Category Archives: Articles

1900 The Ladies’ Golden Sunbeam

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Where Helen sits, the darkness is so deep,

No Golden Sunbeam strikes athwart the gloom;

No mother’s smile, no glance of loving eyes,

Lightens the shadow of the lonely room.

*

Yet the clear whiteness of her radiant soul

Decks the dim walls, like angel vestments shed.

The lvoely light of holy inoocence

Shines like a halo round her bended head,

Where Helen sits.

**

Where Helen sits, the stillness is so deep,

No children’s laughter comes, no song of bird.

The great world storms along its noisy way,

But in this place no sound is ever heard.

***

Yet do her gentle thoughts make melody

Sweeter than aught from harp or viol flung;

And Love and Beauty, quiring each to each,

Sing as the stars of Eden’s morning sung,

Where Helen sits.

– Laura Elizabeth Richards, 1900 *

 Women were on the move. Stepping from the shadows of their menfolk, the new century promised freedom from the constraints of Victorian culture. The ‘humble’ bicycle seems less than humble when viewed through the eyes of a woman in 1900. The line No Golden Sunbeam strikes athwart the gloom in Laura Elizabeth Richards’ 1900 poem describes a blind person, but maybe also symbolises the experience of women in the Victorian era, with the rest of the poem inspiring women’s accomplishments despite being restricted by the things we now take for granted.

Independent travel is one thing most of us take for granted in the 21st century. Until we lose it, we may forget its empowerment. Riding a bike with wind in the hair is an exhilarating experience. And, if that is your first taste of travel alone, without a chaperone, just imagine that wonderful feeling of freedom. In the 1890s bicycles were fixed wheel and hard to ride. By comparison, with the advent of free-wheel hubs from 1898, this Golden Sunbeam was a totally state-of-the-art machine and its new back-pedal rim brake and front rim brake provided the ultimate in braking efficiency.

Sunbeam also encouraged women to service their own bikes. By owning a bicycle, a woman not only learned to ride, but could also master basic maintenance skills, such as replenishing the Sunbeam gear case. Observe the illustration above, and consider how that picture might have challenged a male-dominated society. Not necessarily encouraged by society to ride bicycles – female emancipation was a threat to the average man – a bicycle that was well-built and easy to maintain would have been a considerable advantage to a female rider. Judging by the proportion of ladies’ bicycles to gents’ bicycles that have survived in excellent original condition a century later, we can see that female riders did not use their bikes as much as men. Ownership was often as important as use, and women took much greater care of their machines, the bicycles often being passed down through their families as a symbol of their independence and achievements to inspire younger generations. What tales this 1900 Ladies Golden Sunbeam might tell if she could talk…

1900 The Ladies’ Golden Sunbeam

23″ frame

28″ Wheels (28 x 1 1/2″ tyres)

Frame No 40975

Sunbeam Back-pedal Rim Brake

Brooks B85 Lady’s Saddle

with Sunbeam’s Patent Saddle Pin

 

 

A 1900 Golden Sunbeam is easily identified by its ornate metal headbadge, instead of the transfer (decal) found on the headstock of later models.

 

   

MY FIRST VIEW OF THE 1900 GOLDEN SUNBEAM

I had never seen a Sunbeam as old as this before I received the photo below.

My good friend Howie Cohen worked for his dad in the 1950s, running a cycle shop in Los Angeles. They collected old bikes and put them into storage in case they needed the parts. This Golden Sunbeam remained in storage until he opened its crate in 2012. It was in remarkably well-preserved condition for a bicycle of this vintage. As you can see by comparing the photos, I’ve retained the original tyres but replaced the leather saddle top (which was built by the renowned English saddler Tony Colegrave).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BROOKS B85 LADY’S SADDLE &

THE GOLDEN SUNBEAM’S PATENT SADDLE PIN

  Sunbeams of this year were fitted with the company’s unique saddle pin. The illustration above shows the saddle fitted to the Gentlemens Golden Sunbeam, while below you can see the B85 Ladies saddle used on the Ladies’ model.

The saddle pin required a special saddle clamp.

