Ernie Old: a soldier, inventor and marathon cyclist

Ernie Old, age 84, cheered by crowds at the end of a marathon bicycle ride, 1961 (NAA: A1200, L38704)

In 1954, marathon cyclist Ernie Old completed an 80-day bicycle ride, averaging 80 miles per day and finishing on his 80th birthday in Albert Park in Melbourne. This was just one of his remarkable feats – he also served in two wars, patented several inventions and made Prime Minister Robert Menzies an offer he almost couldn't refuse.

His story shows how the National Archives can hold diverse records on one individual, spanning many decades.

An eventful life

Ernie Old was born in 1874 in Blackwood, Victoria. He gave his occupation as 'farmer' when he enlisted for the Boer War in February 1902 – he served for just three months before the war ended in May 1902.

In December 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I, Ernie again signed up to serve his country. As part of the 13th Light Horse Regiment, he embarked for Gallipoli from Alexandria, Egypt, on 4 September 1915. In 1916, he was badly wounded while fighting in France.

After the war, Ernie re-enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). During World War II, he tried to sign up for service – but at 65 years of age was considered too old.

He also pursued a passion for inventions. In the 1920s, he lodged various applications with the Patents Office for designs to improve steering in motor cars.

Ernie became famous for his exploits on two wheels. Between 1945 and 1952, he carried out eight marathon bike rides around Australia. In 1955, he even wrote to Prime Minister Menzies with a marketing plan for the Melbourne Olympic Games. He proposed to ride around Australia and deliver an invitation to each state premier. The offer was received favourably, but ultimately declined due to fears by prime ministerial staff that Ernie might drop dead during the deliveries!

Ernie's last marathon ride was in 1960, and he died in 1962.

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    Boer War attestation paper
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    World War I casualty form
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    Diagram from patent application
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    Comment on Old's Olympic offer

The records

The National Archives holds diverse records about Ernie Old. Some are the types of files that family historians commonly seek in the collection, but others are less well known.

The National Archives holds records of Ernie’s service in the Boer War, World War I and the Citizen Military Forces (CMF).

The National Archives holds many records relating to Australian participation in the Boer War, including attestation papers of members of the Commonwealth forces from 1901, as well as service rolls, medical records and pay lists of some colonial and state contingents.

Ernie's World War I service file contains his attestation paper which records basic personal details, as well as a casualty form showing his unit’s movements and illnesses and injuries he suffered during his service. This is typical of the information found in World War I service files, which have all been digitised and can be viewed through RecordSearch.

The National Archives also holds service records for members of the CMF between 1900 and 1946, including Ernie Old.

Ernie applied to the Patents Office, an Australian Government agency, to register several of his inventions. Such applications, as well as those made to the Trademarks and Copyright Offices, provide a record of Australia's creative and technological history. They are also potentially rich resources for family historians. If one of your ancestors was a writer, inventor or artist, the National Archives may hold records they sent to the Australian Government to register their copyright or apply for a patent.

The Prime Minister's Department received many letters from members of the public on a range of subjects. Some, like Ernie’s offer to Prime Minister Menzies, are preserved in the National Archives. Researchers may be able to locate letters from family members if they know when, or on what subject, they wrote to the nation’s political leader.

Some of Ernie's cycling feats are captured in the National Archives photographic collection. These photographs – more than one million – cover a range of subjects and people. You can search for people, as well as places and events, on our image bank, PhotoSearch, as well as through the RecordSearch database.

Click on the images on this page to see documents about Ernie Old held by the National Archives. The files from which they come, and others, are digitised and available through our RecordSearch database – see the table below. You can also explore further with the links at the bottom of the page.

Selected records on Ernie Old

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemErnest Old – Boer War dossier1902B4418, Old E
ItemErnest Old – Service number 771914–20B2455, Old Ernest
ItemErnest Old – Army number 840041912–46B4747, Old/Ernest
ItemApplication for Letters Patent for an invention by Ernest Old1924A627, 19503/1945
ItemApplication for Letters Patent for an invention by Ernest Old 1926A627, 2592/1926
ItemApplication for Letters Patent for an invention by Ernest Old1928A627, 12752/1928
ItemOlympic Games 1956 – Publicity1955–56A463, 1956/1247 Part 1
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