Historic photography

Early Photographs of Cycling in the 19th Century

Penny-farthings, tricycles and 'sociables' — get to know the different types of early bicycles through these newly discovered archive photographs.

Some extraordinary photos of 19th-century cyclists and their ‘freedom machines’ have come to light at the Historic England Archive.

Conservators discovered them during a project to clean and stabilise more than 500 photographic glass plates. Here are our favourites.

A man photographs two cyclists posing next to their penny-farthing on a river bank.
Cyclists with a penny-farthing, posing for a photographer beside the river at Richmond upon Thames, around 1890. Source: Historic England Archive OFH01/01/02/056.

The penny-farthing

Originally known as the ‘ordinary’ or ‘high-wheeler’, the early bicycle many of us know as the ‘penny-farthing’ was first manufactured in the 1870s. Its iconic design featured one gigantic wheel at the front and a tiny wheel behind.

A line of 8 cyclists in cycling attire, each standing next to a penny-farthing.
A group of cyclists, possibly members of the Putney Cycling Club, with penny-farthing bicycles at Putney, around 1890. Source: Historic England Archive OFH01/01/02/052.

Chain-driven bicycles were not invented until 1885. Because the penny-farthing’s pedals were mounted straight onto the bike’s axel, one revolution of the pedals equalled one rotation of the wheel.

Larger wheels meant that riders could go faster and travel further. Bicycle manufacturers responded with increasingly large wheels, with sizes typically ranging from 36 to 60 inches.

The small size of the back wheel helped to reduce the overall weight of the bicycle, and many early models weighed around 50 pounds.

A photograph saved
The original photographic glass plate for the image above arrived in our Archive conservation laboratory in poor condition, with the image layer peeling away from the glass. The image may have eventually been lost if left untreated, but our Archive Conservation Team stabilised the glass plate. Despite the traces of damage, the photograph provides important historical details. You can see how the bicycles each have slightly different wheel sizes.

Cycling in Putney

These cyclists were pictured in the Putney area of London, smartly attired in their matching caps, blazers, short trousers, long socks and shoes.

A posed group of about 15 cyclists with penny-farthings and tricycles pulled over to the kerb on an unpaved road.
A group of cyclists with penny-farthing bicycles and tricycles in Upper Richmond Road, Richmond upon Thames, around 1890. Source: Historic England Archive OFH01/01/F10/10.

Cycling as a pastime rapidly accelerated during the 1870s, and by 1878 there were over 60 cycling clubs in London. Putney Cycling Club was formed in 1888, and from 1891 to 1905 Putney had its own velodrome.

Penny-farthing and tricycle racing drew huge crowds. Putney Velodrome drew crowds of as many as 8,000 spectators. The velodrome featured a covered grandstand, and those watching were sure of an exciting and entertaining time.

The tricycle

Although popular, the penny-farthing required a level of athleticism to mount and dismount it. Manufacturers tried various designs of cycles, and the practical advantages of the tricycle made it popular with a wide range of cyclists.

Cyclists standing on a grass verge next to an unpaved road.
A group of cyclists with various tricycles stand with local politician, Sir Henry Kimber, in the Putney area, around 1890. Source: Historic England Archive OFH01/01/R09/20.

In 1882 ‘The Tricyclist’ magazine was published for the first time. On 7 July 1883, the London Tricycle Club held a 24-hour race with 67 competitors, won by T R Marriot, who covered 218 and three-quarter miles.

Tricycle designs were continuously developed. By 1884, there were 120 different models available. Designs ranged from a large driving wheel on one side and two small steering wheels on the other, to two rear wheels and one front wheel.

Again, manufacturers experimented with wheel sizes, often with two large rear wheels and a smaller wheel in front.

The sociable tricycle, or ‘sociable’

Cycling brought with it a new sense of freedom. Riders could travel increasing distances under their own pedal power rather than relying on horsepower. Tricycles made it more practical for women to cycle, even while wearing full skirts.

A man and woman pose for a photo seated on a tricycle with two large wheels at the back and a small one up front.
A couple on a sociable tricycle in the Putney area, around 1890. Source: Historic England Archive OFH01/01/02/055.

The ‘sociable tricycle’ of 1877 even allowed two riders to sit side by side, giving women the chance to ride with their husbands. However, these machines took up a lot of space, and later models adopted a tandem arrangement with one rider in front of another.

The tricycle’s popularity declined from the 1890s with the rising popularity of the safety bicycle, which paved the way for our modern-day bicycles.

The Historic England Archive
We hold an outstanding range of photographs, plans and drawings in our public archive, covering the historic environment of England. You can browse thousands of historic and modern photos here.

I am an Archive Conservation Assistant at Historic England, where my work mainly involves caring for photographic collections. I have previously conserved a wide range of artefacts, from ceramics to natural history specimens. I also have an interest in cycling history, and am especially fascinated by early bicycles.

2 comments on “Early Photographs of Cycling in the 19th Century

  1. This is lovely! Great work on the conservation too

  2. Ian Gunn

    Wonderful images and very impressive conservation work. Mandy, please can you contact me about these. Thank you.

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