The Penny- farthing Man . .

Evergreen - - Contents Summer 2015 - Si­mone Wil­liams

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.

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