Edwardian Bicycles #0067

Andrew-MillwardThe Collector: Andrew Millward, Birmingham, Deputy Head of School of Digital Media Technology in the Faculty of Technology Engineering and Environment, Birmingham City University (UK).

The Collection: British made bicycles from the 1890s to 1920s.

The story behind the collection...

I became a keen cyclist as a student at the University of Leeds in the 1970s and I was then only interested in keeping one bicycle on the road, upgrading it as I went along. Everything changed when my mother in law acquired an old bicycle from a work colleague thinking that I might be interested in doing it up. It was in "barn fresh" condition, covered in surface rust, worn bearings suggesting it had received heavy use and with quite a number of the spokes rusted through. The bicycle (which I still have, but is not illustrated) was a single speed gents model from an unknown maker from about 1910. It had 28" wheels and a much larger frame (26") than a modern bicycle and even though it was a rather miscellaneous example it still exuded a classic style evoking a long gone era. During the course of restoring it my knowledge of bicycles of this era grew and before I had completed my first restoration I decided to get a better example and so just before Christmas 1982 I travelled from Leicester to Somerset to bring back a 1902 Wolverhampton-made Sunbeam with a two speed bottom bracket gear. As my wife Alison was also a keen cyclist I then looked out for a ladies' bicycle from the period and on the definition that a collection starts when you have three of something it was Easter 1983 when I bought a 1909 Raleigh ladies "Popular" model, that the collection began.

Why bicycles so similar in appearance can be a source of interest lies in the detail. From the 1890s to the 1920s bicycle development was mainly through refinements in respect of using new materials such as aluminium alloys, improving braking systems as well as providing variable gears. Considerable ingenuity manifested itself in the variations in frame design with "X" frames and reinforcements to improve strength and rigidity to both male and female models. There were also "spring frames" to reduce road shocks and variable gears to improve riding experience. The Edwardian roadster represented the high point in cycling comfort and convenience and as a touring and commuting vehicle was still comparable to the typical motor car of that time. Even today they still provide a lovely riding experience if comfort rather than speed is the goal. The modern "lightweight" bicycle also has its roots in this period. Around 1912 world champion cyclist, Leon Meredith began to import Bastide bicycles from France incorporating the features which were to influence British bicycle design until the 1970s and examples of Meredith, Bastide and bicycles made by the pioneer British lightweight manufacturers are represented in the collection.

The total number in the collection is 470, but the core collection is about 240 machines. The majority of these were collected in the 1980s and early 1990s when there was very little interest in bicycles of this type and I could acquire them even on a struggling academic's wage. Over the last 20 years interest has grown and specialist sales by auction firms such as Bonhams have established a market for them and so there is now a much wider collecting interest from enthusiasts taking part in events such as the Tweed Run and those run by veteran-cycle clubs.

The bulk of the collection has been in storage since the early 1990s as family life has taken priority, but it is now being sorted and about 80 machines will soon be displayed locally. I don't have any of the collection in the house and like to keep it at arms length except for those that I use to ride to work and for touring. As I like to ride them I plan to ensure more are ridden regularly - which is the best way to look after them. For over ten years some machines have been on loan to the National Cycle Museum in Llandrindod Wells, but I am looking forward to enabling other collectors and enthusiasts to use the rest of the collection as a reference source.

It is difficult to single out a favourite find, but the events surrounding one particular "find" does stand out. In the 1980s I advertised for old bicycles in local newspapers to see what might come to light. In following up one response I visited an old farm building where a man said he had his mother's bicycle. I went inside what was a saw mill and there leaning against a stationary engine was an old ladies bicycle covered in grey sawdust. Although it didn't appear to be particularly interesting I wiped my finger on the rear mudguard expecting to feel rusty metal only to reveal a gleam of reflected light on a polished surface and 22 carat gold lining in beautiful original condition.  It was a 1921 ladies Sunbeam with its original enamel intact and the epitome of original condition. Even the original tyres were still with it along with its tool kit and tools. You don't expect to find something so good in such unpromising premises.

When I started out collecting I had a list of key items that I wanted, but very little now remains on that list. However, I should like to have an example of an early aluminium framed bicycle such as a "Lu-mi-num", a gents Bamboo bicycle which I can ride, a Lovelace-made light bicycle and a Quadrant chainless bicycle.

What does the collection reveal about me? Hopefully that I am thorough and focused on my goal and care about preserving the past. Most importantly that I am interested in objects for what they are above what they are worth.  The bicycles all had owners and it is interesting when you know something about who they were. A Raleigh bicycle was sold to me by someone who knew its owner - the local bobby from his youth - and passed on an interesting local newspaper cutting from just after the war where the policeman had been involved in the aftermath of an accident caused by a rat getting stuck in the front wheel of a bicycle causing the wheel to jam and injure the hapless cyclist. The article contains a photograph of the damaged bicycle with the rat still jammed in the wheel! This interest in the personal experiences of cyclists comes into play in my role as editor of Fellowship News, the magazine of the Fellowship of Cycling Old Timers.

There is also a professional interest arising from being involved in teaching students on engineering and technology courses in that there are a lot of lessons to be learned about technological innovation studying the impact bicycle manufacture had on the late 19th century light engineering sector as well as the West Midlands economy. Mass producing precision ball bearings, lighter cold drawn steel tubing, bush roller chains, pneumatic tyres and pressed steel parts all developed to improve cycles and paved the way for the later motor industry and pioneer aviation sector. A study of the activities of the entrepreneurs and leading businesses formed the basis of my PhD which I did at Birmingham University (This can be downloaded free from the British Library website from ETHOS - you just need to register) 

I have a specialised collection of variable gears for bicycles which was an additional driver to this collection and with Alison I collect Edwardiana to decorate and restore our Edwardian house. The search for source material in the1980s coincided with the deindustrialisation of the West Midlands economy and seeing so much information relating to cycles and cycling being destroyed during that period led me in 1989 to initiate the creation of the National Cycle Archive (Reg No 272792) which is based at the University of Warwick and recognised as a collection of national significance. So although this is not my own collection I am one of its trustees and do act to acquire archives on its behalf. 

I would deny the collection is out of control, but my approach to collecting has developed over the years. I would admit to being obsessed given the determination and levels of commitment which I gave during the first three or four years of collecting, but this eventually gave way to a more considered and focused approach once I better understood the availability of bicycles that interested me and became more discriminating in terms of the condition to accept. After this I became more selective and I now look for good original paintwork and will only buy restored or poor condition examples of rare or unique machines. I will also be thinning out the collection in the years ahead.


If you are interested in seeing bicycles of this period you can see them being ridden at:

The Benson Veteran Cycle Club Annual Run;

The Veteran Cycle Club (various events through the year);

The Tweed Run.

Three collections of bicycles worth a visit are:

Coventry Transport Museum;

The National Cycle Museum;

The Science Museum.

Collections of literature and archives can be found at:

The National Cycle Archive, Warwick University; 

The Raleigh Archive, Nottinghamshire Records Office.

All images © Graham Powell, Obsessionistas with the kind permission of Andrew Millward.

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for a fascinating post! I recently purchased a vintage Omega 3-speed at an estate sale and have become increasingly interested in vintage bicycles. I find them to be such beautiful machines.

May 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNicole
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