Wattle happen next?

For both indigenous Australians and the Europeans that settled here the appearance of wattle in the south east of Australia has always been the harbinger of a new season. There are over 1000 varieties of the acacia that we know as wattle, and over the years they have variously provided the people living here with food, medicine, tools and weapons. In Bundjalong country, the falling of wattle blossoms into the water was a signal that the Eastern Long Necked Turtle was about to enter its breeding season, and should no longer be hunted. For the Wurrundjeri around Naam, the time of the wattle blossom is Guling season and the falling of the Silver Wattle in August was a signal to start harvesting eels. While for those Europeans of Melbourne that took to their bicycles in their thousands during the 1890s, the late August golden wattle blossom was a sure sign that the touring season is at hand.  

Photograph – by A.J. Campbell, Victoria, circa 1890, A woman standing by a fence picking a branch from a wattle tree

Cyclists were (and are) as seasonal as eels, for the writer of the The Ladies Column of the Williamstown Chronicle the boughs of golden wattle blossom coming in from the outlying suburbs, was all that was needed to prompt discussion on the best fabrics for summer costumes and an update on the latest fashions for that most practical of cycling costumes, rational dress. 

Cycling clubs diverted their regular runs to routes known for their wattle blossom and details of these routes were published for those riders not associated with a club, an increasing number from the mid 1890s.  A Wattle Run, from Melbourne to Warrandyte was written up as an excellent example, and as riders headed out into the countryside reports came back detailing their finds. “At Heidelberg last Saturday afternoon the course of the Upper Yarra was marked by masses of the favourite native yellow blossom,” or  “towards evening the cyclists wheeled down the hills to Diamond Creek, which place just now is a picture of blossoms-wattle and plum.” Or even further afield,  To wander o’er the rugged sides of Buninyong, gathering the blue-bells, the cowslips, the dandelions, the daisies, and the perfume breathing wattle blossoms is delightful for both cyclist and cyclady.

As ever in the 1890s, no significant cultural phenomena could pass without being celebrated in song, and Melbourne Punch, the home of so many cycling journalists, published The Cyclists Song in 1895 which included the verse,  “When I fly along where the wattle grows And its scent to the wind of heaven throws,”

 In fact by the mid 1890s so common was the ‘wattle run’ that one columnist felt confident enough to declare:  “Any man — or woman — who can ride a bicycle, and who lets August pass without a run as far as Heidelberg and Templestowe for wattle bloom has no poetry in his or her nature. Life is worth living with a good machine under one and the wattle-clad hills and gullies around.” 

The wattle though, was not long destined to stay on the tree.

As early as the 1880s cyclists in the southern states of Australia are described returning to town after a ride, gaily bedecked in the beautiful yellow wattle blossom they had gathered.  As cycling became more widespread during the 1890s, with the arrival of the new fangled safety bicycle, collecting wattle rather than just admiring it, was increasingly common.  On Wednesday afternoon a number of cyclists were abroad, numbers going along the country roads and returning laden with wattle blossom reported the Geelong Advertiser one August. While admiring the quality of the wattle blossom in the spring of 1896 after a dry spell one cycling columnist noted that It is a common sight to see bicycles coming into town laden with the golden bloom. For one racing man, the sight of riders constantly coming down the road with sprays of golden wattle blossom bedecking their machines, suggesting all sorts of nice rides  was enough to make him regret his choices.

But it wasn’t long before the sight of so many riders returning to the city bedecked in so much wattle started to cause disquiet. The same columnist who noted the fine quality of the wattle in the spirng of 1896 also feared that a terrible onslaught has been made on the trees this season by wheel-men.

Increasingly, it was not the appreciation of the wattle being noted but it’s destruction;  a race at Campbellfield saw waiting riders riding-down lanes and returning with huge masses of bloom, a lot of which was scattered about the road, ridden over, and trampled upon by hundreds of feet. As has been said, the gatherers, of blossom. do it merely for show, to draw attention to themselves, or as one man tersely put it; la colonulese,”bloomin’ skite.”