The replacement leather saddle top was built by Tony Colegrave.

 

 

 

 

Classified advert for Brooks B85 saddle, The Star newspaper, New Zealand, 19th December, 1900

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 1900 SUNBEAM CATALOGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SUNBEAM BACK-PEDAL RIM BRAKE

 1900 SUNBEAM CATALOGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO LOCATIONS: Under Brighton Pier; St. Ann’s Well Gardens, Hove

LAURA ELIZABETH RICHARDS

“I would rather read poetry than eat my dinner any day. It has been so all my life.”

* Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed (1833-1908). An American Anthology, 1787-1900. 1900, Where Helen Sits

Laura Elizabeth Richards was born February 27, 1850, at 74 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, to distinguished parents and a home life that would early introduce her to the delights of language and fine arts as well as to a range of people and experiences. Her father, Samuel Gridley Howe, was the practical founder … of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in 1832. Howe’s star pupil — and Laura’s namesake — was Laura Bridgman, a child who had been left blind and deaf after a bout with scarlet fever at age two. When Bridgman was seven, Howe met her and brought her to Perkins, where she became the first blind and deaf person to learn language and ‘finger spell.’ (Another Perkins student, Anne Sullivan, later taught Helen Keller.) Richards’s mother, the poet Julia Ward Howe, is perhaps best known as the author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Info with thanks to – http://www.readseries.com/auth-oz/richardsbio.html

1913 Dursley Pedersen No 3 Cantilever Standard

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I may say that after 2000 miles on the Cantilever I would not return to the Diamond Frame for anything. There is no comparison between the two. I can take hills quite easily that are considered unrideable by string riders. I find side slip has no terrors for me now, on the Dursley Pedersen.

– C.J. Noyes, Eccles Old Rd, Manchester; 1910 Dursley Pedersen Catalogue

 

1913 Dursley Pedersen No 3 Cantilever Standard

with the Pedersen Frictionless 3-Speed Gear 26″ Aluminium Wheels

In the past few years, the Dursley Pedersen bicycle has been elevated to iconic status. They are now much harder to find …and prices have appreciated beyond the budget of the casual vintage rider and collector. Although some enthusiasts may complain, this situation is, of course, an accurate reflection of their original position in the bicycle market. 100 years ago they were also beyond the budget of all but the richest cyclists, one of the main factors in the failure of the company.

But, as well as being iconic, rare and sought-after, this particular machine has two extra attributes: it is a smaller size 3, making it much easier for me to ride; and it is totally original. Only the spokes have been rebuilt and new tyres fitted; otherwise it’s exactly as it left the factory. And, amazingly, as you can see, even 99 years of weathering has failed to make much of an impact on its metalwork.

 

SHORT VIDEO of DURSLEY PEDERSEN

on youtube

http://youtu.be/QFnq-BUWa-c

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DURSLEY PEDERSEN SADDLE

DURSLEY PEDERSEN WALL AUTOWHEEL

As you can see in the photo above, taken at the end of the Pioneer Run in Brighton in the 1950s, and also in the V-CC Dursley Pedersen Study Guide, below, the Wall Autowheel catalogue illustrated the autowheel fitted to a Dursley Pedersen, and some were used in this way. The bike is a far from satisfactory mate for the autowheel, being a very lightweight machine of thin tubes, rather than a heavyweight roadster like the BSA, which was the autowheel’s traditional pairing.

 

THE PEDERSEN FRICTIONLESS PEDERSEEN GEAR

1909 Resilient Royal Centaur

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This rapid steed which cannot stand

Follows the motion of my hand

An iron Centaur we ride the land

– Longfellow

This Resilient Centaur has so many unique (and interesting) features that it’s not easy to take it all in at first viewing. A new design of ‘Diagonal’ frame was introduced in 1909: It consists of the ordinary diamond frame with the addition of two diagonal stays running straight through from the top head lug to the back hub. These stays are not in the same plane as the main members of the frame, thereby avoiding vertical rigidity, but are outside, and on each side of it thereby giving increased lateral strength. The Twin Chain Stays are also noteworthy, as is Centaur’s unusual patent Spring Seat Pillar. Any of these features would be significant on their own. However, this Resilient Royal is also blessed with an option, introduced in 1909, which outshines them all …the Centaur Spring Fork.

