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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tipper, Alfred Henry (1867–1944)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Alfred Henry Tipper (1867-1944), cyclist and showman, was born on 12 July 1867 at Sale, Victoria, second son of Thomas Tipper, a grocer from England, and his Irish-born wife Catherine, née Chadwick. Alfred claimed to have been abandoned by his parents at the age of 2 and brought up as a ward of the state. In his youth he worked on a dairy farm and also acquired a considerable knowledge of mechanics. He took up competitive cycling in the 1880s, during the early stages of the boom in that sport.

Following the trend for undertaking long distances, Tipper rode from Sydney to Melbourne in 1896, carrying a 70-lb. (32 kg) swag. He built an enduring career by combining cycling with showmanship and mechanical ingenuity. In 1904-24 he produced a series of miniature bicycles, ranging from 4½ ins (11 cm) to 10 ins (25 cm) in height. In 1908 he set out to work and ride his way around the world. He began his journey with just one penny in his pocket and returned, after six years and 85,000 miles (136,794 km), with four shillings and sixpence. While in Britain and the United States of America, he perfected his 'singing and comedy cycling act' which sustained him for years to come in his travels around Australia.

By the 1930s Tipper was part-owner of a bicycle shop at Richmond, Melbourne. He lived in a horse-drawn caravan, constructed from the body of an old Ford motorcar. Known as 'Professor' Tipper, he cultivated a flowing white beard and advocated simple diet and 'rational dress'. His 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm) frame remained supple in his seventies, and he often wore only a thin shirt and 'little short pants'. The 'professor's' gift for publicity was undimmed. In summer months he toured with a selection of his seventy bicycles, performing trick cycling and teaching children to ride. He was presumably the first person to ride a five-inch (13 cm) bicycle while singing Highlands and Lowlands.

Tipper produced postcards documenting his achievements and worked at developing a pedal-powered aeroplane. He died on 2 April 1944 in Royal Melbourne Hospital and was buried in Fawkner cemetery. His death certificate stated that he was married, but when, where and to whom remain unknown. The sale of his effects realized £4 5s. His possessions included five works of art—signed 'H. D.' but possibly painted by him—which were later displayed in the window of a bicycle shop in the city. The paintings, showing Tipper and his bicycles set against backdrops of Australian towns and countryside, caught the eye of Albert Tucker, and featured on the cover of Angry Penguins in December 1944. Tucker acclaimed the works as those of a 'natural artist', possessing a 'startling sense of life expressed through an unfaltering sense of form, pattern, texture and color'. He asserted that 'problems of style and technique' mattered little for the 'primitive' painter; 'the sustained intensity of his vision' solved them for him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors (Melb, 1981)
  • Copping it Sweet: Shared Memories of Richmond (Melb, 1988)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1939, 3 Apr 1944
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 Aug 1945.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Tipper, Alfred Henry (1867–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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