In 1887 Colonel Savile, Chief Instructor of Tactics at the Staff College, Camberley, retiring from the Service, took over the command, of a Volunteer Cyclist Corps, 120 strong, which had been raised by Majors Carpenter and Hewitt, formerly of the Carabineers; he suggested that this new Corps should be designated the ‘Cyclist Guides’ or ‘Cyclist Scouts,’ which sufficiently denotes the duties which, with his great experience, both of military matters and of cycling, he thought this corps might most usefully perform. However, the authorities preferred to give this new regiment the title of “Cyclist Rifle Corps,” thereby implying that the men should be trained to undertake a very different role in war. I have elaborated this point, as I am desirous of showing how from the very start the aspirations of cyclist officers, even such an officer as Colonel Savile – an expert not only in cyclist work but also a professor of tactics at the highest military academy in this country – have been damped and overruled by those in authority – men who had no pretensions to be considered experts in at least one of these subjects.
During the ensuing decade cycling became general amongst the civilian population throughout the country, and was no longer considered a sign of crankiness or misplaced enthusiasm. The cycle, however, was still an expensive luxury; it had not yet become an economic necessity to the masses. The result was that men with means or leisure invested in cycles. Many of these happened to be members of Volunteer Infantry Regiments; thus cycling sections sprang into existence throughout the Volunteer Force. But the cycle was still too expensive an item to be indulged in by the men of the Regular Army. The hire – purchase system had not yet come into vogue.
– Captain. A. H. TRAPMANN, Adjutant, 25th (Cyclists) Battalion (County of London) The London Regiment.
Throughout Europe, the aftermath of the 1869 Franco-Prussian War generated considerable apprehension about the changing nature of warfare. The ease with which Prussia defeated France was attributed as much to the new technology of war as it was to superior training and motivation. Railways, sophisticated rifles and new forms of artillery were all deemed to have played a major part in the Prussian victory. During the next decades, those Europeans concerned about the developing nature of warfare attempted to define how these technological advancements would be used in future conflicts and considered what other new and even more terrifying weapons might be created by industrialised nations. In 1885 Russia occupied Afghanistan and created the third ‘Russian Scare,’ causing the usual flurry of activity in England. With the first practical safety bicycles coming onto the market in 1886, a military version would have been a keen consideration for any of the cycle manufacturers.
Though a speedy and efficient form of individual transportation, the Ordinary (‘penny farthing’) was totally unsuitable for use under war conditions. It presented an easy target, was a danger to the rider at speed on poor roads, and could not carry sufficient luggage. The tricycle was only useful on good road surfaces and was too bulky to carry over obstacles. Various prototype versions of ‘safety bicycle’ – i.e. with pedal connected by chain to the rear wheel – were tried out during the 1880s, but none were successful. It was not until 1886 that a feasible safety bicycle came onto the market. Within months, the design was adopted throughout the industry and dozens of models introduced. The ‘Premier’ cross frame was the first successful version of its kind, its manufacturer, Hillman, Herbert & Cooper, becoming one of the world’s leading pioneers in bicycle design.
The cycle industry obviously had their eye on commercial usage of bicycles. It was not easy to land a contract with the British Government to supply military equipment. But, when successful, as BSA experienced, it was financially rewarding as well as increasing the company’s prestige. The new style of safety bicycle made this possible at last, which soon led to trials of bicycles under simulated wartime conditions.
The first Premier cross frame was patented in 1886, subsequently described by the company as ‘Model E.’ Updated models appeared soon after. No 37405 is the first pattern of military Premier bicycle, believed manufactured in late 1886 or 1887. The 2nd Pattern – the ‘Model H’ of 1889 – is illustrated above.
1886/1887 Premier Military Model, 1st Pattern
Frame No 37405
This rare machine (the only surviving example that has come to light) is fitted with the Premier detachable chainwheel (below). As you can see in the photo above, it should be fitted on the opposite side; I’ll reverse it when I get it into the workshop.
Many inventive and unusual frame designs were made by Premier in the closing years of the solid tyre era. Among these was the extraordinary mudguard frame of 1886–7, where the rear mudguard doubled as a main frame member with mudguard stays acting as seat stays.
This is epitomised in this military model, with a curved strengthening brace doubling as a seat tube (above) between the main tube member and the rear mudguard (below). It’s an elegant design feature. Yet, despite being a very practical way to provide extra strength to the machine, it was not universally adopted – the bicycle was to evolve in different ways.
The immediate success of their cross frame safety would have given the company both immediate funds and incentive to develop the next stage of cycle design, i.e. a frame that was stronger than the initial 1886 models. Various ideas were therefore patented and developed. A heavy duty example such as this was ideal for rough usage, hence it being turned into a ‘military’ model. As tube design became lighter with each passing year, it became common practice for companies to turn the previous year’s heavier machines into ‘military’ models. By 1889, this first pattern of military Premier was superseded by a machine with the same curved seat tube, but using the Model F type of trough shaped or channel section steel.
HILLMAN HERBERT & COOPER: PREMIER ‘MODEL A’ & ‘MODEL E’
Within the first year of design, Hillman Herbert & Cooper developed a stronger machine with the rear mudguard becoming part of the frame. This they designated the ‘Model A’ (above). It became their main model priced at £18 10/- with the original (more basic) cross frame the ‘Model E’ at £14 (below).
1886-1887 NEWSPAPER ARTICLES: MILITARY BICYCLES
Thanks to Roger Armstrong, Premier marque enthusiast, VCC, for information and catalogue illustrations.
Thanks to Tony Hadland and H-E Lessing’s book ‘Bicycle Design’ for the illustration of the 1886/87 Premier Military bicycle – original source ‘Engineering: an illustrated weekly journal, Maw, W.H & Dredge, J (ed), 1888
Part of the introduction re 1886: http://www.historytoday.com/michael-paris/fear-flying-fiction-war-1886-1916