While the wattle was notorious for having inspired scores of verses of bad poetry, one letter writer to Melbourne Punch was compelled to remark that: 

“Australian poets are said to find most of their inspiration, metaphors, similes, etc. from, and in, wattle-blossom. This may be monotonous, but it will not be so for long if the ruthless cyclist is allowed to have his way. On Saturday last I saw bicycle after bicycle coming in from the country each looking like a yellow cheveaux de fleurs —the rider being almost entirely hidden by wattle-blossoms. And the worst of the matter is that these vandals on wheels are not satisfied with merely taking the blossoms—they drag away branches and utterly ruin the trees.”

One of Melbourne’s most prominent lady cyclists bemoaned the devastation wrought to the wattle along the Yarra and made the point that  “Cyclistes, (female cyclists) who are quite as fond of the blossom as the other sex, are content  to take a small spray for their dresses, or attach bunch to their handle bars, but the vandals who are content with nothing less than a small tree for the vain purpose of showing off are fast becoming a destructive nuisance. Very soon we shall have no wattles on the Yarra at all,

The Wattle Fiend as such riders became known, was even immortalised in verse, describing how  They tore from off its native hedge, The golden glory of our roads. Just as the lady journalist and cyclists was keen to make the distinction between well bred cyclistes and male cyclists, this verse contains a hint that other riders were also keen to find a sub-class of riders on whom to pin the blame.The Wattle Fiend is not a ‘real’ cyclist. His ‘dusty, unwashed wheel’ a sure sign that he is one of those riders who happens to have a bicycle as opposed to those who consider themselves ‘cyclists’.   

One could never have too much verse it seemed and so we find:

And the breath of spring Is heavy with the scented wattle bloom—

With the bloom, bloom, bloom. Of the sweet, sweet wattle bloom,

In Its golden glory gleaming; o’er the highways we come streaming

On our bikes, and quads and tandems, busy bent upon the doom  Of the perfume-laden golden wattle bloom 

By 1898 the problem of the Wattle Fiend had caught the attention of the Field Naturalists Club, who started a campaign to protect the wattle from the ravages of riders in a series of letters to the press, a campaign that found much favour and solicited an appeal to the The Australian Natives Association from at least one correspondent. Describing how Melbourne is being robbed of its golden drapery in the most ruthless way, this correspondent went on to claim that It is one of the offences of the cyclist against society, and wheelmen are almost solely to blame.  

The Australian Natives Association, an organization to promote the betterment of Australian born Europeans, was quick to take up the call. The wattle had for sometime been an unofficial symbol of Australia and their women’s group had been launched as The Wattle League. Heading towards Federation, notions of national sentiment and an identity distinct from Britain ran high and the call to defend the wattle fell on primed ears. 

“The Australian Natives Association is endeavouring to cultivate Australian sentiment and patriotism, and the preservation of this typical and delicately beautifule Australian flower around about the city is worthy of their attention. 

The ANA were soon working in tandem with cycling clubs and imploring the League of Victorian Wheelmen to educate cyclists and impress upon them the need to not pick blossom. The League of Victorian Wheelmen took up the challenge, broadcasting amongst its members and clubs that cyclists should abstain from wanton destruction of the wattle as did the Touring Board of the Victorian Amateur Cyclists Union. 

It was a move that generally met with approval, with one columnist declaring I am very glad indeed to find that an effort is being made to prevent the wholesale destruction of the beautiful wattle tree in the neighbourhood of Melbourne. 

But of course, the wattle fiend had existed independently of the bicycle, and Melbourne’s wattle population had been under threat long before the cyclist took to wheel. One commentator pointed out that cyclists were the most visible culprits simply because it was quicker and easier for them to get to the districts where wattle grew.

And the reason that there was no longer wattle in the city and suburbs of Melbourne itself? Why, because it had all been picked decades before there were bicycles, of course! Other native trees like the native rose had been all but exterminated according to one writer thanks to enthusisast pickers, not on bikes.