The Spring Fork was no doubt a result of the company’s motorcycle design programme. Previously Townsend, Thos & Sons, the Centaur Bicycle Co was founded in 1875 by George Gilbert and Edward Mushing, at West Orchard, Coventry. The company produced one of the earliest examples of a full diamond frame from 1889 with the steering head of the early pivot type. Duplex chainstays were introduced in 1896, together with duplex seat stays, on some models. The business was incorporated by 1897 as the New Centaur Cycle Co Ltd with a 10% dividend paid in that year, 7% in the following year, but none in the next three years. The Centaur cross-frame was introduced in 1900 and called the ‘Featherweight’, priced at £25, and the catalogue provided that the bright parts could be silver plated at no extra cost. It was distinctive in having twin tubes from the top head lug through the rear fork end. The front forks were duplex, being formed with tube that had a figure of eight section. The first Centaur motorcycle, in 1901, sported a 3hp Humber engine and, by 1904, they used their own engines. The company was taken over by Humber in 1910, who continued to use the Centaur name until 1915. The Resilient Royal model was therefore only offered for one year by the Centaur Cycle Co, and the Spring Fork was dropped after Humber took over the company name.

 1909 Resilient Royal Centaur Roadster

 

 

THE CENTAUR SPRING FORK

CENTAUR No 2 HANDLEBARS + BALL HEAD & HANDLEBAR ADJUSTMENT

FRAME NUMBER

CENTAUR STEERING LOCK

As mentioned elsewhere, a ‘steering lock’ is not designed to prevent theft, rather it stops the handlebars turning so that the cycle can be leaned against (for example) a tree without falling over. Above the steering lock is disengaged; below it is engaged. It’s a good idea to disengage it before riding off…

THE SMITH SPRING SADDLE PILLAR

BROOKS GENTS B90 SADDLE, SIZE 2

STURMEY ARCHER ‘X’ THREE-SPEED GEARS

1909 CENTAUR CATALOGUE

CENTAUR OILER

I first saw this bicycle in 2008, and was struck by it immediately – love at first sight, as they say. It was owned by a friend who offered it to sell it to me; unfortunately I could not afford it at the time. Then, soon after, he decided to keep it. A year later, I came across this New Centaur Co oiler. I generally only buy accessories for bicycles I own, but I made an exception in this case in the hope that one day I’d get the bicycle to go with it. It seems to have worked. A customer asked me recently which was my favourite bike. When I hesitated to answer (the reason being I knew that’s the one he’d want to buy!), he asked ‘If there was a fire and you could only save one bike, which one would it be?’ Again I didn’t tell him. But it would be this one.

The oiler has this inscription on the other side.

I rarely restore cosmetically. So the Centaur has just been rubbed over with an oily rag before servicing it ready for riding. This machine is so well-appointed already, I see no need to overload it with accessories and fittings. So I’ve added only my scruffiest ‘ding dong’ bell. I hope to get plenty of road work in before winter is upon us.

ROYAL PAVILION, BRIGHTON

The Royal Pavilion was purchased from Queen Victoria as a result of the Brighton Improvement (Purchase of the Royal Pavilion and Grounds) Act 1850. This magnificent royal pleasure palace is the crowning glory of a city already blessed with a wonderful architectural heritage.

The Royal Pavilion, conceived as ‘a monument to style, finesse, technological excellence and above all pleasure,’ is only suitable as a photographic backdrop for certain vintage bicycles. ‘Royal’ models would seem to be the most appropriate. Manufacturers who had a ‘Royal’ line included Centaur, Premier, Sunbeam and Rover. Starley can be seen at the Royal Pavilion in 1887 in the picture below.

The Pavilion’s own personality tends to overwhelm a photo unless a bicycle possesses some unique qualities of its own. But the Resilient Royal Centaur must have been designed with the Pavilion’s criteria in mind …because this bicycle is also a ‘monument to style, finesse, technological excellence and above all pleasure.’

