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Burton [née Charnock], Berylfree

(1937–1996)
  • Wray Vamplew

Burton [née Charnock], Beryl (1937–1996), cyclist, was born on 12 May 1937 at 3 Howard Avenue, Halton, Leeds, the second daughter in the family of three children of John Henry Charnock, motor engineer, and his wife, Jessie May, née Williamson. As a child she suffered from chronic ill health. Chorea and rheumatic fever kept her in hospital and then in a convalescent home for fifteen months. She had resultant speech difficulties and for a while was paralysed down one side of her body. Her education suffered and she left Stainbeck secondary school, Leeds, at fifteen. She was working as a clerk in a clothing factory when she met Charles Robert (Charlie) Burton, eight years her senior. He was also a clerk, and the son of Abraham Burton, labourer. They married on 2 April 1955. Charlie introduced her to club cycling and then competitive racing, a sport that she dominated for over quarter of a century by winning fifteen world championship medals and 120 British national titles.

Burton's first season of serious competition was 1957, when she finished second in the national 100 mile time trial. Two years later, at Liège, BB—as she was affectionately known within the cycling fraternity—became world 3000 metres track pursuit champion. She successfully defended that title in 1960 in Leipzig and won it three more times, and also gained three second and four third places. Domestically she was national pursuit champion thirteen times. Yet distance-cycling on the road, either in bunched racing or time trials, rather than the shorter track events was her real love. She was world road-racing champion twice and national champion twelve times. In unpaced time trials her record was formidable. Although there were no world or European titles in this genre of the sport, she was British 25 mile champion twenty-five times, 50 mile champion twenty-three times, 100 mile champion eighteen times, and best all-rounder—where all three events are taken into consideration—for twenty-five successive years. She was the first woman to beat one hour for 25 miles, two hours for 50 miles, and four hours for 100 miles. In 1967 she became the only woman ever to beat a men's record when in twelve hours she rode 277.25 miles.

Although she was appointed MBE in 1964 and was advanced to OBE four years later, Burton never felt that her accomplishments were adequately recognized by the media. In Europe she was acclaimed, but in Britain the poor coverage given to women's cycling meant that few heard of her outstanding performances. Charlie Burton worked as an accounts clerk but devoted much of his time to managing his wife's cycling career and acting as her mechanic. Beryl herself earned some income and helped her physical fitness by labouring in local market gardens and rhubarb farms. The Burton family were not well off, especially when they had to finance many of her early trips abroad themselves, but she refused to turn professional despite the entreaties of Raleigh, the British cycle manufacturers. She also stayed loyal to her first club, Morley cycling club, even though it never became one sponsored by the cycle industry.

Burton's daughter, Denise, was born in January 1956 and was almost literally brought up in the saddle, on a rear seat of her mother's bicycle. As a family the Burton trio cycled the country for pleasure and established a Christmas routine of cycling and staying in youth hostels. Almost inevitably Denise became a competitive cyclist, and mother and daughter twice lined up together to represent Britain in world road-race championships. However, relations became strained as they emerged as racing rivals in the 1970s, a situation aggravated by domestic circumstances, as Denise still lived at home. After Denise outsprinted her mother to win the national road-race title in 1975, the fiercely competitive Beryl Burton refused to shake hands with her on the podium. Nevertheless an emotional public reconciliation followed, and eight days before Burton's death the pair won the team prize in a local time trial.

In 1978 Burton broke her right leg and shoulder blade and had fifty-six stitches in her face when a motorist knocked her off her bike, but this did not deter her and she continued to ride competitively, always seeking to beat targets that she had set herself. She won her last national title in 1988. Later, although she had no chance of titles, she continued to ride in national championships because she loved the sport. Indeed she was scheduled to ride in the national 10 mile time trial the day before her fifty-ninth birthday. However, on 5 May 1996 she failed to return from a training run and was found lying beside her bike in Skipton Road, Harrogate. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Harrogate District Hospital. An inquest found that she died of natural causes, of heart problems perhaps associated with her childhood illness. She was survived by her husband, Charlie, and daughter, Denise.

Sources

  • B. Burton, Personal best: the autobiography of Beryl Burton (1986)
  • The Times (6 May 1996)
  • The Times (8 May 1996)
  • The Independent (7 May 1996)
  • The Guardian (7 May 1996)
  • Daily Telegraph (7 May 1996)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1961, repro. in Daily Telegraph
  • J. Pratt, photograph, 1962, repro. in J. Huntington-Whiteley, ed., The book of British sporting heroes (1998), 57 [exhibition catalogue, NPG, 16 Oct 1998 – 24 Jan 1999]
  • group portrait, photograph, repro. in The Times (8 May 1996)
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

under £180,000: administration, 5 Aug 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales