or view below
1869 English Velocipede
33″ Front Wheel
29″ Rear Wheel
Saddle height from Ground: 31″
In common with early English velocipedes, this machine follows the design of the 2nd Michaux patent (illustration below). After The Coventry Machinists Company introduced the first batch of velocipedes in 1869 to the British market – to great acclaim – other Coventry engineers started to build similar machines, followed by makers in other parts of the country. Some went on to establish themselves as bicycle manufacturers, but most diversified. As with the majority of the surviving velocipedes, the maker of this example is not known, but it is an authentic machine from the first year of English production (1869-1870).
The fashion for velocipedes was short-lived in England – by 1870 it had passed. They were expensive to build and cumbersome to ride, so engineers set about simplifying their design: rear wheels started to get smaller and, in 1870, wheels had already been built of metal rather than wood. The velocipede, in other words, became the ‘ordinary’ – what is commonly known now as the ‘penny farthing.’ It may seem odd to discover one of these original bicycles intact: but they were so well built that most examples that have been preserved by enthusiasts can still be ridden, and will easily survive for the next 147 years to illustrate the superb craftsmanship of the pioneers of the cycle industry.
This example is rare, having a 33″ front wheel and a shorter frame. My height is 5′ 7″ and my inside leg is 31″. I can sit on the velocipede and reach the ground with both feet, which makes it very easy to ride.
The smaller front wheel suggests that it was commissioned by a customer to his own particular requirements. The wheels on this machine were replaced in 1979. The machine itself is original, i.e. all structural parts, saddle pan, nuts and bolts, handlebars, brake parts etc. Ancillaries that are replacements are: grips; one pedal crank; probably pedals (though I’m not sure); wooden parts of wheels (outer metal band is original).
It has its original brake fittings, but it needs a wire or knotted leather string fitted in order to operate it. There is a slot at the front of the top spring, through which the wire passes (see illustration below). The wire is connected to the handlebar: some brakes operate when the handlebar is turned; others when the wire itself is pulled against its tension. Velocipede brakes are very primitive and hardly efficient (instead, to stop, you just stop pedalling).
This genuine 147-year-old velocipede has recently been serviced in our workshops, and the wheels cleaned and waxed. It would make an excellent display piece for a museum …however this particular machine is so easy and enjoyable to ride that it seems a shame to lock it away for display only. With the 150 year centenary of the English Velocipede now only a few years away (2019), it’s time to get the velocipedes out and ride them on the roads so that everyone else can share the wonderful sounds of clattering wheels and shaking bones…
The handlebar rotates to pull on the linkage wire activating the rear brake (not fitted). The turned wooden handlebar grips are replacements. All items for velocipedes are still made in the same fashion by blacksmiths and wheelwrights as they were 145 years ago. In fact, these professions have hardly changed over the centuries, and wheelwrights are still in great demand to make cartwheels and wooden wheels for horse carriages …as well as the occasional velocipede wheel.
WHEELS REBUILT at IRONBRIDGE GORGE MUSEUM
Ironbridge Gorge Museum (in Shropshire) specialises in displays around the work of the wheelwright. In the photo above, you can see Charles, Prince of wales, inspecting the wheels on this very velocipede! They were being built by its resident wheelwright when Prince Charles visited the museum in 1979; he subsequently became its royal patron.
The wheels are still in good condition, with their original iron band ‘tyres.’
The nearside (left side) pedal crank (in the photo above, closest to the camera) is original; the offside (right side) crank is a reproduction made by a blacksmith in exactly the same way as the original.
Velocipedes were fitted with a ‘hock support’ so that the rider could put their feet up to coast downhill.
Unusually, the hock support on this machine is detachable – you can see the hole in the front extension where it would be bolted. It is easy for a blacksmith to make.
A unique feature is the front of the spring (where it joins the backbone) – there is a slot to allow the front of the saddle spring to move backwards or forwards as the machine is ridden. You can see it in the photo below.
The brake ‘return spring’ is another unusual item, not normally seen on velocipedes. The innovations on this machine suggest a maker who was well-established at the time. However, there were many makers during 1869-1870. The names of some are recorded; however the vast majority did not publish illustrations of their machines – advertising was still in its infancy at the time – so it is impossible now to discover who made the few surviving examples.
A VELOCIPEDE RIDING SCHOOL
JOSEPH ROUX: ‘COURSE de VELOCIPEDES’
PRESTON PARK CLOCK TOWER, BRIGHTON