Fast women of the West Australian Goldfields

Many people with an interest in the history of Australian cycling know that the West Australian goldfields saw not only a gold rush but a bike rush during the 1890s. With the modern safety bicycle and pneumatic tyres proving themselves as the fastest, most resilient and reliable transport mode in the final decade of the 19C, not to mention the cheapest after the initial investment was made, it did not take long for the new machines to find their way to the Goldfields. Jim Fitzpatrick’s Wheeling Matilda. The Story of Australian Cycling details the goldfields bicycle boom.

Bicycles didn’t need expensive feeding or watering, could take advantage of the network of camel pads throughout the goldfields region, and provide fast reliable communications in an industry where fortunes could hang it.

Kalgoorlie, Western Australia 1895. Photo Western Australia Newspapers Limited

With new settlements popping up overnight in response to new finds, and post offices taking their time to catch up, bicycle messenger companies became ubiquitous in the Goldfields. At a time when the eastern states were still suffering the effects of the depression, riders with a reputation for being fast over the distance could find work in Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie and beyond amongst the many courier companies that sprung into existence to service the booming goldfields. As more and more people took to bicycles to get around the network of camel pads quickly developed into an even bigger network of bicycle paths. The biggest network of bicycle paths in the world at the time and certainly bigger than any existing network in Australia today.

Goldfield’s newspapers advertised the services of bicycle express riders during the 1890s.

Just as everywhere else women were quick to seize the freedom and opportunity that bicycles provided. The first woman to ride a bicycle on the Goldfields we are told was Cissie Colreavy.

Cissie Colreavy’s family owned the Shamrock Hotel at Coolgardie and her father had been one of the discoverers of the Southern Cross mine. The Shamrock Hotel became the centre of a cycling community, with not only Cissie riding, but also her brother Jack and sister Hannah. Many of the men in the miners lodgings out the back were keen cyclists and competed regularly locally. Cissie’s mother Katherine Colreavy even hosted some events and was often called upon to present prizes at local cycle races. The famous overlander Percy Armstrong was also in Coolgardie, working as a cycle messenger, secretary to the local cycling club and later owning a bicycle shop. Mrs Colreavy took a keen interest in the overlander’s adventures, she also held handicap races for her boarders.

Colreavy’s Shamrock Hotel at Coolgardie in 1895. Mrs Colreavy is the woman in the centre standing next to a man.

Women moving to the Goldfields from Melbourne were also keen to take a bicycle with them. In 1896 the Australian Cyclist reported that when a “well known Melbourne lady” made the move to Coolgardie, “Horses cost £1 per day over there, and the lady considers a cycle will prove much cheaper.” One of the women who made the move west was the competitor with the fastest time in the Melbourne Women’s Road Race of 1896, Miss A O’Meagher. Just like men, many women were not content just to ride to get from A to B, but soon discovered the joy of riding faster and faster, and competing against others to do so.

For women interested in speed it was usually necessary to invest in a man’s bicycle, and with it the practical clothing that would enable a diamond-framed bicycle to be ridden. While women riding bicycles gradually gathered acceptance throughout the 1890s in Australia, women riding men’s machines in rational costume was a whole different kettle of fish. Again, Cissie Colreavy was the first to do this in the Goldfields, “her appearance in Bayley St in short skirts and bloomers creating a sensation after

getting her whatsttheirnames finished first, Miss C. mounted her bike man-fashion, and scorched down Bayley-street to ringing cheers-and beers from the assortment of dishtwisters that lined the places where the footpaths were supposed to be.” 

The Misses Colreavy, one of them Cissie, published in Australian Cyclist in February 1897 which can be found at the State Library of Victoria.

Cissie went on to create more sensations, taking up racing. As her brother Jack and his mates in the miner’s lodging out the back were all keen racing cyclists it quite possible that she trained with them. According to one correspondent’s memories she trained not only with them but with Italian champion Porta, Percy Armstrong, Jack Underwood and others.

