Jimmy Mullins and the Race of His Life

by Phil Robins
NFC History Group

A one-time Norwood footballer,  Jimmy Mullins, won Australia's greatest track cycling event some 125 years ago, but today his life-changing feat is largely forgotten.

James Joseph Mullins, a follower, joined Norwood in 1885 when his previous club, South Park, dropped out of the infant South Australian Football Association (SAFA). It was a tough time for local football, which for two seasons was reduced to a four-team competition - losing South Park and North Adelaide but regaining Adelaide after a four-year absence. South Adelaide and Port Adelaide were the other teams.

Something of a footballing nomad, Mullins is listed as having played for five SAFA clubs - Victorians in 1882, South Park in 1884, Norwood in 1885-1886, South Adelaide in 1886 and West Adelaide in 1887, though there is some doubt whether he actually took the field for Norwood in 1886.
He may also have been the Mullins who pulled on the boots for the junior team Norwood Albert in 1880. One of his team-mates there was named Dalwood, but apparently was not a forebear of the Norwood Football Club's Dalwood clan.

Norwood, which had won the first six SAFA premierships from 1878 to 1883, was a competitive second and third in Mullins's years, with South Adelaide a predictable premier in 1885 and Adelaide a bolter in 1886.

Mullins, a carpenter by trade, found more success as a member of the Norwood Bicycle Club, winning £400 in shields, cups and vases in four years.

It got much better for him. Riding a penny-farthing bicycle, Mullins joined the Australian cycling elite  on Saturday 23rd November 1889 when, before 15,000 to 20,000 spectators at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, he won the two-mile Austral Wheel Race - the oldest track cycling race still existing, stretching back to 1887. Later champions would include Sid Patterson (twice) and Charlie Walsh.

In a race day  preview, The Australasian newspaper reported: " . . . Mullins is doing a great deal of work. He has ridden close to 20 miles one night but did not seem fatigued at the finish. He has 140 yards in the Austral and the Adelaide papers consider him a likely winner. He possesses plenty of strength and at times a good turn of speed ..."

On the following Monday, The Argus said that the annual sports meeting of the Melbourne Bicycle Club had excited a very wide interest.

"Among the visitors was His Excellency, the Acting Governor, Sir William Robinson. The weather was perfect. Warnecke's Band played during the afternoon, and there was an exhibition of trick and fancy cycling. The greatest event of the day, the Austral Wheel Race, was won by J.J. Mullins, an Adelaide cyclist, and it is noticeable that no Victorian has as yet won this the chief prize offered in Australia to cyclists. This should be sufficient proof that visitors are fairly treated by Mr. Spicer, the (Victorian Cycling) Union handicapper. Mullins also won another event, for which, however, he was disqualified for a breach of the rules by his trainer."

Another Norwood Bicycle Club member, Dick Davis, had won the Austral from scratch in 1888. He and Mullins were the only riders to win the race on high bikes, also known as penny-farthings or spider wheels. These were a vast improvement on the old "boneshakers" but in turn were quickly superseded by the safety bike, essentially a modern bicycle.

The 1888 Austral offered an alluring £572 worth of trophies for an amateur event, attracting overseas riders and swelling the starters at the meeting to 417. Davis's win increased the popularity of the sport and established the Austral as one of the world's greatest races.

But seeds of dissension were being sown and Victorian clubs formed the zealously amateur Victorian Cycling Union to resist professionalism and betting.

The 1889 Austral brought matters to a head.

Mullins was an amateur but asked for, and received, vouchers to the value of £200 ( in addition to a silver-plated tea and coffee set with matching candelabra). According to a grandson, the Adelaide journalist Clarrie Bell, the items Mullins bought with his vouchers included a stomach warmer, spice box, child's cot, bird cage, glue pot, frying pan and carpenter's tool kit.

It was a lavish amount of loot for the day and caused dissension among the amateur riders, who soon after broke away to form their own competition. The Austral, like Mullins, turned professional.

More than 40,000 spectators, many in top hats, flocked to the 1890 Austral meeting to see 305 former amateurs in brightly coloured satin jackets compete for total prizemoney of 533 gold sovereigns. Mullins did not figure in the finish of the Austral but a fellow scratch man, Tom Busst, broke through for Victoria with a nail-biting win.

Mullins won the One Mile Australian Championship on a safety bike and was given a hero's welcome on his return to Norwood. At a fancy dress ball he met and fell in love with a pretty girl dressed in an Irish peasant's costume, Mary Anne Lorraine.  They eloped to Melbourne and in 1892 he is said to have been "selected as a member of the Victorian cyclist team to visit South Australia" (The Australasian, 21 December 1892).

But his true home was Norwood. His father, John, helped build St Ignatius Church, Norwood, and at one stage was a large landowner in the district.

Jimmy Mullins lived at High Street, Kensington, in his early years and ran a carpentry business in Regent Street, Kensington.

The Austral changed his life. He named his house in Queen Street, Norwood,  Austral Villa - this became a family tradition - and called  one of his sons Robert Austral .   A carpenter like his dad,  Robert later recalled  that Jimmy, although not tall, was strong with "legs like tree trunks". Two other sons, Jack and Jim, were competitive cyclists.

Jimmy Mullins used his Austral success to establish a busy bike shop in Pirie Street, Adelaide.  

The Advertiser columnist Vox, in Out Among the People (25th April 1940), recalled that Mullins and the stockbroker A.H. Padman "did many trips together on high bikes all over the country years ago”.

"I called in at Mr Padman's office yesterday, and he remembered when they rode high bikes up the Mount Barker Road and on to Strathalbyn without dismounting. That was considered a great  performance in those days.

" 'When the modern bike arrived,' Mr Padman told me, 'hundreds of people used to go down to Botanic Park to see Jimmy teaching women to ride'."

Mullins died of pulmonary tuberculosis at Sydenham Road, Norwood, on the 26th November 1911,  aged 48,  and was survived by three sons and three daughters.

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