Thursday, 2 February 2017

Book Review - The bicycle and the Bush by Jim Fitzpatrick

The bicycle and the Bush : man and machine in rural Australia by Jim Fitzpatrick

Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980             ISBN 0195542112

Serendipity and coincidence can be wonderful things. Not long ago I read Dream Millions, a book written by Fred Blakeley, the leader of the Lasseter expedition, and it was noted on the flyleaf that in 1908 he and two colleagues rode bicycles from White Cliffs to Darwin. A week or so after I had read that book I was spending time with a friend who has an interest in restoring old bicycles and mentioned Fred, and he drew my attention to this book which contains photographs of Blakeley's journey amongst its other treasures.

For The bicycle and the Bush is a cornucopia of facts, stories and pictures of an almost forgotten part of Australia's transport history. I imagine most people, like me, think of the development of transport in the Bush being one of moving from horse and camel to motor vehicle. And while that may be true of carting through rural Australia (and of course we should add bullocks to the hauling animals), for a good 20-30 years, the bicycle became an integral and valued part of the transport mix.

Once the design features of the bicycle settled on what we now recognise (Fitzgerald provides an informative and useful chapter on the history of bicycle design), riding quickly gained popularity among rural workers. The reasons are obvious when spelled out: firstly, they were (relatively) cheap to buy, and could often be purchased on a payment plan; secondly, they were very cheap to run, with maintenance costs low compared to animal transport; and thirdly, one could travel much further in a day under human power than on a horse, even if the roads required (as they often did), that the bicycle was walked rather than ridden.

After describing the history of the design of the bicycle, Fitzpatrick then goes into some detail about the sources of Australian bicycles from the 1880s on, the advantages of the bicycle over other transport, as well as detailed descriptions of the types of surfaces early cyclists had to ride on, and the dangers and inconveniences suffered from various vegetation and animals encountered while on the bike. Fitzpatrick developed this book from a PhD thesis, and it shows in these sections, where the detail can at times be somewhat overwhelming.

It is in the history of the use of the bicycle across Australia from the 1880s until the depression where there is much to fascinate and educate the reader. Given that bicycles seem to have slipped through the cracks in history even as that history was being made, Fitzpatrick's focus depends on the source material that he has managed to find, and much of it comes from Western Australia. With its good weather and relatively flat countryside, Western Australia was a perfect place to take advantage of the bicycle, and Fitzpatrick describes its use by gold prospectors, salesmen, clergy, and those who's job it was to keep the Rabbit-Proof Fence and Kalgoorlie pipeline in good order.

Western Australia was also unique in having for quite a few years a bicycle messenger service between towns and localities on the goldfields. These bicycle messengers earned good money for providing a messenger service that was faster than horse, train and in some cases telegraph. It is from these bicycle messengers that the first crop of Trans-Australia riders came.

In the early stages of adoption of any sort of new technology, there comes a period where people test what it can do, and try and best each other in doing it. The bicycle was no different, and not long after it was introduced, men (and women, as Fitzpatrick details) began to ride further and further distances. Firstly it was across the Nullarbor, and then from Western Australia to Northern Queensland, and finally all the way around. An interesting sidelight to these journeys is how many of them were sponsored by the bicycle industry in some way, and indeed that some of the cyclists themselves proposed such journeys to cycle companies in an entrepreneurial manner.

As for the eastern side of the country, Fitzpatrick outlines the beginnings of cycle-touring, and the use of the bicycle by shearers, which was not inconsiderable in the early years of the twentieth century, until cars became cheap enough for them to buy. This brings me full circle as, when discussing this book with my 87 year old Father-in-law, he mentioned several shearers he knew that used to follow the shearing from Daylesford to Innamincka on their bicycles. He also talked about his many teenage rides to Ballarat or Castlemaine.... yet more hidden history.

The bicycle and the Bush is fascinating to read, and to look at, with many interesting photographs and old advertisements that supplement the text. For an insight into a forgotten period of Australia's history, this is highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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