Monday just been (3 June) was officially World Bicycle Day. You say you’ve never heard of it? Well, neither had I until the Dictionary of Sydney tweeted about it on Monday! Sure enough, it is a relatively new international day declared by the United Nations. (It was only adopted by the General assembly on 12 April 2018). The aim of the day is great – to encourage the celebration of the bicycle, which is about 200 years old, as a simple, affordable and equitable form of mobility and transport that also fosters environmental sustainability and better health.
While cycling has grown to be a major form of transport and recreation in industrialised countries, riding a bicycle was something of a novelty in the 19th century which led to a number of theatrical bicycle acts, and Sydney certainly saw it’s fair share.
On the right is a studio photograph from the State Library’s collections of Madame Adela Franzini (or Franzina), a bicycle performer, that was taken in 1876.
Madame Franzini travelled widely on the colonial theatrical circuit, appearing in Sydney and other centres around the country from the 1870s to 1890s. A reviewer in a New Zealand paper in 1876 said the bicycle she used was ‘of the ordinary description, except that the wheels are toed with indiarubber bands so as to prevent rattle or noise’. They also pointed out that:
‘We need hardly say that she rides on one side, and therefore only uses one foot with which to propel the lever’.
Her ladylike riding style not withstanding, her appearance in Ballarat in the same year caused ‘a sensation among a certain section of the Ballarat clergymen’.
Another review of her theatrical appearance in Calcutta in 1890 was also very enthusiastic:
‘The most striking feature of the performance given in the Theatre Royal (in Calcutta) on Saturday (March 1) night consisted in the feat of Madame Franzini on the bicycle. The lady is by no means a stranger to Calcutta, having made her appearance some years ago in one of the circuses, but since then she has reached the height of perfection as a bicyclist. The feats she executes are astonishing, especially when we consider her weight and the dexterity required to manipulate the machine in the performance of difficult and fantastic evolutions. The best item in the programme, which as far as her portion goes was far too short, was her circling through a maze of lighted bottles without touching one or being in the least inconvenienced by the serried flames.'
Funambalist Henri L’estrange was another showman who sometimes rode a bicycle on a tightrope as part of his highwire acts.
You can read all about his exploits in the Dictionary here. L’Estrange is quite the character!
Apart from theatrical and circus shows, there were bicycle tricks performed at dance pavilions and sporting grounds across Sydney, usually part of larger fetes and celebrations.
There was even a bicycle steeplechase as part of the celebrations of Anniversary Day at Redfern back in 1870.
The development of velocipedes and bicycles that were both easy to manoeuvre and reliable taxed the minds of many engineers.
Sydney’s famous engineer Norman Selfe, was a leading light who invented a number of contraptions.
One of his early inventions was a velocipede that had four wheels and was like a mechanical horse carriage.
By 1870 the velocipede was considered ungainly and outmoded, being pushed aside by the bicycle.
His velocipedes and bicycles participated in several races at sports grounds in the 1860s and 1870s.
By the 1880s the bicycle had developed enough that adventurous men began forming cycling clubs. Groups of cyclists would ride on the roads or compete in short course races on sports grounds. The Sydney Bicycle Club was formed in 1879, one of several around in the city. However, as Richard Cashman’s article in the Dictionary on Sport points out:
‘it was not until the development of the pneumatic-tyre safety bicycle in the 1890s that there was a cycling boom, with the sport appealing both to men and women. A number of cricket grounds, including the Sydney Cricket Ground, included cycle tracks around their perimeters.’
By the early twentieth century, cyclists were forming themselves into a bicycle union, to lobby for better roads and cycle ways.
Bicycles had also become a major form of transport, as any photograph of Sydney’s streets will show.
This photo of George Street in 1900 shows a cyclist front and centre, making his way among the trams, wagons and carts.
Let’s finish by celebrating another early woman cyclist. In 1934, young Victorian cyclist Billie Samuels became the first woman to ride from Sydney to Melbourne on a bicycle, breaking the women’s cycling record of 3 days 7 hours. She rode a Malvern Star.
Happy World Bicycle Day from the Dictionary of Sydney!
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio