Sunday, 14 December 2008

Bicycles And Tricycles Of The Year 1886, Harry Hewitt Griffin – facsimile introduced by Noel Marsham

Olicana Books 200pp

A late Victorian bicycle buyers guide providing descriptions and illustrations of nearly 200 wheeled machines, including penny farthings, faciles, tricycles and quadricycles, republished as a facsimile

How dull are modern equivalents of this publication if you are in search of variety and invention? Even enthusiasts for Velo Vision’s diet of paradigm-changing bicycle designs don’t have such a rich selection upon which to feast.

This was the age before the world had settled upon the brilliant simplicity of the safety cycle. Here are described an astonishing set of variations of the high ordinary, through cycles propelled by cranks and levers and at least 90 tricycle variants. Most of these huge contraptions had one or more giant wheels, some with a diameter of as much as 60 inches, few smaller than 36 inches. The ‘Manchester Express Tandem Quadricycle Roadster’ is described as having a length of 89 inches and being 38 inches wide (2.2 meters long, just shy of a meter wide).

This was the ninth edition of this guide and clearly, by this time, penny farthings had passed their high-water mark. Safety bicycles had been built, but their design was in its infancy. Indeed, more ‘dwarf’ ordinaries that use some kind of drive set are listed here. There are machines from around 20 manufacturers and clearly their work represents the fruits of an extraordinary surge of invention.

Marshman, who oversaw the republication of this catalogue, incidentally, was a doctor in general practice in Otley, West Yorkshire – and is described elsewhere as a ‘stalwart of the Veteran Car Club’.

Prices for two wheeled bicycles are listed in advertisements at a shade under £20. Larger machines rise in price to £40. It is interesting to reflect on how much of a commitment this represented for readers of the original of this guide.

A skilled worker in the 1880s earned around £62 per year – so a penny farthing would have cost around four months wages. In Britain today a worker in a similar position would earn about £10,000 over the same period. Put the values into and the result is about the same. That is about the cost of a new, small family car: no small purchase for someone on average earnings, but within reach of a determined would-be cyclist.

On the other hand, even with the dramatic inflation that has occurred at the top of the bicycle market in recent years, it would take a truly determined shopper to drop £10,000 in a bike shop and emerge with a single machine. In fact, 5% of the average cost of a bike in 1886 will buy you a really good new bike today. Whether you consider that progress will depend on how much you enjoy sharing the road with the multitudes who can buy a clapped out cars for much the same money.

PS December 2008

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