Born on this day, Francis Edwin Birtles, Australian adventurer who set many long-distance cycling and driving records

Monday 7th November 1881

Born on this day, Francis Edwin Birtles, Australian adventurer who set many long-distance cycling and driving records. He was educated at South Wandin State School, Fitzroy, Victoria and at 15 joined the merchant navy as an apprentice. In 1899 he jumped ship at Cape Town, South Africa, and tried to enlist with Australian militia, but was attached to the Field Intelligence Department as part of a troop of irregular mounted infantry until May 1902. He returned briefly to Australia, then joined the constabulary in the Transvaal as a mounted police officer. His experiences there equipped him with bushcraft skills in a semi-arid environment and he undertook several cycling and photographic excursions; his police service ended when he contracted blackwater fever.

Birtles disembarked at Fremantle, Western Australia, and on 26 December 1905 left to cycle to Melbourne, an achievement which attracted widespread attention. After brief employment as a lithographic artist, in 1907-08 he cycled to Sydney and then, via Brisbane, Normanton, Darwin, Alice Springs and Adelaide back to Sydney, where he was thereafter based. In 1909 he published the story of his feat, Lonely Lands, which he illustrated with his own photographs. That year he set a new cycling record for the Fremantle to Sydney continental crossing, then in 1910-11 rode around Australia. In 1911 he was accompanied from Sydney to Darwin by R. Primmer, cameraman for the Gaumont Co.: Across Australia was released next year. Birtles had continued on to Broome and Perth, then lowered his record by riding from Fremantle to Sydney in thirty-one days. By 1912 he had cycled around Australia twice and had crossed the continent seven times.

Birtles next turned to the motor car and in 1912 completed the first west-to-east crossing of the continent with Syd Ferguson and a terrier, Rex, in a single-cylinder Brush car. In 1914 with Frank Hurley as cameraman he made Into Australia’s Unknown (1915); next year he retraced their route and was responsible for the film Across Australia in the Track of Burke and Wills; in 1919 he made Through Australian Wilds, following by car the track of Sir Ross Smith. On his many other trips, with companions such as his brother Clive, he shot much film footage.

On 27 November 1920 at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, he married Frances Knight; they soon separated and she divorced him in 1922. In 1921 he and his companion Roy Fry had been extensively injured when his car caught fire near Elsey station while he was employed by the Prime Minister’s Department on a survey mission for the proposed north-south railway to Alice Springs; he later finished the survey by air. In 1926 he set motoring records from Melbourne to Darwin and Darwin to Sydney (seven days) in a Bean car named ‘The Sundowner’. By mid-1927 he had completed more than seventy transcontinental crossings. Impecunious, he depended on manufacturers to sponsor his expeditions and wrote about many of his journeys for newspapers and periodicals.
In July 1928 Birtles became the first person to drive from London to Melbourne, a nine-month part-solo journey completed in ‘The Sundowner’ which he donated in 1929 to a proposed national museum in Canberra. With M. H. Ellis he undertook an unsuccessful search for L. H. B. Lasseter. In the Depression he spent several years gold-prospecting in arid areas and discovered a payable gold-mine in 1934. On 11 February 1935 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, he married Nea McCutcheon. That year he published Battle Fronts of Outback (Sydney).
Survived by his second wife, Birtles died at Croydon of coronary vascular disease on 1 July 1941 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery.

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