County of Brant Public Library Digital Collections
Oh, You Wheelers by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

Robertson, Mel, Author
Media Type:
Item Type:
From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article "Oh, You Wheelers" describing history of bicycling in Burford. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.
Date of Original:
August 12, 1992
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.0834 Longitude: -80.49968
Provided by Liz Brown
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Protected by copyright: Uses other than research or private study require the permission of the rightsholder(s). Responsibility for obtaining permissions and for any use rests exclusively with the user.
Copyright Date:
Copyright Holder:
The Burford Times
Recommended Citation:
Robertson, Mel. (1992, Aug. 12). Oh, You Wheelers. Burford, Ontario: The Burford Times.
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Full Text



By Mel Robertson

The title for this article was taken from an 1886 copy of the Burford "Times". It was the headline of an editorial expressing concern about the way cyclists were speeding in Burford.

Although I have not ridden a bicycle in several years my interest was renewed recently when I discovered that a forebear of my wife, Gavin Dalziel of Keir Village in Scotland, is credited with being the inventor of the modern bicycle. Since Keir Village is the home of Shirley's branch of the Dalziel clan she claims kinship. Not much is known about Gavin Dalziel but there is a window in Keir Village church in memory of him and his invention. As a result of this discovery I have attempted to trace the history of bicycles and bicycling in the Burford area.

It is hard to determine when, where and by whom, the first bicycle-type of transportation was invented. The first such vehicle seems to have been the wooden-framed, wooden wheeled "kiddy car" thing that was straddled by the rider and pushed along by the feet. From this came the "bone shaker" in 1861, the "penny-farthing" in 1884 and the "safety bike" in 1890. From these the bicycle has developed into the multi-geared, graphite-framed, gum-wall tired, racing, touring, mountain and trail bikes of today.

Gavin Dalziels 1845 bicycle seems to have been the first attempt to introduce pedals such as we know them today. This improvement, however, did not help cycling very much for the lack of good roads and pneumatic tires gave the bicycle the well earned name of "bone shakers". The "penny-farthing" of 1884 was hardly an improvement for it employed a big wheel in front and a small one behind. Pedals were attached directly to the big wheel and riders got on by giving the whole contraption a good push and then leaping up onto the high saddle. There were many hazards involved in riding a "penny-farthing" and it was said that it was hard to get on but easy to fall off.

It was not considered to be "modest" for

ladies to ride a "penny-farthing" due to the petticoat-revealing gymnastics required to mount and ride it. Ladies of the day had to be content with a tricycle form of machine. This was similar to a wheel chair with accommodation for one or two passengers. It had a single wheel in front with a tiller bar to steer it. Power was generated by pedals that operated a set of chains, gears or eccentric rods. Mother had one of these machines and used to recall its operation with pleasure.

The "penny-farthing" and the tricycle were replaced in 1890 by the "safety bike" which was basically similar to the bicycle of today. It had a chain drive, pneumatic tires and brakes. It was called a "safety bike" since once a rider had learned to balance, it was a relatively safe form of transportation. The invention of the "safety bike" led to a great rise in bicycling popularity in several parts of the world and, although some Victorian writers considered the sport to be "low class", there are many old pictures of fashionably-dressed English men and women posed with bicycles before taking off on tours of the country.

Bicycle clubs became very popular in Great Britain, the United States and Canada around the turn of the century. Many were semi-military in their activities and could perform intricate precision movements at the sound of a bugle. Such clubs wore matching uniforms and "wheeled" about the country in various formations. Holiday festivities, which involved a parade, usually included a bicycle club whose precision often outshone that of the local militia or fire department.

Burford had one such club. It was organized around the turn of the century by Mrs. Tom Mclntee who lived in the large white house on the north side of Hwy. 53 just west of Burford. Mrs. Mclntee, who was noted for her dramatic activities, got a group of Burford men and women together and formed the club. The only problem was that few of the club members knew how to ride a bike. However, after a short period of training, a tour was organized to travel around the "four-mile block" (north on Maple Ave., west on the 6th concession,

south on the l/4Townline and east on Hwy. 53). As this wobbly entourage passed the local hotel it was greeted with derision by a large group of loungers. One man was reported to have said, "Well it looks as if bicycles don't care who rides them."

