The blacksmith and his bicycle

September 3

The story of maybe the first made-in-New Zealand actually rideable bike.

AS THE LATE WINTER SUN BRINGS ITS WARMTH TO THE DAYS AGAIN, THE DUSTY TRAILS OF OTAGO COME ALIVE WITH THE HISS OF RUBBER TYRES AND THE RATCHETING CLICK OF BICYCLE GEARS.

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The region’s riders settle onto their seats, travelling singly, with friends, or in family caravans like some lightweight modern- day version of the Oregon Trail. It’s a place made for bikes, and it’s where, in 1893, a young Irish blacksmith built the first made- in-New Zealand bicycle. Or so they say.

There is frustratingly little in the historical record about Patrick O’Leary. We do know he was born in 1872 in Gabriel’s Gully, and that his parents were Jeremiah and Ellen O’Leary, who had come to Aotearoa via the Australian goldfields in 1863. They arrived during the influx of miners that followed the discovery of gold by Gabriel Read in 1861, one which saw the local population reach 11,500 within a year, and more than 24,000 by 1864. The nearby township of Lawrence was, for a time, larger than Dunedin.

The Tuapeka Times of February 21, 1894 tells us that 20-year-old Patrick worked for Messrs Matthews & Chalmers, ‘Coachbuilders, Wheelwrights and General Blacksmiths’, in their workshop on Ross Place, Lawrence’s main street. Matthews & Chalmers would have been what we now call an essential service, called upon for everything from tool manufacture and repair to vehicle maintenance and engineering. An ideal training ground for young Patrick. We don’t know where Patrick acquired the plans for his creation, but it is possible he based it on a pre-existing model, as bicycles had by this time become more or less standardised in their use of a chain drive and the diamond-shaped ‘safety frame’ we recognise today. Compared with working on the construction of a stagecoach or forging mining equipment, building a bicycle would have been relatively straightforward for someone with Patrick’s skillset.

But first Patrick needed tools, and since Torpedo 7 was more than a century away, the budding bike builder started by making his own. According to the Tuapeka Times, the project took Patrick six and a half months, “working in his own time, before and after his regular day’s labour, an average of eighteen hours a week.” As well as the necessary tools, he fashioned and fitted all the parts himself, except for the tyres and the chain, which he imported. We have no record of where Patrick sourced these, though one likely possibility is Zealandia Cycle Works in Christchurch.

If this was the case, he would have had some competition in the “first bike” stakes. For more than a decade prior to Patrick’s historic handiwork, Christchurch was the centre of a booming cycling scene that saw the establishment of many clubs and races, as well as fierce competition in manufacturing, with more than a few gentlemen of the day laying claim to the first New Zealand- built bike. The earliest of these was Henry Wagstaff, a coachbuilder and engineer, who in June of 1869 exhibited a ‘high wheeler’ of his own creation. Next came Thomas Hyde, also a carriage-maker, who on December 17, 1870 took first place in the Anniversary Sports velocipede race on a bicycle he is said to have made himself.

True, perhaps, but the crux of it is this: neither made a bike you or I would ride. Unlike Patrick’s ‘safety bicycle’, Hyde’s iron-framed velocipede had cranks attached directly to the front wheel axle and wheels made of wood and iron (hence the nickname “boneshaker”), while Wagstaff’s high wheeler, or penny farthing, employed a giant front wheel to improve balance and speed. You know the expression “breakneck speed”? It dates from the penny farthing, when an impact could pitch a rider over the handlebars and drop her or him headfirst from a height of up to 1.5 metres.

In case you’re here for a deep dive into the who’s who gossip surrounding the bicycle trade in Victorian New Zealand, you should know that according to an article in the Star newspaper, Nicholas Oates, the founder of Zealandia Cycle Works, established his business “in a small but successful way” in 1872, then joined Richard Kent at his premises on Colombo Street in 1885. By around 1880, Colombo Street was the focal point of Christchurch’s bicycle scene, and home to a complex web of businesses and broken professional relationships. Oates split from Kent in 1887, and Kent was joined, and then left, by man named Henry Corrick, all the while competing with ironmongers Mason, Struthers & Co, as well as Frederick Adams and Walter Curties, who set up shop and began manufacturing a British design known as the Light Roadster, but only after Curties had spent years working for Kent.

“he fashioned and fitted all the parts himself, except for the tyres and the chain”

If this all seems confusing, that’s because it is, and we haven’t touched on the range of models they produced: Rover, the Ordinary or the British Star. All were made here, but whether they were created from scratch as Paddy O’Leary’s was, or, more likely, assembled from imported parts is hard to prove. The Star article describes Oates as “not only a builder and repairer of bicycles and tricycles, but a large importer of every class of cycle sundries in rough or finished state.”

Reading that, it’s hard not to think fondly of Patrick O’Leary working the forge alone in the middle of a bitter Lawrence winter, staying late after a gruelling day’s labour first to make his own tools – the same tools that men like Nicholas Oates and Walter Curties had hanging on their workshop walls in abundance – and then to build his bicycle. There he is, bending and brazing metal, unaided by machines or assistants, fashioning a seat, handlebars, spokes and pedals with, maybe, nothing more than another bike as his guide.

The Tuapeka Times approved, writing that the homegrown pushbike, “compared favourably with anything of the kind imported from home. To Mr O’Leary belongs the credit of proving himself to be the possessor of a good deal of mechanical skill and resource, and more than an ordinary complement of patience.” He put this patience to good use again, when, soon after finishing his bicycle, he took the postmistress of Lawrence out on to Ross Place, and taught her how to ride.

NICK AINGE-ROY

 


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