This safety bicycle is fitted out with the type of equipment which typically would have been used by Australian shearers, itinerant workers and prospectors riding out to their work in the bush during the first half of the twentieth century. These include a swag, for sleeping, secured to the front forks; a hessian 'tucker bag', for food, tied to the front handle bars; a billy can for collecting water and making tea; and a roll of canvas tied to the luggage carrier which would have contained the personal belongings of the rider.
The heyday of Australian bush cycling was between 1900 and 1920 when thousands of travellers, workers, shearers, rouseabouts, prospectors, miners, dentists, commercial travellers, ministers, boundary riders and others pedalled through the bush. The bicycle was used on stations for boundary riding and mustering as they saved walking to catch the horse. In times of drought bicycles were preferred to "save" the horses.
Bicycles were used to patrol the rabbit proof fence and the Kalgoorlie water pipeline in WA. Kangaroo shooters used them because they were quiet, allowing the shooters to creep up on their prey. In the Eastern States of Australia the bicycle was adopted by many shearers. Bourke residents wrote of the 'horse and bike days' of shearing when bicycles 'galore' were pedalled through the area. The bicycle made it possible for shearers to rapidly cover great distances for their work and to socialise at other sheds as well as easily travel to town. It kept them fit between jobs and was even said to be an effective antidote against back complaints from shearing.
A bicycle was very affordable and, unlike a horse or camel, it ate and drank nothing; you could travel three times faster than on foot and carry a lot of luggage. The bicycle also required little maintenance, most of which could be done by the rider with minimal equipment and experience. The smooth tracks worn by lines of pack camels could be extensively used by cyclists, as stones were swept away by the camels' feet or pressed into the ground. In sandy country the camels conveniently compressed the soil to provide a firm surface. The bicycle was so versatile it could be carried over rough areas and watercourses and lifted over fences. With the increasing availability, affordability, reliability and comfort of the motor car, the use of the bicycle declined by the 1930s. This trend was temporarily arrested during the Depression and petrol shortages during the Second World War.
This shearer's bicycle is a good representation of the bicycles used for rural transport in the early twentieth century. While the contribution of camel transport, bullock and horsedrawn wagons, Cobb & Co. coaches, railways and paddle steamers are all well documented, the use of the bicycle for inland travel was overlooked in contemporary literature and history. The author of "The Bicycle and the Bush", Jim Fitzpatrick, considers that Banjo Patterson and other authors deliberately ignored the bicycle as they felt it clearly did not fit with the heroic image of the Australian stockman and drover in the creation of the "Australian Legend".
Fitzpatrick, Jim, "The Bicycle and the Bush: Man and Machine in Rural Australia", Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980.
Assistant Curator, Science and Industry