Bicycle Riding in Dorchester

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (January 2013)


The summer before last Hugh, having discovered that author Thomas Hardy learnt to ride a bicycle in middle age (they had not been invented in his youth) pondered whether he rode a penny farthing or a later model. I found a picture of Hardy on a bicycle with wheels of equal size and we left it there.

This summer we happened to be in Dorset and my daughter and I visited some of the places of Hardy interest in and around Dorchester. We finished at Max Gate, which recently became the responsibility of the National Trust. Hardy had Max Gate built in 1885 and lived there until his death in 1928.

I asked about his bicycle and was shown some photographs which I was allowed to copy. He owned a red Rover Cobb which he paid £20 for from a shop in Weymouth. His wife Emma had a blue version and they became enthusiastic cyclists.

I can’t find anything about the Cobb model but there is quite a lot of information about Rover bicycles generally. The Rover bicycle works was founded by the Starley family, of whom the most inventive members were James Starley and his nephew John Kemp Starley. JK Starley was working for the Coventry Sewing Machine Company but he invented so many bicycle parts that soon bicycle spares took over from sewing machines. Some of these were penny farthings.

I don’t understand the technicalities of gears and safety chains but these men were responsible for what we recognise as the modern bicycle (as manufactured in England). James Starley invented a safety cycle he called the Rover as it seemed to be a good thing on which to rove around. But according to the Birmingham History Forum JK Starley invented a chain drive which he developed into the bicycle that achieved greater fame. His company went on to make motorbikes and Rover cars. The Rover with its Viking Rover bonnet badge was one of the mainstays of the British motor manufacturing industry, in the days we had such a thing.

Members of the Starley family and their employees went on to be innovative in other car factories, Singer Sewing Machines and aero engines. The Cobb Thomas Hardy rode has a curved fork at the front which is not present on the safety Rover but is clear in the advertisement on the Birmingham History Forum.  Rover bicycles were so important in early bicycle development that the name Rover has come to mean bicycle in Poland, Belarus and some parts of the Ukraine, in the same way that hoover has become a word for any vacuum cleaner.

Most of Hardy’s furniture and possessions were sold by his second wife Florence wife quite quickly after his death other than the donations she made to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. His third study has been re-created there, right down to his pens and books. The National Trust have taken some trouble to repurchase items with Hardy provenance from elsewhere and some furniture of the correct period and pattern.

The bicycle is therefore long gone but I was directed to the room at the back where it was stored. In the second photograph Emma Hardy and her nephew are in the foreground. Below that is the view across the garden as it is now, with the addition of a glass conservatory.

The shop in Weymouth where it was purchased is still in business. Tilleys in Frederick Street was founded in 1890. Six years later they sold the Hardy’s their Rover Cobbs and taught Emma to ride. Their business today is more geared to motorcycles, accessories and training but they also hire out bicycles and there are Hardy cycling trails that can be followed to some of the places he used in his novels.

And now for something completely different - a link to Monty Python; Novel Writing in Dorchester.

Photographs E Weatherwax and S Sto Helit July 2012

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