Sun, 14 Jun 2020
EC Wheeler Cycle Works, Cheap Street, c1904. The diamond frame design can clearly be seen in these bikes. NEBYM:1986.4.7
Bicycles revolutionised human transportation; they are a convenient, cheap and environmentally friendly way to move from place to place. Over the years, bicycles have transformed lives through leisure, sport, travel and have given people the freedom to go anywhere within their physical capabilities. To celebrate National Bike Week 2020 (June 6-14), this article, researched and written by West Berkshire Museum volunteer EMILY WELLS and curator JANINE FOX, briefly explores the history of the bike with photographs from the museum collection'
BEFORE the bicycle, various inventions of human-powered vehicles existed. However, the first mechanical two-wheeled cycle was created in Scotland in 1839 by a blacksmith called Kirkpatrick Macmillan. In France, the ‘boneshaker’ velocipede was a variant of the pedal bike and became extremely popular during the 1860s. It was given the nickname due to the uncomfortable ride caused by the iron frame, no springs and wooden wheels on cobbled streets. The high demand and manufacture rate made the velocipede one of the first mass-produced bicycles in the world.
In 1870, James Starley modified an earlier design by Eugene Meyer to create the penny-farthing or “high-bicycle”. This had a large front wheel and small back wheel, both with solid rubber tyres. The postcard NEBYM:1987.35.1 illustrates what this bike looked like. Penny-farthings were popular with male riders and also considered very dangerous to ride. Women at the time mostly used tandems or tricycles, which were more comfortable while wearing long dresses.
By the 1880s, the introduction of the safety bike increased accessibility and ownership of bicycles throughout the country. John Kemp Starley’s Rover bicycle was the first successful safety bike. It had equal-sized wheels and a chain to drive the rear wheel. In 1888 John Dunlop added pneumatic tyres to the design, making the bicycle faster and more comfortable. Photograph NEBYM:1986.4.7 of EC Wheeler Cycle Works, Cheap Street, illustrates the popularity of this new style of bicycle. The Raleigh Bicycle Company became a hugely-successful British manufacturer, but there were other lesser-known companies that saw short-term successes. Around 1911, Hercules Cycle and Motor Company Limited were producing 25 bicycles a week and by 1914 they were making 10,000 a year. This was a lot less than their rival Raleigh who could produce 100,000 annually by 1920. Despite having to halt production during the First World War to make shells, by 1928, Hercules became a major exporter of British bicycles, exporting one in five of all in total. By 1935 this had increased to 40 per cent of all British bicycles. Photograph 1989.22.1 shows local man Bert Ridge on his new Hercules bicycle in 1926.
The early 20th century saw positive changes for women’s independence and we can see those developments reflected in women’s fashion and bicycle design. Practical outfits were designed to make cycling easier for women, such as the bloomer costume consisting of trousers gathered at the ankle, worn with a calf length skirt and a jacket top. A design adaptation of a step-through frame was made to bicycles so women could easily mount and ride them in dresses and skirts. The photograph NEBYM:1996.2.3 shows a woman in the early 20th century on a bicycle with a step-through frame. Cycling has also been a part of many people’s lives from an early age. Bicycles featured more prominently during childhood when the National Cycling Proficiency Scheme launched in 1958. The photograph NEBYM: 1988.82.20 shows children playing on bicycles and go-carts at 6 Pembroke Road, Newbury.
Throughout the 20th century, cycling grew as a sport with the introduction of racing tournaments such as the Tour de France in 1903 and the Tour of Britain in 1945. Despite a turbulent start with the National Cyclist’s Union banning mass racing on the roads, cycling became a major British sport with many successful athletes. The photograph NEBYM:2015.6.392 shows the Tour of Britain navigating through Newbury in 2008.
The bicycle has led to greater freedoms, improved health and wellbeing for many people. As we strive for a greener future, bicycles will also play a more important role in helping people save the planet.
Images from top, courtesy of West Berkshire Museum:
Carte-de-visite of William Cave standing with a penny-farthing, photographer Thomas B Howe, 42 Northbrook Street, Newbury. Late 19th century NEBYM:1987.35.1.
Children playing on bicycles and go-carts at 6 Pembroke Road, Newbury, mid-20th century. NEBYM: 1988.82.20
‘Bert’ Ridge on his new Hercules bicycle around c. 1926. NEBYM:1989.22.1
Young woman and her bicycle with a step-through frame design, c1930. NEBYM:1996.2.3
Tour of Britain Cycle race stage 2 up Northbrook Street on September8, 2008. NEBYM:2015.6.390