Penny farthing bicycle, c.1885
From 1870 to 1885, the penny farthing had a brief, but visually lasting, effect on the development of the bicycle with its very large, and distinctive front driven wheel and small rear wheel. It was called a penny farthing after two British coins of the period, the large penny and the much smaller farthing, worth a quarter of a penny.
Penny farthings were difficult to mount and dismount, unstable because of their high centre of gravity, and could pitch the rider at speed over the handle bars from braking too hard, swerving or hitting small obstructions on the road. Despite only being able to be ridden by the young, fit and athletic, they were very popular both on the road and in racing.
The penny farthing cost the equivalent of several weeks wages. They were made to measure and this 54 inch (137 cm) model would have been suitable for a rider of approximately 5 ft 10 inches (178 cm) in height. It was elegant, simple and efficient as well as smooth and graceful to watch, and soon developed a cult following. The first example arrived in Australia in 1875, imported in Melbourne, which by the 1880s was in the middle of a cycling boom. Journals were published, races organised, clubs established, and intercity cycle trips undertaken. Members wore knickerbocker suits and pillbox caps.
This British Challenge 54 inch (137 cm) ordinary or penny farthing bicycle was almost the top of the range model produced by the famous English bicycle manufacturers, Singer & Co. of Coventry in 1883. It is said to have been the most common bicycle imported into Australia during the 1880s.
Information provided by Paul & Charlie Farren
Information provided by Penny Farthing Club of N.S.W.
Assistant Curator, Science & Industry