Pedal-Powered Essay: Melbourne’s Hidden Cycling History

While poring over cycling journals from the 1880s and 1890s, author Greg Foyster stumbled across some enlightening historical anecdotes about our city’s first ‘wheelmen’ and ‘wheelwomen’. Here, he shares how our cycling history should make us view the bicycle in a new light.

Image by Dustin Gaffke, Flickr.

Melbourne is going through a commuter cycling boom. Census figures show a 40–70 per cent increase in cycling to work from 2006 to 2011 among the inner-zone councils (Yarra, Port Phillip, Melbourne, Maribyrnong and Stonnington). The biggest rise has been in the inner north; head down Canning Street, Carlton, on a sunny weekday morning and you’ll see hundreds of bicycles queued spoke-to-spoke at intersections.

It’s tempting to attribute this rise to modern concerns, such as increasing environmental values or health-consciousness, but the bicycle was a popular mode of transport well before the contemporary era. In fact, Melbourne experienced several bicycle booms before 1900, each one related to a technological innovation in bicycle manufacturing. By looking at what has come before, we can gain a better sense of why commuter cycling is surging today, and what role the bicycle has to play in the future.

Velocipede, 1868–72

A ‘velocipede’ was an early incarnation of the bicycle, which generally had a wooden frame and metal wheels. It was also known as a ‘boneshaker’ because it shuddered on the cobbled streets.

In Melbourne in the late 1860s, a young engineer named William Charles Kernot read reports from Paris about this wonderful new machine. One day Kernot and his engineering friends heard that there was an example in Melbourne. They travelled to an undertaker’s shop where they found this pioneer bicycle hidden among the coffins. The young men tried to get it to balance, but it kept flopping to one side. Puzzled and disappointed, one of the engineers suggested that the undertaker had probably contrived the apparatus from ‘a purely business point of view’, anticipating that its introduction would be followed by ‘a startling and desirable increase’ in mortality.

After that Kernot, who went on to become an engineering professor at the University of Melbourne, attended an exhibition of velocipedes at Richmond Park. He purchased a machine that was constructed at Sinclair’s Foundry, located on the banks of the Yarra near where Queensbridge Square is today. In July 1869, a crowd of 12,000 gathered to watch velocipede races around the MCG.

Not content with cruising around Melbourne, Kernot decided to take his boneshaker bicycle on a tour. On Monday 4 October, 1869, he rode from East Melbourne to Geelong, a distance of 45 miles. It took him eight to nine hours, and the Geelong Advertiser described the journey as ‘a feat in the history of the velocipede movement in this colony’.

Decades later, Professor Kernot was identified as one of Victoria’s first cyclists, and there was even a poem about him published in The Argus in 1895. It begins:

This is the story the pioneers,

Tell of the old colonial years,

The tale of that marvellous red-gum steed,

Professor Kernot’s velocipede.

The bicycle improved considerably over the next few decades, leading to a tremendous boom in popularity. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of bicycle poetry, which peaked with Banjo Paterson’s verse poem ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ in 1896 and has been lying in a figurative ditch ever since.)

High-wheeler, 1875–1890s

The early 1880s was the era of the high-wheeler, later called the penny-farthing because the two different sized wheels looked like a small coin and a large coin alongside each other.

With a much larger wheel diameter, the penny-farthing could go a lot faster than the velocipede, and so in the early 1880s there was a craze to break speed records. In Australia, the road record for travelling 100 miles (161 kilometres) on a penny-farthing was eight hours and nine minutes.

Cyclists also attempted distance records. In 1884, a man named Alf Edward became the first person to cycle from Melbourne to Sydney, completing the 578 mile (931 kilometre) journey along the Hume Highway in eight and a half days.

Australia’s most famous penny-farthing cyclist was George Burston, the son of a successful storekeeper in Flinders Street. Departing Australia in November 1888, Burston and his companion H.R. Stokes travelled around the world on penny-farthings, the only Australians to do so at the time.

