The Penny- farthing Man . .
In the 1960s, a man riding a penny- farthing around the narrow lanes of Brent Knoll in Somerset was a familiar sight. Cyril Smith, my uncle, owned a large collection of penny- farthings which he bought from the junk stalls in Portobello Market before the Second World War.
A well- known eccentric, he lived in Rose Cottage, Brent Knoll, from about 1939 to the 1970s where he ran a small unique museum to show off his 15 roadworthy penny- farthings and vintage motorbikes. Cyril grew up in Holland Park, West London, with four brothers and two sisters. His mother — Madame Regina Crutcher — owned a secondhand dress shop in Portobello Market, which gave him time to wander around the junk stalls buying bikes, guns and antiques.
A talented cartoonist, he was offered a job on a Fleet Street newspaper, but he couldn’t face office life and chose to create his own lifestyle. Before the Second
World War he married a lady called Jackie Payne and moved to Brent Knoll where they rented an old brick cottage with roses around the door.
Every summer holiday, my sister Suzanne and I were put on the train from Paddington to Highbridge station and collected by Cyril in an old Standard motor car which he started with a crankhandle.
The Smiths had no children of their own, and so we were spoiled rotten. My uncle taught us to ride the penny- farthings as soon as we were tall enough, which was frankly very dangerous.
The saddle of a penny- farthing is way up in the air and it was really scary mounting these “bone shakers” as they were known. Mounting was easy when my uncle held the bike and helped us up into the narrow saddle, but they were treacherous to mount alone. The trick was to run alongside the bike holding the spine, put a foot on the pedal and jump up onto it. It was like mounting a moving horse... pretty tricky for a 12- year- old.
Despite the fear, we loved riding the bikes around the lanes. When the country buses drove past us, the
bikes shuddered and the tailwinds nearly knocked us off into the ditches.
One fateful day two friends and I set off on the penny- farthings for Mark, a village nearby. It was wonderful looking over the hedges into the fields and gardens, but after a stop at the local pub we turned into a steep lane. Penny- farthings don’t have brakes so I jumped off at the top of the lane, but my friend Keith Budd stayed on the big wheel and hurtled downhill, landing face down in a ditch. He was badly hurt, had a torn ear and mild concussion. The village ambulance took ages to arrive and the driver couldn’t stop laughing at the weird accident. We made the headlines in the local newspaper:
“First Penny- farthing accident since 1910”.
Keith was taken to hospital and we had to hitch a ride home on a lorry with three penny- farthings on the back. At Rose Cottage, my uncle’s first words were: “Is my bike damaged?” So much for our safety.
Cyril loved anything on wheels and took us scrambling over the sand dunes on his old motor bikes. This was heaven for two kids who lived in a dingy London flat most of the year. He had dozens of friends and attracted some RAF chaps from the nearby camp who learned to ride the bikes at the Penny- Farthing Ordinary Club, as my uncle called it. Tourists also used to make a stop at the cottage to see the bikes and Uncle would hop up on the largest penny and give them a demo’, then he would shake his donations box at them.
Cyril made money by producing plaster ornaments for the local tourists. His most popular figurine was Winston Churchill, complete with shabby black suit and a tiny cigar which when lit puffed out smoke. He made plaster ornaments by the dozen, delivered them to tourist shops in BurnhamonSea and collected a bit of cash.
My Aunty Jackie was the main
breadwinner; she was a very hardworking upholsterer and would treadle away on her Singer until late at night making curtains and soft chair covers for the rich folk in the area. Customers were shown into the best parlour, but Uncle was confined to his shed as he was a bit wild and woolly for the grand customers.
At Rose Cottage we ate from the Smiths’ organic garden which yielded apples, plums, strawberries, potatoes and veggies — Uncle’s flock of much- loved chickens laid fresh eggs. As punishment we were sent into the large field behind the cottage to collect cow pats to nourish the strawberries. Nothing went to waste at Rose Cottage, where everything was recycled. Cyril also made wine from the elderberries and plums growing over the ditch. His strawberry jam was very alcoholic and we got quite tipsy
on the lashings of jam we spread on my aunt’s homemade bread. We were in heaven in the outdoors all day and away from the crummy London food and pollution.
Fishing was a regular event and we put to sea in his leaky rowing boat which was launched at Burnham. We were handed two rusty tins and told to “bale out” when the water began lapping at our ankles. Overboard went the fishing nets and the boat drifted about while we shivered in the cold wind. The catch was mainly eels, shrimps and small fish. The grown- ups loved the eels, but we wouldn’t touch them as they looked so pathetic when dead.
Nothing was safe from his kitchen: he shot pigeons for the pot and hunted rabbits with his pet ferrets. When roast chicken appeared for lunch, my sister and I were horrified — it was Benchy, Uncle’s favourite hen. No wonder we are both vegetarians today.
Once a week “the mad baker” would trot up in a horse and cart to deliver crusty bread and cream buns to the door. The baker was usually the worst for wear having stopped at the pub along the way, and he would yarn for hours with my uncle, while we fed apples to his horse.
The gypsies camped nearby and Cyril would take us to squat by the fire while he bargained for scrap metal or car parts. Sometimes the gypsies would visit him at the cottage, which upset my aunt who was worried what the neighbours would say.
Eventually she couldn’t take uncle’s offbeat lifestyle any longer and they divorced, which left him heartbroken for a few weeks; however, he soon recovered.
In the summer, “Johnny Onion” would cycle around the lanes on a bike laden with garlic and onions. He didn’t speak much English, and uncle would chatter away to him in pidgin French which defeated
my schoolgirl vocabulary. Cyril ate enormous amounts of garlic and never had flu or a cold.
All the fun came to an end when I began working on a magazine in London. My visits were less frequent, but one winter’s night a group of us drove down in a mini. After a few jovial stops at pubs, we reached the cottage about midnight. My uncle was asleep, so I climbed into the cottage through a side window, tiptoed up the stairs and woke him — he was ecstatic at an audience, dashed down the wooden stairs and bashed out a tune on his pianola.
Sadly, I had to say goodbye to this wonderful man when I moved to South Africa, and will always miss him. He blessed so many lives with his creative mind and enthusiasm for life and died alone in his bed after a massive heart attack when he was 63.
Six of uncle’s pennyfarthings were bought by the museum at WestonsuperMare for £ 1,000. They also bought some of the cottage doors which he had painted with lifesize cartoons.
Thirty years later, I went back to Brent Knoll to see the cottage, which had been modernised. The owner was pleased to see me and find out more about Cyril. She had built dry walls over the cartoons to preserve them and said she was on good terms with his spirit, and often heard him laughing.
Cyril Smith put Brent Knoll on the map in the 1960s with his passion for penny- farthings: “So people could experience the joys of riding aloft in a precombustion age”, to quote the mission statement of the Ordinary Club.
Burnham- on- Sea, with the remains of a 19th- century wreck.
Cyril in later life on one of his treasured machines.
Rose Cottage, overgrown with ivy.
Cheddar Gorge and Reservoir, with Brent Knoll in the distance.
Off to the shops... Cyril sets off from his cottage.
Part of the collection in the shed at Brent Knoll.