Bicycle, penny farthing, 54 inch, Star British Challenge, metal / rubber / leather, made by Singer & Co, Coventry, England, c. 1885, used by Thomas Wearne, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1885-1890
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 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. They were 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 to 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 of models produced by the famous English bicycle manufacturer 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
The bicycle is said to have been used by Mr Thomas Wearne of Bonnyrigg, NSW, in the 1880s.
Thomas Wearne (1834-1914) was born in Ponsanooth, Cornwall, England, and emigrated with his parents at the age of 13. He arrived in Sydney in 1849 on board the ship 'Harbinger'. Thomas was apprenticed to a tinplate manufacturer for 7 years. He went on to become an ironworker and established his own foundry in Sussex Street, Sydney, and from 1878 ran an engineering works, the Glebe Foundry, at 46-80 Cowper Street, Glebe. His firm made tram and railway rolling stock as well as bridge parts. In 1878 Thomas won a contract to supply 25 steam goods locomotives but after finishing two he suffered from bank foreclosures and lost the contract. During the 1880s Thomas lived at 'Elizabeth Cottage', 123 Derwent Street, Forest Lodge. By the time of his death in 1914 he was living at 'The Cedar', Wearne Road, Bonnyrigg, now a south western suburb of Sydney.
The penny farthing was donated to the Museum in 1951 by Mr P. H. Bullock of Cabramatta.
Collingwood, Lyn, 'The Wearne Family in Glebe' in "Glebe Society Bulletin", March/April, 2008
Lyons, Mark, 'Wearne, Thomas (1835 - 1914)', "Australian Dictionary of Biography", Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp 369-370.
Information on Wearne family history provided by Barbara Tuck