The diaries of Sidney Thomas Albert (Tom) Flinn of Plaistow in east London, which cover 1932-1952, are among the longest and most detailed in our holdings. They are part of the National Cycle Archive because descriptions of Flinn’s extensive leisure cycling form a core part of their content, but his diligent recording of other aspects of his life as well give them a wider interest.
Flinn was born on 11 June 1911. During the period covered by these diary extracts, he was living with his parents (he appears to have had no siblings) in a rented house at 142 Kingsland Road, Plaistow, London E13 (they had unrealised aspirations to move somewhere more rural), and he had an office job in Paddington Street, Marylebone. Presumably as a means of bettering himself, after work he was attending local evening classes, mainly in construction and mathematics but also in English and French. His father had worked at the wood wharf at the West India Dock, and his mother seems to have performed the traditional tasks of the housewife. A clue to their socio-economic status is the fact that they took the Labour-supporting newspaper, the Daily Herald. Overall they give the impression of being a closely-knit little family living quiet and respectable lives. Various other relatives appear in the diaries, with a bus-driver, a clergyman (successively incumbent of Claxton in Norfolk and Cheswardine in Shropshire) and a sheet-metal worker numbering amongst the uncles.
A dedicated and informative cyclist
The diaries’ cycling content is the reason why we hold them. It does not actually start until March 1932 when Flinn purchases a new bike, but from then on it is a major feature. Almost every Sunday, and usually regardless of the actual or prospective weather or the time of year, he went on day rides to parts of Essex and other counties within reach of his home (for the seriously fit at least). These usually took several hours and could total over a hundred miles. In the spring and summer he undertook more extensive weekend and two-week tours (sometimes including outward and return train travel) to more distant areas. These took him as far afield as Devon, north Wales and Northumberland, and entailed several hundred miles of riding. He often used lodgings listed in the Cyclists' Touring Club handbook, and sometimes he stayed with relatives or camped. He had to contend with unfavourable weather, poor road surfaces, punctures and other mechanical mishaps, inadequate signposting, busy traffic and challenging terrain, but his enthusiasm seldom seems to have flagged. And all this on a three-speed bike (often laden with luggage) which must have been much harder to get up hills (he does admit to walking sometimes) than a modern lightweight multi-geared machine.
As if the extent of his rides were not impressive enough, he also managed to record them in great detail, both with regard to the routes taken and the places visited. On the whole his tone is enthusiastic, occasionally even rhapsodic, but it could also be negative, sometimes surprisingly so: he is disappointed by the dimensions of York Minster (26 June 1934), he describes the Bronte village of Haworth as “a hole” (apparently because it was difficult to cycle through) (1 July 1934), he is completely dismissive of Stonehenge, describing it as “an undoubted swiz” (20 April 1935), and his comparison of Cambridge to Canning Town was not meant as a compliment to the former (5 May 1935).
He seems to have ridden alone until he teamed up with Frank Brett in 1934 (we only learn Brett’s first name about eighteen months after he first appears), a fellow night-school student. Their relationship did not always run smoothly, one reason being Brett’s unpunctuality and another being Flinn’s liking for the complete freedom that riding solo gave him. But they still covered many miles together reasonably amicably, even putting up with one another in the close confines of a tent.
For those interested in the social impact of cycling, Flinn’s exploits are evidence of the broadened geographical horizons offered by the bicycle to people of fairly modest means (as well as strong legs and lungs) in the 1930s. On a related theme, the diaries also show that buses, trains and trams also provided ample means of exploration for those without a car, especially in London and especially for people with Flinn’s apparent forte for journey-planning. They are also a source for the study of the reactions of visitors to certain places in various periods (has anyone else been quite so unimpressed by Stonehenge?). For students of the technical aspects of cycling, Flinn also provides plenty of information about the two cycles and their components and accessories which he used in this period.
Radio, railways, planes, books, films and opera
As well as cycling, Flinn also documents his other enthusiasms, including the technicalities of radio or wireless (he was an avid listener too), railways both real and model, telephony, aviation and other things electrical and mechanical. The diaries also give a detailed picture of him as a ‘consumer’ of culture. He records the many books (mainly non-fiction and classics) and the classical piano scores (which he attempted with varying success to play at home) which he borrowed from local libraries, the radio broadcasts he listened to, the films he watched, the musical and theatrical performances he attended and the museums and exhibitions he visited.
