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Old, Ernest (Ernie) (1874–1962)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Ernest Old (1874-1962), by unknown photographer

Ernest Old (1874-1962), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria

Ernest (Ernie) Old (1874-1962), cyclist and soldier, was born on 10 July 1874 at Barrys Reef, near Blackwood, Victoria, elder of twins and fourth of nine children of Thomas Spear Old, a Cornish miner, and his Irish-born wife Charlotte, née Mitchell (d.1881). Thomas selected land at Dingee, north of Sandhurst (Bendigo). His children attended Prairie State school, and the boys worked on their father's farms and as contract harvesters.

Ernie was sent in 1896 with two brothers to develop family properties near Swan Hill, but he became more interested in machinery than in farming. He began cycling competitively and won a number of local events. Old finished eighth in the Warrnambool to Melbourne road race in 1901, fourth under handicap in 1903, and was doing well in 1904 before a bad fall. He had not raced in 1902: motivated by the drought and scant harvest, and impelled by a mixture of patriotism and a wish to travel, he enlisted in the 4th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, and embarked for South Africa. The war ended before he saw action and he arrived home in July.

On 23 February 1905 Old married Marion Patience Grylls at the Dingee Methodist Church. He designed a scarifier with easily replaced tines, sold his farm, bought his father's interest in a smithy, and commenced manufacture. Leaving the business in the care of a brother, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 22 December 1914. He served at Gallipoli with the 13th Light Horse Regiment and on the Western Front with the 2nd Pioneer Battalion. Badly wounded at Flers, France, in November 1916, he was repatriated in December 1917 and discharged from the army on 22 March 1918.

Old resumed work as a blacksmith and implement-maker, but found that his scarifier had been superseded. He then invented a motorcar steering stabilizer as an inexpensive alternative to replacing worn parts. This device sustained his family through the Depression. During World War II he tried to enlist in the A.I.F. before taking jobs as a blacksmith—on the construction of the Lauriston Reservoir, near Kyneton, and at the Ordnance Factory, Maribyrnong, Melbourne.

In 1945 Old began a series of long-distance cycle rides which were to make him a national figure. That year he completed a 1136-mile (1828 km) return journey from Melbourne to Sydney in nine days. He made a return ride to Adelaide (1138 miles, 1831 km) in eight days in 1946, and to Brisbane (2500 miles, 4025 km) in twenty-three days in 1947. He had ridden 256 miles (412 km) in 24 hours to raise funds in 1946 for the Children's Hospital, Melbourne. Press and radio monitored his feats; crowds and civic receptions greeted him along his routes.

In 1947 Old rode some 6000 miles (9650 km) in 56 days, passing through Adelaide on the way to Darwin, then returning to Melbourne via Mount Isa, Brisbane and Sydney. In 1948 he cycled 4500 miles (7250 km) from Melbourne to Perth and back, and in 1951-52 he travelled 6000 miles (9650 km) in 102 days, first to Fremantle and back, and then via Canberra to Sydney and back. He completed another outback ride in 1957, climbed Ayers Rock (Uluru) at the age of 83, and cycled across Tasmania in 1959.

Old's concern to maintain personal fitness developed into a crusade to demonstrate the connection between clean living, exercise and longevity. The veteran cyclist was an ambassador for the great outdoors of the wide, brown and ancient land he loved. Trim and tanned, with a shock of silver-grey hair, he was a teetotaller and non-smoker. He became a celebrity in an age when the automobile seemed to be assigning the bicycle to the scrap heap. His regular appearances at Anzac Day parades, upright and soldierly in his A.I.F. uniform, excited admiration from public and press. He died on 11 August 1962 in his home at Murrumbeena, Melbourne, and was buried in New Cheltenham cemetery with Unitarian forms; his wife, three daughters and two sons survived him. Ernie had lived by the injunction, 'Love thy neighbour as thyself'. His complex attitudes on the purpose of life, and his decidedly anti-war views, had been largely omitted by the publisher of his autobiography, By Bread Alone (Melbourne, 1950).

Select Bibliography

  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 12 June 1950
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 May 1952, 13 Aug 1962
  • Express (Launceston, Tasmania), 26 Dec 1959
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Dec 1984
  • private information.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Old, Ernest (Ernie) (1874–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/old-ernest-ernie-11295/text20157, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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