In January 1896 Cissie and her sister, Hannah took first and second at the Coolgardie New Year’s Day sports

In February 1897 Cissie went on to win the inaugural Western Australian Ladies Wheel Race at the Theatrical Carnival in Perth. So great was Cissie’s reputation that it was given as the reason that only two other competitors stepped up against her. The race was changed to a handicap to accomodate her reputation but even with the scratch position Cissie went on to lap her competitors and win by the proverbial mile.

When women raced in Melbourne reports were often dismissive, or even derisive, and local cycling organisations like the League of Victorian Wheelmen refused to sanction or recognise women’s racing. The reports in WA certainly have a nicer tone, even if there was no official sanction for the races.

Riding bikes, not ponies.

Melbourne Cup Day; for some it’s all about the horses but for many of Melbourne’s cyclists, it’s an opportunity to enjoy a day out on the bike. An idea it seems, that goes right back to when bicycles first took hold of Melburnian’s hearts.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago Melburnians first organised a cycling event for Melbourne Cup Day. Cup Day has attracted a public holiday in Victoria, or the Colony of Victoria as it was then, since 1875. As the bicycling craze tightened its grip on Melbourne in the 1890s, the Melbourne Cup Day holiday soon presented itself as an opportunity to ride a bicycle that was too good to resist.

“Auraria’s Melbourne Cup, 1895, finish,” Monash Collections Online, accessed October 28, 2019, http://repository.monash.edu/items/show/14177

And what better bicycle ride than the then relatively new fad of a Century Run? Melbourne’s first Century Run, also claimed as Australia’s first, was held in Melbourne on Cup Day in 1895, inspired by reports of similar events in the United States.

Organised by a special committee set up for the purpose and months in the planning this first Century Run was anticipated by touring cyclists and club men alike. The Century Run was 100 miles, (160 kms) and designed to be at a social pace so that all cyclists could join in, not only cycling club members or those used to scorching. Accordingly twelve hours were allocated for the completion of the ride, ten hours of cycling with two hours of combined lunch and ten minute rest stops along the route.

“Don’t forget that the pace will be slow, and a few “ necessities of life ” strapped on to the handle bars will add to the general enjoyment of the outing. ” the East Melbourne Bicycle Club advised their members in a column in Australian Cyclist. While lunch would be provided at Woodend, participants were advised to bring their own tools and extra nourishment for the day.

From the Australasian Newspaper, October 1895

The route and times were published well in advance and the organising committee went out of their way to advise that “The run is open to all cyclists, ladies or gentleman”. As it was only one year since most women in Melbourne had taken up riding and public discussion about the wisdom of women exerting themselves on long bike rides was still energetic, this was no lightly made invitation. A cycling journalist noted in the Australian Cyclist that “Several ladies intend to join the century run on Cup Day, and have no fear of the distance, the road being familiar to them.”

Exactly one hundred riders set out from the Melbourne GPO (now H&M at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Sts) at 7am on a drizzly spring morning, Tuesday November 5th 1895. Two pacemakers set the pace, ensuring that riders would meet their time slots for each checkpoint and that the ride was conducted at a sociable pace. The rules forbade any riders from getting ahead of them. Amongst those riding was a lad of fifteen, a rider on an ancient hard-tyred safety and four or five women. The most popular bicycles on the Century Run were Raleighs, of which were counted sixteen in all, seven Humbers, five Sparkbrooks and four each of Swifts, Singers and New Rapids.

The ride progressed through Bulla and on to Lancefield with residents of Sunbury walking over to the cross roads at Bell’s to witness the run where the cyclists turned up the Lancefield-road. From Lancefield over the dirt roads of the colony, dusty, often rutted, maybe freshly metalled, to Woodend, where Dinner was served before finally turning back towards Melbourne via Gisborne and Essendon.

