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Ion Keith Falconer

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Ion Grant Neville Keith-Falconer (5 July 1856 – 11 May 1887) was a champion cyclist, Scottish missionary and Arabic scholar, the third son of the 8th Earl of Kintore. He held the two-mile amateur record for many years

Keith-Falconer was born in Edinburgh. After passing through Harrow School and the University of Cambridge, he moved into evangelistic work in London. In 1886 he was appointed Arabic professor at Cambridge, but his career was cut short near Aden while in missionary work. He translated the Fables of Bidpaï. He was an athlete, a champion cyclist and is described as a world cycling champion in 1878.

Keith-Falconer was the third son of the Earl of Kilmore and shared his childhood between the ancestral home in Scotland and Brighton on the southern English coast. In 1869, when he was 13, he succeeded in obtaining a place, through examination, at Harrow School, then in countryside north-west of London. He took notes of his lessons in shorthand, which he had taught himself.

Keith-Falconer left Harrow in 1873, having acquired a tutor to teach him mathematics, studying with the Rev Lewis Hensley at his vicarage in Hitchin.

Keith-Falconer went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in September 1874. He lived at 21 Market Hill until he married. He finished his graduate studies with a First and began to read for honours in theological tripos.

A teacher at Harrow School, E. E. Bowen, said: His bicycling feats were one common subject of interest between us. Bicycles were just coming into fashion when he went to the University; he was an enthusiast in the use of them and an admirable performer; and when he appeared in riding costume at Harrow, with his tall figure mounted on the enormous machine that he rode, it was a sight to see. He kept up the amusement for many years: for two or more he was certainly the best bicyclist in England, and his delight in success only shewed in more than common relief the charming modesty with which he carried his honours.

The cycling historian Jim McGurn said: Keith-Falconer came from an aristocratic family in the Scottish Highlands. Having ridden a low velocipede at Harrow School he took to the high bicycle as a student at Cambridge. He was 6ft 3in tall (1m 87), an exceptional height for the period, even for an aristocrat of well-nourished stock. He could master a very high machine, which gave him a competitive advantage. Keith-Falconer also had the money to buy the best bicycles and the leisure to tour extensively. Although he may have been the fastest cyclist in the world, his cycling interests were of secondary importance to him. So amateurish was his attitude that on at least two occasions he forgot about racing engagements and turned up at short notice to win in heroic style.

It was while at Cambridge - where he was elected vice-president of the university bicycle club on 6 June 1874 - that he won his first bicycle races. In a letter to his sister-in-law on 11 November 1874, he wrote: "Yesterday was the ten-mile bicycle race. Three started. I was one. I ran the distance in 34 minutes, being the fastest time, amateur or professional, on record. I was not at all exhausted... Today I am going to amuse the public by riding an 86-inch bicycle to Trumpington and back. There is a little scale of steps up it, up which I am helped, and then started off and left to myself. It is great fun riding this leviathan: it creates such an extraordinary sensation among the old dons who happen to be passing."

In 1875 he won a club race over the 42 miles from Hatfield to Cambridge, and on 10 May won a race against Oxford University from St Albans to Oxford, 50 miles.

1876 April. Won the Amateur Bicycling Championship, a four-mile race, described as "the amateur championship", at Lillie Bridge, setting a record time of 13 minutes 6 seconds.

On May 15 he won the Cambridge club's 50-mile race at Fenner's in 3h 20m 37s.

On 11 May 1878 he won the National Cyclists' Union two-mile championship at Stamford Bridge. It was probably this race that gave him the status of world champion. Until the creation of the International Cycling Association, the NCU's championships were considered the unofficial championships of the world.

In 1882, Keith-Falconer rode from Land's End to John o' Groats, the length of Britain, in 13 days. He rode 215 miles in his last two days.

His last race of importance was the amateur championship on 29 July 1882, at Crystal Palace, outside London. He won, seven minutes better than the record, in 2h 43m 58s.

