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Wheels of history

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The machinery may have changed but Sir Douglas Maclean, from one of Hawke’s Bay’s founding families, would likely have felt right at home among today’s adventurous cyclists.Penny Farthing Historial Napier photo of boy

The 144-year-old Penny Farthing that Sir Douglas once rode on a gruelling six-day trip from Wellington to Napier is currently on display in the MTG Century Theatre foyer.

Sir Douglas spent most of his early years in Napier and after going to England for his schooling returned to New Zealand in 1870, working in Wellington for a law firm.

An accomplished sportsman, he was one of the first in the region to take up rugby, and made a name for himself as a cyclist, winning the first two cycle races ever held in Wellington.

In February 1876 Sir Douglas rode this bicycle from Wellington to Napier, a journey of six days on rough roads, which included the arduous climb over the Rimutaka Range, slow riding through Forty Mile Bush on muddy tracks cut up by carts, and the fording of many rivers and streams. The last 60 kilometres he completed in one day, with a strong head wind against him. Newspapers noted that on his arrival, “he suffered a little from exhaustion”.[1]

Maclean’s bicycle is in largely original condition, though it is thought that the saddle spring was at some point replaced with a slightly later, 1873 design.  The wheel rims have also likely been replaced.

The bicycle came into the museum collections in 1940, as part of the Lady Maclean bequest.  That same year it also featured in the New Zealand centennial celebrations in Wellington.

Sir Douglas gifted the land on which Napier’s McLean Park sits to the city in the early part of last century, as a memorial to his father Sir Donald Maclean.  During the First World War, Sir Douglas went to England with his wife, Lady Maclean, where they provided significant support to New Zealand soldiers, including chairing the NZ Soldiers Hostel committee.

While today, these machines are frequently referred to as ‘penny-farthings’ (referencing the large penny, and small farthing coins, as viewed from the side), the term is something of a misnomer. They were referred to as bicycles at the time, and from the 1890s, with the emergence of the new safety bicycles, were called ‘ordinary bicycles’ to differentiate them from the new design. 

Mounting the bicycle required skill, the rider first grasped the handlebar, placing one foot on the peg above the back wheel.  The rider then pushed the bicycle forward to gain momentum, quickly jumping onto the seat while continuing to steer and maintain balance. The centre of mass being high, and close to the front wheel, meant any sudden stop or collision with a pot hole could send the rider over the handlebars.  ‘Taking a header’ was a common cause of injury among cyclists.

Photo above: Sir Douglas Maclean and his son Algernon, outside the Maclean residence, Napier Terrace, c1900. collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, M2004/19, 13,513

 

29 January 2015

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