The ride was seen as a huge success, “The Cup Day Century run will do an immense amount of good to the pastime. It can be seen by the result that 100 miles in a day of twelve hours is easily accomplished, and without distress” reported the Herald.

Some of the cyclists who participated in the 1895 Melbourne Cup Day Century Run including two women in rational dress. Australian Cyclist November 1895

Those riders who completed the ride within the allotted time received certificates with the above photograph on them. Amongst the finishers were two women, controversially, in rational dress. Australian Cyclist reported at the time “Indeed, the ladies looked splendid, and the dress they wore, besides being practical was most becoming.”, a supportive note for the women who more often attracted ridicule and abuse for adopting rational dress. It also described them as the “first ladies in the colonies to ride 100 miles in twelve hours” although both women had ridden a century or more on earlier occasions. Both women were presented with an especially made badge in addition to the finishers certificate for their plucky riding.

The Australasian noted that advancements in bicycle technology were what had made the run such a success; “The result of the century run in Melbourne on Cup day shows us pretty clearly how easy it is to ride long distances on the comfortably built bicycles of to-day. Seventy-Seven riders — many of them just ordinary wheelmen who had seldom or never taken a long spin before— covered 100 miles of hilly country roads in 12 hours, including an hour or two spent in rests. This run has given us the most practical demonstration of tho case of cycling that we have ever had. A dozen years ago tho Melbourne Bicycle Club gave gold medals to its members who rode 100 miles in 12 hours, and the task was so difficult very few medals were won,”

Indeed the Cup Day Century Run was such a success that it became a Melbourne tradition. In 1896 over a hundred and seventy riders started with over two hundred in each of the years after that until early in the Twentieth Century.

While the earliest organisers of the Century Run were proactive in encouraging women to ride at a time when many people thought women shouldn’t be exerting themselves, the fact that they were ahead of the times is borne out in reactions to subsequent runs. One correspondent in the Australian Cyclist of 1896 writes;

TO THE EDITOR. S i r , —Considering the great success century run, one hardly likes to find fault; but I would strongly recommend to the con­-sideration of Messrs. Broadbent, Dwyer and Co. the desirability of discouraging the attendance of ladies. From time to time efforts have been made in all branches of sports to organise races, tests of endurance, and record making for ladies, but so far without success. The perspiration, dust, and excessive fatigue in connection with a century run are evils incident to a vigorous manhood ; but to my mind are decidedly out of place where the fair sex are concerned. No one should object to ladies cycling in moderation, providing they are modestly attired, butI am sure everyone who has the interests of the sport at heart, and who has a proper respect for them, will hope that they will be conspicuous by their absence at our next century run. Probably the best way would be to reduce the time occupied in the run from fourteen hours to twelve.—

Century Runs continued into the new Century although no longer associated with Cup Day in Melbourne. Regional areas also took up the practice of hosting a Century Run as did other cities around Australia.

Going for a ride on Cup Day is still popular with Melbourne cyclists today, it being one of the few days of the year when cyclists can enjoy relatively low traffic conditions on roads. Maybe it’s time to bring back the tradition of a Century Run on Cup Day, or organise your own ride with friends and family and #ridebikesnotponies ?

Riding to work for 120 years

No its not the world’s longest commute! Rather, as Wednesday is Ride to Work day here in Australia, I thought it was a good time to take a look back to the 1890s, when Australians first started riding to work on their bicycles.

If we go back one hundred and twenty years we find that riding to work in 1899 was a reasonably new activity.

Cycling in Australia, as in the rest of the world, was initially a recreational hobby of the well to do. The advent of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tyres during the early 1890s saw it taken up by the middle-classes en masse by the middle of the decade and while initially a source of recreation, it was not long before a far more practical use for the bicycle became apparent. The middle class urban professionals that enjoyed a Sunday tour to Healesville or the Blue Mountains soon twigged to the practicality, not to mention, fun of using their bicycle to get to work.

