Thomas Stevens - Around the world on a Penny Farthing

PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 May 2020

Engraving of Thomas Stevens in Japan (c) FLHC 40/Alamy Stock Photo

Engraving of Thomas Stevens in Japan (c) FLHC 40/Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: FLHC 40 / Alamy Stock Photo

This month, 135 years ago, a Berkhamsted born grocer set off on a world first – to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle.

Thomas StevensThomas Stevens

Socks, a spare shirt, a raincoat that doubled as a tent, a bedroll and a small pocket revolver. A checklist that could belong to your average teenager heading off on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition (well, minus the firearm). But these were the essentials of a trip rather more arduous than a week in the Lake District; Thomas Stevens was embarking on a transcontinental journey across America. On a penny farthing. In 1884.

No lightweight, fibre glass, aerodynamic super bike for this Berkhamstedian. His was a 50-inch black-enamelled Columbia Standard bicycle with nickel-plated wheels and a handlebar bag. The whole contraption weighed 45-60 pounds, considerably more than the British Olympic Cycling team’s entire current fleet.

The high wheeler also had no gears, prompting its manufacturers, Pope Bicycle Company, to admit, ‘A rider needed strong leg muscles and vigorous pedalling to propel the vehicle up the smallest of hills. Going downhill could be even more hazardous.’

And Thomas was no athlete. He was born on Castle Street in Berkhamsted on Christmas Eve 1854, and after leaving Bourne’s charity school in the town he became an apprentice grocer.

Stevens in China, surrounded by a mob angry about China's war with France at the time. Book engraving, 1887. (c) Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock PhotoStevens in China, surrounded by a mob angry about China's war with France at the time. Book engraving, 1887. (c) Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Emigrating to America with his family in 1871, Tom worked at the Wyoming railroad mill. Here a maverick approach to life made its first appearance – he was run out of town for importing British labourers in exchange for part of their salaries.

It was after moving to San Francisco that he first got a taste for the craze of cycling (its popularity due to a new focus on safety measures such as a seat and a brake you jammed into the solid rubber of the giant wheel beneath you!) and decided to tackle what seemed like an impossible journey.

As the 1884 edition of Harper’s Weekly magazine reported, ‘Seven men had all attempted the same feat, but the great difficulties encountered in crossing the 1,500 miles of rocky mountain, barren deserts, and bridgeless streams between California and the Missouri River had invariably turned them back.’

Undeterred, our intrepid Hertfordshire hero, using the small step projecting from the rear wheel, mounted his penny farthing at 8am on April 22 1884 and began what was to be 103 and a half days in the saddle (the last half no doubt being the most painful!).

Describing this great ‘wheelman’, Adventure Cyclist magazine said, ‘He was a man of medium height, wearing an oversized blue flannel shirt over blue overalls, which were tucked into a pair of leggings at the knee and tanned as a nut. A moustache protruded from his face.’

So, no lycra or helmet emblazoned with sponsorship – in fact no helmet at all (although he was given a military pith helmet on his route). This was a risky oversight as even the most experienced riders had ‘headers’ over the handlebars which, with the seat at near head height, were sometimes fatal.

His journey took him from Sacramento, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Nevada, Utah and Wyoming at an average speed of 12-14mph, although more than a third of the route had to be walked, pushing or carrying his trusty ‘Ordinary’.

As Harper’s Weekly reported, ‘He followed the old California trail across the plains and mountains, astonishing the Indians and meeting with many strange adventures.’

These included close shaves with snakes, a mountain lion and bears; crossing high passes and riding around the pool-room tables of a Nevada bar.

After 83 days of travelling, 20 days stoppage for wet weather and 3,700 miles, he reached Boston at 2pm on August 4, 1884, to complete the first transcontinental bicycle ride.

But Tom was not content with this record. After sending some reports of his trip to Outing, a cycling magazine, they made him a special correspondent and sent him to England. Here he announced his intention to continue his route, this time to circumnavigate the world.

Several hundred watched his departure on May 4, 1885 from Edge Hill Church in Liverpool. He wrote, ‘A small sea of hats is enthusiastically waved aloft; a ripple of applause escaped from 500 English throats as I mount my glistening bicycle and, merrily, we wheel down Edge-lane and out of Liverpool.’

Within minutes it began raining.

He passed through his birthplace and recorded in his journal, ‘Spending the night in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, I pull out towards London on Thursday morning.’

He commented that the roads in England were better than in America (how times have changed). After reaching the south coast, he embarked on a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. From France into Germany then on to Austria and Hungary.

Mostly cycling alone, he reported his joy at being joined in Hungary by a fellow long-distance cyclist who, despite not speaking a word of English, proved welcome companionship.

Then it was on to Slavonia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Rumelia before arriving in Constantinople to complete the European leg of his journey.

After changing his spokes and buying a better pistol, he set off to conquer Asia, pedalling through Anatolia, Armenia, Kurdistan, Iraq and Iran.

Having been denied permission to travel through Siberia, he headed instead for Afghanistan.

Arriving on March 10, 1886 he was immediately expelled. Forced to return to Turkey, he was determined not to give up and instead booked himself and his bicycle on a Russian steamer for India.

Reporting his exploits, a newspaper of the time states, ‘In the Red Sea his knowledge of mules was useful to the British army.’ But oddly doesn’t explain how or why!

‘Excellent wheeling and free from Bandits,’ was how Thomas described his ‘hot and pleasant’ cycle along the Grand Trunk Road before he boarded a steamer from Calcutta to Hong Kong and southern China.

A Chinese official had to give him refuge from rioters – he was delighted to finally arrive in the ‘calm and beautiful’ country of Japan.

On December 17, 1886 in Yokohama he dismounted.

‘Distance actually wheeled, about 13,500 miles,’ was the final entry in his travelogue.

The same travelogue was expanded to a two-volume book of 1,000 pages titled, Around the World On A Bicycle. Reprinted as the one-volume Around the World on a Penny Farthing, the original volumes will set you back around £600.

Hanging up his bicycle clips for good, Thomas gave his history-making bicycle back to the Pope Company who preserved it for visitors to its factory until the Second World War. Sadly, it was then donated for scrap to support the war effort.

Stevens however soon got itchy feet and in 1890 arranged with the New York Times to pay him to join the search in East Africa for the explorer Henry Morton Stanley – the man who had found David Livingstone only to then go missing himself.

After a six month expedition, with characteristic understatement Thomas wrote in his column, ‘I had gratified a pardonable journalistic ambition in being the first correspondent to reach Stanley and to give him news of the world, after his long period of African darkness.’

Finally, he decided it was time to settle down. He returned to England and married Frances Barnes, the widowed mother of two famous English actresses. Still drawn to the limelight however, he became business manager of the Garrick Theatre in London. He died on January 24, 1935, aged 80.

You have to pedal forward more than a century after Thomas’ exploits, to Valentine’s Day 2008, for the next high-profile attempt to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle. Scotsman Mark Beaumont cycled 18,032 miles in 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes – but he did have gears, brakes that worked and a bike with two wheels the same size. u

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