A Victorian Odyssey
by Robert Veitch
Forget the Tour de France and the Paris-Dakar Rally because the story of Robert Louis Jefferson puts both of them in the shade.
In Wivelsfield Green lives a pleasant, genial man named John Jefferson whose grandfather was the remarkable Victorian, Robert Louis Jefferson.
Across his dining room table John recalled growing up in Crystal Palace, unaware of his grandfather’s exploits until 1996, “although I knew he was famous.” Quite how famous Robert was only became apparent as John dug deeper into history, uncovering facts and some myths along the way.
John continued, “my dad wasn’t very good at keeping things. My Mum came home one day to find him having a bonfire of grandfather’s things in the garden.” Fortunately, plenty was saved from the flames and latterly with the help of Lucy Dillistone from the Royal Geographical Society a more complete story has emerged.
Robert Louis Jefferson’s father fought in the Crimean War, after which he moved to the United States to become a mercenary in the Civil War. It was in Missouri, in 1866, that Robert claimed to have been born, although he also claimed to have been born in London. The National Archive at Kew has shed no light on the Missouri claim.
By the time his teenage years drew to a close Robert was a reporter living in London, writing for both the penny dreadfuls and regional titles, before becoming a political sketch writer in the House of Commons. “He was a journalist, so used to telling stories… and he was known to tell a tall tale or two,” chuckled John.
In 1886 aged twenty, Robert purchased a Rover Safety bicycle and joined Catford Cycle Club, where he developed into an excellent cyclist in a career that freewheeled until 1892. By then, Robert was writing for The Cycle magazine, and his proprietor, Charles Percival Sisley conceived the idea of sending him on epic cycle rides to generate stories for publication.
Today, uploads to websites are accessible worldwide instantaneously, but in the nineteenth century Robert sent postcards home to his sponsors, The Rover Company and Charles Sisley. “Postcards were brief, containing the bare news and little else, no personalisation at all,” said John. He pointed out, “punctures or breakages were never mentioned. I guess Robert wanted the public to believe the equipment was faultless and unbreakable.” It was “all about accomplishing the journey and promoting the sponsors,” said John succinctly. The postcards are on display in the Coventry Transport Museum.
We leafed through two albums of press cuttings, John wistfully setting the scene, “Robert was quite a famous figure for his time, he must have been a good communicator with his journalistic background and ability at spinning a yarn.” John was inadvertently creating the impression he is descended from a Victorian Alan Whicker, Michael Palin or Simon Reeve – hardly a bad lineage!
The first of Robert’s five epic cycle rides was in 1894 from London to Constantinople, a journey of 2,480 miles, made in two months.
The following year Robert rode from London to Moscow and back, covering 4,281 miles in 49 days. On his return he described the ride as “an excellent anti-fat prescription” having lost two stone in weight during that time.
In 1896 he left London in March, to cycle 6,000 miles to Irkutsk in Siberia, arriving in August and surviving at times on black bread and sardines. One Russian steppe was 1,200 miles wide, with the only evidence of human life being telegraph poles. For perspective, Irkutsk is on the banks of the giant Lake Baikal, 104° of longitude east of Greenwich, 29% of the way round the globe.
In 1897 Robert rode from London to Mongolia, claiming to have been the first white man seen by the indigenous population. Returning from this trip he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
According to John, “my father barely knew my grandfather as he would only be home briefly between journeys. He would disappear into the study with a bottle of whisky to write his articles and books, and that was all he might see of him.” Robert may have been famous, but he had to work hard writing his books, padding them out with adverts from ride sponsors. Several were published including Roughing it in Siberia which is surely a title to send a shiver up the spine, A wheel to Moscow and back and A new ride to Khiva.
Robert also published a novel titled The Coward. John paid £200 for a copy, only to realise he already had one. “I gave my original copy to my sister,” he chortled. More recently, Robert’s books have been re-published in the United States.
Robert’s final ride of the quintet was in April 1898, 6,000 miles from London to Khiva in Uzbekistan. It was his most difficult journey. Arriving after five months pedalling he found the place so depressing he left for England almost immediately on the Trans-Caspian Railway.
His bike parked for good, Robert turned to the Rover motorcar for his next adventure in 1905, which was a repeat of the cycle ride to Constantinople. Further drives promoting Rover ventured to India (1906) and South Africa (1907). In South Africa he was reported to have said, “I’ve never seen such shocking main roads as those in Natal.” One wonders what he might make of 21st Century roads in Sussex! Robert then drove coast to coast across Canada (1909) and New Zealand (1911). In 1914, while driving for the Wolsey Motor Company, Robert travelled to Australia and it was in Melbourne that he succumbed to a probable stroke. He was 46 with a wife and three children.
Despite leaving an estate of £1,000 (£100,000 today) John’s father was soon withdrawn from public school to enter the world of work. It was a tough time and John’s father moved to America, returning penniless in 1933. All of which might make it easier to understand the burning of Robert’s mementos.
John Jefferson is the only family member to visit Brighton Cemetery in Melbourne to see Robert’s grave. John recalled, “as we walked to the cemetery I thought, what on earth am I doing here? But we bumped into someone who helped us find the grave.”
Travelling full circle, I tentatively asked John for his longest cycle ride? “It was Crystal Palace to Brighton, with friends when I was twelve. We intended to sleep on the beach, but had to get the train home.” It was, quite possibly the innovation of the London to Brighton ride long before it ever became popular. All of which, when coupled with the adventures of the remarkable Robert Louis Jefferson makes the Tour de France and Paris-Dakar appear just a little bit tame.