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By Alison Kay on

“Get him books not a bicycle!” – Victorian leisure in the Hackworth family archive

Archivist Alison Kay is working on a project to catalogue the papers of the pioneering northern railway family, the Hackworths. She reveals some of the stories the archive reveals.

The Hackworth family archive covers in detail the design and manufacture of early locomotives from the time of the Rainhill Trials onwards, and brings to life some fascinating aspects of Victorian England.

Letter discussing bicycles. From the Hackworth Archive, 24/10/1889 p 2-3

The letter is from 1889. It is written to Robert Young, Timothy Hackworth’s grandson, from his two brothers Ned (Edward) and Charlie (Charles). Robert was living in the Malaysian state of Penang at the time, working on the steam railway there. His brothers were in Batley, near Leeds.

The brothers were discussing a birthday present for their younger brother, Sammie.

Ned (Edward) says:

… as to Sammie’s birthday if I might make a suggestion. I believe nothing would please him more than a good selection of books. I have heard him mention no wish except for a bicycle and Mother has great aversion to the big ones & the safeties are so very expensive. I should think so now he would prefer a few good books.

Charlie (Charles) says:

I think old Sammy has wished for is a bicycle, but they are expensive things, & I think as Ned suggests a few good books would be very acceptable

This is seconded by their father – his sole contribution to the letter was to scribble “A book would be better than a bicycle” on the front.

Rudge ‘ordinary’ bicycle, 1884. Image No. 10218271 Science and Society Website

Bicycles were undergoing a transformation in 1889. Penny farthings or ‘high wheel bicycles’ had their heyday in the 1880s and were very popular with young men, but the boy’s mother’s “aversion” to the “big ones” was certainly justified: because the rider sat so high and the braking system was so unreliable, a bump in the road could cause the rider to catapult over the handlebars.

By 1889, this style of bicycle was slowly being phased out by ‘saftey bikes’ or ‘safties’ – as mentioned by Ned. These look more like the bicycles we see today.

Rover ‘safety’ bicycle Image No. 10306698 Science and Society Website

I think this letter must have been important to Robert Young: it is virtually the only ‘personal’  letter that he kept that was not connected to the writing of his book, suggesting that it really meant something to him.

The Hackworth family archive is peppered with insights into life in the Victorian period, taking in mental illness, romance, fashion, poor health, wartime – and of course early locomotive design, travel and the personalities who developed the railway. I’ll try to bring you more of these in future blog posts.

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