Of Velocipedes and Draisiennes — The Fall

Last week I wrote about the rapid rise of the craze for the velocipede in Regency England. Introduced first in London, early in 1819, by the enterprising coachmaker, Denis Johnson, the velocipede was all the rage by the early spring of that year. It quickly spread to other cities and towns across the country, and was particularly popular with young men of leisure.

Yet, by the end of that same year, 1819, the craze for the velocipede was over. How did this near mania for a human-powered two-wheeled vehicle fall nearly as quickly as it rose?

Unfortunately for the velocipede, though the leisure set was enamored of it, many other people across England did not take to it. Since its saddle had very little in the way of shock-absorption, the ride was most comfortable over smooth surfaces. The paths of Hyde Park and other London parks were initially popular for riding velocipedes, but there were a number of velocipedists who soon chose to travel the city streets. Finding the cobbled street surface much too uncomfortable, the more inconsiderate of these velocipedists chose to ride their vehicle on the smoother foot pavement (sidewalk). They tended to barrel along with little regard for the pedestrians who were walking there. Not all velocipede riders were always fully in control of their machine, and there were a number of collisions, most minor, but a few causing serious injury. Such behavior spread to other cities and towns, were velocipedists also took over the foot pavements as their riding surface of choice. As you might imagine, such behavior did not endear the velocipedists to the general public. Several cities and towns soon began passing laws banning velocipedes from foot pavements. Some of the more hardy velocipedists then took to the streets. But even if they were not careless, their curious vehicles frightened the horses, and some towns eventually banned velocipede riding altogether.

The craze for the velocipede was so intense that many people who were not physically fit, including Prinny himself, acquired one, as did his royal brother, the Duke of York. These riders could also be dangerous as they often did not have complete control of the vehicle when they rode it, particularly downhill, and velocipedes had no braking system. The caricaturists, such as Thomas Rowlandson, George and Isaac Cruikshank and Henry Thomas Alken had a field day. Satire aimed at velocipede riders became withering. Nearly a hundred different caricatures ridiculing the velocipede and its riders were published in just 1819 alone.

Soon the health benefits of the velocipede also came under attack. When it was first introduced, the velocipede was promoted as a healthful form of exercise. It was said to improve digestion, invigorate the corporate system by bringing all the muscles of the body into action, and to open the chest. But many careless riders either caused accidents in which pedestrians were injured, or they were injured themselves, some severely. The Royal College of Surgeons soon condemned the machine as dangerous to the rider and likely to cause "ruptures."

By the late summer of 1819, opposition was mounting against the velocipede. There were laws banning the vehicle in many cities, the medical community had condemned the machine, and the scorn and derision which was heaped upon it by the many caricatures published that year all combined to undermine the public fascination with the vehicle. By the end of 1819, the craze for the velocipede was over. Denis Johnson returned to his coachmaking business, as did his rival velocipede makers, when the velocipede market dried up.

Though the velocipede was no longer manufactured in any great numbers, there were still many of the vehicles in use throughout England after the end of 1819. They remained popular with young riders, especially on country estates inhabited by active children. A number of rural riders continued to use them as a cheap form of transportation, though they were seldom seen in cities and towns once the craze had faded. Mechanics and others interested in human-powered vehicles continued to tinker with their own versions of the velocipede and proto-types of these vehicles could be seen in use from time to time, well into the reign of Queen Victoria.

Though Georgette Heyer did not date her novels, she always included some historical fact by which a discerning reader could determine the date of the story. In the case of Frederica, the Pedestrian Curricle serves that purpose. The Pedestrian Curricle which Jessamy rode clearly sets the date for that story in 1819, since the velocipede craze rose and fell during that year. And, since his vehicle was called a Pedestrian Curricle, we can be fairly certain he acquired it from the coachmaker-turned-velocipede-maker, Denis Johnson, for that was Johnson’s own name for the machine he built and sold in London in the last year of the Regency.

Author’s Note: There Were No Bicycles During the Regency!