On 28 May 1881, Keith-Falconer went cycle-touring through Oxford, Pangbourne and Harrow, a warm-up to his Land's End - John o'Groats ride, that started on June 4. Riding from one end of Britain to the other was, in the 19th century, a journey on poor or unmade roads, riding a high-wheeled bicycle with precarious balance and poor brakes. It demanded good weather. When it did not come, Keith-Falconer left Penzance after four days and returned to London and Cambridge.

Keith-Falconer's views on cycling were not always those shared by cyclists of lesser breeding. On 20 August 1881 he wrote to his friend Mr Charrington, with whom he worked in the East End of London (see below): "It is an excellent thing to encourage an innocent sport (such as bicycling) which keeps young fellows out of the public-houses, music halls and gambling hells and all the other traps that are ready to catch them. It is a great advantage to enter for a few races in public, and not merely to ride on the road for exercise, because in the former case one has to train oneself and this involves abstinence from beer and wine and tobacco, and early going to bed and early rising, and gets one's body into a really vigorous, healthy state. As to betting, nearly all Clubs forbid it, strictly... A bicycle race-course is as quiet as a public science lecture."

The area outside Cambridge known as Barnwell was then a rough area inhabited largely by labourers working on the railways, of which four competing lines met in Cambridge. Others worked in the fossil beds. Robert Sinker, Keith-Falconer's biographer, said the labourers were "mostly poor and ignorant, including even yet a large number of persons following vicious courses; and while the Gospel teaching of a band of devoted men was gradually leavening the mass, yet while the workers were slowly gaining on the task which faced them, hundreds were dying."

Keith-Falconer threw himself with others in May 1875 into a missionary project for the area. They hired a theatre and held preaching meetings there for a month. "All this time," Sinker said, "Keith-Falconer was a steady and consistent helper of the mission, by his purse, by his personal cooperation, and we may feel sure by his prayers." At the end of the month, they judged their work a success and repeated the process for three and a half years at the Ragged School, in New Street. There, Sinker said:

The gathering of people, of whom there were several hundreds, displayed a remarkable contrast to an ordinary Christian congregation. They represented a whole stratum decidedly below that of the decent working man of the poorer sort. Many were ragged, most were dirty and unkempt, and before the service began, many behaved outrageously. Yet when the service began, I rejoice to say, the conduct was orderly enough; evidently many, while coming in the first instance merely from curiosity, bore in their way a friendly feeling enough for their neighbours. Yet it may be noted, as shewing the stratum from which the bulk was drawn, that on one of the speakers' remarking: 'A great many of you, I know, have been, and some I fear still are, thieves!' he was greeted, in tones which shewed that no offence had been taken, with ready cries of 'Yes, sir!'

Keith-Falconer taught himself Hebrew at Harrow and then moved on to other Semitic languages. At Cambridge he studied for a Semitic languages tripos, studying Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac. Hebrew required a deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. He passed.

Keith-Falconer continued his study of Arabic in Germany, as much to perfect speaking German as deepen his knowledge of Arabia. He stayed at Leipzig for five months of 1881.

In October, Keith-Falconer left for Assiout, 350km from Cairo, on the Nile. It was the most distant point of the Egyptian railway. His first impressions were poor.

It was on returning to England that he made a second attempt on the long-distance record. He kept a diary which appeared in a newspaper in Aberdeen and in The London Bicycle Club Gazette. On his first day he rode into sweeping rain near Bodmin.

"Heavy rain was now falling and necessitated an hour's halt. I had not got six miles out of Bodmin when a second and more violent storm of rain and mist gave me a bath all for nothing. So I pulled up again at a lonely village called Jamaica... Here I sat for five and a half weary hours at a little temperance inn, for there is no public-house in Jamaica. A copy of Butler's Dissertation on Virtue, which I found here, served, I hope, to reconcile me to the weather...