BENSON VETERAN CYCLE RALLY, 1st July, 2012

 

I rode the Centaur on the 2012 Benson Run. It performed admirably. I discovered an interesting design fault: it is impossible for the front brake to work with the sprung front forks. Although they pull on efficiently, when the front fork springs it releases the brake! I was told by a fellow Centaur owner that this front brake style was a Humber design rather than Centaur. Centaur was taken over by Humber in 1909, so we can only speculate whether the bicycle was unsold stock at the time of the takeover or if the customer preferred the option of a Humber front brake.

The unusual front lamp is an ‘X Rays’ manufactured by Adams & Westlake of Chicago, USA, and fitted with a British lamp holder bracket.

 

 

 ADAMS & WESTLAKE Mfg Co, Chicago, USA 

The company history started with a collaboration on 21st October, 1874 between John McGregor Adams of Londonderry, New Hampshire and William Westlake of Cornwall, England. They formed Adams & Westlake Mfg Coin 1857 in Chicago as a railroad supply and hardware manufacturer. The company became a top manufacturer of the 1800s, making (among other things) camping stoves, railway lamps, brass bedsteads, aluminium windows, cabinet hinges and travel trunks. They added cameras and cycle accessories to their product list in the late 1890s, and exhibited at the 1896 Grand Cycle Show at the Grand Central Palace, New York.

 

 

 

TO COMPARE THE 1911 CENTAUR LIGHTWEIGHT

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1902 BSA Spring Frame Roadster ‘The Victoria’

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1902-1904 BSA Spring Frame Roadster

Built by Haviland, Richard & Co, Small Heath, Birmingham

‘The Victoria’

Sloping Top-Tube
26″ Frame and 26″ Wheels
After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, there was a surge of products named ‘Victoria’ in commemoration.
‘The Victoria’ transfer is still readable on this BSA’s down tube.

 

The Spring Frame is the rarest and most sought-after BSA model of the twentieth century. As you can see in the caption under the Spring Frame illustration above (from BSA’s 1903 catalogue), the company did not supply complete machines, but frame builders could buy all the components to build a BSA Fittings Machine. After four years of negotiation and payment by instalments, I’ve eventually collected this BSA Spring Frame Fittings Machine from my friend Ricky. We have now fitted new tyres and tubes, recommissioned the spring joints, which were very worn, and also installed an earlier BSA Fittings 2nd pattern ‘Y’ chainwheel, as per the catalogue illustrations. A ‘Pattisson Hygienic’ saddle, early BSA inflator pump and Silver King lamp complete its list of accessories. I dare not ride it with this original saddle fitted – I’ve already broken too many delicate, rare, valuable saddles by using them. But I’ll fit a usable saddle to it in due course, add a video to this page, and record my impressions of how it rides.

 I’ve already discovered a design fault in the machine. The rear springing portion of the bike, from seat pillar to bottom bracket, pivots at those points, but the rear mudguard fixings are rigid. Examining the rear mudguard bolts, it’s apparent that it has been fitted for a very long time; however the cracks across this section of the mudguard show that a fixed rear mudguard is impractical.

 

BSA SPRINGFRAME VIDEO

To see the BSA SPRINGFRAME VIDEO

ON YOUTUBE

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Though BSA did not manufacture complete machines, the Spring Frame was unique in that they did supply the frame along with all the other components. See below…

So rather than a frame builder manufacturing their own frame and adding BSA fittings, with a Spring Frame they had to assemble the whole kit supplied by BSA. In such circumstances, the bicycle was allowed to bear BSA’s own transfer on its down tube:

‘If it is desired to purchase a machine with our Frame, this must be distinctly specified, and cyclists may identify Frames of our own make by the BSA Trade mark, in gold, on the down tube.’

As you can see, over a century later, the BSA trade mark is still clearly visible on the seat tube of this bicycle.

HAVILAND, RICHARD & CO

Herbert Rd, Small Heath, Birmingham

It is believed that the proprietor of this small business was Mr. Richard Haviland. According to Kelly’s Directory for Birmingham, the company was located in Herbert Road, Small Heath, Birmingham, from 1890-1903. They also made the ‘Haviland’ milk carrier. Being close to BSA’s own factory at Small Heath, I assume that building a bicycle from BSA Fittings was a logical option.

