WITH the Grand Départ of the Tour de France upon us, it is time to find a place in the pantheon of great Yorkshire sportsmen for George Riley, an unknown because he preferred it that way. He may even have thought his extraordinary feats on his bicycle nothing remarkable. Certainly he referred to them only as “holidays”.
They were prodigious nonetheless. As a young man George, who was born in 1903, lived in Leeds with his parents, and by 1923 he was working in winter as a decorator and handyman. In summer he took the ferry to the continent and pedalled off on the roadster he came to call “Old Faithful”, and, my goodness, how he pedalled. As summer drew to a close and it was time to return home he would have covered thousands of miles on Continental roads, 5,000 at least, maybe as many as 7,000.
After the 1939-45 war he was soon pedalling again, and celebrated his 50th birthday in 1953 in the Arctic Circle, where he was beset by mosquitoes as the temperature rose to between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit
For a change, the following year he headed south-east, and eventually reached Turkey, where a newspaper was sufficiently interested to interview the “Ingiliz” visitor, but did not quite get his name right: “Mr Rollys”.
He was living at that time at Greenland Road, Darnall, Sheffield, and was interviewed before departure by the old daily News Chronicle. George told the reporter that he would be setting off in shorts and a pullover with £50 in his pocket, and would be away for six months, travelling through France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and Greece before reaching Turkey. He might carry on to Syria, and hoped to reach Cyprus. His belongings and a tent were packed on the back of his cycle. At night he would either sleep in his tent or in youth hostels. He reckoned his costs would be £2 a week.
George was still a bachelor then, and told the reporter: “I have been too busy travelling to get married.” He added: “Life is too short to wait until you are 65 to start seeing the world. I would rather do it the other way round and settle down to work when I am 65.”
He reckoned he had already been in 22 countries and the best way to see them was on a bike: “You meet people at their own level and see both the rough and the smooth of their lives.”
When he got home from that 1954 trip, the Sheffield evening paper, the Star, reported that he had covered 5,000 miles in five months and visited 10 different countries. He had been robbed in Venice and been wined and dined by officers in the Turkish Army. And he had had only one puncture. He reckoned his total Continental travels amounted to 250,000 miles, and told the Star that he might have a crack at America during the following year.
George did eventually marry Jane Elizabeth Skee, who was in service at Slayley Hall, near Hexham, Northumberland. He presumably met her on his English travels, for he also found time to explore Britain, probably during the 1939-45 war.
They married in the 1950s, and settled down together in Scarborough. George died in 1976, aged 73. It is to his widow that we owe such knowledge as we possess of George Riley, for she preserved a small archive, and passed it on to a neighbour who had befriended her before she died in 1989.
That neighbour, Mrs Barbara Hill, who now lives in Ripon, has opened this archive to The Yorkshire Post, believing that George Riley’s feats deserve a mention, especially in a year when Yorkshire is very much concerned with cycling and cyclists.
There is not a lot to go on, a mere skeletal record of travels that took him from Hammerfest, Norway, which claims to be the most northern city in the world, to Capri, the Mediterranean island where he hoped to see Gracie Fields, the Lancashire lass famed as a film star and variety artiste who had made a home there.
His journeys are recalled by half-a-dozen newspaper cuttings and a small packet of maps. There is also a reminder that he first crossed the Channel soon after the end of the Great War with a card prepared by Walter Willson Ltd, the Newcastle-based grocers, for distribution to troops serving with the British Expeditionary Force. This handy little document, which George must have found useful, offered translations of English words into French, and advised on pronunciation.
In addition, there are 100 postcards, mostly collected by George as mementos of places he had visited, but also including some he sent to relatives and friends on his travels. From the addresses it emerges that his parents lived in Ingleton Terrace, Beeston Hill, Leeds.
A pair of matching cards, posted simultaneously in the 1930s, indicates a worry at home, for one went to his mother in St James’s Hospital, Leeds, and the other to his father at Beeston Hill. George urges his dad to “keeping smiling”, and his father subsequently becomes the sole addressee on cards sent home. One, from Norway dated June 13, 1953, records that he has reached a place called Hell (“where I have often been told to go many times”) on his way to the Arctic Circle.
Later he wrote: “I have been in the Arctic Circle nearly a month, weather perfect, sun most days 24 hours. Spending nights in my tent,” He always assured the addressees of his well-being: “I am 200 per cent” or (frequently) “This is my best-ever holiday.”
The only mishap recorded took place, not abroad, but on the York-Scarborough road near the Four Alls inn towards midnight on an August evening. He was struck from behind by a car, carried for 25 yards on its bonnet, and deposited unconscious on the verge, ending up in York Hospital.
George must have made a full recovery, for he was soon on the Channel ferry again. Yorkshire’s Unknown Cyclist may have emerged somewhat thanks to his widow and Mrs Hill. But he remains largely in the shadows despite his extraordinary life-story.
• Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.