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.