BARTLEETS BICYCLE BOOK

Bartleet’s descriptions were not always correct, but they provide a useful source of reference. Bartleet provides the following description of the BSA Spring Frame that he had in his collection, corresponding to the picture above:

‘No. 45. B.S.A. spring frame. Invented by Dr. Mansell-Jones, “Sunnyside,” Lodge Road, Croydon, Surrey, Patent No. 17987/1900. Weight 10 lbs. Presented by Harry Green.

Two earlier patents by the same inventor, Nos. 28892/1897 and 7141/1899, show a similar result achieved by a system of spring-controlled toggles, which allowed the ends of the seat-stays to rise and fall, and the rear end of the top tube to drop without affecting the position of the saddle. These variations were not marketed. As shown, the machine was made and sold in large numbers by the Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd., Small Heath, Birmingham, by whom it was first exhibited at the Stanley Show in November, 1900. The action of the springing device is self explanatory, and is plainly revealed by the photograph: hinge joints are inserted in the frame tubes at A, B, C, and D. Within the top tube, at E, and inside both seat-stays at F and G., are strong coil springs, so that as the smaller diameter tube slides within the member of larger diameter the springs are compressed and take up the shocks. A drawback was that the distance between saddle and handlebar was not constant, but varied as the action of the concealed springs allowed the top-tube to change its length. It will be noted that no attempt is made to intercept vibration from the front wheel of the bicycle. This identical frame was used by Harry Green when he beat the 50 miles road record in 1906, time 2 hrs. 6 mins. 46 secs., and the London to Brighton and back record, the same year, time 5 hrs. 20 mins. 22 secs. This being the only exhibit in the Collection representing the products of the B.S.A. Co., it must be made the excuse for a very brief reference to that extremely important Company. Without such reference not even an epitome of cycling history could pass the censor.’

CLOSE-UP SPRING FRAME DETAILS

On another page (1904 Light Roadster Bicycle built from ‘B’ pattern BSA fittings), I’ve detailed the various components supplied with a BSA Fittings machine, and compared each with the BSA Fittings catalogue.

Here, I’m illustrating the unique fittings for the Spring Frame, to compare with Bartleet’s description.

On all BSA Fittings machines, the BSA logo is to be found at the top of the steering head (below).

Above and below, by the steering head lock, is the hinge joint (‘D’ in Bartleet’s picture).

Below you can see the coil springs in the rear stays (‘F’ and ‘G’). Also, the coil spring on the top tube (‘E’ in Bartleet’s illustration).

Observe the BSA patent stamp and logo below on the top tube coil spring.

And, below, hinge joints (‘A’ and ‘B’) can be seen behind the chainwheel.

 

 

Although Bartleet marks a hinge joint at position C, there isn’t one there! I assume it’s a mistake, as I checked it against a picture of another Spring Frame, which also had no hinge joint at this location.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1898 PATTISSON HYGIENIC SADDLE

 

 

 

 

 

 

The BSA spring frame seemed ideal for mounting an engine. The 1904 example pictured below, fitted with a 1903 Minerva engine, is a typical early motorcycle assembled in Australia.

The high quality of BSA fittings and, even more important, their consistent high quality, allowed frame builders to sell BSA Fittings Machines as their own. This was a perfect arrangement for a country such as Australia.

A Fittings Spring Frame Machine would be imported in parts; engines would be imported in the same way. They would then be assembled by a local company and sold under that company’s own name. This arrangement actually started off Australia’s motorcycle industry.

Of course, BSA Spring Frame bicycles were also popular machines without engines fitted. A Spring Frame is offered for sale for £12 in the top advert seen below (from the classifieds of the 7th March 1903 issue of the New Zealand Star newspaper).