" Third day. During the ride through Somerton (171) to Glastonbury (183), I became the victim first of stupidity, then of malice. A waggoner seeing me about to overtake him pulled very suddenly to the wrong side, and sent me sprawling over a heap of flints. No harm done. Shortly after that a wilful misdirection given to me by a playful Somersetian sent me 2½ miles in the wrong direction, so that I traversed 12 instead of seven miles between Somerton and Glastonbury. Wells Cathedral (188) was one of the few sights I lingered to see. It is gorgeous.

" Fifth day: Sunshine and rain alternated rapidly until the afternoon... The last 10 miles were done in the dark, rendered more intense by the rain-clouds. To ride along a stone road on a dark, rainy night is a most severe trial of nerve and temper. One cannot see the stones to avoid them, and each time the wheel goes over one, the machine is jerked up or thrust to one side, and the rider gets a shake that makes his heart jump into his mouth.

" Sixth day: On emerging from the hotel I found to my horror that a furious north-west wind was blowing. I struggled on as far as Doncaster (412), when I became sick of fighting against that strong man, and threw up the sponge. After a good dinner at the Reindeer, I went to bed for a couple of hours, expecting that the wind would lull in the evening - it did so, but of course the road got bad then. A wet, greasy oölite road rendered more delightful by the recent gyrations of a feathery traction-engine, is a treat not soon forgotten by the bicyclist.

" Eleventh day: To-day was a failure. After passing Blair Atholl (756), the glen becomes rapidly higher and narrower. The wind came sweeping down as though through a funnel... Another walking tour. After three miles my foot began to complain. At Dulnacardoch I was in such pain that I was obliged to invade a farm-house and ask for rest and food.

" Thirteenth and last day: I rose to find my foot horribly stiff and painful. But the day was fine, no wind, and only 110 miles more to run... After refreshing and nursing myself at the Station Hotel [Wick, at midnight], I started again, to the blank astonishment of landlord, boots and waiters. The utter solitude, stillness and dreariness of the remaining 19 miles made a most remarkable impression on me. No one tree, bush or hedge did I see the whole way. At twenty minutes past three I stood stiff, sore and hungry before John O'Groats Hotel. I had ridden 994 miles in 13 days less 45 minutes. I had no difficulty rousing the landlord, and was soon asleep.

Keith-Falconer chose Aden for his missionary work after reading an article by General Haig, whom he went to see in London. Haig had urged the Church Missionary Society to establish a mission there. There were reports that children attending the Roman Catholic mission returned to Islam on leaving.

Keith-Falconer visited Aden in November 1885 for a six-month trial.

In November 1986 Keith-Falconer and his wife returned to Aden definitively. He had the support of the Free Church to establish an orphanage and the help of a Glasgow physician, Stewart Corwen. They lived in a house with a walled garden. Alongside it was a hut in which Corwen saw his patients.

On 22 February 1887 Keith-Falconer wrote about catching malaria, which he called Aden fever.

Keith-Falconer married Gwendolen Bevan in Cannes on 4 March 1884. They had their honeymoon in southern France and in Italy, where they inspected the remains of Pompeii before moving to 5 Salisbury Villas, Station Road, Cambridge.

He died in Aden after repeated bouts of malaria for which there was no cure. He was 32. A memorial church to him there opened 10 years later. He is buried in Holkat Bay cemetery. The Scottish Mission school and hospital at Sheikh Othman continued until the independence of South Yemen in 1967.

The foreword by the Rev Robert Sinker, librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge, to his biography, Memorials of the Hon Ion Keith-Falconer MA says:

A career of exceptional promise was early closed in the death of Ion Keith-Falconer. The beauty of his character, his ardent missionary zeal, his great learning, form a combination rarely equalled... How noble a life his was, how unselfish, how worthy to be loved, those who knew him know well; how hard it is to adequately set forth, on the one hand, its harmonious beauty, on the other, the rich variety of its aspects, I am very fully conscious

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