Probably like most of the urban population of the time, he was a frequent cinema-goer. Perhaps more surprisingly, he was also an opera fan (but not an uncritical one), attending performances at Sadler's Wells and the Old Vic with his parents and friends. It is interesting to note that their relatively modest means did not prevent them from doing so, and that Flinn reports long queues for this form of culture as well as for the ‘pictures’.
He often gives pithy verdicts on films and other cultural productions, with ‘bilge’ being a favourite critical epithet, applied to the storyline of King Kong, for instance (23 September 1933; he was impressed with the film's photography). His enjoyment of pantomime, Laurel and Hardy and Mickey Mouse shows that he was not exclusively 'high-brow', but he could be scathing about some aspects of contemporary popular culture. He refers to a radio relay from New York as consisting of “nearly all groaning and yelling jazz” which leads him to switch off promptly (11 January 1932), and to another radio feature, 50 years of songs, as including "many of the old favourites right up to the trash of the present day” (15 April 1933). Radio plays could also attract his contempt: one such, Dallas Bower's Catastrophe, is described as “an effort on the part of the B.B.C. to show what the effects department could do if it tried. A great row supported by bilge” (11 February 1932). On the other hand, the films The camels are coming, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Treasure Island (a varied trio), were among those which met with his approval (5 & 11 January 1935).
For more detail on this aspect of the diaries, see this list of Flinn's cultural and hobby-related activities, which includes relevant diary quotations.
Style and character
The diaries are mainly written in a careful, rather formal (sometimes slightly pompous) style interspersed with colloquialisms and the occasional quaint turn of phrase. In the very first entry on 1 January 1932, for example, "the feline skedaddled into oblivion" is the way he describes the flight of the skittish office cat. In later entries, he refers to letters from relatives "congratulating me on the 21st anniversary of my birth" (11 June 1932), describes some cycling trousers as having “caused some embarrassment owing to rending in the rear part” (17 June 1932) and reports after an over-long bike ride that “the rear portion of my abdomen aches a good deal" (15 October 1933). It is debatable whether such phrases are consciously humorous of just decorous, but in general the diary’s style is probably a reflection of Flinn as an earnest and decent young man with a sometimes self-deprecating sense of humour. As he himself writes in the 1932 preface in which he sets out the diary’s principles: “I hope to be able to give any reader of these notes some idea of my character, habits, etc. merely by the tone of my writings.” The preface provides further evidence that he was writing for a potential audience beyond himself in his declared intention to “censure [sic] all entries so that they may be fit for publication without any curtailment or omission.” Presumably as part of this self-censorship, certain people are referred to only by abbreviations, although in some cases more about their identity is revealed later.
He also states his intention in the preface not to “talk shop”, and indeed the diary is mainly a record of his leisure pursuits, his family life and his educational endeavours. There are plenty of references to his commuting journeys and some to his colleagues, but there is not much on the nature of his work. Also in keeping with this opening statement, politics and economics feature only factually and very fleetingly, and references to events in the wider world are largely limited to those reflecting Flinn’s particular interests, such as the splitting of the atom (2 May 1932), the discovery of ‘heavy water’ (31 January 1934) and the London to Melbourne air race (October-November 1934).
Facts, stats, weather and ailments
The diaries also reveal Flinn’s supposedly typically male penchant for making lists and recording detail and statistics relating to his interests and activities, such as radio and other electrical equipment, public transport fares, timetables and journeys, his expenditure and, of course, his cycling expeditions and his bike and associated equipment. Another supposed stereotype, in this case of the British in general, is illustrated by his numerous remarks about the weather, including fog, torrential rain and extremes of cold and heat. Understandably, these are mainly about the effects on him personally, especially on his commutes and bike rides, but there are also general references to drought. He also mentions his ailments (as well as supposed remedies), including characteristic tallies of the number of handkerchiefs used during bouts of cold (2-4 October 1933, 21 February 1934). He does not always shy away from unpleasant detail either, recording a diagnosis of ringworm (1 and 13 February 1932), vomiting on a new bedroom carpet (19 March 1933) and a face swollen to pig-like proportions by an abscess (2 April 1933).
