State Library of South Australia

1887 Penny-farthing champion of South Australia

Date: 12 October 2016

In 1884 Walter Tregonning followed his two older brothers to Adelaide from the village of Perranporth on the rugged Cornwall coast. Today Perranporth is a mecca for British surfers. However in the late nineteenth century it was one of many villages suffering rising unemployment and destitution as two millennia of the tin mining industry was being overtaken by cheaper sources in the British colonies.

Walter Tregonning circa 1887 B47850
Walter Tregonning circa 1887, B 47850

Walter's older brothers were at the time running small businesses in Adelaide - Joe Tregonning with a general store beside the Ovingham railway crossing, and Tom with a greengrocer's shop on Payneham Road. Both buildings still stand, although the Payneham Road shop is in a sad state of emptiness and disrepair.

Working initially for his brothers, Walter lived in a boarding house run by another Cornish family, the Toy family, on Norwood Parade. He later married their pretty daughter Minnie Toy.

In late 1884 his name begins to appear in the sporting columns of the Adelaide press as a cyclist. The penny-farthing bicycle - most direct ancestor of the modern bicycle - began being developed in England from 1870. The large front wheel (up to 1.5 metres in diameter) gave the new design the advantage of speed, and by the mid-1870s racing competitions were taking place across the world.

Walter Tregonning was a foundation member of the South Australian Cyclists' Union, the first state cycling team, which later sent delegates to competitions in Sydney and Melbourne. An asphalt cycling track was laid around the perimeter of the Adelaide Oval, and here Walter had his triumph at the end of the 1886/1887 season with a lap rate in the vicinity of 50 seconds. Raising a family of three daughters and two sons, Walter died in his home at Trinity Gardens in 1949. 

A treasure trove of photographs was discovered by Walter Tregonning's descendants in 1985 when his youngest daughter died. Many of these photographs were later lent to the Library for copying into the Pictorial Collection. This included the above studio portrait, where Walter is sporting his gold cycling championship medal proudly displayed on his watch-chain.

Story by Anthony Laube, Customer Contact Librarian

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