Greaves Walter

 Walter Greaves


Walter William Greaves was born in 1907 in what was then a village near Bradford. At the age of 14 his arm got so damaged in an accident that he had to have it amputated just below the elbow. The nature of the accident was shrouded in mystery for much of his life. 


One version has it that he was leaping from his drunken father's car, regarding this as a safer bet than staying put. A more prosaic, and less likely, version told by someone else who knew Walter was that it was caused by his dangling his arm out of a train window. Another claim was that the injury arose from the involvement of a door and his market stallholder father, who was also a `quack’ doctor and an alcoholic.  


The truth seems to be a composite of much of this. Walter was travelling in his father's car in an area called Sandbeds, between Keighley and Bradford. His father was blind drunk and unwilling to listen to Walter’s calls for care as he took repeated blind bends. Walter decided to see if he could jump from the car as it slowed so mounted the running board just as a tram passed them, hitting his arm forcibly and at speed, which then had to be amputated below the elbow. 



It seems certain that his father was an alcoholic and perhaps because of this Walter was teetotal all his life. He was also, from the age of 20, a vegetarian and, from shortly after that, also a life-long Communist and an enthusiastic recruiter for the Party. This may have been the reason why Greaves began to suspect that he had been blacklisted for work as an engineer in Bradford.


Many Communist cyclists had been in the Spartacus Cycling Club and even the Vegetarian CC during the 1920s. The Great Depression saw many unemployed turn to cycling as a way to busy themselves until work came. Walter certainly joined West Bradford Cycling club in 1932 and became progressively a stronger cyclist. In 1935, he rode 183 miles in 12 hours. 


By 1936 he was ready to attempt the world record, despite starting six days late and having 15 days off due to an accident. The World Endurance record, as it was known, was essentially the riding of the most miles in a single calendar year. This record was then held by an Australian who worked on a well-laid out track and was a professional, with a manager, a back-up team with vehicle, several bikes and a masseur.

Walter lived with his mother in Newlands Place, Undercliffe, when he set out on January 6, 1936 to attack the Australian’s world record of 43,996 miles cycled in a year. It was not a very evenly matched competition. Walter rode the lanes of the Pennines in snow and ice, was unemployed and more or less on his own, riding with a non-adapted ordinary cycle, save that it had a specially constructed one-handlebar machine to cater for his single arm.


But, after two months, Walter had got his overall average up to 120 miles a day, then 130. He once did 374 miles once between sleeps. He was hospitalised at once point with his ears and fingers frostbitten.    

One day, struggling through snowdrifts on the North Yorkshire moors, he fell off his machine eight times. Then he broke the world record on December 13th whilst in London, where he had by now captured the public's imagination. In fact, he did a lap of honour at Hyde Park, followed by hundreds of other cyclists. 


On the last day of the year, he came to a halt outside Bradford city hall to "astonishing scenes reminiscent of those associated with the public appearances of film stars". His celebrations for covering 45,383 miles were limited to eating a grapefruit and he expressed regret at not continuing on to reach 50,000 miles, which he felt he could have easily done.


This all helped Walter Cycle become a cycle builder by profession. He started up a bike firm, producing frames made one-handed with jigs and clamps; some of his designs have been described as having an “eccentric geometry”.

Being excluded from so many cycling clubs, he founded his own in 1948, the Airedale Olympic CC.  He then joined the "rebel" British League of Cyclists, which rejected the government's attempts to regulate or even ban road races. Many of the Vegetarian Club riders went with him. 

His frame-building shop was in the cellar of a house in which he and his wife Renee – and later their son – lived. The building stood at a busy crossroads, on the corner of Toller Lane and Whetley Lane in Bradford.  One of Walter’s many little eccentricities was the keeping of a pet monkey.


During the 1950s, he successfully fought to secure a playing field for sports and a cycle track in Bradford. Before the Second World War, Bradford Council had secured £3,000 from the George V Memorial Fund & National Playingfields Association. But the project had been stalled by the war and now the Council was considering if it could now go ahead, given that costs had risen to £30,000.


On the night of a broadcast devoted to this, in 1954, several Communists went along to the studio with Walter Greaves. These included Ted McNicholas, Secretary of the Bradford Communist Party, representatives of the Young Communist League (YCL), the Secretary of the Yorkshire Amateur Wrestling association, himself an amateur boxer. Following this, the local paper took up the story in a big way.


Greaves also helped establish a campaign that not only included the YCL but also attracted Bradford Amateur Football Association and Bradford Hockey Club, as well as the boxing and wrestling associations, along with the cycling clubs that were already linked to him. With himself acting as Secretary, a committee was tasked with working up the plans which would include a cycle track, on a site close to Bradford Becks, less than a mile from the town centre. The YCL reinforced the demand with a petition but, in the face of this, the Council determined to allocate the land for use by the Territorial Army. The YCL then stepped up its campaign further and endless delegations went to Bradford Council. 


In the end the Territorial Army agreed that it could manage with just three of the twelve acres and the playing fields were developed for the benefit of Bradford’s sportsmen and women. However, somehow, the cycle track had been lost amidst the welter of it all. Undeterred, Greaves secured the building of a cycle track inside the middle of the Bradford Greyhound track.  “So now we have a cycle race track in Bradford,” he said “not surfaced as we would like, but still the best track in Yorkshire”!


Greaves became vice-chair of the British League of Racing Cyclists but, having handed over his bike business to his son, Walter formally retired in the early 1970s. His new base, at the side of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, The Forge, on the Skipton road, became a folk club, where he would himself perform with a small ‘squeeze box’ concertina, using his shoulder and his one hand to play it. (He had intended a cyclists’ café originally but there was no mains water for a a while.) Walter and another cyclist formed a folk duo, and they even appeared on TV in a programme recorded in a folk club in Kirkstall Road, Leeds. The duo ended up performing at various locations, mostly pubs, over the next few years.

During his folk singing days, Walter wrote a song about the introduction of the state old age pension, entitled "What Lloyd George Gave Me”. The chorus goes:

He took me out of t'workhouse,
And he gave me life that's free,
Five shilling a week for cheatin' death,
That's what Lloyd George gave me. 

Walter developed Parkinson's disease in 1979 and lived amazingly quietly for the next few years until he died in 1987 at the age of 80.



The Cyclist and Cycling Weekly
World News 18th September 1954 (MW);

Bradford Telegraph and Argus 18th April 1978

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