THE DANDY CHARGERS
We stride out with dandy horse enthusiasts to celebrate 200 years of the forerunner to the modern bicycle
in the only appropriate manner – revisiting Karl von Drais’ original invention by striding a dandy horse around the grounds of an old manor house with the glorious folk of the Dandy Chargers!
Never couldn’t see, no point in ’istory, I weren’t there, so I don’t care,” so goes the refrain of the classic Don’t Tell I, Tell ’Ee by west country wonders The Wurzels. Well, Cycling Plus has an A-Level (at least) in the subject, so for once we’re going to have to disagree with our illustrious neighbours. And as 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the invention of the first machine that could be said to truly resemble the modern bicycle, what better excuse to take a trip into the past with the men and women who regularly take to the byways of Britain on what are – at heart – adult-sized balance bikes with iron tyres?
At the pub on the edges of Berkshire’s Mapledurham Estate we meet the Dandy Chargers, already in costume, as pre-ride refreshment is ordered and consumed. Several of their number have recently returned from Germany, where they took part in celebrations to mark the birth of what would become the bicycle in Karlsruhe 200 years ago this year.
It was in the capital of the Baden region of Germany that Karl von Drais was born in 1785, and it was he who invented the first two-wheeled inline personal transport device, known then as the Laufsmaschine, but later nicknamed the hobby or dandy horse.
The Dandy Chargers’ ‘Corporal’ Dave Jones takes up the story: “Von Drais invented the machine in 1817, it got to London at the end of 1818, and during 1819 was when they had the absolute craze for these things.
“At that point there were riding schools set up in London and many popular prints were made to illustrate the craze. Those didn’t necessarily paint the hobby horse riders in the best light. They were seen as a menace and a bit of a laughing stock to be honest, a crazy thing that stupid rich people do. The Prince Regent was a convert and bought four, which he had shipped down to his place in Brighton. Again, though, it was used as another excuse to make fun of him.
“But for six months or so it was a really big thing in London, and the big London maker was a chap called Denis Johnson, a coach maker who had access to all the craftsmen in the fields of woodwork, metalwork, wheel building. He turned his production process over to this new fad and took advantage of it while it lasted. His machines were all numbered and there are 20-30 that still survive – all in museums, they can’t be played with – but some of those survivors have numbers over 300. So, he was churning these things out, mass-producing them if you will, in a short window of time.”
‘Captain’ Roger Street takes up the theme: “There will be even more celebrations next year as it will be, if you like, the celebration of 200 years of the two-wheeler in England. Johnson was based in Long Acre in Covent Garden [his premises, rather appropriately, now house London’s Brompton shop – ed] and he got his patent on 22 December 1818. The very first ride in England was from London to Windsor and back, by two of Johnson’s men, on Christmas Day. We might have a Dandy Chargers event in London to celebrate, but we won’t be riding to Windsor that’s for sure.”
With lunch behind us we leave the pub and make for Mapledurham House and it’s working medieval watermill. The grounds of the private estate make
“The big London maker was a chap called Denis Johnson. He was churning these things out, mass-producing them if you will, in a short window of time” DaveJones
for excellent striding terrain, and with Cycling Plus tagging along at the back trying to get a handle on our horse we number seven, with six machines between us.
As we rattle our way around the main house’s circular driveway we begin to get the hang of things, lengthening our strides and gaining confidence. We are put in our place by the site of Dave, having smoothly built up an impressive speed, sat with his feet up on the pegs either side of the front wheel cruising with momentum and a fine sense of balance on his twin allies.
“They are there to allow you to rest your feet when you’re up to speed,” explains Dave, “but they must have given people an idea of what they were missing… The machines are remarkably similar to a modern bicycle in some ways, though, such as the size of the wheelbase, although the steering is a bit upright. For the speeds you do it’s not too much of an issue.” Perhaps not for you, Dave!
Following the fizzling out of the hobby horse craze by 1820, it would be another 40 years before anyone improved on the design. And yet the Drais machine was nowhere to be seen in the intervening years.
“It was the early 1860s before the pedal bicycle came along,” agrees Dave, “but the dandy horse didn’t survive the interim period. That said, there were some crazy ideas that it might somehow be the future… there were images of six people tethered together pulling a stagecoach, when two horses would do a much better job!
“Why did it take so long? Perhaps people were still wary of the idea of balancing on two wheels in line; with a leg either side you could steady yourself but perhaps people didn’t have the confidence to believe they could continuously stay balanced.
“Once they did invent the pedal cycle it was very much like the hobby horse but with pedals, and incredibly low geared with those size wheels. So, then they started to make the wheel bigger and bigger to get a decent gear ratio, and that led to the ordinary, or penny-farthing.”
Leading the Charge
With the history of the hobby horse laid out for us, what of the Dandy Chargers themselves?
“Roger started The Dandy Chargers in 2000,” explains Dave over afternoon tea (so much more appropriate than a ‘coffee stop’). “He has a cycle museum and has always been interested in the very early
“The pegs are there to allow you to rest your feet when you’re up to speed, but they must have given people an idea of what they were missing …” DaveJones
machines, and it was him and some fellow members of the Solent Veterans Cycle Club that decided it would be a good idea to get some replica hobby horses made up – you simply can’t source originals in the way you can source original velocipedes from the 1860s.”
“I made four horses to start the group,” explains former Navy man ‘Lieutenant’ Rod Safe, “and a wheelwright made the wheels for us, and they are all still going. The worst thing that’s happened is we lost a taper piece on Roger’s horse somewhere in Oxford and the handlebar stopped working.”
The largest machine on display at Mappledurham is a ladies’ model belonging to Roger and his wife, Trish. “There is only one surviving original in the Shuttleworth Collection,” explains Dave. “There are contemporary pictures of women riding these things, although I suspect that might be down to advertising by Johnson, but they were made. It’s about seven feet long, because it’s got a step-through frame so a dress could be worn. It’s fine for going around a lawn but not really for anything else. It’s got a round seat like a piano stool, which is not ideal for pushing, but if feels comfortable to just sit on.
“We are hoping to get another one ourselves, because Roger’s is the only ladies’ one we have: it was one of three made and he bought it at cost for £6000, so we can’t really stretch to that!”
There can’t be many £6000 bikes out there that weigh as much, measure as long, or provide such a ‘primitive’ riding experience, but in small doses, at least, these dandy horses are capable of delivering just as much fun.
Karl Drais and Denis Johnson may have seen their work burn bright and die young as a short-lived fad – a Regency period fidgetspinner, if you will – but as we look back from 200 years into the future we can clearly see that the invention of this machine was the birth of the bicycle as we know it. And for that we can all be grateful.
“I made four horses to start the group, and a wheel wright made the wheels for us, and they are all still going” RodSafe
Dave is an expert at the dandy horse track stand
The Dandy Chargers have fully embraced the two-wheeled ‘craze’
A very pleasant and civilised way to spend an afternoon