Classic Lightweights UK
Evelyn Hamilton - cyclist and heroine?Author Michael Townsend
Evelyn Hamilton is perhaps best known as the pre-war long distance cyclist, friend of Claud Butler and owner of a cycle shop in Streatham, London during and after World War 2. In addition some may have heard of her exploits in occupied France, and a very few may possess one of her bikes or frames. All of the above are true – at least in part – but there is much more to Evelyn than the reports in pre-war cycling magazines or the rather sensationalist local newspaper stories written in her retirement.
She was born on 3rd April 1906 as Eveline (sic) Alice Alexandra Bayliss in Page Street, Westminster to John (a policeman) and Alice. The youngest of their four children, she had three older brothers. Five years after the early death of her mother she married a young fruiterer’s assistant, John Henry Hamilton aged 22. Evelyn (as she now called herself) was only 20 but both of them were keen cyclists. Evelyn said that her competitive career started the same year – 1926. Much later in life she credited her interest in competitive cycling to ‘a cousin who won the Tour de France’. This was just one of many apparent variants of the story that were to creep into her memoirs and be repeated in media interviews during her long retirement.
In 1931 Evelyn won the first women’s half-mile sprint handicap and the Sporting Life trophy at the old Stamford Bridge cinder track. Perhaps the fame that went with this win secured her a job two years later as a ‘double’ for Gracie Fields riding a bike in the latter’s film Sing As We Go. There exists a photograph of Gracie and her sister in an old car together with Evelyn and Jack on a tandem at the Bishop’s Arms, Finchley.
At some point in the late 1920s or early 1930s she must have made the acquaintance of Claud Butler – she is pictured (below) alongside Jesse Aitchison and Ethel Jemeat at the Paddington track in May 1932 wearing a Claud Butler jersey.
Evelyn (far right) with Jesse Aitchison and Ethel Jemeat - Paddington Track May 1932
Then on 15th September 1934 Evelyn set off from Old Palace Yard, Westminster to ride 1000 miles in seven days. She was sponsored by Claud and rode one of his silver bikes equipped with the then new Constrictor Osgear. In 84 hours of actual riding she covered the distance at an average speed of over 12mph. Her success in this, her first really long distance record, encouraged Claud to launch a new replica bike in his late-1934 catalogue which he called the Miss Modern Model . It featured H.M. butted tubes, a short wheelbase, serrated quick release frame ends, Resilion ‘A’ cantilever brakes and , of course, the option of the Osgear or Simplex 3 speed to order. Interestingly a Brooks S.25 saddle was standard (others could of course be supplied) but Evelyn herself always rode a Mansfield.
A year later, on 23rd September 1935, and again seen off by Claud, Evelyn rode from London to John O’Groats – the 700 miles covered in just over four days. By now she was famous enough to be introduced to the crowd by Labour leader Ben Tillet and for Pathe News to take an interest - they filmed the start for their News in a Nutshell programme to be shown in cinemas (and still available to view on the Pathe News website www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=6215). Pathe filmed her again the following year giving tips on cycling, fashion, massage and what not to do on a bike! In this film (again available on line) she rode a Hetchins – a big boost, according to Mick Butler, to their then infant frame building business.
Evelyn being seen off on her London to John O'Groats ride by Ben Tillett (left) and Claud Butler (right), 1935
On 14th August 1938 Evelyn finished another challenge – that of riding 10,000 miles in 100 days. This time, however, Claud did not provide the bicycle and does not appear to have been involved at all. The Cyclist edition of 24th August 1938 has a small item in their Around the Trade – Items of Interest from the Manufacturers page which states:
“Miss E. Hamilton, who recently rode 100 consecutive centuries, used a Granby machine fitted with a Cyclo-Star gear, which came through the test perfectly satisfactorily.”
1938 seems to have seen the opening of Evelyn and Jack’s cycle shop at 416A Streatham High Road, London. With only a couple of brief and temporary moves to 402A and 398A during the war (bomb damage?) it remained there until at least 1968.
Evelyn's shop in Streatham High RoadFrom 1970 to 1984 as E. Hamilton Ltd. the shop sold scooters, mopeds and motor bikes, but not with Evelyn at the helm. It is quite possible that she wasn’t involved much during the war years either as she had spent a lot of time in France just prior to the outbreak of hostilities. A choice rumour has it that she rode a wall of death side-show in a French circus. Whatever the truth of this she appears to have been trapped in Paris when it was occupied by the Germans.