Neither the word nor the vehicle.

Though the vehicles in use during the Regency had two wheels, they were not bicycles, nor were they ever called such. The bicycle as we know it today was invented in France in 1868 and came to England in 1869. It was at this same time that the word "bicycle" came into the English language. However, "velocipede" was used to refer to several different bicycles during the last half of the nineteenth century.

The bicycle was a great improvement over the old velocipede, having a chain and pedal system for power, brakes, a more comfortable seat, and air-filled rubber tires. It should also be noted that this vehicle did much to liberate women, as it essentially brought to an end the power of the chaperon over young ladies. Young women were allowed to ride out without supervision on their bicycles in the company of young men, something which would never have been allowed during the decade of the Regency.

Ladies were also somewhat liberated from the very heavy garments of the day when they were riding their bicycles, in the interests of safety. They also imposed fashion on the bicycle by the later decades of the nineteenth century. There were many women who had their bicycles painted to match the garments they wore to ride them. And in the Gay Nineties, Tiffany’s in New York covered the frame of a lady’s bicycle with precious and semi-precious materials and displayed it in the window of their main showroom. It was exhibited for only one day, as it was purchased by a titled Englishman. Sadly, there is no record of the name of the purchaser or its intended recipient.

For further reading on the history of the bicycle and its predecessors:

Alderson, Frederick, Bicycling: A History. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

Herlihy, David V., Bicycle: The History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

McGurn, James, On Your Bicycle: An Illustrated History of Cycling. New York: Fact on File Publications, 1987.

Palmer, Arthur Judson, Riding High: The Story of the Bicycle. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1956.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Of Velocipedes and Draisiennes — The Fall

  1. Roger Street says:

    I was most interested to read both of Kathryn Kane’s articles on ‘Velocipedes and Draisiennes’. Although not expressly acknowledged, much of the information in these articles appears to come directly or indirectly from my 1998 book ‘The Pedestrian Hobby-Horse’, and from my article on Denis Johnson in the 2004 ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’. I would take issue with Kathryn Kane on a few points of details, for example I think the popular description ‘hobby-horse’ was by analogy with the long-established child’s toy hobby-horse stick, not from the fact that some (very few) machines had a carving of a horse’s head at the front. But for the most part Kathryn Kane presents a fair summary of the rise and fall of the hobby-horse in the year 1819. She might be interested to learn that I am about to deliver a paper on the same topic (entitled ‘Who killed Cock Robin’) at the International Cycling History Conference in Prague next week.

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    Thank you for your comments. Actually, I was quite unaware of either your book or your article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on Mr. Johnson. I will endeavor to locate and peruse them.

    I have included my sources in the bibliography at the end of the second article on velocipedes. Of all the books listed, I found Mr. Herlihy’s chapters on what might be called “pre-bicycles” the most detailed and informative.

    I was aware that the word “hobby-horse” had more than one meaning. However, in a few contemporary documents of the period in question, I have seen it used to mean a velocipede; as you stated, typically if there was a carved horse’s head incorporated into the front of the frame. Therefore, I followed that usage in my articles.

    I regret that I cannot travel to Prague to hear your paper. I am an avid cyclist as well as a historian. I would very much like to read your paper, if it is to be published. If you would be so kind as to post the bibliographic reference here in a future comment, then I, as well as any other visitors, will be able to locate it.

    I hope you enjoy the conference and that your paper is well-received.

  3. Roger Street says:

    Dear Kathryn Kane

    My apologies for not coming back to you sooner. My paper ‘Who killed Cock Robin’ (subtitled ‘The early demise of the pedestrian hobby-horse’) was well received at the ICHC Conference in Prague last year. It will in due course be published in the Proceedings of the 21st International Cycling History Conference, not yet available.
    A development since last year is the publication of my new book ‘Dashing Dandies’ (subtitled ‘ The English hobby-horse craze of 1819’), effectively a second edition of ‘The Pedestrian Hobby-Horse’ but with new material and many colour illustrations.
    I also now have a website http://www.artesius.org which has details of both titles.

