Dashing Dandies by "Captain" Roger Street

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!"

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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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20 Responses to Dashing Dandies by "Captain" Roger Street

  1. Very informative. I can remember jessamy causing havoc on a pedestrian curricle. Not sure about using them in the army though. Sounds prone to disaster!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The scene of the crash with the pedestrian curricle in Frederica was one of my favorite scenes in the novel. It made me laugh out loud.

      If you saw some of the prints in Dashing Dandies depiciting “cavalry” hobby-horses, you would be quite certain that hobby-horses and battlefields should never mix! 😉

      But even in the Regency, many people were keen to use the new technologies in many ways which were not at all appropriate. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Fascinating! We have one of these hobby horses in my local museum which first tickled my imagination, followed up by reading Frederica but there’s precious little information – thank you for this informative post and for bringing this book to the attention!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Since Captain Street has traveled throughout Britain and the Continent to study and photograph many historic hobby-horses, there is a good chance he has seen the one in your local museum and may very well have included a photograph of it in his new book.

      I am glad you enjoyed the post, and I admit to being a bit jealous that you have a real hobby-horse in your community. 😉

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I must go down and have another look – it used to live between a penny farthing and a sedan chair hard by the ducking stool and scold’s bridle. I’m sure the eclectic selection of exhibits has been sorted out since my young days, it’s an Elizabethan mansion and there are rooms made up with exhibits through the ages appropriate to the use of the room. Things that ‘didn’t quite fit’ fetched up in a stretch of passage outside the kitchen with its 8′ wide chimney breast [you can look up the chimney] and fascinating accoutrements. I’d love to recognise ‘our’ hobby horse in the book! I do recall when we were on a school trip there when I was about 9 I clouted one of the boys in my class who wanted to ride it. I didn’t care if he broke any bones or got the cane for doing so, I was afraid he’d break it…

  3. Roger Street says:

    Thanks Kat for preaching the hobby-horse gospel so eloquently! Would love to hear from Sarah Waldock about the machine in her local museum. Perhaps she could contact me via the Artesius Publications website or through you.

    • Hi Roger and Kat! The hobby horse in question is – or was – in Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, but it’s had a lot of facelifts and I’ve had some mobility problems or I’d say I’ll pop into town and go take a butchers. If I can, I’ll try to get down when the weather’s better and see if they’ll let me take a photo – the rules about whether you can take photos inside or not kept changing. It USED to be on a postcard. I’ll email the address to Roger, Kat, I’m not sure if I have your email.

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        Thanks, Sarah! Knowing the museum and where it is located will at least give Roger some idea whether or not he has seen it.

        My email address is right here. If you scroll up a bit, it is the last thing on the bottom of the right column. I use a Nexodyne image to ensure email harvesters cannot grab it, then spam me to death! 🙂

        Thanks again for the new information, I am sure Roger will appreciate it.

        Regards, Kat

        • I found your email in my contacts! hopefully you got my message with the addresses to contact the curators, but what a clever way to avoid spammers! I’m impressed.

  4. Kathryn Kane says:

    Ah, Sarah! Now you have done it! 😉 You have piqued the curiosity of a dedicated scholar.

    If you have any more information about the hobby-horse in your museum, you are welcome to post it here. You can also contact Roger Street though his publisher’s web site, Artesius Publications, or, if you prefer, you can email me privately and I will forward the information on to Roger.

    If you don’t have details on the hobby-horse itself, if you can share the name of the museum where you saw it, and the town where it is located, that would be a place to start.

    Thanks for your help,

    Kat

    PS – You have the soul of a museum curator! It was clear when you said you stopped that boy from trying to ride the hobby-horse out of concern for it and not him! I know the feeling!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks, Sarah! I did get your email, and I have forwarded it on to Roger.

      If you like the Nexodyne image I am using for my email, you can make one for yourself. Just click the Nexodyne link below the image, above, and it will take you to their site. There, all you have to do is enter your email address and select the email provider you use and click the button. You will get your very own image which you can use on your blogs. The service is free, they only ask that you also post a link back to them if you use their service.

      Thanks again for the contact information for the museum.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. KWillow says:

    Reading Frederica I have often wondered if Jessamy’s pedestrian curricle was the ancestor of the bicycle. Did it evolve into the bike, or did people just lose interest and abandon it? I will have to get the book.

    I just discovered your site: it is wonderful!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The pedestrian curricle or velocipede was an ancient ancestor of the bicycle, at least in terms of the fact that it had two wheels, one in front of the other. But it did not have regular handles, pedals with a gear and chain motive system, or brakes. There were pedestrian curricles in use in isolated areas of Britain for at least a couple of decades after the Regency, but for the most part, they were forgotten.

      The bicycle as we know it today was not developed until the mid-1880s, in France. It was introduced in England soon thereafter. The book will give you more detail, and more information about other variations on the basic pedestrian curricle which were built and used. I also think you will enjoy it for the many period prints, based on your interest in fashion plates of the time.

      I am glad you like the site, I enjoy yours, too.

      Regards,

      Kat

  6. I know Roger doesn’t get as many royalties [sorry Roger, about 49p I suspect] but it means it gets spread further

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      What is really weird is that Amazon US lists it as out of print, with limited availability. Too bad, it would be easier for folks on this side of the pond. Oh, sigh!

      But even with shipping from the UK, $36.94 is not bad for this book.

      =^..^=

  7. Roger Street says:

    Just a price correction. The http://www.artesius.org website states the price for a standard copy of ‘Dashing Dandies’ is £15.95, plus postage to the USA £7.00, giving a total £22.95. At the current rate of exchange of 1UK£ = 1.6097US$ this gives a dollar price of US$36.94, only just over half the price of the US$65.00 figure quoted by Nancy. Hopefully reasonably affordable.

  8. Pingback: Dandy Chargers Ride — The 2013 Season | The Regency Redingote

  9. Pingback: Dandy Chargers Ride — The 2013 Season | The Beau Monde

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