After all, what better way to show off your up to date machine, than by riding into the office along the St Kilda Road? And if an aquaintance were to stop you to admire it and give you the opportunity to share the details of your most recent country tour, then all the better!  

A woman prepares to alight her bicycle in Chapel St, Prahran in Melbourne. Photo from the Victorian History Library at Prahran Mechanics Institute

By September 1896 the cycling correspondent of Melbourne’s Champion newspaper was able to report that they had counted seventy-three cyclists at five pm between the military barracks on St Kilda Road and Collins St, pointing out that “This will give some idea of the number of men who cycle homewards from their offices.” But it was not only men who were riding to work.

Melbourne’s medical establishment were some of the earliest to take up cycling. One of Melbourne’s earliest female doctors Dr Marie Castilla was not only a keen wheeled tourist on the weekends but could also be seen during the week visiting her patients on her bicycle, her black doctor’s bag attached to her handlebars. Additionally, Dr Castilla advocated in public lectures that cycling to and from work was excellent exercise for women employed in offices, shops and schoolrooms all day.

Miss Jospehine Samuell, a Melbourne elocutionist, who used her bicycle to get to work in the 1890s. Photo Australian Cyclist June 1896

Journalist’s were also quick to seize on the bicycle’s possibilities as a mode of transportation and Melbourne’s female journalists were amongst the first to adopt the bicycle in the pursuit of their reporting duties. Minnetta, Francesca and Rita (the nom-de-plumes of three pioneer Melbourne journalists) were just a handful of those who used their bicycles to cover the wide range of events they were expected to attend and report.  

Cyclists on High St Northcote, Victoria, Australia, outside the town hall. Photo by Dr Thomas George Beckett 1898 Museums Victoria

The depression of the 1890s may not have slowed the adoption of the bicycle amongst the well to do but by the late 1890s, with cheaper bicycles becoming available, it became a reason in itself to take up cycling. For some it meant saving on the cost of keeping a horse which they could no longer afford. For others it could save the cost of a tram or train ticket on each trip to work.  As bicycles became cheaper, and second hand bicycles entered the market, the practice spread, taken up by workers at the lower end of the pay scale; clerks, shop girls and labourers, for whom it provided not only cheap transport but access to a wider range of work. 

A group of women with their bikes. Check out the photo-bomber peeking over the fence!

Nowhere in Australia, or the world, was cycling to work taken up in such numbers as in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, where prospectors took to the bicycle in their thousands to move around the district. Networks of camel pads were quickly repurposed to create the largest network of cycle paths in the world.

Kalgoorlie, Western Australia 1895. Photo Western Australia Newspapers Limited

The network of paths ensured that not only male prospectors but women in the district used bicycles too. So much so that the lady cyclists of the district were invited to join the Federal Cycle Parade, in order to harness their formidable petitioning powers. In 1896 the Australian Cyclist reported that when a “well known Melbourne lady” made the move to Coolgardie, “Horses cost £1 per day over there, and the lady considers a cycle will prove much cheaper.” Sadly, networks of bicycle paths as extensive as that in Kalgoorlie 120 years ago can only be dreamt of in most of Australia for those riding to work now.

Unfortunately, just as it does today riding to work in busy cities could have its risks. Newspapers of the time list accidents befalling commuters that will resonate with many modern day riders, tram tracks and inconsiderate drivers (of carts) featuring regularly as culprits. Less common today in the city but prevalent then was the errant dog, suddenly appearing in the wheelman’s path, and on at least one occasion causing the death of a young booking clerk from Spencer Street Station.

Of course, with people taking up riding to work it soon became necessary to house all those bicycles. Cycle stables were built in Australia during the 1890s, some attached to places of employment, others available for general use, at a cost. Popping up in major and regional cities cycle stables ensured that those riding to work, to conduct business or indeed to shop, had somewhere to secure their bicycle.  Cycle stables like this one in Launceston promised “Bicyclists who ride daily to business will find our cycling stables a great convenience. By payment of a nominal sum weekly they can have the use of our stables at any time during business hours, and, moreover, all machines stabled with us will be thoroughly cleaned and oiled daily”

An advertisement in the Australian Cyclist of 1896

Meanwhile in Melbourne, The Block Arcade boasted cycle stables that were ‘always open’, and included lavatories and dressing rooms, a favourite with the cities cycling ladies.

