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A History of Cycling in Sheffield

November 13, 2012

Cycling in Sheffield – Then and Now  

Dr Jim Walker

This year’s Olympics, and characters like Bradley Wiggins, have inspired a resurgence in interest in cycling – even in the hilly terrain of Sheffield. The challenges faced by enthusiasts are not new…..

In June 1869 local papers had a new epidemic to report:

In Sheffield and vicinity, the symptoms of that alarming malady, the bicycle fever, are becoming daily more strongly marked and developed…

which might require ‘additional accommodation at the medical institutions of the town’ such as ‘extra facilities for the treatment of casualties’. Undeterred, the fabulous Browne Brothers appeared at the Alexandra Opera House in a display of bicycling dexterity, and in the same week the fever spread:

A Bicycle Club is being formed at the Shakespeare Inn, Gibraltar Street, and there is every prospect of its being a complete success.

(2 June 1869)

Tracing the beginnings of the fever leads us back a month earlier, when a Bicycle Club and Grounds were founded at Sharrow (near Wilson’s Snuff Factory), with a public launch at a crowded Pomona Hotel, with hundreds gathered outside to see a velocipede contest in which a bicycle of local firm Beck and Candlish of Brown Street was proven superior to one imported from Pickering of New York.

Prior to this, however, on April 20th 1869, the ingenious inventor Benjamin Gorrill had been first to announce his own make of ‘bicycle and tricycle velocipedes, of the best materials and workmanship’. He was the son of a scissor-maker of Eyre Street, and started as a scissorsmith, branched out into Orrery making and announced his new-fangled velocipedes (his son John Gorrill was an early rider in the Sheffield contests) from Cadman Lane, Sheffield. Elaborate planetary gear systems were a speciality, as noted in the Independent:

A most ingenious, skilfully constructed, and beautiful mechanism, showing the movements of the earth and sun, with other celestial phenomena, the work of Benjamin Gorrill, has been lent to the Museum…

The Brown brothers from Liverpool (before they added an ‘e’ to their name on the Alexandra stage) must have infected many with bicycle fever in a series of outdoor public displays on the 18th May, although the town’s physical geography posed a challenge:

Since the brothers have been in Sheffield they have tried to mount some of our hills, and have succeeded in getting up Snighill, Pond Hill, and have gone from Norfolk Street to Broomhill. In the afternoon of today they intend to try Paradise Square.

Crowds of locals held their collective breath as the brothers ‘made an attempt to rise Paradise Street’, noting that ‘from Westbar, all the way up, it is very uneven, being paved with very rugged boulders’, but they ultimately failed to conquer the final dozen yards near the top.

 

Henry Swan, curator of John Ruskin’s Museum which opened a few years later on Bell Hagg Road, Walkley, was another early pioneer of cycling, but Walkley’s uncompromising gradients presented the same problem and were only to be attempted by the truly dedicated. Swan promoted the benefits of athletic exercise, took in the invigorating air, maintained a strictly vegetarian lifestyle and was an advocate of the Cold-Water Cure.

His employer, however, was a critic of all mechanical transport, to be avoided ‘where it supersedes healthy bodily exercise’, famously denouncing steam engines but also objecting to bicycles:

 

I not only object, but am quite prepared to spend all my ‘bad language’ in reprobation of the bi-, tri-, and 4-,5-, 6 or 7 cycles, and every other contrivance and invention for superseding human feet…

                                                                                (John Ruskin)

Heavy steel velocipedes may not compare well to the carbon-fibre machines of today, but there were some early fore-runners. Surveyor Frank William Smith of the Hawthorns, Carr Road, Walkley, knew all about the state of the local roads (soon to be appointed Surveyor of Highways for Sheffield); and for health, comfort and practicality on the hills of Walkley he pioneered a bamboo bicycle (a London-based company advertised a ‘Special Racer’ weighing only 25lbs). His testimony in The Graphic, using words of heresy in a City of Steel, conjures an image of him gliding lightly up Blake Street or Bell Hagg Road past bemused steel-workers:

                Riding a Bamboo is indeed a pleasure which, to the riders of steel machines, is unknown.

                                                                (Walkley, 15 March 1897, the Graphic)

 

Bamboo never caught on, however, presumably because the cycles didn’t last – so ultimately the steel-makers had the last laugh….

 

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One Comment
  1. This is really interesting. I would like to develop a website about the culture of cycling in Sheffield maybe hosted on CycleSheffield webpages somewhere

    can Dr Jim get in touch?

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