But what’s even more astonishing than these long-distance feats is how popular cycling was as a sport. In the late 1880s the MCG was home to the Austral Wheel Race, which is the oldest existing cycling race in the world. At its peak, it attracted similar crowds to the Melbourne Cup.

Of course, where there are competitive male cyclists, there is also bright, hideous clothing, and that was the case even 130 years ago. In 1883 Melbourne journal The Australian Cycling News published an editorial admonishing clubs for dressing their team members in ‘stockings of a hue that would gladden the heart of a circus clown’.

So the penny farthing proved that the bicycle could do two things we know it for today: it could travel vast distances very quickly, and it could persuade normally sensible and conservative white males to dress like flamboyant court jesters. It’s a version of cycling that still exists today in the form of road races and weekend rides. But penny-farthings were also expensive and dangerous, so they were limited to a small segment of society – mostly wealthy, athletic men. They weren’t a practical transport tool for the masses. That came with the bicycle’s next, and most important, incarnation.

Safety bicycle, 1884–present

The safety bicycle was basically a simplified version of the type of diamond-framed bicycles we ride today. (It was dubbed the ‘safety’ to set it apart from the notoriously dangerous high-wheeler.) After the pneumatic tyre was introduced by Dunlop in 1888, the world had a one of its greatest inventions – an efficient mode of self-propelled transportation.

The device quickly became very popular, and during the 1890s a cycling craze swept the world, including Australia. Historian Jim Fitzpatrick estimates that 200,000 Australians purchased new bicycles during the 1890s.

Unlike the high-wheeler, the safety bicycle was adopted by a broad cross section of society. In April 1896, at the peak of the bicycle boom, Melbourne journal The Austral Wheel described how a gentleman riding from St Kilda Junction to Princes Bridge passed 40 other cyclists, including ‘the Government House party, three doctors, four lawyers, several members of Parliament, half a dozen society ladies, a butcher in full costume, a carpenter with some timber strapped to his machine, a lamplighter with a long stick for turning out the lights, and two Chinese’.

But the best example of how cycling was embraced by broader society – not just wealthy athletic males – was the rise in female cyclists. By 1898 there were thousands of women cycling in Melbourne, and the best known was Lady Brassey, the wife of the Governor of Victoria. (One of her hobbies, mentioned in her obituary, was playing bike polo on the lawns of Government House.) After she was seen cycling along St Kilda Road, The Bulletin reported a big surge in requests for ladies bicycles.

Coinciding with advances in the feminist movement, the safety bicycle changed the lives of Australian women. It allowed them to travel unchaperoned, extended their world beyond the domestic sphere, and gave them a legitimate reason to stop wearing restrictive forms of dress, such as the corset. Some female cyclists advocated the wearing of ‘rational dress’, or bloomers, considered quite radical at the time.

We can also thank the safety bicycle for the modern Australian road map. In 1896 champion cyclist George Broadbent published one of Victoria’s first detailed road maps based on his many years of riding around the colony.

Historical lessons

What do these bicycle booms from the past tell us about cycling’s role in the present, or its potential for the future?

There are two lessons. The first is that although the bicycle is now relegated to minority status, considered a toy for teenagers, a hobby for so-called MAMILs (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra), or a vehicle of last resort for reprobates who’ve lost their licence, it has the potential to become a transport tool for the masses. That’s what it has been in the past, and could be again.

The second is that economics, rather than social or environmental values, will prompt this shift. The safety bicycle rose to popularity because it was a convenient and cost-effective way to get around, not because it was aligned with a particular world view. In the battle to convert commuters, pragmatism trumps idealism. If the bicycle is to rule the streets again, it should be promoted as an apolitical tool, rather than a badge of environmental enlightenment.

Portrait of Greg Foyster

Greg Foyster is an environment journalist. His feature articles, news stories and opinion pieces have appeared in more than 15 different publications, including the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Big Issue,Crikey and G Magazine. His first book, Changing Gears, is about a 6500 kilometre cycling journey exploring simple and sustainable living.