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.