Albert Huggins Heppell – ‘Professor Cyril’ (1866-1912)

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 performing his bicycle dive
Professor Cyril performing his bicycle dive

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’.

The family had moved to Brighton in 1907 and in April of that year he began his bicycle diving act. In his first season he broke his arm when he dived into the sea at low tide.

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’

Photo taken the day before Professor Cyril's death
Photo taken the day before Professor Cyril’s death

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

7 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Wow. I’m one of ‘Professor Cyrils Great Grandsons- Stephen Heppell. Have always heard about him- although I thought it was a Unicycle he rode! Amazing to see a picture of him!

  2. freddyrow

    Thanks for the feature about Professor Cyril – Albert H. Heppell. I am one of his 4 grandchildren; I feel that people have been incredulous when I have told them his story! (Apparently “Professor” was not an uncommon title for seaside entertainers.)
    Albert Huggins Heppell married Edith Isobel Brown (1867 – 1959) in 1894. They had two daughters and one son, who was my father; Stephen Heppell who commented on your feature and drew it to my attention – is one of my three sons.
    Albert had three brothers one of whom (Henry Robert Heppell) drowned at sea in 1881. Another – Frances Henry – had two sons, one of whom, Roy, researched thoroughly his grandfather’s sailing history. I have a summary of this from his wife Muriel which, together with the information supplied by my father, Edward Arthur Heppell, is the source of my information.
    The family story is that the surname comes from Northumberland – there is a village called Hepple there; the family got involved in transporting coal from Newcastle to London by sea which may be how Captain (as he became) James Robert Heppell born in Clerkenwell London 16th December 1823 took to the sea. Lloyd’s Register of Captains records him in 14 ships between 1856 and 1877. As commander of the “Venetia” he was “presented by HM Government with a valuable telescope in recognition of his courageous exertions in rescuing nine men from the “Phrynne” .. off Cape Finisterre in January” 1865 (Illustrated London News 17/6/1865). For many years the telescope was in the Piermaster’s office at Brighton until it disappeared; Roy never ceased to look out for it.
    Another story is that Captain Heppell was rewarded by Garibaldi with a wooden chest for delivering supplies of guns; Lloyd’s Register reports that Capt. Heppell was in the Mediterranean when Garibaldi was active in Italy. It is also reported (see Wikipedia) that Garibaldi himself commanded a ship to Newcastle for the purchase of coal where he stayed from March to April 1854.
    So “Professor Cyril” found himself in Brighton with the sea in his blood. I remember seeing a photograph and a newspaper article about the death of Albert Huggins Heppell – in the possession of Grace Violet, one of his daughters – but I think this photo showed him riding a bicycle along a tight-rope with a long stick for balance; this could however be my memory playing tricks and I do not know what happened to the article and photograph. Some research is clearly required on my part!
    If anyone has any information about any of this – or the telescope – we would be interested to hear it.

    • Sandra Lightfoot

      Hi freddyrow, my mother’s maiden name is Heppell!
      I am researching a possible family link to a gentleman currently featured in the news as part of the VJ Day Anniversary events. Peter Heppell is a centenarian, and a member of the Chindit society. I have been looking into his family history, to see whether he connects to my Heppell family, and discovered his ancestor is Captain James Robert Heppell. You may of course already know this!
      James Robert’s father was Thomas Heppell, and he seems to be a bit of a mystery. On James Robert’s baptism he is a Clerk. He and his wife, Hannah Huggins, had (at least) two further sons; Thomas Wentworth Beaumont Heppell and Henry Huggins Heppell. On son Thomas’s baptism in Derby 1830, Thomas is practicing as a Solicitor (with a company called Mosse & Bainbrigge). By 1834, from Henry’s baptism, he had changed occupations and become a Wine and Spirit Merchant in Derby! There is a newspaper article suggesting his business at 11 Cornmarket, Derby, was taken over by John Ratcliffe in 1836. The article does not say whether Thomas had died. On the 1841 census, Hannah is alone with son Henry in Pinchbeck, Lincolnshire, but I cannot, from this record, determine whether she is widowed. Hannah is living by independent means, so I believe it was likely. Hannah remarried to John Syson, in Spalding, Lincolnshire in 1846.
      I note, with interest, that you believe Thomas may have been from Northumberland. My line of Heppells, hailed from Kirkwhelpington, very close to the village of Heppell in Northumberland. My ancestor, John Heppell, born 1860 to William Heppell of Kirkwhelpington, came to York with the cattle drive, marrying along the way. My direct Heppell line has been in York ever since.
      I am hoping to find a connection between your Thomas and my John or William, so I will keep looking, and hopefully will be back in touch if I can establish who Thomas was! It has been difficult to pinpoint him, as there are no records that give away his age.
      Hope to hear from you, or indeed, anyone who is interested!
      Sandra Lightfoot, York, England

  3. Sarah Croft

    We have no info on the telescope but we think we have the wooden chest – which came down to my brother via our grandfather – Alex Edwin Chapman who was the son of Frances Eliza Heppell, sister to Francis Henry and now we know also Albert Huggins Heppell. Our grandfather was very proud of the connection to James Robert, the sea captain, but we didn’t have any more info on him so this is very interesting. Sarah Chapman

  4. peter chapman

    My grandmother was Frances Eliza Heppell,she told myFather about going with her Father on his ship around the Med.

  5. Sarah Croft

    Apologies. fter talking to my father (Peter Chapman) I realise I was wrong about the chest. It is nothing to do with the sea captain…

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