The first bicycles arrived in the colonies in the 1860s and Australians were quick to embrace this new technology. By the late 1890s, the safety bicycle offered people a cheaper and more comfortable ride and the cycling craze had taken hold. Riding schools and touring clubs formed and cycle racing became a big business.
– National Museum of Australia
The engraving above, published by Ebenezer and David Syme, shows a velocipede race at Melbourne cricket ground in 1869. Some claim that the first Australian cycle race was held here, though others believe that French velocipedes were previously ridden in contests in Sydney.
The velocipede industry in Australia was initially centred around Ballarat, in Victoria, which had been a gold-mining centre on a massive scale in the 1850s, leading to many subsidiary industries such as the manufacture of steam engines and cast iron foundries. From the late 1860s to the early 20th century, Ballarat made a successful transition from a gold rush town to an industrial-age city. “Ballarat locals were intrigued by the appearance of the velocipede. In 1869, a crowd of 500 onlookers gathered opposite the Ballarat Post Office to see a rider propel his velocipede down Sturt Street. One onlooker described the vehicle as a ‘buggy the man worked by himself’. Not everyone welcomed the new addition to Ballarat’s roads. Reports of collisions between cyclists and horses were used by media commentators to highlight the dangers of two-wheeled vehicles.” *
Whereas, in Europe, velocipedes went out of fashion in the early 1870s, in Australia they continued to be manufactured by local blacksmiths. The reason was simple: the new ‘ordinary’ (penny farthing) style of bicycle imported from Britain was a ‘high-tech’ piece of equipment that was very hard to fabricate, whereas the velocipede could easily be made by a blacksmith and its wheels supplied by a wheelwright. Even after penny farthing bicycles took over, velocipedes were still kept by families and by riding schools to teach new riders, as it was easier to learn to balance on a velocipede than on a penny farthing. Bartleet commented that, in England, velocipedes were available to hire at Crystal Palace until 1883 for the same purpose.
The most interesting aspect of this velocipede is its utilitarian construction. Because of intense competition from so many other manufacturers, velocipedes in Europe tended to be highly stylised, whereas in Australia there were few builders. The majority were blacksmiths who catered to local demand rather than selling nationally, so a simple construction and cheap selling price were the most important factors for the maker.
The best-known Stirling bicycle was made by the Stirling Cycle Co of Chicago, USA, who exported to Australia in the 1890s. There were two British makers who used the name: the ‘Royal Stirling’ was made by Walker & Co of Birmingham in the 1890s, and this was also exported to Australia. Mr W. Stirling of Anstruther, Fife, Scotland, also made a ‘Stirling’ around 1898, though little is known of it.
Perth, in Western Australia, was founded by Captain James Stirling in 1829 as the administrative centre of the Swan River Colony, which subsequently became Western Australia with Stirling as governor. Queen Victoria announced Perth’s city status in 1856. In 1862 Sir James Stirling became an admiral and died three years later in Guildford, England.
Though I’ve not yet found concrete evidence of its connection with Perth, ‘Stirling’ would obviously have been the ideal name for a velocipede made in Western Australia in the years following the death of Admiral Stirling. And there was obviously a demand for velocipedes in Western Australia at this time, as the Freemantle Herald included a report in its edition of Saturday 10th July 1869 that the Collector of Customs was rumoured to be importing a velocipede to help him carry out his duties.
1870 Stirling Velocipede
Built in Australia
36″ Front Wheel
29″ Rear Wheel
This Australian velocipede appears to be a unique survivor of its marque. Blacksmith-made machines often had a rough and unfinished appearance, but this example has character and interesting design features. It’s a fully-functional machine and deserves acknowledgement of its place in Australian bicycle history.
THE STIRLING FRONT WHEEL
ENGLISH MECHANIC MAGAZINE, 1869
* Ballarat info with thanks to Gold Museum, Ballarat, Victoria, quoting reports in the Ballarat Star newspaper, 1869 –