Champion Cyclist's Messy Divorce

Tuesday 31 July 2018

More than a decade after he broke New Zealand cycling records, Harry Thompson was in the papers again – but this time, it was his sensational divorce making the headlines.

Cartoon NZ Truth 24 May 1919

A cartoon of Thompson in his role as Clerk of the Course at the Canterbury Jockey Club. NZ Truth, 24 May 1919

How did he go from well-known cycling champion to bankrupt and being divorced on the grounds of “misconduct, habitual drunkenness and cruelty”?

Julia Bradshaw, Senior Curator Human History, did some digging into Thompson’s colourful life after his great-nephew presented the Museum with a collection of his cycling awards.

The collection included badges and a plaque won in 1896, the year Thompson broke all New Zealand amateur records for cycling from the half mile to 25 miles inclusive, as well as the Australasian records for three and 25 miles.

Thompson had joined Christchurch’s Pioneer Cycle Club in the early 1890s. In 1899 he won the one, three, five and 10 mile New Zealand Championships.

A decade later, his wife, Ellen, filed for divorce. Divorces were rare at the time, which is perhaps why the NZ Truth described the court case as having “considerable Christchurch interest”.

The NZ Truth reported the case in extensive detail. Harry and Ellen had married in 1886, but in court she alleged Harry had had several affairs throughout their marriage.

The final straw for Ellen came in 1909 when she discovered Harry, previously a bookbinder and printer but now running Coker’s Hotel on Manchester Street, was having an affair with Madame Alberga, a guest at the hotel. Ellen successfully filed for divorce in 1910.

Madame Alberga, who had come from London to head the showroom at the department store D.I.C., may well have lost her job after the publicity.

By the time of his divorce Harry had given up cycling but was for many years Clerk of the Course for the Canterbury Jockey Club. A cartoon of him in this role appeared in the NZ Truth in 1919.

Thompson remarried some time after the divorce and died suddenly while out walking with his second wife in 1929. He was 64. Ellen remarried in 1911 and died in 1943.

Pioneer Bicycle Club

Harry Thompson, third from left in the back row, was a member of Christchurch's Pioneer Bicycle Club. Canterbury Museum 19XX.2.5026


A family member gifted to the Museum the badges Thompson won in 1896 when he broke cycling records. Canterbury Museum 2018.70.2

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