Over the past fortnight I’ve had the pleasure of piecing together the story of Sir Douglas Maclean’s bicycle in preparation for its display – from today – at MTG Hawke’s Bay.
Maclean’s bicycle has been in the collections of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust for many years, but we’ve known very little about her. Now, with the assistance of a number of experts around the world we have discovered that she is one of the earliest Ariel model bicycles, invented by James Starley, and manufactured in late 1871 by Starley & Co, Coventry, England.
In about 1870, Starley, known as the father of the British bicycle industry, began producing bicycles based on the French velocipede, or ‘boneshaker’, but with front wheels of increasing size to enable higher speeds.
Starley’s innovative designs made the new style of bicycle a simpler, lighter and more comfortable ride than the older-style velocipedes. The larger front wheel allowed the rider to travel faster. Cyclists would buy a bicycle sized to the length of their leg, the taller you were – the bigger the wheel you could ride. The high bicycle ruled the road from the 1870s to the late 1880s, falling into obsolescence, in their turn, with the introduction of the safety bicycle in the late 1880s.
While today, these machines are frequently referred to as ‘penny-farthings’ (referencing the large penny, and small farthing coins, as viewed from the side), the term is something of a misnomer. They were referred to as bicycles at the time, and from the late 1880s, with the emergence of the new safety bicycles, were called ‘ordinary’ bicycles’ to differentiate them from the new design.
As part of our research into the bicycle we’ve also rediscovered some of Douglas’ adventures with this remarkable machine in the very early days of New Zealand cycling.
Sir Robert Donald Douglas Maclean (b. 1852, d. 1929) was the owner of the Maraekakaho Estate, inherited from his father Sir Donald McLean KCMG in 1877. Douglas represented the Napier electorate as an independent Conservative member of parliament from 1896 to 1899, but, as one of the largest land holders in Hawke’s Bay, focused most of his energy on pastoral pursuits, particularly stock-farming and sheep-breeding. He was also the first President of the Napier Society of Arts and Crafts in 1924, and was actively involved in promoting arts in the region.
Douglas spent most of his early years in Napier, but went to England for his schooling in 1865, returning to New Zealand in 1870. He worked in Wellington for the law firm of Hart and Buckley through the 1870s. An accomplished sportsman, he was a prominent local cyclist (winning the first two cycle races ever held in Wellington) and an early rugby player.
In February 1876 Douglas rode this bicycle from Wellington to Napier, a journey of six days on rough roads, which included the arduous climb over the Rimutaka Range, slow riding through Forty Mile Bush on muddy tracks cut-up by drays, and the fording of many rivers and streams. He ran the final 40 miles as he came into Napier in one day, with a strong head wind against him. The newspaper’s noted that on his arrival, “he suffered a little from exhaustion”. (Auckland Evening Star, 11.2.1876, Wellington Evening Post, 8.2.1876)
Maclean’s bicycle is in largely original condition, though it is thought that the saddle spring was at some point replaced with a slightly later, 1873 design. The wheel rims have also likely been replaced.
Among its many innovations in design, the Ariel featured Starley’s new wheel design – a lever tension wheel with wire-spokes. It also used one inch rubber tyres, one of which the museum holds in the collection, but which has disintegrated over time to the extent it cannot be displayed.
The bicycle came into the museum collections in 1940, as part of the Lady Maclean bequest. That same year it also featured in the New Zealand centennial celebrations in Wellington.
MacLean’s bicycle will be on display in the Century Theatre foyer from 28 January 2015. Come in and pay her a visit.
Eloise Wallace, Curator Social History
My thanks to Graeme, Lorne, Carey, Richard and Bob for their expert research assistance.
Visit our Collections page for many more photographs of bicycles and cycling in Hawke’s Bay http://collection.mtghawkesbay.com/welcome.jsp