Nothing epitomises the Victorian era of strange mechanical inventions more than the iconic Penny Farthing bicycle even though it was initially called an ‘Ordinary’;  the name Penny Farthing was ‘coined’ some time later! 

One of the main motives behind the invention of the Penny Farthing was the desire to make bicycles faster and as gears had not yet been invented the logical solution was to increase the size of the front wheel. Safety was not too much of an issue as the main riders of these bicycles were wealthy young men who enjoyed the danger of racing – fit riders apparently reached speeds of approximately 40kph. Penny Farthings required a mounting step and a running start and as there were no brakes stopping was impossible unless the rider jumped off. There was an element of elitism in owning and racing these bicycles – the goal of Britain’s Amateur Bicycle Club of the time, was to ‘promote cycling among the middle, upper and higher classes of society’ and it has been argued that this elitism delayed the breakthrough of the more sensible safety bicycle which finally replaced the Penny Farthing around 1890. 

Henfield Museum houses a fine example of a Penny Farthing which was made by William Austin Powell who belonged to a Surrey cycle club that raced Penny Farthings throughout the Surrey hills. Mr Powell was a farmer’s son with more of an interest in engines and mechanical things than farming. He moved to Henfield in 1900 and set up a cycle business in the High Street where the Penny Farthing was attached to the fascia of the shop until 1936. Mrs May Morey, William Powell’s daughter, in her book ‘I Remember (Henfield)’, writes about how her father rode his Penny Farthing all the way from London on a Sunday to court her mother who lived in Ashington. This was no mean feat as there were no made-up roads and the tyres were solid! When William Powell retired at the age of 75, he took one last ride on his Penny Farthing up and down Henfield High Street.  Eventually the bicycle found its way to the garden barn of Ivy House, the Powell family home, where it stayed until the Village Hall was completed and Mrs Morey donated it to the Museum. To my knowledge it hasn’t been ridden since – perhaps it’s time for another outing up and down the High Street promoting the Museum! 

VITA BARNES, HENFIELD MUSEUM VOLUNTEER

Taken from the May 2017 edition of The Parish Magazine.
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