Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

John Kemp Starley and the two wheeled revolution

The ever-wonderful Vestry House Museum currently has a great little exhibition about the development of the modern bicycle and the Walthamstow man who invented it. John Kemp Starley was born in 1855 on Church Hill, just up the road from markontour’s home for the last fifteen years. As Walthamstow reinvents itself with neighbourhoods designed for pedestrians and cyclists, it’s fantastic to know that the bike itself has its roots in E17.

After showing an early talent for sketching machinery he was taken on as a draughtsman at his uncles’s engineering plant in Coventry.  Among other things, the Starley’s manufacturered Penny Farthings, the absurdly tall early bicycles upon which Victorians risked their lives in pursuit of two-wheeled mobility. 

Starley Junior thought he could do better and designed a diamond framed bicycle with two equal sized wheels, where power was delivered via turning pedals connected to a rear wheel chain. Riders’ comfort was further considered with a sprung seat. When the ‘Rover Safety Bicycle’ came on to the market in 1885 it was an instant success and, partly due to the fact that Starley had failed to take out a patent, widely copied. The basic bicycle design has remained the same ever since. 

The Rover Safety Bicycle created a revolution in urban mobility. Working class people were now able to easily and affordably travel outide their own neighbourhood. There is evidence that the gene pool expanded as a result. Bikes were particularly popular with women, despite considerabe conservative concern at the impact on their morals! Decades later, as a great little film at the exhibition chronicles, bikes were much used by the suffragettes, both as an expression of liberation and as a vehicle for protest.  

The Vestry’s exhibition is both stimulating and timely, as Walthamstow becomes one of the first parts of London to experiment with ‘mini-Hollands’ – a programme by the Mayor of London to stimulate a massive increase in cycling through segregated cycle lanes and pedestrian/cyclists-only zones. Despite some small-minded local business opposition at the outset, it has been a massive success so far, particulalry the semi-pedestrianisation of the Village area in which the Vestry Museum sits. John Kemp Starley would have been proud.

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