Railway Bicycles & War Machines

RIDE VINTAGE online magazine 1


The railway was the first form of transportation to cater to provide mass transportation. At first, in America, it was cheap. But in due course the railroad magnates took advantage of their monopoly, resulting in higher prices and public resentment. It was the first time that the public took notice of corporate greed and wrote about it. The term ‘robber barons’ appeared in the August 1870 issue of ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ magazine. Bicycles were first manufactured around the same time, and they grew in popularity partly because they provided a solution to having to rely on the railway.

‘Railroad velocipedes’ were patented for manufacture, as well as being constructed by individuals to take advantage of using their bicycles on rural railway tracks.









Donald Menzies Cycles Boer War

The most profuse use of railway bicycles was during the Boer War in South Africa around the turn of the century. The British enclosed the railway network across the country to create a barrier so the Boer cavalry could not pass. They built a series of fortified blockhouses, each with overlapping fields of fire. Armoured trains patrolled the network. By the end of the war there were more than 8000 blockhouses along 3700 miles of corridors. ‘War cycles’ were also used for patrols. They were inspired by Colonel Jack Rose of the Cape Colony Cycle Corps, and built by Cape Town cycle builder Donald Menzies:

Jack Rose was born in Cape Town and educated at SACS where his sporting prowess was legendary. He was a member of the school’s cycling team – this sport was extremely popular in the late 19th century. After leaving school he set the international one hour amateur speed record of almost 48 kmh/30 mph at the then new Green Point Track. This was in 1898 and was believed to be the fastest speed then attained on land other than by a locomotive! He was only 22 years old at the time.

Cycling in those non-motorised days was so popular that Johannesburg had more cycles than Paris. Jack Rose was employed as an analytical chemist at the Government Laboratory in Parliament Street, Cape Town. He had joined the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles, now the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) and was commissioned as a lieutenant.

The internal combustion age was fast approaching and Rose purchased his first “motor car” in 1899. This was an air-cooled Ariel motor-tricycle, light enough for it to be carried on a train or a tram, it was able to reach a speed of 32 kmh/20 mph.

His interest in motor vehicles was equalled by his interest in cycling. He was selected to represent South Africa in an international cycling competition in Argentina where he became the first South African to wear the green and gold. It came about rather by default than by design – Rose always preferred to race in white, but another team has already nominated white as their team colour and he was then forced to go and look for an alternative in the local shops. The only suitable alternative that he could come up was a shirt in green and gold.

Jack Rose was a lieutenant in the Dukes on the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899. He was mobilized with his regiment and served with them until 1900, when he transferred to the Cape Colony Cyclist Corps. He rose in the ranks and became second in command of the unit which consisted of some 450 men.

One of his earliest challenges was to design a railway reconnaissance vehicle. This was done in collaboration with his friend Donald Menzies, the first person to assemble bicycles in Cape Town and a fellow champion cyclist, and they designed a ‘rail cycle’ fitted with flanges which enabled it to ride on the railway lines. The solution was quite simple, but ingenious at the same time. Two-, three- and four-seater tandem bicycles were used in speed-track racing and by joining two tandem bicycles with sturdy crossbars, the same width as the standard gauge on South African railways, solved the problem. Eight men operated the device, four on either side with all of them pedalling! It proved to be very successful and fifty were built for use on the railway lines in the Transvaal bushveld.

The eight-man tandem prototype was actually too heavy for practical use. At 1500lbs it was difficult to brake, made too much noise and suffered from violent shaking. There’s no record of its use in combat situations. But the basic version saw active service. It involved two men sitting side by side, with the great advantage that with steering not required – the wheels were flanged like rolling stock – they could ride and shoot at the same time. It could travel at up to 30mph but was unstable at high speeds, so 10mph was the general cruising speed.

Railway War Cycle Boer War



Jack Rose history thanks to – http://samilitaryhistory.org/12/c12julne.html

War Cycles illustrations – http://velocipedes.blazerweb.co.uk/newsletters/Newsletter19b.pdf

Two-man War Cycle photo from Jim Fitzpatrick’s excellent book ‘Wheeling Matilda’ (recommended reading!)