Charles Bernard Wheelwright: "Champion of All England"

Charles Bernard Wheelwright was born in Birmingham in 1861, the eldest child of Bernard Wheelwright and Sarah Ann Green (from the line of Frederick Wheelwright & Maria Wilkes). Like many of the Wheelwrights, Bernard was a jeweller, who went bankrupt on a number of occasions, and later drove a horse-drawn cab.

There is nothing in the public records to suggest anything out of the ordinary about Charles Bernard. The census of 1881 shows him as a warehouseman, living with his parents at 31 Reservoir Road, Edgbaston. By 1891 he was married and living at the Conservative Club, Ledsam Street, Ladywood, where he was listed as a 'Hardware Warehouseman & Club Steward'. In 1901 he was described as 'Refreshment House Keeper' living at 409 Lodge Road, Hockley. He does not appear in the 1911 census, but electoral roles show him at 173 St Paul's Road, Smethwick from 1918 until his death in the 1930s. All of this paints a picture of Charles as a rather staid warehouseman, cafe owner and Conservative Club steward who never ventured far.

The truth is rather different, however. In fact, Charles Bernard was a leading light in the world of roller skating and played a major role in popularising the sport in Britain. He was a natural sportsman: at the age of twelve he rode two winners as gentleman jockey and took a prize for pony-jumping at Birmingham's Bingley Hall. He was also a keen rower and in 1879, aged just 15, won the open sculling race at Edgbaston Reservoir. He ran with the Edgbaston Harriers for several years, and often competed on the Aston Cycle Track against his cousin Charlie Wheelwright (1863-1916), who was well known in the fields of cycling and athletics. Roller skating was his main passion, however. He was drawn to it in his teens and spent over thirty years in the sport both as competitor and as manager.

Roller skating was an American invention first introduced to Britain in the 1860s. The first public skating rink opened in Newport, Rhode Island in 1866, primarily to take advantage of the four-wheeled turning roller skate, or quad skate, designed by James Plimpton a few years earlier. In 1876, William Brown of Birmingham patented a new design of roller skate that kept the two bearing surfaces of an axle, fixed and moving, apart. He worked closely with Joseph Henry Hughes (a Canadian), who further improved the design by incorporating a bearing race similar to that used in bicycle and carriage wheels. These two inventors are thus responsible for modern day roller skate and skateboard wheels.

It is possible that Charles Bernard knew Brown. In any case, he was quick to adopt his innovations and began to gain success in the world of skating. He won a large number of prizes for figure, trick and speed skating and became particularly proficient at the new craze sweeping the skating scene at the time: long-distance roller skating. In 1879 he won the twelve-hour skating championship at Stafford Rink. Later he was a competitor at the Six-Day World Championships held at the Westminster Aquarium, where, according to one account “he superintended the laying of the floor”. The crème de la crème of the skating world, however, was the World Championship run over 50 miles, which he won six times. Not surprisingly, then, newspapers described him as “the Champion of All England”.

As the Westminster reference shows, Charles was also involved in skating management. He took over management of the Edgbaston Skating Rink at the age of 18 and later managed the Moseley Rink as well. The pinnacle of his career came around 1901 when he was invited to become manager of the Royal Skating Rink in Brussels. Opened in Rue Veydt in 1877, the Royal Rinking, as it was called in Flemish, was Europe's finest roller skating venue. Charles Bernard oversaw its refurbishment and entertained elite guests, including the Belgian royal family. By this time, however, roller skating was in decline. The Royal Rinking closed in 1909 and was converted into a garage for the Bugatti company to serve the new craze for motor cars.

Charles Bernard returned to Britain and put his weight behind a new project to open a rink on his home patch: Smethwick. The rink, owned by the Smethwick Skating Rink Co., opened on Windwill Lane, just off Cape Hill, in May 1909, with Charles Bernard as manager. "Mr C.B. Wheelwright", noted the local newspaper, "has had great experience in the management of skating rinks. ...In taking up the management ...he is determined to conduct it in such a manner as to be beyond reproach". For the opening night, the Imperial Military Band was engaged to entertain patrons in "what is considered a health-giving recreation"”

Charles was fighting an ebbing tide, however. Roller skating no longer appealed to the public the way it had in the Victorian period, and the venture was short-lived. The Windmill Lane Rink closed in 1912; the site was sold and converted into a cinema, named the Rink Picture House.

Recognising that times had changed, Charles Bernard embarked on a new career as a cinema manager. His first appointment was at the Criterion Picture House, Dudley (“steering it out of very shallow waters” according to one account) before moving to the Elite Picture House in Handsworth. An article published by Ideal Films Ltd, a film distributor, quotes him as favouring "sound, sensible stories" and warning that "the most elaborate and expensive productions do not necessarily please audiences the most".

Charles had married Mary Ann Jones, known as 'Polly', in May 1882. They married at Coventry Register Office, even though neither had any association with Coventry, apparently to keep it a secret from the rest of the family. Only much later did their daughter, Lilian Wheelwright learn that her parents were not married at the time of her birth in December 1879. As the 'Champion of All England', Charles would, no doubt, have attracted a lot of female attention and Polly may have been a 'groupie' associating with the skating fraternity. The couple went on to have two other children: Bernard, who served as an ambulance driver in the First World War (possibly as a conscientious objector) and died without issue; and Charles Randolph (known as 'Ran'), whose many descendants live mainly in the Solihull area.

Charles Bernard died around March 1939, aged 77.

Database entry | In Memoriam

Royal Rinking, Brussels