The Paddle Round the Pier contest takes place in July; an event of which ‘Professor Cyril’, the Edwardian bicycle diver, would surely have approved.
Professor Cyril or the more prosaically named Arthur Huggins Heppell, spent six years in Brighton, riding his bicycle off the West Pier much to the amusement of holiday makers.
Born in Islington in 1866, he was listed on the 1901 census as ‘cycle engineer’ but by 1911 he was described as a ‘Professor of Swimming and Diving’.
On the day of his final dive, 27 May 1912, the West Pier was packed with spectators. People crowded onto the pier deck, landing stage and the roof of the pavilion in order to get a good view.
Professor Cyril began his descent but half way down the ramp one of the bicycle wheels wobbled and he fell over the edge of the ramp and dashed his head against the pier decking. According to the Brighton & Hove Society periodical:
‘there was a universal gasp of horror and alarm and many of the bystanders fainted.’
Despite the injuries he survived for another twenty minutes. The coroner had little time for Professor Cyril’s type of performances, stating that:
They only pander to the morbid taste of the public for sensation’
The funeral took place at the Brighton and Preston Cemetery and over a hundred people attended. Amongst them was the wonderfully named Ernest Hamshow Shirtliff, the Pier Master of the West Pier and Jabez Woolfe, who had attempted to swim the Channel (unsuccessfully) between 1906 and 1913. Representatives of both the Brighton Swimming Club and the Deep Sea Swimming Club were also present.
Such was the affection for Professor Cyril that the town organised a collection in order to raise money for his widow and three children.
Paul Jordan, Senior History Centre Officer