After riding this BSA Spring-frame, I do not consider that it was at all suitable for using as a motorised machine. I can see that for the first few years of motorcycle assembly (1902-1904), the advantages of the frame and components being supplied in break-down form made it an ideal candidate. But a motorcycle engine is far better fitted to a rigid frame and, by 1904, builders would have realised this and started making their own frames. It’s interesting that all the sprung parts of this bicycle were not included in motorcycle design; the only sprung part of a motorcycle was the front forks, whose successful development was still a few years away.

It is my opinion that BSA experimented with the spring-frame model while ‘motor bicycles’ were in the  developmental stage, and tried them out on the public to fill a gap until improved motorcycle frames could be manufactured. The ‘shock-absorber’ style of suspension on the rear seat stays was already in use by 1900 on some American bicycles; obviously BSA would have seen this. American bikes used one ‘shock-absorber’ while BSA used two. American bicycles using this arrangement were known as ‘cushion frames.’ Colonel Pope gained the cushion-frame patent by combining all the American manufacturers into a conglomerate known as ‘The Trust.’ You can see an example on one of his experimental Columbia bicycles here:

1904 Columbia 28″ Frame Cushion Frame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIS BSA SPRINGFRAME WHEN I FIRST BOUGHT IT

The photo above illustrates the machine before I bought it, with the 1904-1907 3rd pattern ‘X’ chainwheel, which I’ve now replaced with the earlier version.

The Gent’d model came with the remains of a Lady’s BSA Springframe, which we’ve now restored. I’ll add details in due course.

 

NATIONAL CYCLISTS UNION ROAD TEST, 1902

New Designs & Devices: The B.S.A. Spring Frame.

The roads, in many parts being in the condition of frozen and muddy ruts, afforded the most favourable opportunity for extreme trial and testing quite thoroughly the new design of spring frame made by the B.S.A.Co. The springs affecting the rider are actuated by means of a telescoping arrangement, and are contained in the two back seat stays below the seat pillar lug.  These springs are made of strengths to correspond with the weight of the actual rider, and no doubt much importance should be attached to this point in order to obtain the very best results.  To allow for this telescoping arrangement of the back seat stays, a telescoping immediately in front of the saddle of the horizontal top tube is provided, which latter is hinged at the forward end, and seat pillar lugs are also hinged at the brackets of the front down tube and seat tube, so that vertically the whole frame is flexible, except that part of it to which the driving power is applied.  All this is successfully carried out, the object of counteracting vibration being fully attained, and the rider who desires the utmost lightness without the incidental vibration – a concomitant of small, lightweight rims, tyres and saddle – will find, when riding the new B.S.A. Spring Frame, that he is as comfortably, or even luxuriously, seated as if he were on a weightier framed machine with one-and-three-quarter inch tyres, and a coiled saddle. The ‘raison d’être’ of what, at first glance, appears to be elaborating an expensive design to eliminate vibration as much as possible, will be more readily understood when one realises that to reduce weight, especially at the wheel peripheries, which means vibration is an ever present makers aim at solving, so that the B.S.A. are to be congratulated in at least having made a move in the direction of- without adding to the weight of the frame –  Securing less weight at the peripheries and immunity from effects of vibration.  To sum up, one has but to be reminded of the sensation felt after a long railway journey to understand what vibration means, and, though lest able to realise it, that it is a well proved fact that for ease of propulsion, one ounce of weight at the periphery is equal to sixteen ounces on any other part of a machine carried on it. Since my notes on spring frame bicycles, I have had the opportunity of trying the B.S.A. speciality.  It is a very comfortable and easy running mount, and by reason of its special construction no power is wasted in the drive.  The B.S.A. is the lightest of the spring frames.  The makers state the weight to be 28lbs., I found it to be three-quarters of a pound heavier.  This weight is for a machine complete with mudguards and two brakes.  I may, however, add that 26 inch wheels are fitted, and these help towards the reduced weight.  The benefit of the reduced vibration is chiefly experienced from the saddle , comparatively little from the handlebar.  The rear portion of the machine is practically isolated from shocks of an uneven road, but the construction does little towards removing the vibrations from the riders hands and arms.  The reason for this is that there is no spring in the front fork, it is rigid, as in an ordinary machine.  Consequently most of the vibration from the front wheel is transmitted to the riders hands and arms as usual. I admit that the vibration is lessened somewhat by the telescoping actions of the top tube between head and seat pillar, but the vibration has to pass the handlebar first.  If a spring fork was fitted the vibration would be largely absorbed before reaching the handlebar, and in my opinion the machine would thereby be improved for its purpose.

