Cyclists were a hardy breed during the 1890s. Despite the increasing popularity of this new form of personal transportation, few cycles had brakes and, as free-wheel hubs did not come onto the market until around 1898, most were fixed-wheel. There was a temptation to coast downhill, often with disastrous consequences for both rider and by-standers. Cyclists were often attacked by dogs, and carried small guns known as ‘dog-scarers’ or, if travelling on the continent, larger guns to fend off brigands. Though bicycles from the early 1890s are interesting to ride, they are hard to use on a daily basis, and are also rare and expensive to buy. This late Victorian roadster has therefore been restored as a machine that’s much easier to use as a daily rider. It is cosmetically unrestored, but mechanically prepared so the rider will be able to experience riding in the 1890s – a time before cars and motorcycles ruled the roads – without the dangers often associated with machines of that era.
1898 Easling & Smith Gents Roadster
EASLING & SMITH
Millers Lane, Thetford, Norfolk
THETFORD: At the turn of the century Thetford was a prosperous county town. Once the capital of East Anglia, it still retained an air of superiority over the other Breckland settlements.The area around the town abounded in big estates and the town’s tradesmen could supply the gentry with all their needs. At 13, King Street, J G Brown was early into the bicycle business and by 1897 had issued an illustrated price list of all the new and second hand machines he was able to supply. In the editorial he commented on the ‘rapidly increasing demand for ladies safeties’. In addition to being an agent for all the leading makes he produced his own bicycles under the brand name of Favorite. Prices ranged from £7.10s to £20. He claimed to have supplied machines to the owners of Elveden Hall, a tricycle to Lord Iveagh and a light roadster tandem to the Hon R Guinness. Identical models to these could be purchased at £26.10s and £30 respectively. Brown operated what he referred to as a ‘Bicycle Surgery’, advising ‘that machines were not adaptable to rough tinkering and should be taken to the bicycle doctor, skilled in diagnosis and the application of proper remedies’.
In Castle Street the firm of Lambert built and repaired carriages and had been well established in business since the early 1800s. Lambert’s son, who had been educated at the town’s prestigious grammar school, was expected to follow his father into the trade of carriage building. He had, however, become fascinated with the latest form of personal transport, the bicycle. Next door to the carriage workshop was a cottage that his father also owned, and young Lambert persuaded his father to let him use the cottage window to display bicycle accessories such as bells, pumps, spanners and the like. Gradually the bicycle business grew, so he took over the rest of the cottage, displaying bicycles in the front room and turning the kitchen into a workshop to service and repair machines.
Within five years the enterprise had grown to such an extent that new premises had to be sought and the carriage side of the business rapidly declined. For a few more years the bicycle trade flourished, but eventually the motorcar became king so Lambert’s became motor dealers, moving to larger premises in the town and becoming leaders in their field. Another successful bicycle shop in Millers Lane was that of Easling & Smith, who had been in business since the early 1890s, selling a range of high class machines, carrying out repairs and hiring bicycles.
– Gerry Moore *
Easling & Smith were one of many provincial cycle agents around the country, who supplied customers in their local area. These cycle shops were able to supply the top brands if that was what customers required; rather than stock the many models available, they invariably kept a few for display and for customers to try out, and would then order a machine to the customer’s particular requirements. This way, they did not need to keep large stocks, and this reduced their overheads. Once ordered, the bicycle would be dispatched from the factory by train and the shop would assemble and service it ready for the customer.
It is interesting to note that while observing this era retrospectively, from photos of the time, magazine articles announcing the new lines seen at the annual exhibitions, and from catalogues, we might assume that all cyclists would be keen to buy the latest model available. Rich customers may have done so; and those in the major cities would have had more reason to buy the latest machine too, as bicycles were very fashionable. However, in the provinces, a major criterion would more likely have been a reliable steed sporting practical accessories. This allowed the local bicycle shops quite a good profit margin when they built their ‘own brand’ bicycles to customers’ requirements.
The reason for this is that, during the Victorian era, bicycle design was developing fast, and each year there were new innovations. The major companies were obliged to manufacture more than enough to cope with demand – and often had to buy in machines from other companies if there was an unexpected increase in demand. But, by the following year, often these bicycles were already outdated. The companies would then have to sell these cycles unbadged through the trade, or ‘dump’ them on the colonies (ie export them). Provincial cycle shops were a prime market for such models, as they often added their own badge in any case. So a cycle shop would buy in an out-of-date frame through the trade and add their own components to bring it up-to-date.
‘Many a rider of the repair-shop machine is extremely proud of his purchase because it possesses a few trifling features incorporated at his dictation,’ states a magazine of the time, quoting another shop which explained that though they did not actually advertise built-to-order machines, they let customers select their individual mount as it sat on the brazing jig or assembly stand, giving them the same pride of ownership as a ‘custom job’ for less money.
The result was that customer would get a decent bike (often from a top manufacturer) built to his personal requirements, at a much cheaper price than one of the top models. The machine featured here is a classic example of this. Its bottom bracket and chainwheel are of a style used around 1896-1898, it’s fitted with an early freewheel hub (1898), and the handlebars and front brake were state-of-the-art novelties for 1901/1902. It was most likely built as described above by this local shop for a customer who was more than happy with a well-built but older style of frame using modern (for 1902) components.
Retrospectively, of course, an 1896-1898 style of frame is what makes this bicycle sought-after by collectors …and a freewheel hub in steel wheels plus a working front brake make it much easier to ride!
I’ve ridden this Easling & Smith Roadster and it’s a very enjoyable mount. 115-year-old leather saddle tops may have nice patina but invariably split in half when you use them. So I’ve fitted a saddle with replacement leather top.
Everything about this bike is designed for practical riding. It’s ready for the rider to jump on and experience cycling in Victorian times. And, unlike the picture below, you’ll have a front brake to stop 🙂
WITH CORK GRIPS & MUDGUARD
When first restored, we fitted a front mudguard and cork grips. After its debut run along the front at Rottingdean (my testing ground, seen in these photos), the cork grips fell apart (replaced by the wooden grips you see in the other photos) and I decided it looks better without a mudguard.