To be honest, while many workplaces boast end of trip facilities as we like to call them in 2019, a cycle stable, for those whose work isn’t attached to one workplace or who are making non-work trips to business centres would be a welcome addition to the cycling landscape 120 years on! For some reason, recent attempts in Melbourne at least haven’t caught on.

Patently improved cycling knickers

One of the books I enjoyed the most last year was Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers. Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear. The bicycle boom of the 1890s was not only instrumental in getting middle-class women out of their homes and onto the streets on bicycles, but also propelled them into another traditionally male domain, intellectual property, via the registration of patents for cycle clothing.

Cover of Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel Goldsmiths Press London 2018
Bikes and Bloomers by Kat Jungnickel Goldsmiths Press London 2018 Available from the State Library Victoria

Kat and her team take an in depth look at the patents and designs of six female inventors addressing the problem of comfortable practical cycle clothing for women. Their work is focussed on Victorian Britain but it got me wondering, did Melbourne women register patents for cycle clothing at the same time?

There was certainly an incentive for women in Melbourne to come up with new designs for cycle wear. Like their cycling sisters in the UK, Australian women could choose between traditional women’s dress and the very distinct possibility of an accident caused by their skirts and petticoats getting caught in moving parts or choose more practical variations, often called ‘rational dress’, and suffer the inevitable abuse that went with wearing them. As one woman writes to the Editor of The Champion in July 1895;

‘I abandoned a skirt and adopted rational dress for greater safety (twice being nearly killed by my skirt catching in the pedals), and not, as the enemies of cycling say of all women who wear rational dress, because of vanity.

Kat Jungnickel’s book lists British Cycle Wear Patents submitted between 1890-1900 and this is where I started, imagining that Australians might well submit patent designs via the British office for one reason or another. Voila! Patent No. 6929 is registered by an Ethel Eva Levien of St Kilda Road, Melbourne and is for ‘Improved Women’s Cycling Knickers’. Ethel was a daughter of the Hon. Felix Levien, a prominent Melbourne businessman and politician. They lived in Madowla, one of the beautiful mansions lining St Kilda Road at the time, and she appears in Melbourne Punch as one of the debutantes of 1894.

Ethel Levien debutante portrait
Ethel Levien, gentlewoman, and cycling knickers inventor. Photo from Melbourne Punch 1895. you can find it on https://trove.nla.gov.au

Like many society debutantes she toured England and the continent with her mother and eventually settled in the UK. Reports of her cycling proficiency appear now and then in Melbourne society papers over the ensuing years and cycling remained a significant enough part of her life to inspire her to design her own cycling knickers six years on.

Part of Ethel Levien's 1900 UK patent application no. 6929
Part of Ethel Levien’s 1900 UK patent application no. 6929 You can search European patents at Espacenet, which at least for now, includes British patents. https://www.epo.org/searching-for-patents/technical/espacenet.html#tab-1

Interestingly, the practical problem that Ethel’s cycling knickers seem to be trying to solve is one that cycling wear manufacturers are still coming to grips with today. With an opening in the centre of the knickers, instead of at the sides, Levien’s design bears some resemblance to more recent attempts to improve the practicality of full cycling bibs for female riders. She mentions that they should be easier to get on and off but also has several references to their appearance, which implies they are not intended to be worn under a skirt. It makes me wonder about the sort of cycling Ethel was doing? The combination of knickers with no skirt and the ability to take a toilet break without fully disrobing and I’m imagining her on some outdoor adventures. I’m not sure I’d want to be sitting on those buttons for any length of time though!