Being a wobbly bicycle rider at the turn of the century was not difficult as roads were graveled with run-of-the-field gravel that could include stones of considerable size. Bicyclists had to maneuver around these obstacles or fall off. Sidewalks were little better for, whereas most Burford streets were planked, newspaper reports of the time show that broken or loose planks presented hazards to both pedestrians and bicyclists.

One particularly bad stretch of sidewalk existed along William Street between King and Dufferin. This was heavily traveled for the Methodist church was at the corner of William and Dufferin and the Temperance Hall was at King and William. This sidewalk caused so much controversy that eventually my grandfather, C.N. Woodin, and Stewart Jarvis resolved to do something about it, so they hitched up a horse and democrat and drove to London where they rented a phonograph and advertised a phonograph concert. Since phonographs were very rare at the time, the concert drew a large crowd and collected enough money to finance a new plank sidewalk on William Street. However, this walk was not the boon to church-goers and Temperance people that it was intended to be for its smoothness soon attracted cyclists who "scorched" along it, endangering pedestrians and prompting the "Times" editor to write his "Oh You Wheelers" editorial.

Another undesirable feature, not connected with bicycling, was the fact that the good sidewalk apparently appealed to local loungers for soon the Methodist church complained in the "Times" that the church porch had become the hang-out for every no-good in the village who could now get.

Looking back at this event one has to wonder if the zeal of Charlie Woodin and Stewart Jarvis to undertake four trips between Burford and London by horse (over 200 miles) was promoted by a desire to get more people to church or to the Temperance Hall. It is doubtful if they ever thought that they were creating an early 1900 version of the 1992 "drag strip".

Bicycle speeding, or "scorching" as it was called, was manifest in another incident when one morning Ernie Burgis, the local druggist, was seen speeding recklessly on his bike, steering with one hand and firing with a pistol at a dog he thought was mad. Mother, who was downtown that morning, described how pedestrians ran for cover. The question arises - were they trying to escape from the mad dog or from our rough-riding, pistol-packing pharmacist? As for the dog, it apparently escaped. No one knows if it was really "mad" or just annoyed at the attention it was receiving.

A more peaceful bicycle event was the annual bicycle race which included separate events for men, women and boys. Stores contributed good prizes and I understand that there is a silver cup somewhere that was awarded to the winner of the men's race. It is not known if "hot rodder" Ernie Burgis took part in these races, but pharmaceutical interest in biking was evidenced by the "Advance" ads of Harry Bull who succeeded Burgis as local druggist, announcing that his drug store would also do bicycle repairs.

Tandem bicycles were popular in the early days but there were few in the Bur-ford area. Riding a tandem bicycle with a lady brought out two of the basic precepts of the time. First, since society was male-dominated the man sat on the front saddle and, by steering, decided where the couple was going. Second, it was thought to be rather improper for the man to sit in the rear position for the handle bars placed his hands in close proximity to the lady's posterior. This was thought to be impolite in a society where even piano legs were covered lest they appear to be suggestive of something erotic.

Tandem bicycles were the subject of a popular song in the early days. In this song

a young man declared that he could not afford a carriage for the marriage but assured his fiancee that she would look "sweet" on a bicycle built for two. There was a ribald second verse to this song in which the lady said that she would not spend her honeymoon on a tandem bicycle. In the 1940s when I sang a group of music-hall songs in a troop show, the audience always wanted me to sing the second verse, but I never did.

