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Taking a Test Drive

Taking a Test Drive

Bedfordshire has long had associations with bicycles – perhaps the comparatively flat terrain has helped.  

Our document of the month ref.QSR1876/4/5/10 - below -  highlights the case against Richard William Webb of Leighton Buzzard, who, in 1876, was accussed of stealing a bicycle. The evidence tells us a little about the bicycle trade of the time – Hyde Edward Dightam, the general mechanic from whom the bicycle was taken, explains 'the prisoner came to my shop in Lamsey Street…and asked for a bicycle – He wanted to buy a 50 inch bicycle I told him I had not one at home but had a 52 inch standing at the painters' this bicycle was produced – 'he got on the machine and could reach it. It was then taken out into the street…He then said he should like to try it. He got upon it. I held it for him to mount. He rode straight away down the Brickhill Road out of sight…'

Richard William Webb 1876

There then follows an account of a chase across the county in pursuit of the cyclist. First Dightam follows the cyclist on foot, then he obtains a horse and trap. The cyclist is seen at Ridgmont, Ampthill and Elstow but is always just a little ahead. He cannot be found in Bedford so Dightam returns to Leighton Buzzard. The following day Dightam and the superintendant of police took an early train to Bedford to continue the chase. When they got to St Neots they found the machine at the St Neots paper mill where it had been left broken following an accident.

The machine must have been a penny farthing – the measurement of 50 or 52 inches refering to the diameter of the large wheel - your inside leg measurement was crucial to the size of wheel you could manage. Pennyfarthings, or more correctly High Bicycles, had only been introduced at the very end of the 1860s. However, in his evidence James Siratt says that while he was giving the prisoner and the bicycle a lift in his cart up the hill from Heath & Reach to Woburn 'We got talking about bicycles – He said he had been a rider for 8 years'. This would put Webb's early bicycle experiences back into the realms of the boneshaker or velocipede.

Webb's adventures on the bicycle came to an abrupt end. He arranged to follow a cart from St Neots to Godmanchester as he didn't know the road. The card driver, William Chambers, said 'he waited for us and rode his bicycle behind the cart. We started at ten. Stopping at a gate near the St Neots mill he ran his bicycle into the back of our cart and broke it.'

The story has something of a happy ending. Webb explained  'I can only say I did not take the bicycle with the intention of stealing it. I left the cup [a plated cup he said he had won in a swimming race] with Mr Dightam until I had seen whether the machine suited me until I came back – I wanted to try the machine. I have offered him the money for the machine since I have been taken and he can have it now in two hours time.' This was enough for the jury and Webb was acquitted. He presumably paid for the bicycle which was worth the not inconsiderable sum of £10 10s.

Woburn Cycling Club 1885

Although the various sightings of Webb across the county suggest that seeing a man on a bicycle was not very common, however, Webb was far from alone in being a keen cyclist. By the 1880s there were cycling clubs all over the county. Photograph ref.Z1086/24 (above) shows the Woburn club in 1885. By the 1890s cycle races were very common and in Biggleswade Dan Albone was not only entering races but also building his own range of Ivel bicycles  - see ref,SDBigNat9/1 below.

Ivel Bicycle Advert

Arthur Gell

Arthur Gell (BTNegM8/54/1 - above) was Bedfordshire's most successful cycle racer at the turn of the 19th century.  He won the Bedfordshire 5 mile championship in 1896, 1897 and 1898 and in 1903 won the 1 mile Championship Cup outright.  He also raced in the West Country and Europe. Nowadays another Bedfordshire born cyclist, Victoria Pendleton (who was born in Stotfold and attended St Mary's School, Stotfold and Etonbury School, Arlesey) takes the honours as one of the country's top cyclists and is a world and Olympic champion.

However, cycling is not all fun. In 1900 a newspaper reported one of the many accidents to cyclists ref. P122/28/16 - below:

 Cycle Accident 1900

In 1934 a rather plaintive letter was sent to the clerk of the Petty Sessions in Biggleswade explaining why Mr Hammond had not been able to get to the court in time (HF147/44/4) 'I started out for Biggleswade on a bicycle I had borrowed at 7.30 am this morning, but, owing to wind and rain also my own poor condition I had got no further than Knebworth about 20 miles from Biggleswade at 10.35....'.

Mr Hammond 1934