Photo Location: Cripps Corner, East Sussex

Victoria Pendelton Rides Vintage…

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Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.

 

RideVintage Online Magazine celebrates the evolutionary years of cycling, photography and publishing. H.G. Wells’ comment, appearing in the New York Magazine on 2nd February, 1896, was welcome support for female cycling. Authors were the celebrities of the day, and their endorsement influenced public opinion. Even well into the 20th century, the majority of men were appalled at the idea of a woman riding a bicycle on her own; our society was very conservative and women were invariably chaperoned wherever they travelled. The passenger trailer came into vogue by 1899 as a more appropriate way for a woman to take part in the new fad of cycling, as demonstrated by Evgeny towing Victoria below.

victoria pendelton ride vintage 2

I was travelling in Nepal with a girlfriend in the 1990s. At a local restaurant a Nepali waiter sidled up to me one day and confided:

‘We have seen your girlfriend yesterday, and she was roaming.’

Because of the culture gap, it was too complicated to try to explain women’s suffrage. My partner epitomised what H.G. Wells called ‘free, untrammelled womanhood.’ For goodness sake, we each rode motorcycles up local mountains. (Up was no problem, down could be tricky). I simply replied that western women were allowed to roam. But it made me think more about east-west differences in cultural attitudes toward women. I read an article regarding the plight of Nepali women, and its title stuck in my mind ever since:

‘Why is the girl-child always given a broom, never a pen?’

Such attitudes may now seem unfamiliar to us in the west; some may think they belong only in Asian tradition. Even the word ‘untrammelled’ is obsolete. But not that long ago, this was normal in the west too. Women had no rights. They were not allowed to roam.

Then along came the bicycle…

When women first began to ride the bicycle many (old fogey) physicians said it would be very injuriousThe undue exercise was dilated upon and the peculiar liability to straining or to getting falls or bruises, and, in fact, every possible objection which old-fashioned ideas and obsolete theories could suggest was brought up. Probably not one of the objectors could ride a bicycle to save his life or had ever felt the exhilarating joy of a truly fresh breath of air taken into the lungs like a stream of electrical vitality.

…But the day of old fogies is happily passed. Women defied the dear old fellows with their last century notions, and with commendable pluck learned to ride, and ride well, swiftly, gracefully, athletically. The women of today now mount their wheels and go forth for a rapid spin in the open air, knowing that in this way they can best win strength and courage to meet their many household worries. Dame Fashion also has smiled approval, and has decreed that women of the highest standing in the world of society may go forth mistresses of the art of bicycling, free and untrammeled by conventional dress and musty tradition.  (Ida Trafford Bell, July 1894)

Today we take the bicycle for granted: it’s seldom seen as a tool of liberation. Yet the humble bicycle was the first machine to enable easy independent travel. With mass production, the bicycle went on to empower both women and the working classes.

The success of bicycle sales in late Victorian times resulted in another ‘industrial revolution’ paving the way for the automobile industry that followed it in the early 20th century. Both the printing process and photography enjoyed an evolutionary leap at the same time. The modern advertising industry, fuelled by the revenue from bicycle sales, came into being at this time too. Magazines flourished. With the price of a magazine now just one penny, new articles were actively encouraged, in particular from female authors to appeal to the female readership. So camera enthusiasts who made road trips on their bicycles and recorded their adventures now had a chance to publish their experiences. Victoria illustrates below how women were now firmly in the saddle.

victoria pendleton ridevintage magazine

120 years after women first started riding the new-fangled ladies’  safety bicycles – and taking courses on cycle maintenance so they could repair punctures by the roadside – Victoria Pendleton inspired the world with her fabulous successes in the London Olympics. Victoria is the modern epitome of female emancipation. So it’s interesting to see her riding bicycles from the early years of the suffragette movement during the Sports Relief charity photoshoot.

To read the full story

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