National Cyclists’ Memorial, Meriden

The 30-ft tall granite ashlar obelisk was unveiled by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead, on Saturday 21st May 1921 in the presence of between 10,000-20,000 cyclists. In 1963, a plaque was added to commemorate cyclists who died in the Second World War. The memorial was given a Grade II listing by English Heritage in 2001.

The memorial was funded by public subscription, with a National Cyclists’ War Memorial Committee being established in November 1919 after a public meeting. The Chairman was W. G. Howard Gritten MP (known as “the cyclists’ friend”) and the Vice-Chairman was a racing cyclist, Frederick Thomas Bidlake (1867-1933). It was Mr Bidlake who first thought of the idea of a national cyclists’ memorial. The aim of the committee was to raise at least £1000 to erect a permanent roadside memorial in memory of Cyclists who fell in the Great War.

The memorial honours all of the cyclists who died during the war, not just those who were members of the Army Cycle Corps and worked as scouts or messengers.

The President of Anfield Bicycle Club, William Pagan Cook (1869-1936) was appointed District Representative for Liverpool, and members of Anfield B. C. contributed more than 20 per cent of donations to the war memorial fund. This led Mr Cook to claim that “It is the Anfield that has assured the Memorial on Meriden Green.”

Why Meriden?

The Anfield Bicycle Club Circular, vol. 15, no. 167, notes the intention for the memorial to be erected in some Central Touring District “as a Mecca like the Meriden Cross.”

The Star Green ‘un, 20 December 1919, stated that:

Cyclists believe that a monument on a village green or a spot by the side of some great highway, would be more in keeping with the object of the memorial than one put up in London.

By 23rd December 1919, the decision had been taken to erect the memorial at Meriden, which was described as a very popular resort among cyclists. The Athletic News claimed the credit for suggesting Meriden, and the Birmingham Daily Gazette declared that “No more appropriate spot could have been chosen, as Meriden is not only the centre of England but it is itself within the very hub of the great cycling manufacturing industry.”

The village is also a most picturesque place, and its environment will form a typical English setting to the memorial, which will take the form of a simple stone cross.

Birmingham Daily Gazette, 23rd December 1919

Consent for the memorial to be erected at Meriden had been obtained from the Lord of the Manor (Lord Aylesford), and Meriden Rural District Council by March 1920, with just the design of the monument remaining to be agreed. The subscription funds were also some £500 short of the target needed.

Fund-raising and design

In March 1920, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, presented his bicycle to the fund so that it could be auctioned to help swell the funds. The Rudge-Whitworth machine was repaired and sold for £100 to Rev. Basil Graham Bourchier (1881-1934), Vicar of St Jude-on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb. The Dundee Evening Telegraph of 22nd April 1920 noted that “So far as is known, no bicycle has previously realised so much.”

The sale of the bicycle meant that the fund was reported in April 1920 as standing at £700 – just £300 short of the target. By July 1920, the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal reported that the fund had almost reached its target.

The Lincolnshire Echo noted that the hope was architects and designers who were cycling enthusiasts would be willing to give their services free of charge as a tribute to their fallen comrades.

The National Cyclists’ War Memorial Committee decided on the form the monument would take, rejecting the incorporation of any cycling imagery as “quaint rather than dignified.”

Designs are to be entirely gratuitous, and should be worked out to give the largest size possible for the money, in granite. The Cenotaph, an ordinary obelisk, or one of the Stonehenge monoliths, to quote an extreme example, is to be preferred as an idea upon which to lease the design rather than anything of an elaborate nature.

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 30 March 1920

Meriden Parish Council approved the proposed design at its meeting on 5th October 1920. The firm of monumental masons, Messrs J. White & Sons, of South Yardley both designed and enacted the works.

The memorial was described as being of unpolished Cornish grey granite, 30 feet high, and standing upon 30 tons of concrete. The granite itself weighs 40 tons, and the concrete inside 10 tons. Writing to the Birmingham Daily Post in March 1976, Mr L. N. White (1899-1988) noted that his father [Arthur Frederick White (1873-1957)] told him that had buried underneath the memorial a copy of the Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail, as well as various coins of the day.

The letters of the inscription were described as being deeply cut in upon the side of the pedestal, which faces the main road, and depending upon shadow for their effect.

National Cyclists’ Memorial, Meriden

The Ceremony

The Athletic News 25th April 1921 reported that the monument was nearing completion. The unveiling ceremony would be “very simple but impressive,” with ample room on the green for hundreds to stand and get a good view of the proceedings. A small platform was to be erected which the three speakers would occupy.

Parties of cyclists and clubs arranged pilgrimages to the memorial under the auspices of organisations such as the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the National Cyclists’ Union. Many of the riders met at Stonebridge and rode in massed formation to Meriden.

The Rugby Advertiser of 24th May 1921 said the ceremony drew to Meriden:

the most remarkable gathering of cyclists ever seen in this country. They converged on the village in regiments and many of them rode all through the night to get there. From the suburbs of London, the quiet towns of Devon, and the “Delectable Duchy,” from the great industrial centres of the North, and the pleasanter places of the South Coast, they came in myriads on their cycles to pay this token of respect to their fallen brothers of the wheel. Birmingham and the towns of the Midlands generally were largely represented.

