Velocipede Mania in Doncaster!

Velocipedes Doncaster Mansion House c1800
Doncaster Mansion House c1800

Assistant Museums Officer Nicola has been delving into the Heritage Doncaster archives and we thought it would be interesting to share some information about the earliest recorded examples of bicycles in the region.

The history of the bicycle dates all the way back to 1817, when Baron Karl von Drais of Germany invented a two-wheeled machine that could be propelled and steered by a rider sat astride the frame. Made of just wood and metal, it was the world’s first balance bicycle. The Baron took out a patent for his design in 1818. The new invention found its way to Britain in the spring of the following year. The coachmaker Denis Johnson of London patented an improved design which he named the velocipede, and was very quickly given the nickname of the ‘hobby-horse’. The strange new invention soon became all the range amongst London’s rich and fashionable young men.

Doncaster was very much up to speed with these innovative engineering developments. The first recorded example of a velocipede in the town was in May 1819, when a Mr Turpin stepped forward to take part in a trial of speed. With very little practice, he managed to travel a mile along the Bawtry road in six minutes and fifty-eight seconds. An example of this new invention was taken from the town and exhibited for a fee of one shilling as a curiosity in neighbouring towns and villages. However in one town the town crier, upon proclaiming the news, misheard the word ‘velocipede’. He announced to the residents that

“There is just come a Philosopher from Doncaster, to be seen this day only!”

Developments and improvements to the velocipede continued. In 1822, a shoemaker from Newark exhibited his own design in Doncaster to much local interest. This particular invention consisted of one large wheel, about three feet in diameter, and two smaller wheels at the front. It was propelled by two handles, which set the front two wheels in motion, at a rate of about six miles an hour. The inventor sat over the rear wheel with his feet in iron stirrups to keep him steady.

The new velocipedes quickly became part of public life. In 1827, a horse by the name of Velocipede entered the two-year-old stakes at Doncaster for the St Leger meeting on Gold Cup Day. However, he was beaten into second place. The following year Velocipede entered the St Leger race as favourite to win, but he could only manage third place. However, despite only ever racing nine times, he won seven of his races and was considered to be one of the best racehorses of his era.

Further developments to the early examples of bicycles led to a cycling craze in the 1860s. Now the machines were being built with pedals and had the potential to travel much faster over longer distances. The new velocipede first gained popularity in 1867 in France and British newspapers began to report alarming tales of velocipedes careering round the streets of Paris, upsetting both pedestrians and horses. However, the machines were soon to be seen across the Channel in London, where the craze quickly spread throughout the country.

Doncaster Theatre Royal c1810
Doncaster Theatre Royal c1810

The velocipede was at this stage seen as a machine to be ridden by professional designers and mechanics, to be exhibited and demonstrated for the amusement of crowds of fascinated onlookers. This new curiosity was widely welcomed when it first began to make its appearance in South Yorkshire. On Wednesday 14th April 1869 the Sheffield Independent reported that

“Mr John Adams of Victoria Park has introduced into Sheffield the velocipede”.

The very next day, the same gentlemen placed an advert in the newspaper asking gentlemen to join him in forming a velocipede club. Very soon our local newspapers were full of articles about instruction in velocipede riding and details of machines for sale. ‘Velocipede mania’ had reached South Yorkshire. By the spring of 1869 velocipede races and demonstrations were being held on a weekly basis. The first velocipede race took place in Sheffield on 21st May 1869, which featured five local riders, but the newspapers reported that

“The Sheffielders in advance were altogether out of the race as one or two of them came to grief in the preliminary of mounting their bicycle.”

On the 25th May 1869 two well-known velocipede riders, the ‘Brothers Brown’, gave a performance on their machines at the Alexander Opera House in Sheffield. Local interest in velocipede racing spread and the events started to attract large crowds. A few months later, in Rotherham, there was another velocipede race of one mile. This attempt, according to the Sheffield Independent,

“created great amusement, on account of the anything but skilful manner in which the competitors managed their bicycles”.

However, the actual potential of this amusing plaything was beginning to be realised by many local people. In July 1868 a Mr Ernest Hill attempted the longest ride ever yet undertaken by a Sheffield rider, when he set out to travel from Sheffield to Scarborough. This involved an overnight stop at Doncaster, and we can only imagine the curiosity he must have inspired in the townspeople as he made his appearance on his machine. The initial journey between Sheffield and Doncaster took him three and a half hours! In September of the same year a Mr George Archer hoped to test a velocipede as a means of locomotion between places of reasonable distance, so he set out to travel from Hull to Doncaster as an experiment. The 57 mile journey took him ten hours.

Have any local history groups uncovered any more interesting stories about cycling developments in Doncaster? Are you a local history enthusiast with stories of cycling to share. Please contact us and get involved in the project.

Research and images courtesy of Heritage Doncaster.

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