Happy Birthday to Dan Albone – progressive cyclist!

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Taking a stroll through Bedford’s newly refurbished museum, The Higgins, a few weeks ago, I came across some information about a guy called Dan Albone – or ‘Smiling Dan’ as they referred to him. Dan lived in Biggleswade, and was born in 1860.

This was about as far as I got with reading about Dan because I was summoned to the play grocery shop that the children had found at the back of the room. Seriously, The Higgins is one of the best museums I’ve found to take the kids too – they really have thought of everything! So I pretended to buy some wooden fish, and made a note to find out more about Dan  Albone. I mentioned it to my Dad a few days later. “Oh yeah,” he said in his wise, Dad-ish manner. “The chap from Biggleswade? I’ve got a book about him. You can read it.” So tonight he brought round the book (title: ‘A thorough good fellow’ !) which I opened. The first chapter begins: ‘Dan Albone was born on September 12th, 1860.’ Well. Today being the 12th September, it was a little moment of serendipity: Happy 153rd birthday, Dan!

For his 9th birthday, Dan was given a boneshaker bicycle, which started his lifelong passion for cycling. He went on to become a very successful cyclist, winning many races including the 1885 one mile open handicap at Crystal Palace, the 1887 one mile open and two-mile open at Oundle, and the awesome-sounding 1888 International Tricycle scratch race at Schevenigen, in the Netherlands. But he was an inventor as well as a racer, creator of  the Ivel safety bike (that’s a bike with two wheels the same size, rather than the penny-farthing type model. They could have called it the sanity cycle as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes on a penny farthing.) He was one of the first riders to use pneumatic tyres, was a founder-member of the Great North Road Cycling Club. He also invented the first successful light tractor, the Ivel Agriculture Motor – one of which is on display in the Science Museum.

I’ve only read a bit of the book, but what immediately struck me was how progressively he was thinking in terms of cycling. He was one of the first people to use a child-seat on a bike, and his wicker bike seat became one of his best-selling creations. Not all, it seems were ready for such things. This was what the Bedfordshire Times had to say about it in May 1891:

“Some sensation was caused in the High Street (Bedford) on Tuesday by Dan Albone of Biggleswade on a Pneumatic Safety with a wicker chair in front, in which was seated his little boy. At two or three stopping places crowds assembled around the machine and took stock of the little voyager.”

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Kathy Hindle, who wrote the book says:

“The safety bicycle was the very model which gave women cycling freedom…controversy raged for some years, but women took to cycling in ever-increasing numbers. Keen female cyclist, known as ‘Scortchers’ could be seen in the parks of London from the 1890s. Gradually, cycling for women came to be accepted as a healthy past-time, and this led forward to women being able to use cycles as a form of independent transport. Indeed, the cycle helped to liberate women from their homes, as bike accessories for children were invented.”

I’m planning on reading the rest of the book – and I’m sure there are loads of other fascinating insights into how Dan Albone revolutionised cycling, but having spent most of the summer feeling liberated by cycling around Bedford with the children, one ‘little voyager’ riding for much of the time on a -sadly non-wicker – bike seat,  I really appreciate his work. And how brilliant to have found some inspiring local history at our new local museum!

Incidentally; if ANYONE had told me a few years ago that I would be reading (and enjoying, more to the point) one of my Dad’s local history books, I would have snorted with laughter, or hit you. (Both: rude.) Funny how wrong you can be…

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