The ceremony began at 6pm when a bugle called the assembled crowd to silence. The ceremony was presided over by Mr W. G. Howard Gritten MP, himself an enthusiastic cyclist, who opened the ceremony by describing the occasion as unique in the history of cycling. He said that the idea of commemoration first occurred to Mr Bidlake in the summer of 1919. The memorial was to pedal cyclists – racing men, club men, and tourists alike – who left the tracks and roads of their homeland to die on foreign fields of battle:

Their races here are finished. Their earthly journeys concluded. They have passed hence on that great wheel of Change, whose cycle, we hope, will end in everlasting rest.

Mr W. G. Howard Gritten

In a 15-minute speech Lord Birkenhead remembered in the early days of the war, before there were so many motor-cars and motor-cycles as in the later stages, the degree of dependence there was upon the humble bicyclist in France in 1914-15.paid warm tribute to the courage, endurance, and patriotism of the cyclists, whose work, with its anxieties and dangers, had been performed in solitude. Their tasks were as dangerous as those of any men in the war, and they rode along lanes, facing death in foreign countries with the same composure, courage and indifference as if they rode along the country lanes of Warwickshire.

He then pulled on a string that allowed the large Union Jack covering one side of the memorial to fall away, revealing the following inscription: “To the lasting memory of those cyclists who died in the Great War 1914-1919.”

Buglers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment then sounded the “Last Post” and the Rev. B. G. Bourchier (who had bought the Prince of Wales’ bicycle) blessed the monument and gave the dedicatory prayer. The ceremony came to a conclusion with the singing of the Doxology, led by the Meriden school children, and the Benediction.

Wreaths from the cycling clubs were brought and laid upon the obelisk, some of them ingeniously designed in flowers to represent the wheels of the cycle. As the twilight fell the pilgrims wheeled away.

The ceremony was filmed by British Pathé News.

The Meriden War Memorial Conservators

On the tenth anniversary of the unveiling of the memorial, the Birmingham Daily Gazette on 22nd May 1931 reported that after other expenses had been paid, the balance of the fund was handed over by trust deed to five honorary Conservators, by whom it was invested, the interest being sufficient to provide a gratuity to the custodian who looks after the memorial and its immediate surroundings.

The five Conservators were:

  • Mr W. G. Howard Gritten MA, then MP for the Hartlepools, who was the chairman of the Committee;
  • Mr F T Bidlake, London (president, North Road Cycling Club);
  • Mr W. P. Cook, Liverpool (president, Anfield Bicycle Club);
  • Mr John Urry, Birmingham (past-president, Midland Cycling and Athletic Club);
  • Mr S. M. Vanheems, London (hon. secretary Road Records Association).

Following the death of Mr Urry in 1928, the Conservators elected Mr Leonard Ellis, Birmingham and Midlands District Association, Cyclists’ Touring Club, in his stead.

Annual commemoration

On Sunday 21st May 1922, the first annual commemoration service was organised by the District Associations of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. The worshippers stood on the green around the memorial, and in the roadway, and the village choir led the singing of two favourite hymns – “O God, our Help in Ages Past,” and “On the Resurrection Morning.” There was a short address by the Vicar of Meriden (the Rev. H. W. Ottaway), followed by prayers and the sounding of the “Last Post” by two Coventry Cadet buglers. After a few minutes’ silence, “Reveille” was sounded and the whole company sand the first verse of the National Anthem before the Vicar pronounced the Benediction.

The annual memorial service has taken place every year since 1921, although the large gatherings of cyclists from all over the country were suspended during the Second World War, owing to the inadvisability of attracting large crowds. However, the continuity of the event was carried on by the holding of a special service at Meriden Parish Church in the presence of a number of cyclists from the Midlands during the period1940-1945. During the service, a wreath was presented at the Altar and then placed upon the Cyclists’ Memorial on the Green.

The 2020 event was a virtual one owing to the threat of Covid-19. The centenary event had been planned for 16th May 2021 but, with Coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings still in place at this time, the event has been rescheduled for 11am on Sunday 5th September 2021.

Additional plaques

On 19th May 1963, a memorial plaque was added in memory of those cyclists who died during the Second World War. Expert advice was to add a bronze panel in preference to inserting a stone panel as there were concerns that inscribing in the stone would damage the granite surface or cause instability to the monument.

The new panel was unveiled by Mr P. E. Brodie, Chief Constable of Warwickshire before the annual memorial service.

A further plaque was dedicated at the annual memorial service on 18th May 2014, “in memory of all cyclists who fought and died for their Country.”

Further reading

The Anfield Bicycle Club and World War One: the National Cyclists’ War Memorial by David Birchall

Tracey
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

© Solihull Council, 2021.
You are welcome to link to this article, but if you wish to reproduce more than a short extract, please email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

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