I actually received this book as a gift from the author soon after it was published last year. But I had an ulterior motive for waiting until this year to post a review (more of that anon). Dashing Dandies: The English Hobby Horse Craze of 1819 is a significantly revised and expanded edition of Captain Street’s first book, The Pedestrian Hobby-Horse. This uniquely Regency vehicle is known to those of us who have enjoyed Georgette Heyer’s novel, Frederica, as the infamous pedestrian curricle which involved young Jessamy Merriville in that embarrassing accident on a busy London street.
Though I posted a pair of articles here a couple of years ago on the rise and fall of the velocipede during its primary year of popularity, 1819, for which I did a lot of research, I learned so more about this curious vehicle from this new book. In particular, I finally found the answer to a question which has eluded me for years …
The first chapter of this book was filled with surprises for me. The first was to learn that the 1815 eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano was an impetus for the invention of the velocipede, and that its motive power had its origins in ice skating. The Tambora eruption made 1816 the "year without a summer." Crops failed, and without fodder, many people had to sell or slaughter their animals. In Europe, that included horses, which meant most people had no means of transportation beyond their own two feet. Scholars believe it was in this year, and at least partially for this reason that Baron Karl von Drais began working on a two-wheeled vehicle which could be propelled by human power. Another surprise was the fact that von Drais was inspired by the smooth, flowing movements of ice skating for the motive power of his new machine. And, finally, I learned how to correctly pronounce the Baron’s last name. Drais rhymes with ice.
Aficionados of Georgette Heyer’s delightful novel, Frederica, will want to closely peruse Chapter 2 of Dashing Dandies. This chapter is devoted to Denis Johnson, the London coach-maker who Captain Street tells us was solely responsible for introducing the velocipede to England. And it is in this chapter that I finally found the answer to that elusive question. Though Georgette Heyer referred to the vehicle which Jessamy Merriville rides as a "pedestrian curricle," I found few references to the vehicle by that name as I did my research on velocipedes. These vehicles were more often called "pedestrian accelerators" or "hobby-horses," among others. But I know Heyer was a diligent and methodical researcher, so she must have found the term "pedestrian curricle" somewhere as she researched this curious vehicle. Captain Street tells us that Johnson was about the only one who referred to his vehicle as a "pedestrian curricle." In addition, he has transcribed a number of original documents related to the hobby-horse in the pages of his book. One of them was the Royal patent grant to Denis Johnson for a vehicle called a "pedestrian curricle." I think it is highly likely that Georgette Heyer saw this document, which is part of the National Archives at Kew. And, as I read more about Denis Johnson’s business as the primary supplier of the "pedestrian curricle," it was clear to me that it was from Johnson’s establishment that young Jessamy rented his "pedestrian curricle," and it was at Johnson’s "riding school" that he learned to ride it. Though Heyer never mentions Johnson by name, the use of the term "pedestrian curricle" gives it away. Captain Street has provided a section of Horwood’s plan of London which shows the exact location of Johnson’s coach works premises at 75 Long Acre, in the City of Westminster. And, though Johnson’s building is now gone, I salute Captain Street for making the effort to get the City of Westminster to place a plaque on the new building, for easy identification by all who care to visit the site. He has also included a very good illustration of the print, Johnson’s Pedestrian Hobby-Horse Riding School, which is almost certainly where Jessamy took his lessons on the "pedestrian curricle."
In the course of my own research, I ran across a few oblique references to hobby-horses made specifically for ladies. Imagine my delight to discover that Captain Street has devoted an entire chapter to the various versions of both two- and three-wheel vehicles which were enjoyed by ladies. There were special vehicles made just for ladies and others were made for two passengers, with the assumption that a gentlemen would take his lady out for an airing in one of these dual-passenger hobby-horses. Some of those were actually made, others were quite mythical but were illustrated in satirical prints of the day, a number of them rather risqué. Many of those prints are included in this book, and are quite amusing. I did know that Johnson operated two hobby-horse riding schools, but I did not know, until I read this book, that one of them was for gentlemen and the other one was for the ladies. It seems there were always opportunities for dalliance, perhaps even more, between the male instructors and the lady students at this riding school. (Illustrations are provided.)
