From convict stock to cycling aristocracy

READY TO RIDE: Stewart Bonser berore the 2009 Collie to Donnnybrook Cycle Classic.
READY TO RIDE: Stewart Bonser berore the 2009 Collie to Donnnybrook Cycle Classic.

Sunday, the day before brilliant educator and former Collie cyclist “Stewie” Bonser was buried, was the 50th anniversary of the day that the Bonser cousins made a clean sweep of the Lowry Memorial road cycle race. Rodney was first, Graham second and Stewart set the fastest time. He was farewelled by friends and family just a week before this year’s Lowry. His sister, ELLEN, and brother-in law, EVAN STRUDWICK, compiled this tribute.

STEWART Andrew Bonser was born in Northam on June 13, 1941, to Edward (Stewie) and Jeanie May Bonser. He was the middle child of three, flanked by sisters Elizabeth (Betty) born in 1939 and Ellen in 1946.

The Bonsers were descendents of John Bonser, a convict deported from England to Fremantle in 1851 for assisting the removal of lead flashing from the local cricket ground buildings. This was not a topic that seemed of much interest to Stewart, but whenever he and his wife with their three children visited “Pop” Bonser in Collie, the boys in particular loved hearing the stories of their convict heritage.

In 1947 the Bonser family moved to Collie. Edward (Stewie) had visited the town some 10 years earlier when he and his brother Bill (Toti) cycled from Northam to compete in the 1937 Collie to Donnybrook cycle race. Stewie recorded a historic win.

Stewart attended St Brigid’s School in the primary years, then St Edmund’s CBC until third year. He finished fourth and fifth years at Collie Senior High.

After school and at weekends he joined with the other kids in Atkinson Street and enjoyed a relatively free range lifestyle, playing, swimming and later cycling. Although money was hard to come by, life was relatively trouble-free. Stewart also enjoyed catching and riding any stray horses with his mates.

Stewart’s interest in competitive cycling was initiated by strong family connections to cycling as well as witnessing “Donnybrooks” in the early 1950s.

To Stewart, this was both a spectacle and a sporting inspiration. His enticement into cycling competition came with the construction of a new velodrome in 1957. That attracted a large number of budding cyclists to participate in Collie Cycle Club events.

When interviewed two years ago, Stewart said if it had not been for Johnny “Davo” Davidson pulling him out of bed on cold Saturday mornings to work on “Boothey’s bread-cart” he may never have contested a bike race. It was through “Davo” that he mustered the ten quid (10 bob a week) to pay a bike shop proprietor to renovate the Super Elliot frame left to him by his uncle, Bill ‘Toti’ Bonser.

Stewart, like other young riders coming through the Collie club, learnt how to ride the banks of a velodrome, developing the skill and thrill of cycling whilst knowing Collie Cycle Club and Collie community support would come should he gain selection to compete at national championship level.

As a junior, Stewart developed alongside Ian Campbell, also of Collie. The pair represented WA at the national championships in Sydney in 1958.

In 1959 Stewart dominated the junior scene with first and fastest in the Fallen Riders from scratch and winning all state junior track championships. At the 1959 nationals in Port Pirie, South Australia, he had to settle for second in the Australian five-mile championship.

As a senior professional cyclist through to the mid-1960s, Stewart developed into an exciting, competitive road cyclist. He won the 1960 Collie to Donnybrook and return, as his father and uncle had done in the 1930s.

In 1984, Stewart was excited to see his nephew, the late Darren Strudwick, emulate what was a becoming a family tradition.

Stewart represented the state on five occasions and had an enviable record around state track cycling championships, winning 16 state junior and senior titles.

Stewart’s cycling career culminated in 1965, with a clean sweep of all five WA track titles.

He was the first rider in the annals of WA cycling to win all five state track championships in the same season, demonstrating his versatility. In the same road season further good form followed in winning the Wescobee 260 Mile Tour, gaining fastest time in the Midland 100 Mile and the “Donnybrook”.

But much of Stewart’s life was not about the bike. Advancing his and others’ education and was a very high priority.

On completing his Leaving Certificate in Collie in 1959, he moved to Perth. He worked for Elders Smith while attending the University of WA part-time to complete further subjects to gain entrance to Graylands Teachers’ College.

In 1961, as part of his teachers training, he wrote a thesis on the Development of Sport and Cultural on the Collie Coalfields, 1900–1960. Copies are in the Battye Library in Perth and the Collie Library.

During his time at Elders he met Kaye Hyland and they married in 1962 and raised three children.

His first school posting was to Bayswater. He then moved to a position as itinerant remedial teacher and was assigned to areas around Midland Junction. He did part-time tutoring of live-in students at Guildford Grammar and taught English to migrants at Mt Lawley after-hours.

He took a gap year to gain a Diploma in Education and this very much whetted his appetite for further education, working part time to support his family.

In the late 1960s he moved back into the education system as deputy principal of Greenwood Primary School.

He again returned to part-time studies at UWA, gaining a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Education and a Master of Education and completing a number of theses on education.

In the early 1980s he accepted a position as a tutoring supervisor at Murdoch University, which also involved travelling and living in a caravan to most areas of WA, advancing and teaching children with learning difficulties.

Stewart’s and Kaye’s life journey took different paths late in the 1970s.

In the early 1980s he met Shirley Grundy, a Murdoch University academic (later professor) with similar interests. They became partners, remaining so for some 30 years.

Together they moved through a number of universities including Armidale in New South Wales, Deakin in Geelong, Victoria, and culminating with Shirley’s appointment as the first woman dean of Hong Kong University in 2006.

During this time Stewart also worked in Hong Kong in various roles, producing many papers, referred to today by visionaries in education.

In 2000 he was engaged as cultural and education adviser to the North Lake Residents’ Association opposing the extension to the Roe Highway through the Beeliar Regional Park near Perth. In part through his submissions, papers and lobbying the extension did not eventuate, thus Roe Highway as it is today.

Stewart was very proud of this achievement.

In 2010, while they were still in Hong Kong, Stewart’s partner unexpectedly passed away, leaving him shocked and deeply grieving. In her honour, he established a scholarship at Murdoch University.

Stewart moved back to Australia 20 months ago and re-established himself with some past cycling mates.

He was a regular on the coffee shop rides around Perth until the day of his fall from his bike resulting from a heart attack on Sunday, April 15. He remained unconscious during his stay in the intensive care unit where doctors also diagnosed a pre-existing blocked artery.

Stewart passed away peacefully on April 22. His brilliant mind had closed and the hill was just too steep to pedal up.

He is survived by his three adult children and grandchildren.