Tall and bespectacled (and probably slim)
We do not have a photograph of Flinn, but he refers to his wearing glasses and on 25 October 1935 he gives his height as 6 foot 3 and a quarter inches (the ‘quarter’ is typical Flinn). Given his prodigious cycling efforts, often undertaken on meagre rations, we can safely assume that he was not over-weight.
A different kind of Pepys
Apart from being a prolific diarist and a Londoner (and sometimes writing ‘methinks’), Tom Flinn did not have much in common with Samuel Pepys. But in leaving us a detailed and engaging record of a life being lived to the full within its limits he can perhaps be seen as being in the same broad tradition as his more illustrious predecessor.
Below are recordings of monthly extracts from the first four volumes of the diaries. Click or tap on the date headings to listen. The full transcripts from which these selections are taken, together with summaries of each volume of the diaries, can be seen in our catalogue.
Roughly contemporary photographs and drawings of some of the places visited or passed through by Flinn, with quotations and summaries of his comments, are included under the relevant months. They are from the following collections:
Cyclists' Touring Club archive
Lantern slides and negatives including those of Neville Whall ('Hodites'), CTC assistant secretary in the 1920s, and W.M. Robinson ('Wayfarer'), cyclist, writer and photographer (references beginning MSS.328/C/12/3).
Drawings by Frank Patterson (1871-1952), cycling artist (references beginning MSS.328/C/12/6).
National Cycle Archive
Lantern slides by William Fitzwater Wray ('Kuklos') (fl.1907-1958), cyclist, writer and lecturer (references beginning MSS.328/N104/K).
Opening manifesto; forgetting a tax receipt; the office cat; maths and English at night school; sore feet; oversleeping on the train; saving for the future; a submarine disaster; train ticket frustration.
Trade depression continues; crowded trains; feet and arms diagnosis and treatment; promised improvement of World Radio magazine; the office cat (again); fatigue and hunger at evening class; fun at Cinderella; less fun at the Wallace Collection; a bad cold; unsuccessful knitting; designing a model railway; housework with dad during mum’s illness.
An English gold-rush; a stroll from Sadler’s Wells to Smthfield; purchase of a bike and first ride on it; toothache; exciting excursion to the Great Western Railway workshops in Swindon.
The magic flute (poor) and La Boheme (better) at Sadler's Wells; the Model Railway Exhibition; tiny Greensted church; bird life; aching knees; spring cleaning.
Greensted church, Essex: "the smallest church I have ever seen. Apart from the choir I doubt if it would hold more than twenty persons." (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/195).
The splitting of the atom; suffering the ‘bonk’; a tough English exam; BBC review of ten years of broadcasting; Frankenstein; interesting radio talks; radio bargains in Petticoat Lane and Bishopsgate.
A successful Derby bet; visit to London Zoo; the Royal Tournament; 21st birthday gifts; packed air show at Hendon; half-year diary review.
Holiday with parents in Cromer, visiting Sheringham, Yarmouth, Wells, Norwich, Lowestoft and Mundesley.
Wells-next-the-Sea: a misnomer when the tide was out (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/683).
Norwich: a "most interesting" museum and an "enchanting" cathedral (MSS.328/C/12/3/4/3).
Lowestoft: "more pleasant altogether" than Yarmouth (MSS.328/C/12/3/11/32). Visited again in May 1934.
Renewed statement of diary intent; Mother Goose starring George Lacy; starting a building course at night school; savings schemes; a lost greyhound.
Unimpressed with the Tower of London; battling snow on the bike; using additional library tickets.
Planning an Easter trip to Norfolk; mathematics and geometry; playing various musical scores; a yodelling concert; throwing-up after a 99-mile ride; bad toothache.
Amateur performance of The ghost train; toothache persists; parents’ unflattering descriptions of swollen face; Easter visit to relatives in Norfolk; fire at West India Dock; a dying dog.
The mummy with Boris Karloff; thrilling undersea documentary; new bridge at Canning Town; walking and cycling compared; no luck in the Derby; offers from the Daily Herald.
Gnat bites; a summer cold snap; encounter with a colourful exotic; a rainy air pageant at Hendon
Reorganisation of London public transport; wireless woes; detailed inventory for forthcoming tour.
750-mile tour taking in Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire (including the Peak District), Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
Stratford-on-Avon: nice Tudor buildings but "an eyesore" of a theatre (MSS.328/C/12/3/2/91).
Meriden (cyclists' memorial): kept awake by the main road (MSS.328/C/12/3/2/90).
Lincoln: unlikeable hosts but a first-class cathedral tour (MSS.328/C/12/3/9/9).
Boston 'Stump' (St Botolph's church): difficult to photograph (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/484).
Crowland Abbey: resting-place of Hereward the Wake (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/137).
Castle Rising (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/505).
Le Strange Arms, Old Hunstanton (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/550).
Cley-next-the-Sea church (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/508).
Outings with visiting Norfolk cousins to the London docks, the South Kensington museums and elsewhere; a possible sweepstake scam; an Essex stroll; expensive new glasses; a 19th-century railway accident.
Plans to study surveying; more on the railway accident; visit to Hampton Court; verdict on King Kong.
Nose-blowings and handkerchief usage figures; abdominal aches after an over-long ride; brickwork and geometry fatigue; winter arrives; The marriage of Figaro at Sadler’s Wells.
A tryst for ten years hence; more building and geometry frustration; Carmen at the Old Vic; the Public Works Exhibition; a non-working silver wedding clock; the Cycle Show; a plethora of radio stations.
Radio joy; a missing neighbour makes the news; a useless teacher departs; Christmas Day radio; colds galore; annual bike mileage; diary resolutions.
London fog causes transport disruption; European radio wavelength changes; the discovery of heavy water; a fatal balloon crash.
Another handkerchief-intensive cold; a pantomime at the Lyceum; new glasses needed.
A troublesome vacuum cleaner; effect of new glasses; abortive plans to move to Buckinghamshire; planning and beginning an Easter tour from High Wycombe to Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Berkshire with Frank Brett.
The Easter tour continued and completed; specifying and ordering a new bike; everyday tales of Shropshire folk; a commentator gets carried away at the Cup Final.
Burford: "a very charming town built for the most part of yellow stone." (MSS.328/C/12/3/4/12).
Compleat Angler Hotel, Marlow (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/292).
Impressive photography in The invisible man; collection of the new bike; a train-assisted trip to Suffolk and Norfolk with Brett; adjustment of the bike; nabbed for being without lights.
Railway rolling-stock exhibition at Ilford; drought; full specifications of the new bike; fined at Romford magistrates’ court; tour through Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire (including the Peak District), Yorkshire (including York and Whitby), County Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland (but not the Lake District) and Yorkshire.
York Minster: "It did not seem nearly so vast as I had imagined" (MSS.328/N104/K/6/30).
Whitby: Flinn stayed in the Jolly Sailors by the harbour (MSS.328/C/12/3/4/36).
Skipton Castle (MSS.328/C/12/3/14/32).
Tour continued through Yorkshire, Derbyshire again, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Somerset (and home by train); lifetime latitude and altitude records achieved; specifications of a new camera; photographic results; getting fed up with Brett; kept awake by a mimic air-raid.
Sparrowpit, Derbyshire (MSS.328/C/12/6/5/6/1).
Bridgnorth: "a real old country town" (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/488). Flinn and Brett visited again in July 1935 and paddled in a stream.
Worcester: Flinn refreshed himself with a Wall's 'Snofrute' here (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/692).
Bristol: "like another London." (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/95).
George Hotel/Pilgrim's Inn, Glastonbury: Flinn bought some new shoes in this town and visited the abbey (MSS.328/N104/K/12/23).
Cheddar Gorge: "a disappointment at its lower end owing to the number of shops which make it appear more like a seaside town than a country village but further up and away from the crowd the scenery is certainly wonderful" (MSS.328/N104/K/11/16).
Wells Cathedral clock: Flinn was disappointed with its 6’ 4½” diameter, but "the mechanism does all I had expected of it." (MSS.328/C/12/3/7/50).
