Global trend seen in town 100 years ago

By Laurel Stowell

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RECONSTRUCTION: The original bicycle prototype might have looked like this.GRAPHIC/ SUPPLIED
RECONSTRUCTION: The original bicycle prototype might have looked like this.GRAPHIC/ SUPPLIED

The frame of a clunky early version of the bicycle proves colonial Whanganui was up with the fashions of the Victorian era, postgraduate student Naomi Woods says.

The metal frame is one item in the 2500kg of artefacts recovered during a 2010 archaeological investigation of land where Whanganui's Farmers complex now stands.

The investigation was done by Archaeology North and found the remains of early colonial settlement. Miss Woods has analysed the artefacts at Otago University. She's writing up her findings, and her research on the velocipede frame was written up in the March issue of Archaeology New Zealand magazine.

The frame was recovered from a rubbish hole, along with broken crockery, buttons, a ring, a buckle and fragments of dolls.

The hole, possibly a former well, was probably filled with household rubbish around 1900. But velocipedes had a brief craze much earlier, in the late 1860s.

At a time when most transport was by horses, which could be temperamental, any alternative form of transport had appeal. The very first bicycles had two wheels and no pedals, and were called hobby horses. Velocipedes came next.

They had iron frames and wooden wheels, with pedals attached to the front wheel. They were very slow, but parts of Europe and North America went crazy on them from 1868-70 in "velocipede mania".

Newspaper reports show Whanganui was not immune, with the first velocipede arriving in 1869.

The frame found more than 100 years later was minus its wheels. It may have been handmade, and designed from a picture. It had no brakes and unusual features, such as curved handlebars and a footrest on the rear wheel fork.

Miss Woods said the likely owner was Walter Armstrong, who lived at the site from 1888 to 1902. He was a blacksmith, gunsmith, farrier and carriage builder. Obsessed with engineering, he was said to be able to make or repair all kinds of machines.

Velocipedes weren't popular for long. They were soon eclipsed by penny farthings. But finding that remnant of a short-lived craze proved early Whanganui was connected to global trends.

"There were lots of people in Whanganui right up to the fashions in all sorts of things, including machinery," Miss Woods said.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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