Diagram from Ethel Levien's 1900 UK patent application no. 6929
Diagram from Ethel Levien’s 1900 UK patent application no. 6929

Closer to home, or Melbourne, Australia, a Mrs Feldon caused not a little excitement in the cycling press with a costume she had devised that allowed women to ride diamond framed bicycles with the comfort of rationals but the appearance of a skirt. With the consistent abuse that wearers of rational dress attracted every time they left the house this would have been a very appealing design. Mrs Feldon was a dressmaker located in St Kilda, a location frequented by society cyclistes in particular after finishing their laps of Beaconsfield Parade and it is not unlikely the idea was suggested to her by one of her clients. Many middle-class women went to tailors and dressmakers for their cycling, and other, costumes. Australian Cyclist reports early in 1896, under the heading A Perfect Rational Dress;

Mrs Feldon of St Kilda has invented a cycling skirt which can be worn on a diamond or dropped frame, and combines the safety of ordinary bloomers with the grace of a walking dress. The wearer, when seated on a diamond frame, appears to be in an ordinary skirt ……..

The article goes on to say that Mrs Feldon plans to patent her invention and indeed from October 1896 onwards Mrs Feldon’s many advertisements describe her skirt as not only the only Approved costume but herself as Inventor and Patentee.

Mrs Feldon's advertisement in the Jewish Herald 1897
Mrs Feldon’s advertisement in the Jewish Herald 1897

However, despite searching online databases for patent registrations in Australia, the UK and the United States, I can’t find any record of her patent being registered. Was she bluffing? Or did she register under another name?

Another Melbourne woman, Agnes Henderson registered a patent at the same time for an improved cycling skirt. Like Mrs Feldon, Henderson was a dressmaker, so had the technical skills to engineer new clothing. Unlike Mrs Feldon, newspaper reports of the time mention that she was also a very capable cyclist. Her patent, no. 13166 in Victoria, was for a skirt fitted with chords with which the wearer could adjust the length of the skirt; ankle, knee or even higher, according to their activity.

Agnes Henderson’s ‘Improved Cyclig Skirt’ patent application
you can search for details of Victorian patents at the SLV.

A cyclist could wear the skirt high over their knickerbockers when riding in the country and lower it to a respectable length on arrival in town. It could even be adjusted to accomodate a diamond framed bicycle. Agnes was given a position at Melbourne’s George and Georges Federal Emporium from where customers could order their custom made, and improved, cycling skirt.

Agnes Henderson’s ‘Improved Cyclig Skirt’ patent application
you can search for details of Victorian patents at the SLV.

These are just a couple of examples of the ways in which Melbourne women took up the challenge of engineering clothing in which they could safely ride a bicycle. It’s interesting that more recently, women still found it difficult to find well designed cycling clothing, particularly those indulging in sportier cycling, and that the last decade or so has seen many cycling labels created by women to address just this issue. Melbourne women are still stepping up to the challenge with local brands, like Fondo for example, created to address the gap but how bizarre that here we are 125 years later, revisiting some of the same issues?

I highly recommend checking out Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers book. Here’s a great little video about her project to whet your appetite.

Women in Cycling – Then & Now: International Women’s Day at Commuter Cycles

Join me at Commuter Cycles in Brunswick as I bring the ‘then’ component to their awesome International Women’s Day panel “Women in Cycling – Then and Now”. Together with bike packing adventurer Pepper Cook and Kia Matley of Melburn Hurt we’ll be talking about the ways in which bikes and adventure combined to empower women, one hundred and thirty years ago and now!

I’m pretty excited to be sharing some of my discoveries about the incredible bike packing women of Melbourne in the 1890s and type two, or sometimes three, fun on a drop framed bike and it will be fun to compare with Pepper and Kia and discover what has changed – and what has stayed the same!

Wednesday March 6th 7:00pm at Commuter Cycles, Prentice Street, Brunswick. Follow this link to find all the details: https://www.facebook.com/events/2348140222081608/