Heritage: Mystery of daredevil cyclist tackling loop-the-loop tricks

Diavolo at the Royal Aquarium, London, 1902

An illustration of Diavolo at the Royal Aquarium, London, 1902 - Credit: Collection of Andy Grant

This week, historian Andy Grant delves into the mystery of the identity of a daredevil trick cyclist who wowed audiences in the 19th century.

Few readers will have heard of Diavolo, but in the early 1900s he became a worldwide sensation performing the death-defying “loop-the-loop” bicycle stunt to packed audiences.

The origin of Diavolo and the loop-the-loop concept is no mystery; at the end of the 19th century, a gravity-defying fairground ride like a rollercoaster was devised and installed by Arthur T Prescott at Coney Island, America’s largest amusement park.

A number of trick cyclists had considered the possibility of completing a loop-the-loop using a bicycle, although early attempts had ended in failure and serious injury.

Undaunted by the failure of others, Robert B Vandervoort had the loop redesigned and successfully completed the circuit.

By 1902 he was ready to perform publicly, clad in a red padded suit, complete with a horned hood. He coined the name Diavolo for the act.

In England, American trick cyclist Wilford Henry Barber and his partner, Madeline Kilpatrick, had been entertaining at events during the late 1890s.

Mrs Madeline Barber, 1896

A photograph of the Kilpatricks, 1896 - later Mrs Madeline Barber - Credit: Collection of Andy Grant

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Around 1900 Madeline developed a tumour requiring surgery in the USA. On returning to America, Wilford married Madeline and she became a very successful impresario for cycling acts.

After seeing Vandervoort’s loop-the-loop spectacle, the couple booked him for performances in London commencing in May 1902.

As May came and went, questions were asked about Vandervoort’s whereabouts and Mrs Barber gave assurances he was on his way from America.

As the months changed from June to July, it became increasingly evident Vandervoort was not coming to London.

Undaunted, Mrs Barber advertised for trick cyclists to perform the loop-the-loop and built a training school for successful applicants.

Amongst the trainees was professional cyclist Arthur C Wolf, who - accompanied by his understudy Dale Whinery - was considered ready to perform at the Royal Aquarium by July 1902.

After arriving from America, the equipment was set up and there was a successful practice run on July 27.

The first public performance in the UK took place on Monday, July 28 to a packed house and was undertaken flawlessly.

Unfortunately, during the second performance, the bicycle skidded on the final descent and Wolf was injured.

Shrugging off his injuries, he continued performing. On August 5, a more serious accident resulted in his admission to hospital for three weeks, suffering from concussion.

Responding to the management of the venue and booking agent who had concerns about further shows, Mrs Barber simply states that Wolf was indisposed.

By August 16, she suggested Dale Whinery undertakes the performance, but their managing agent Mr Ritchie refused to allow any further performances at the Aquarium.

Now, to deepen the mystery, further newspaper interviews with Diavolo after the accident report he was a Hornchurch man by the name of Jack Wolfe.

John ‘Jack’ Wolfe was born in 1866, son of butcher George Wolfe. The family lived in premises, subsequently occupied by Franklyn, in the High Street, Hornchurch.

Hornchurch High Street, showing Franklyn’s Butchers (formerly George Wolfe’s)

A postcard view of Hornchurch High Street, showing Franklyn’s Butchers (formerly George Wolfe’s) - Credit: Collection of Andy Grant

His mother, Bridget, was a hard-drinking, belligerent Irishwoman, who appears to have spent much of her time in the cells for drunkenness or using threatening behaviour.

While attending Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on their UK tour, Jack decided to join the circus and go to America.

After training with the Wild West Show, he joined Barnum's, where he performed as a high diver. Upon his return to the UK, he took on the role of Diavolo.

From September 1902, further performances were successfully staged at venues all over the UK, while similar acts were performed on the continent, many of them fronted by Diavolo.

Ironically, Robert Vandervoort, the first Diavolo, was killed in a railway accident in 1906.

The name Diavolo was obviously a stage name used to evoke an aura of mystery; hence positive identification of the star of a particular performance must be viewed as somewhat elastic.

The mystery remains: were Jack Wolfe and Arthur C Wolf one and the same person, or was Jack another of Mrs Barber’s Diavolos?

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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