20 January 2009

Lessons from history (don't cycle from Wolverhampton to Birmingham)

This morning I've been testing one of our new websites here at the British Library. It gives you paid-for access over the Internet to millions of digitised British local newspapers from 1800-1913.

The Times already has a huge searchable digital archive of all their editions, going back to 1785. You can access that online for small charges (five quid for a day pass, for example), or if you're from Yorkshire like me, come into the British Library and use it for free.

Our local newspaper site (due to go live at the end of the month) will work similarly. In fact it's already available free inside the Library, and we're just testing the payment mechanism for when it goes live to the world.

So, of course, I've been doing lots of searches on bicycles and cricket, purely to test the system you understand.

And it throws up some fascinating local stuff. For instance, the Bristol Mercury of 22 May 1819 has a feature on the cool new must-have gadget for the young and trendy: the velocipede. For the benefit of bewildered readers, it supplies an illustration (right) suggestive of extraordinary male discomfort.

"On a well-maintained post-road, it will travel up-hill as fast as an active man can walk", it notes in wonder. "When roads are dry and firm, it runs on a plain at the rate of eight or nine miles per hour, as fast as a courier. On a descent, it equals a horse at full speed."

Terminology is yet to evolve: it has a 'saddle', but is steered by a 'rudder... in the same manner as a Bath Chair', and the wheels are connected by a 'perch'.

The Mercury notes that a new velocipede would set you back six or seven guineas. A pint of beer cost you a halfpenny then, making the velocipede cost as much as 3,000 pints; on the other hand a craftsman would earn about a pound a month, making it around six month's wages for our fashion-conscious artisan.

By 1869 pedal-driven velocipedes were the cool new thing. They had a variable number of wheels, especially after an accident, but the two-wheel version (direct-drive pedals and solid tyres, of course) was proving popular for touring.

The Birmingham Post of 31 Mar 1869, for example, talks about what was claimed to be the longest bicycle journey undertaken in the country so far – Liverpool to London, in four days:

The bicycles caused no little astonishment on the way, and the remarks passed by the natives were most amusing. At some of the villages the boys clustered round the machines, and, when they could, caught hold of them, and ran behind until they were tired out. Many inquiries were made as to the name of "them queer horses", some calling them "whirligigs", "menageries", and "valparaisos".

But it wasn't all pleasant: "Between Wolverhampton and Birmingham attempts were made to upset the riders by throwing stones." Some things don't change.


  1. Cambridgeshire readers may like to know that the Times archive (among other reference collections) can be accessed from the comfort of one's armchair by simply entering a Cambs library card number on the Cambridgeshire Libraries website.

  2. I must join Cambs library! Then I could do this blog from home, instead of at work...

  3. Since Cambridge library only exists in a virtual sense (the main library has been closed for two years) it's only fair.
    But 'valparaisos' ? how interesting, how ... Chilean.