In the 1920s a bicycle was the standard gift for students passing their High School entrance exams. A new bike cost about $40 (contrast that with the $40,000 Lotus bike Chris Broadman used to win the gold medal at Barcelona recently). Since most boys of the time passed their Entrance Exams their knowledge of bicycles would compare with the knowledge 1992 boys have of computers, VCRs, software and Nintendo. Every boy in the 1920s knew what a "Twenty drop eighteen" frame meant and how to adjust "cones" and "coaster brakes". Everyone talked about the superiority of the CCM three piece crank over the Crescent one-piece, how to adjust saddles and how to increase speed by fiddling with sprockets. It was a common thing to see bicycles upended along King Street while their owners made adjustments and endured the expert advice of how to do things better from the local "know-it-all".

Bicycles were not the automatic Entrance Exam gift for girls and, although many girls received bikes for this accomplishment, they did not gather in biking groups the way boys did. Girls' bikes differed from boys bikes for, since no girl wore shorts, their bikes lacked a cross-bar and had a mesh net covering the rear wheel to prevent flowing skirts from becoming entangled in the sprocket. Boys avoided sprocket entanglement by wearing pant clips on their right pant legs.

Bicycles were the standard means of transport. Still recall, with disgust, the way certain rural boys delighted in breaking town boys' bicycles or, by loosening certain parts, causing "arse over teakettle" spills.

Bicycles were used for many things in the early days. Ernie Burgis not only used his bicycle for chasing "mad" dogs and delivering prescriptions but also for traveling about the area to take the beautiful photos of local scenes that he sold in his pharmacy. Other local businessmen made good use of bicycles. These included Andrew Messecar, editor of the "Advance"; George Everett, local merchant; and Art Collins, local craftsman and hunter, to mention a few. The local game wardens were also adept at the use of bikes to capture the unwary hunter or angler. Many businesses used bicycles to make deliveries to customers and, by attaching baskets to handle bars and boxes to rear carriers, large orders could be delivered. In the days of business competition when losing a customer was on a par with losing one's virtue, it was not uncommon for over-worked delivery boys to travel a mile in a direction to deliver the goods.

A considerable number of bicycle accessories were available in the 1920s but since few boys had any pocket money they were not in general use. Bells were not compulsory but a big one with a double ring was available. There were also little brackets to hold flags that could be attached to the handle bars. The sons of the wealthy could "sport" long handle bars but the less affluent turned their handle bars over to the downward position and by raising their saddle to its optimum height pretended that they were "Tour of France" racers in this nose down position. Balloon tires were also a sign of affluence but were harder to push. Little kit bags attached to the saddle contained tire repair kits and a universal tool that fitted all nuts. Tire pumps were needed, for road conditions made punctures a common thing.

The most obnoxious bicycle gadget was the siren. This fitted to the front fender and was activated by pulling a chain that put its gear against the revolving front wheel. The (continued on page 9)

(continued from page 8)

faster you went the louder the siren. A couple of local showoffs had bicycle sirens and delighted in riding about late at night screaming their affluence to the sleeping public. It is a wonder that the local bootlegger, who carried a gun, did not have a shot at them.

Bicycle riding in Canada has never become as popular as it is in Europe and other parts of the world where some cities have special bicycle tracks beside the sidewalks where cyclists speed along without any regard for people getting out of automobiles or street-cars. Other evening hazards one can encounter in Europe are black-robed nuns "scorching" along on bikes. However, my most interesting experience while living in Europe was to come out of Amsterdam several times between the hours of five and six p.m. Then

the streets are a solid mass of swiftly moving but skilled cyclists who would surround your car at stop lights and converse pleasantly until the light changed. I never saw anyone fall off or any collisions, but the first time for a North American motorist in such traffic can be frightening. It was interesting to note that this great mass of cyclists observed all traffic signs, unlike many Bur-ford and Canadian cyclists, and got from A to B with a minimum of delay. Contrast this with the reckless, profane, disregard, teenage bicycle "couriers" show to everyone and every signal in Toronto.

Bicycles are still with us in many shapes and forms and are employed in many useful ways by people of all ages. Many more things can be said about them, but I will close with the observation that, whereas learning to balance on a bike may be hard to master, it is something one never forgets.

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Oh, You Wheelers by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article "Oh, You Wheelers" describing history of bicycling in Burford. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.