowd, for her exhibition?

So here ends our exposition on the links between two fledgling companies on opposite sides of the globe. Gladiator grew to be quite a successful enterprise, but the value of the Gladiator agency to Lewis is questionable. In the months following Serpolette's visit no mention is made of Gladiator in the firm's advertising, instead pushing The James as the main import line of bicycles. At the Autumn Show in March 1902 the Lewis stand featured a two-speed, de Dion-engined tricycle which may have been a Gladiator, and later, c1904, they did import at least one Gladiator car for the Barr-Smith family. Still, if Lewis didn't reap financial reward from the Gladiator agency I'm sure they appreciated the insight that was to send them off into the motor age.

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Copyright Leon Mitchell 2008

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