Wandering among the memory theatres of Wales over the last year or two I’ve come across some fine institutions, some striking objects and some remarkable characters. In Tenby Museum they remember the happily named George Ace, a distinguished figure from the heroic days of cycling.
George Ace was born in 1861 and came from Swansea. He bought his first bicycle when he as 18 and immediately began competing successfully in cycle races in south Wales. In 1879 he became Amateur Cycling Champion of Wales and Monmouthshire and held the title until he retired in 1885. In a meeting in Swansea in April 1882, ‘the best race of the day was the seven miles bicycle race, won by George Ace, who was loudly applauded, but in the final heat for the one mile bicycle race he completely collapsed, falling right over his bicycle, and for a time being quite unable to move.’
In 1884 Ace’s bicycle business in High Street, Swansea was declared bankrupt and he moved to Tenby, where we find him dealing in second-hand billiard tables and announcing a billiards tournament. In May 1885 he set up the Tenby Cycling Club, with himself as Captain. The Tenby Observer remarked, ‘It was arranged that monthly road handicaps be held. The club have adopted the rules and regulations of the London and Surrey Cyclists Clubs. We congratulate the T.C.C. in securing our worthy mayor as president. Under the captaincy of Mr George Ace, the club ought to secure a prominent position in the cycling world. We wish it every success.’
In May, the reporter wrote again: ‘The Cycling Club which I stated a few weeks ago was in course of formation, appears to have made substantial progress. The Committee have secured the Mayor as president, and a good working committee has been formed. Sharp practice has been the order of the day – and evening too – for some weeks, Mr George Ace, a rider of no mean repute (the champion bicycle rider of South Wales), having undertaken to instruct the members; and so well has he succeeded, that he intends taking his pupils for an opening spin on Wednesday in next week. A code of rules and regulations has been adopted, uniform fixed, and the badge (which by-the-by is a very artistic ornament) settled. I have every reason to believe that the Tenby Club will ere long be able to give a good account of itself.’
The club did thrive, and held championships every August. In August 1887 over 1,000 people assembled in Tenby to watch a race between Ace and his challenger, the American champion W.J. Morgan of New York. Ace, riding a ’55-inch Regent, weighing 21 lbs’, won ‘by a yard, amidst great enthusiasm’. The two clashed again in Swansea and Newport. Ace was bitter that Morgan refused a final, deciding race and went off back to the United States with all the prize money.
In 1885 Ace rode for a bet from Haverfordwest to Tenby, on roads still untarmacked, in one hour 24 minutes, and from Swansea to Tenby on a (newly introduced) Rover ‘safety‘ bicycle in four hours 28 minutes.
By the mid-nineties a cycling boom was underway, with a column in the Tenby Observer reporting every week on the cycling club’s activities. In 1898 two new clubs emerged, the Tenby United Cycling Club and the Westgate Cycling Club. The former had many women members (the year before it was reported that ‘in Tenby Mr George Ace, the popular ex-champion of Wales, has been the means of infusing into the fair sex some of his enthusiasm for wheeling.’) The bicycle, of course, was a potent instrument of female emancipation.
By now George Ace had a bicycle shop called ‘The Depot’ near the railway station in Tenby. Later he also sold cars, and opened from another Depot in Haverfordwest in 1905 (he also toyed with the idea of selling aeroplanes). His own driving could be problematic, despite his reputation as ‘the famous West Wales motorist’ (in 1909 he took part in speed trials on Pendine sands). In that year ‘George Ace, of Tenby, was summoned for driving a motor-car on the public highway in a manner dangerous to the public, on the 6th of June on the Fishguard and Haverfordwest road.‘ And in 1918 he was fined 15s. for using a car in contravention of the Motor Spirit Consolidation and Gas Restriction Order.
George Ace died aged 81 in Tenby in 1941. The Ace Garage, managed by his son, kept his name alive in the town, and in 2007 a new cycling club was set up, The Tenby Aces, in his honour.
Tenby Museum has a fine ‘ordinary’, or ‘penny farthing’, bicycle once in the possession of George Ace – a reminder that his career spanned the early days of primitive, dangerous bicycles and the era of the ‘safety’ machine and mass cycling, and later saw the transition from popular cycling to the new age of the motor car.