To the pictures twice in a week for the first time since 1923; aerial observation of London traffic; live show at the Radio Exhibition; busy at work.
Tired out by extra working hours; starting a building science course with a good teacher but expensive text books.
Challenging technical drawing; unimpressed by George Robey; visit to the Broomway marine causeway at Foulness; exciting London to Melbourne air race; speaker calamity.
Air race results; an excellent Die Fledermaus at Sadler’s Wells; delayed by royal wedding crowds.
Wild weather on a ride into Cambridgeshire; Christmas Day radio, cards and reading into the early hours; Boxing Day bike maintenance; annual cycling mileage and expenditure.
Diary resolutions; Die Fledermaus at the Old Vic; The camels are coming, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Treasure Island; making and testing cement briquettes.
The man who knew too much, Mrs. Wigg of the cabbage patch and performing pigeons; glimpses of an impressive castle; disappointed by The Count of Monte Christo.
A sobering war film; ride into the Surrey hills; introducing a friend to opera with The Barber of Seville at Sadler’s Wells; driving test a deterrent to motor bike purchase.
Burford Bridge Hotel, Box Hill: Flinn and Brett had a misty view from the hilltop (MSS.328/N104/K/12/17).
Easter tour to Hampshire, Wiltshire (completely underwhelmed by Stonehenge), Dorset, Devon and Somerset; a bereavement; preparations for the king’s silver jubilee.
Cerne Abbas, Dorset: "a pretty little town but we didn’t tarry" (MSS.328/C/12/6/8).
Tour to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire (Cambridge compared to Canning Town), Suffolk and Essex; more vacuum cleaner woe; jubilee illuminations in London; another attempt to follow the Broomway; a disappointing house viewing; buying a sleeping bag and other camping gear; ‘Die Fledermaus’ at the Old Vic.
Long Melford, Suffolk (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/282).
Dedham Bridge, Suffolk (MSS.328/C/12/6/5/9). Flinn "couldn’t see anything to go mad about" nearby Flatford Mill when he visited in July 1933.
Three ‘trial’ camping weekends in Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire, and the cooking and sleeping lessons learned; death of a vacuum.
View from Charing Hill, Kent: Flinn and Brett camped at a café here (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/108).
Another camping weekend to Buckinghamshire; apportioning loads for the tour; first week of camping tour to Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire (including visit to Uncle Jim and Auntie Lil [Pasterfield] at Cheswardine Rectory), Cheshire (including Chester), Snowdonia and Anglesey.
Chester: "We spent a very good hour and a half and were sorry we hadn’t any time to see things more thoroughly." (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/110).
Llanberis pass: "magnificent views" and a 30 mph descent into the crowded town (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/253).
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch railway station, Anglesey: "We crossed the railway at the village whose name seems as if it will never end" (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/249).
Caernarfon Castle: Flinn and Brett passed through on the 18th and inadvertently returned for lunch the following day (MSS.328/N104/K/6/14).
Tour continued through north and mid Wales, the Wye Valley, Herefordshire and the Cotswolds; back to working overtime; tour mileage; a lethargic day ride (by Flinn standards); alas, poor Havering!; spectacular lightning.
Beddgelert, "of which I remember nothing except that it was pouring with rain." (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/39).
Bala Lake: a welcome dry camping-place nearby (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/29).
Tal-y-Llyn pass: there were startling roadside waterfalls on the road down to the lake (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/412).
The Dulas Valley, Corris: "we descended a very winding valley through a lot of ugly slate built half-ruinous villages" (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/160).
The Rheidol Valley: beautiful views obscured by trees lower down (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/348).
Devil's Bridge (MSS.328/N104/K/5/4).
Hereford: "a disappointing place" (MSS.328/C/12/3/15/546).
Symond's Yat: exasperating confusion over location of lodgings (MSS.328/C/12/3/1/18).
Tintern Abbey: "a marvellous ruin" in "exceptionally beautiful" scenery (MSS.328/C/12/3/6/51).
Chepstow: visited on early-closing day (MSS.328/N104/K/7/14).
Bourton-on-the-Water: "one of the prettiest villages we have ever seen." (MSS.328/C/12/3/2/101).