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Unique 'Missing Link' Bicycle Acquired by CTM

23 February 2012

A bicycle dating back to the early days of cycling - and thought to be the only one of its kind - has just gone on display here at the Museum after being discovered in an attic in Kingswear Devon, 125 years after it was made, and decades since it was last ridden.

The 1886 Singer Courier bicycle, which is rusty and unridable, features an unusual design, including two chains. We are delighted to have been able to acquire this item, thanks to generous grants from the Friends of Coventry Transport Museum and Arts Council England's PRISM Fund.  Until now, cycle historians weren’t aware of any examples of this type of bicycle still existing.

The Singer bicycle is a ‘missing link’ between the ‘ordinary’ bicycle of its time - which were dangerous to ride and disparagingly called ‘penny farthings’ because of the disparity in wheel sizes – and the modern ‘safety’ bicycle.

Steve Bagley, our Head of Collections said of the acquisition:

“Until cycle historian Nick Clayton informed us that the bicycle had been found, we had no idea that it existed, having only ever read about the Singer Courier in catalogues and magazines of its period. We cannot emphasise enough how important this find is to the Museum’s collection, and we are extremely grateful to both Arts Council England’s PRISM fund, and the Friends of Coventry Transport Museum, for granting us the funds to purchase it.

“Our whole collection originated when cycle collector Sammy Bartleet gifted his historic cycles to the city in the mid 1930s, and since then we have been actively collecting examples that tell the story of this important form of personal transport. We are currently creating a new, permanent display to highlight this story, so this find has come at a hugely opportune moment: as soon as vital conservation work has been undertaken on the Singer Courier, it will be placed on public display as part of this exhibition.”

Why is the Singer Courier so important to our collection?

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Coventry became the centre of cycle production in Britain, with 77 factories in the city producing bicycles. During the 1870s and 80s the Penny Farthing or ‘Ordinary’ was the accepted bicycle design, but the dangers associated with riding this type of machine led manufacturers to experiment with a range of different components and layouts, in attempts to find a safer and more practical alternative.

The Singer Courier is one such attempt, patented by a Frederick Warner Jones, and has many of the features we would recognise on a modern cycle. With a few design tweaks, just two years later John Kemp Starley produced the 1888 ‘Rover Safety Cycle’; with a modern frame design and wheels of almost the same size, and the modern bicycle was born.

How was the bicycle discovered after so many years?

It was a chance telephone conversation between two old friends that led to the discovery of this item.  Bob Bennett, who lives in Knutsford, Cheshire and is a member of the Veteran Cycle Club, was intrigued when his Devon friend Don Collinson, now in his 90s, casually mentioned that he had an old bike in the loft with one wheel bigger than the other.  Bob's first thought was that it was a 'Penny Farthing' and asked Don to send a photograph.

On seeing the photo Bob consulted cycle historian Nick Clayton who was able to identify it as the Singer Courier.  It was decided to get the cycle to Knutsford where there is a Penny Farthing Museum and a nearby museum of cycles. 

In August Bob drove down to Devon to bring the cycle back to Knutsford and the Cheshire experts, having arranged for a van to meet him at the Kingswear house. He found that the road leading to the house was half a mile long and narrowed between high walls to only six feet wide – there was no hope of getting the van close to the house which was up a steep drive and built with the living rooms on the top floor to take advantage of the views over the River Dart estuary and out to sea.

After tea and pleasantries Bob asked, “where is the bike now Don?” “Still in the loft” was the answer. So, down came the loft ladder, up went 70 year old Bob who moved aside forty years of accumulated storage and carried the bike, 40 pounds of solid metal, to the gaping hole in the floor and contemplated lowering it down the ladder.

The large back wheel would only go diagonally through the access hole and even by now vertical the bike was some four feet off the landing floor with Bob lying on his stomach desperately supporting the weight so that the two 90 year old residents could lower it the rest of the way. Once on the landing Bob had to carry it down two flights of stairs and then half a mile to the waiting van where the tattooed driver in a vest said that he could not help in loading it in the van “as he had a bad back”.

While the cycle was in Knutsford more research has been undertaken and it is known the cycle was first purchased by Mr Collinson in 1962 as part of a “job lot” of “collectibles”. At that time the cycle was said to have been in a barn of a house in a village near Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire and it is known that the cycle had been there since (at least) 1946. Efforts are being made to trace the family that owned the house before the war in the hope that they may know something of the ownership at that time.


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