An appreciation of Bill Harvell
Roger S Watts
I first met Bill Harvell in 1944 when I was thirteen, a schoolboy newly
returned from wartime evacuation to a war-ravaged Portsmouth.
My brothers were keen cyclists and suggested that I should visit his
small but colourful cycle shop at Hilsea. I soon learned of
Bill's outstanding career as a British cyclist, he had
represented our country at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los
Angeles (image below):
track after winning the Bronze medal in the 4000m pursuit
at the 1932
Angeles Olympics: Charlie Holland, Frank Southall, Bill Harvell (with
Claud Butler) and E Johnson.
and in the Empire Games at Manchester in 1934, winning
bronze medals at each. Despite the considerable gap in our
ages we became friends and throughout my life I have treasured that
friendship and held him in high esteem.
Bill's obituary in the cycling press said that “He encouraged
countless youngsters who came into the sport after the
war”. I was lucky to be one of them. He
was a warm, interesting and welcoming man who greatly added to my
appreciation of life. The son of poor Dorset parents, Bill's
early years had been a constant financial struggle. Despite
the challenge he quickly reached the top in British cycling but he
remained modest and unpretentious.
In the 1930s Bill time trialled and raced with Freddie Prince, who went
on to found Rotrax Cycles in 1945. Bill had shops in Poole
and Southampton, he would cycle between the shops, which later became
part of the Rotrax business.
Bill’s shop at Hilsea was a mecca for southern cyclists and
was often full of enthusiasts listening to his well-told
tales. I got to know all of these stories and from afar could
tell from his gestures which epic he was describing. Perhaps
the best was about an Isle of Man race which he managed to finish on a
bike seriously wrecked by collision with the sandbags at Craig na
Baa. His audience sometimes included sailors from the Free
French Navy at Portsmouth. Bill spoke no French and used me
as a translator in my schoolboy French. What a challenge!
Several of us lads worked for Bill in the late 1940s on Saturdays and
during school holidays. He paid no wages but allowed generous
access to his dump of smashed bikes and equipment. He was a good wheel
builder and competent mechanic. In those days there was a huge shortage
of cycling gear. What was available was mostly pre-war,
second-hand and beyond our means. With the aid of 1930s
French catalogues some of us constructed workable Simplex gears from
bits and pieces. We also salvaged chainsets with odd cranks,
handlebar stems and seat pillars. I found a pair of Jack
Sibbit track bars which even then looked very obsolete!
When we started racing at the age of 14 there were plenty of events at
Southampton, Gosport and Portsmouth tracks. There were time
trials at various distances on local courses and an occasional massed
start race on what became the Goodwood motor circuit. In
winter there were indoor roller competitions and even a race between
runners and cyclists over a tough cross-country course on Portsdown
Hill. Bill was usually at track events and sometimes provided
us with an old tandem which helped to liven the pace in training
sessions at Alexandra Park. Few of us could afford track
bikes so we rode on stripped-down road machines. On one
occasion officials refused to let me take part because removal of my
derailleur had left about an inch of spindle protruding beyond the
track nut. Bill came to the rescue with a hacksaw and offered
to tidy up the projection. This pacified the officials but
left me protesting at the cost of a new spindle. Smiling
through gritted teeth Bill urged me to stop whining and to get on with
the race but he finally offered to pay for a new item.
After the 1948 Olympics Portsmouth staged a major track meeting which
attracted an international field. Bill was concerned that I
had not entered. Fees, though modest, were a problem but he
persuaded me to complete the forms and undertook to send them on to the
promotors. I shall never know if he exerted any influence but
I was astonished to find myself in the same heat of the Half Mile
Handicap as Reg Harris, then reigning world sprint champion.
Bill had a keen sense of humour and a wealth of earthy
sayings. I think he nursed a bit of a grievance against the
1920s Dorset squirearchy and he often mocked people he regarded as
chinless upper-class twits. He had a hilarious story about
young naval officers complaining at wartime sugar rationing.
We cultivated posh-speak accents to re-enact this saga.
National Service in 1949 took me away from Portsmouth and afterwards my
Civil Service job moved me to various parts of the UK.
Marriage and rearing a family ended any dreams of racing but in the
1960s we returned to Portsmouth on a brief visit. The Hilsea
shop was still there but looked empty. From a back room came
the unmistakable sound of wheel building. I raised my voice
and called out “Is there no bloody shugah in this
shop?” The noise stopped and an ageing Bill Harvell ran into
the shop crying “Roger! It's got to be
Roger!” An animated session of nostalgia ensued but
it was the last time I saw my old friend.
Years later my brother informed me that Bill had died in his sleep, a
great way for such a wonderful guy to go. Over our years of
friendship Bill had talked of the many people he knew, including Toni
Merkens, German track champion of handlebar stem fame, who had died on
the Russian Front. I believe that at one stage they had been
Hetchins track machine at the pre-war Wembley 6-day event.
trade-mark Merkens stem.
I like to think there is a great velodrome
in the sky where people like Toni, Shake Earnshaw, Claud Butler and
Charlie Holland all meet up to re-live their memories.No doubt Bill is
there with them, waving his arms about, and recounting the Craig na Baa