    I was interested to hear that you are a keen cyclist , as well as being a Regency period historian. Maybe I could persuade you to join (or take an interest in) The Dandy Chargers, our group of Regency costumed riders of quality replica pedestrian hobby-horses. We make appearances as stately homes and in Regency towns and cities – we are having a 10th Anniversary celebratory weekend in Cheltenham on 30th April/1st May. Some ladies’ machines (Johnson replicas) are currently being made.

    I would be very interested to make contact with you, perhaps initially via my email address roger.street@btinternet.com.

    Best wishes

    Roger Street

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Congratulations on the reception of your paper! And for its forthcoming publication! It is nice to know the “pedestrian hobby-horse” is getting more attention due to your efforts.

      Thank you for posting the citation for your paper’s upcoming publication. And, thank you for posting the link to your site so that those who would like copies of your books can find them. (BTW – I think the picture of you as a very young man on your wooden horse is adorable! 😉

      I appreciate the invitation to join your group, The Dandy Chargers, but I live on the other side of the pond. Boston, Massachusetts, USA is a bit too far from Cheltenham, UK for a weekend jaunt for me. But there may be others who visit here who live in the UK and would like to see an appearance of The Dandy Chargers. If The Dandy Chargers has a web site, you are more than welcome to post a link here. And/or, if there are any online news articles about the group’s appearances or activities, links to those are also welcome here.

      I wish you and The Dandy Chargers a very Happy Tenth Anniversary celebration! I am glad to know there are still velocipedes alive and well in England and that they are out and about carrying enthusiasts in the costumes of their heyday.



  4. Kathryn Kane says:

    I have learned from “Captain” Roger Street, that his group of velocipede enthusiasts, The Dandy Chargers, do not have a web site. However, there are some news reports, photos and videos posted on the net of their various appearances.

    The links below will take you to Google search results where you can view those which pique your interest:

    Google Web Search

    Google Images Search

    Google Video Search

    In the words of Captain Street, “May your strides ever be long ones.” (The Dandy Chargers’ traditional greeting).



  5. Kathryn Kane says:

    For those of you who live in the UK, or may be travelling there this year, Mr. Street has also sent me a copy of the 2011 Programme for The Dandy Chargers. I cannot post the full programme here, but I am posting the dates and locations. If you would like more information on one of their appearances, please contact their Captain, Mr. Roger Street, who has kindly posted his email address in his comment above.

    30 April/1 May 2011 – Cheltenham – The Dandy Chargers 10th Anniversary Weekend

    31 July 2011 – Kingston Lacy, Wimborne

    25 September 2011 – Stansted Park, (on the Hampshire Sussex Border)

    Each of these events looks to be quite a treat for anyone interested in velocipedes or Regency pass times. If you want to see what young Jessamy Merriville, the character from Georgette Heyer’s novel, Frederica, looked like before he crashed his pedestrian curricle, you will no doubt enjoy seeing The Dandy Chargers in action.



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  8. Nick Clayton says:

    Dear Kat
    Nice to read such a well researched and well written piece. For information the Tiffany silver bicycle still exists at Dunecht House near Aberdeen, Scotland.It was bought on impulse by Sir Weetman Pearson, later Lord Cowdray for his wife. Its history is told by.Nicholas Oddy in ‘The Boneshaker’ – Journal of the Veteran-Cycle Club No. 167, 2005..together with full colour pictures.
    Best regards
    Nick Clayton ex-editor of said journal.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you very much for your kind words, and the reference to the article on the Tiffany silver bicycle. Quite the impulse purchase! I hope his wife enjoyed it. I will most certainly seek out the article.



    • Danielle says:

      Mr. Clayton,

      I am working on an article about this exact bicycle and was wondering if you could provide me with a link for the article you mentioned? If no link is available is there somewhere I would be able to purchase this journal?

      Please feel free to contact me at Danielle.Pace@Tiffany.com

      Thank you for your help!


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