Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

History revisited - rhyme and reason for bicycle mania

Written by Banjo Patterson and first published in the Sydney Mail on 25 July 1896, one of Australia’s favourite traditional poems begins “Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze.” I think that most Australians who have read the poem would think of it a good poetic yarn, but it’s also culturally significant.

Growing up in Armidale, bikes were everywhere. I actually resented this, because I didn’t get one until I was in year five. That bike lasted me until the end of secondary school!

Very few people went to school by bus, almost none by parents’ car. The congested tangle we see today outside schools as mum or dad wait to pick up their child or children was unknown. You walked to school or you rode. That was it.

Even though I grew up at a time when bicycles were still very common, I had no idea of the cultural and economic importance of the bike at the time that Patterson wrote.

Bicycles have quite a long history. However, it wasn’t until John Dunlop's reinvention of the pneumatic bicycle tire in 1888 that biking really took off.

For the better off, it became a means of touring, of seeing new places. Like the airlines today, the North Coast Steam Navigation Company wanted passengers. “Come on one of our steamers”, the Company said. “We will drop you of at one of our ports and then you can tour by cycle to the next port to catch the return steamer.” Their promotional photos featured shots of the beautiful country to be seen.

The emerging middle class took to cycling as a craze, in so doing making a blow for female emancipation, for this was a sport that women could join in. However, it was the working class person who gained the greatest benefit.

In urban areas, a bike provided a way of getting to work, of delivering things or taking orders. In Armidale as late as the early 1950s, the salesmen from local stores would ride around with bicycle-clipped pants, their order book in their back pocket, collecting grocery orders.

Today, the kamikaze messengers bike though Sydney streets, weaving through the traffic, delivering documents far faster than other physical means. Their numbers drop as on-line becomes more important, but they are still there for deliveries where physical documentation is required.

It was in the bush that bikes arguably had their greatest impact. Bikes were cheaper than horses and faster over distances. Bush workers of all types travelled by bike, with their possessions in panniers or just strapped to the frame.

Those days are long gone. But Banjo Patterson’s poem was published at the height of the biking fashion.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 14 August 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013.

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