Another enlightening chapter is that on the Dandies and others who climbed aboard these self-propelled hobby-horses. They were very popular with the Dandies, who often rode them in public parks and on the city streets, many times to the annoyance of pedestrians. Captain Street has ferreted out information that shows that one of those hobby-horse riding Dandies was the eccentric Lord Petersham, of whom I published a biographical sketch here a couple of years ago. But I missed the fact that he was a hobby-horseman. The poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was also a velocipede rider, and actually coined a term for a good riding surface. In his notebooks he noted after a ride that the road was "velocipedous," by which he meant it was "dry, hard, level and dustless." Perfect for velocipede riding. I was also rather shocked, but amused, to learn that there were those who though hobby-horses should replace their four-legged counterparts in the many British cavalry regiments. There were several prints included to illustrate the concept. After looking at them, I suspect it is just as well that the velocipede had a relatively short time in the spotlight.
Dashing Dandies is a well-written, in-depth history of the hobby-horse craze in Britain at the end of the Regency, but it is just as valuable for the many excellent illustrations it contains. There are dozens of photographs of velocipedes which have survived into modern times, but my favorites are the many period prints of hobby-horses in use, most of them humorous, some of them satirical, a few quite erotic. It is a treat just to flip through the pages of this book, it may be the best single collection of "pedestrian curricle" illustrations available anywhere, many of them in color. An entire chapter is devoted to hobby-horse prints. Again, a surprising fact provided by Captain Street. It turns out that one of Denis Johnson’s riding schools was located at 377 The Strand, across the street from Rudolph Ackermann’s grand art emporium. Ackermann published a number of prints which were sympathetic to these new vehicles. Captain Street speculates about whether or not Ackermann was publishing these prints independently, due merely to the craze for the vehicle, or if he and Johnson might have had some financial arrangement by which Ackermann was compensated for promoting the "pedestrian curricle" in his art. Perhaps the first instance of product placement?
This book is available only in soft cover, but it is of excellent quality. The typeface used is very sharp and readable, the paper is a good weight, with a slight gloss which provides sharp images of the many illustrations. The binding is strong and sturdy, and will stand up to repeated readings, if one is so inclined. If you would like to add a copy of this excellent resource of information on a unique Regency vehicle to your library, you can acquire your copy though the publishers, Artesius Publications.
Throughout this review I have referred to the author, Roger Street, as "Captain" Street. Though he holds no military rank, he is indeed a captain, and the position he holds makes him eminently qualified to write this book. He is the captain of the Dandy Chargers, a group of hobby-horse enthusiasts based in the United Kingdom. Not only has he spent many years studying these vehicles, he has actually ridden them. The Dandy Chargers make appearances at stately homes and other venues in England dressed in Regency costume, riding their modern replicas of Regency hobby-horses. Another interesting fact which I gleaned from Captain Street’s book was that "dandy charger" was yet another name for the "pedestrian curricle" because they were so popular with Regency dandies. However, Captain Street does leave open whether the vehicles where ridden by the dandies when these charges took place, or whether they were the targets of the charges. Regardless of how it might have been during the Regency, these modern-day Dandy Chargers are gentlemen in full control of their machines, ensuring those who come to see them ride are in no danger whatsoever.
And now, for my ulterior motive for waiting to post this review until now. The Dandy Chargers will kick off their 2012 season this Sunday, 6 May 2012, at Broughton Castle, near Banbury, in Oxfordshire. They will be riding in the grounds of the castle beginning at about 2:30pm. Their other appearances for this season are:
17 June 2012 — The Avington Village Fête at 2:30pm
2 September 2012 — The NAVCC Rally, at Fishbourne. After lunch, the Dandy Chargers will be attempting a world record for a hobby-horse stack (I have no idea what that is, you will just have to go and see for yourself.) After attempting the hobby-horse stack, they will also ride their hobby-horses around the area.
16 September 2012 — The Brooklands Cycle Festival, again beginning their ride at about 2:30pm.
For those who are planning to be in England this year during the Dandy Chargers riding season, you now know when and where you can see them in action. I leave you with the traditional greeting of the Dandy Chargers: "May your strides ever be long ones!"