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Cycling was a popular activity in the 1890s for both men and women. It was enjoyed as a recreational pursuit and was also organised as a competitive sport. The Heidelberg Bicycle Club was active in 1896 and in May of that year the Club secretary was J H Fraser [D11], eldest son of Reverend Fraser [Central]. Another active Club member was John Rosevear [L12]. There is, however, no certainty that this square reflects Heidelberg interests; it may have been contributed by someone in Williamstown, or in another part of Melbourne.
Historian Judith Brett writes: ‘Bicycles in various forms had been around since the 1860s, but the first machines were dangerous and difficult to ride, and it was mainly athletic young men who took them up. In the early 1890s the ‘safety bicycle’ replaced the high-wheeled penny farthing, and modern cycling was born. The safety bicycle was very similar to the modern bike, with pneumatic tyres, a diamond shaped frame, and chain driven wheels with the pedals in the middle of the bike rather than attached to the front wheel. Cycling was now much safer and easier, and moved from a specialist pastime to a popular form of transport and recreation. In 1894, there were 8,000 cyclists in Melbourne, and in 1895 thirty-eight businesses making, importing and repairing bicycles. The new safety bicycles were not only safer and more comfortable than their predecessors, they were also cheaper. And they were a good deal cheaper than buying, feeding and stabling a horse.’
Brett relates the keen interest by Alfred Deakin (later to become Australia’s second Prime Minister) in this new form of mobility: ‘On 21 August 1895, having just turned thirty-nine, Deakin took his first of six bicycle lessons. He was an immediate enthusiast and spent the next weekend practising in the quiet roads and paddocks at Woodend. The wide and relatively flat streets of Melbourne were ideally suited to cycling, and most days he went for a ride, at first just round South Yarra where he lived, cycling to his childhood home to visit his mother and sister, or around Albert Park Lake, but he was soon venturing further afield – to the Brighton cemetery where his father William was buried, or round the bay as far as Red Bluff.’
On the afternoon of Saturday 16 May 1896, a road race for women cyclists was conducted through the northern suburbs. Starting at Clifton Hill, the route went through Northcote and Preston, then across Bell Street to Heidelberg and returned via Ivanhoe, Alphington and Fairfield Park to reach Clifton Hill again. The winner - a Mrs Powell - covered the distance of about 11 miles in 42 minutes. Nine of the 11 competitors finished the race.
AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s much-loved poem about the ‘cycling craze’, ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’, was first published in the Sydney Mail on 25 July 1896.
‘Cycling at Heidelberg’, Mercury and Weekly Courier, 16 April 1896, p. 3.
‘Heidelbergshire - Council - Correspondence’, Mercury and Weekly Courier, 14 May 1896, p. 2.
‘A Woman’s Cycling Road Race’, The Age, Monday 18 May 1896, p. 6.
Judith Brett, ‘Deakin and his Bicycle’, Museum of Australian Democracy, 2016.
Greg Foyster, ‘Pedal-Powered Essay: Melbourne’s Hidden Cycling History’, Wheeler Centre website, 21 October 2014.
Rob Hess, ‘Bigger than Cadel: Australia’s century-old love affair with cycling’, The Conversation, 20 October 2011.
Fiona Kinsey, ‘Women’s cycling: 19th century’, pp. 269-270 in D. Nadel and G. Ryan (eds), Sport in Victoria: A History, Australian Society for Sports History and Ryan Publishing, Melbourne, 2015.
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