Now the story becomes both interesting and problematic with fact and fantasy inextricably interwoven. In her many post-war interviews (mostly in the 1970s and 1980s) Evelyn told some tall stories: she worked as a waitress in a café frequented by Gestapo officers, lived with a Frenchman called Fernand Maurice Helsen and assumed the identity of a dead woman as she herself was on the wanted list. Becoming a courier for the Resistance she ferried allied personnel across Paris on a tandem until an informer led to her being captured. Wearing her hair in a bun to conceal a small pistol she pulled it out, shot her captor and escaped to England and safety. Just how much of this is true and how much embroidery we shall probably never know, but she was awarded the Cross of Lorraine by De Gaulle after the war and this became the motif on her frame badges together with the name ‘Lorraine Cycles’.
Many more of Evelyn’s tales appear suspect – her son was taken by the Germans and was never seen again – she had no son (although perhaps Helsen did); her grandmother (sometimes her mother) was French – I can find no evidence of a French connection in either her mother’s, father’s or step-mother’s families. So questions abound – who ran the shop while Evelyn was in France? What happened to Jack Hamilton? Who was Fernand Helsen? Colin Skipp, a V-CC member says he was told the shop was a front for the Free French and the SOE and was run by three Frenchmen including one of the Pelissier brothers. Was this the origin of the ‘cousin’ who won the Tour de France? It seems likely although Henri, the victor in 1923 was murdered by his lover in 1935. I have been unable to track down Jack Hamilton but Fernand Helsen did exist and Evelyn may even have married him as she always maintained. She certainly changed her name to Helsen and it appears on her death certificate. Helsen himself worked as a clerk in the French Embassy in London. He died aged 50 from a heart attack in 1950. Evelyn had no children by either Jack Hamilton or Fernand and she never remarried after the latter’s death (although local gossip in Swaffham where she lived in retirement maintained that she had several boyfriends including the landlord of one of the many pubs!).
Michael adds 20 April 2011:
"Further information has come to light and has led to a correction to my statement that Evelyn had no son. She had no surviving children. On 12th August 1927, a little over a year after her marriage to Jack Hamilton, Evelyn gave birth to a son, John Alfred, at the Lying-In Hospital in York Road. Sadly and under very tragic circumstances the child died ten months later. Could this event have affected Evelyn’s mental balance and eventually the marriage? We shall probably never know. My thanks to both Michael Bannon (Evelyn’s great-nephew) for drawing my attention to the family rumour and to Felix Ormerod (a fellow V-CC member) for the birth and death certificate details. It does not appear that Evelyn had any further children."
In 1947 Evelyn Hamilton sponsored (for one year only?) a team of four (some reports say five) Independents, Richard Wells, Ray Stevens, Ron Baker and John Raines. Raines finished second on GC in the League’s 1947 Brighton to Glasgow stage race and won both stage three and the King of the Mountains classification. There is a picture in Chas Messenger’s book ‘Ride and Be Damned’ which appears to show Evelyn sitting in front of some of her riders at the finish of the race. However the money seems to have run out at the end of the season.
The Hamilton Cycles/Lorraine Cycles shop continued to supply club cyclists with frames although the actual builder(s) of these remain a mystery. Following requests in various journals for information on the subject the best that can be said at present is that there were probably many builders involved. Several correspondents have identified the lugless frames as originating from Ray Cooke (who also seems to have built for Allins). Mick Butler in the V-CC magazine for April/May 2011 suggests that Stuart Purves may well have built some of her frames from his premises down the road at Streatham Hill or later from Ephgrave’s Aveley Works where he was then works manager. Bill Grey is another mentioned by some as a possibility as he was supposed to have built the frames for the short lived Hamilton-Butler venture (see elsewhere on this website). Further research is obviously required on this topic.
In 1952 Evelyn once again took to the road to improve on her 100 day record. This time riding one of her own frames fitted out with British components that she wanted to prove were capable of surviving such a trial, she set off towards Brighton and the south before turning round and heading for the midlands and the north. She managed 12,010 miles and the manufacturers responded well after the event with advertisements in the cycling press for the various products used. These included her beloved Mansfield 38N saddle, John Bull Safety Speed tyres (she is photographed visiting the Leicester factory en route), Meadow cycling mitts, Midland panniers and Bantel mudguards. This appears to be her final long distance ride and presumably she concentrated on her business from then onwards until her retirement.
Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s Evelyn moved to the Norfolk town of Swaffham where she remained until she died. Maintaining an interest in cycling she was sometime President of the Women’s Cycle Racing Association and CC Breckland (in 1983) whilst doing the lecture circuits in Norfolk and Suffolk talking about her cycling and war exploits to various clubs and associations. She died as Evelyn Helsen aged 99 on 29th May 2005.
Michael's 1947 lugged Evelyn Hamilton tourer alongside her grave at Swaffham
Researching Evelyn’s history is far from over and the writer wishes to express his gratitude to members of her family for their assistance, and to the various V-CC members who have cheerfully helped with their reminiscences. Corrections and additions to the above are invited and will be incorporated as revisions at a later date.
Michael Townsend 2011
© 2011 Classic Lightweights