Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Martin, William Walker (Bill) (1860–1942)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

William Walker (Bill) Martin (c.1860-1942), cyclist, was born in Dublin, second child and only son of Lynam Martin, farmer and lumber contractor, and his wife Jane, née Tuttle. The family migrated to the United States of America when Bill was 3, and lived in Maine for six years before moving to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Leaving school at 14, Martin found work as an assistant to traders in exotic goods, travelling to Europe, South America and Africa. Back in the U.S.A., for three years he was a professional foot-runner in the mid-west, then took up cycling as an amateur in Nebraska in 1885. Turning professional in 1890, he broke his right thigh in a fall during a race at Detroit, Michigan, next year. Thereafter, one leg was shorter than the other and he walked with a pronounced limp. At Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1891 Martin won a six-day race described as the long-distance championship of the world, earning £1000 in gold for the victory. In December 1894 he won both the 10-mile and 25-mile world championships.

Competing in Europe in 1895 Martin won forty races. Next year, attracted by the prize money, Martin made the first of a number of visits to Australia, during a 'boom' in professional cycling, and won the Austral one-mile championship at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. At a similar meeting there in 1899, he won eight of nine events on the first day, the 10-mile scratch race on the second and the mile handicap and 5-mile scratch race on the last.

Martin's popular appeal owed as much to his personality as to his achievements. He acquired a variety of nicknames, including the 'Castiron Man', but was best known as 'Plugger' or 'Plugger Bill', which reflected his racing style—steady and grinding. Fair-haired, stocky, with powerful thigh muscles, he was quick-tempered and handy with his fists. He was also financially canny, with a fine instinct for publicity, giving the crowd 'its money's worth because he was never out of trouble'.

In 1896 Martin had been suspended for two months after an assault on another cyclist in Adelaide. In Sydney next year, he responded to abuse from a spectator by jumping off his bicycle, pursuing the man through the crowd and beating him. He again ran into trouble during the 1897 Adelaide carnival. After being fined over a series of misconduct charges, Martin scratched himself from subsequent events. Acting on legal advice, however, he rode in two races, playing up to the record crowd. A few days later, he administered a thrashing to a member of the committee that had banned him the previous year. For this he was sentenced to fourteen days gaol.

Between 1895 and 1901 Martin rode in every Australian colony, and was said to have won 249 races. His most famous victory came in the classic Austral Wheel Race, in Melbourne in December 1901, a two-mile handicap. In excellent physical condition, he rode a remarkable race from scratch to win by fifteen yards. Enormous sums were wagered on the event, and there were rumours of bribery and intimidation. Following an inquiry, one rider was suspended for pacemaking on Martin's behalf, but no other action was taken. In 1907, relying on testimony from Martin's trainer, the magazine Lone Hand claimed that John Wren had fixed the race:

bribes were laid out in piles of notes and sovereigns upon Martin's bed at the Albion Hotel, Melbourne. One by one the cyclists were admitted to the bedroom, and Martin, who had a loaded revolver beside him, addressed each successive visitor by name in a loud voice, and stated the terms of their contract.
Of his nineteen opponents in the Austral, the journal alleged that all bar two or three 'ran dead'. 'Plugger' acknowledged that Wren had backed him to win £7000.

Martin continued racing in New Zealand and in the U.S.A. before retiring in 1903. On 21 November that year, at Holy Trinity Church of England, Balaclava, Victoria, he married Victorian-born Alice Eva West; she was 19. Between 1900 and 1909 he ran hotels in Melbourne city and at Prahran and Collingwood before departing for New Zealand. His final public appearance on the cycling track was in 1933 in a veteran's event at the M.C.G. Martin lived in Western Australia for the last six years of his life, but his family remained in New Zealand. He tried prospecting at Marble Bar and Sandstone; his last job was as an optical goods traveller. He died on 28 March 1942 in Perth Hospital and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery, survived by his wife and their three daughters and two sons.

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Plugger Bill’s’ Biography (Melb, 1902)
  • H. Grivell, Australian Cycling in the Golden Days (Adel, 1954?)
  • N. Lindsay, Bohemians of the Bulletin (Syd, 1965)
  • K. Dunstan, The Confessions of a Bicycle Nut (Melb, 1999)
  • Bulletin, 19 Jan 1901, p 15
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Dec 1901, p 5, 31 Mar 1942, p 6
  • Sportsman, 17 Dec 1901, p 2
  • Truth (Melbourne), 16 Sept 1905, p 2
  • Lone Hand, 1 May 1907, p 86
  • West Australian, 14 Aug 1936, p 10
  • Daily News (Perth), 30 Mar 1942, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Mar 1942, p 8.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Martin, William Walker (Bill) (1860–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/martin-william-walker-bill-13083/text23667, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Castiron Man
  • Plugger Bill
Birth

1860
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

Death

28 March 1942
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation