Hums of the Wheel

Newcastle Bicycle Carnival, March 1897

This month’s photo was taken 125 years ago in March 1897. So much has changed that it’s hard to recognise the location today. The photo was taken from the brewery buildings in Hamilton East (now part of Hamilton TAFE) looking towards Bar Beach. In the foreground is a Rugby Union ground, and behind it to the right is Newcastle’s original racecourse, before the Broadmeadow racecourse opened in 1907

In the background, below Shepherds Hill there is a line of coal wagons at the “Sea Pit” of the A. A. Company, and in the foreground the railway to their “D Pit” in Hamilton. All the land in this photo belonged to the company, part of 2000 acres granted by the Government in 1830. When finished with coal the company turned to real estate and subdivided the land in 1913. Stewart Ave now runs through the former rugby ground.

Although the scene has changed, the subject remains.

Ralph Snowball photographed a bicycle carnival, a  two-day event of races on a banked velodrome track built around the rugby field. The 1890s was a decade of huge popularity for cycling, with the Newcastle Morning Herald having a weekly column “Hums of the Wheel” reporting on the sport. The first column in March 1892 noted that “since the advent of the safety bicycle, cycling has received an impetus which has placed it on a par with any other sport in the world.” Unlike the earlier ‘penny farthings’ where the rider perched precariously above a large wheel,  safety bicycles had equal sized wheels, propelled by pedals and a chain, with the rider seated low to the ground. By end of 1890s interest in cycling had waned significantly, and at a charity event hoping to draw a crowd of thousands, just 60 turned up.  The downturn however was only temporary, and cycling has ever been on an upward trend. Its popularity now so great that an astonishing 1.7 million bicycles were imported into Australia last financial year.

Newcastle Bicycle Carnival, March 1897. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.
The same view in 2022, from Hamilton TAFE, with highways and houses in the place of former sporting fields.

The article above was first published in the March 2022 edition of The Local.

The Bicycle

Prior to 1876, the standard or “ordinary” bicycle had two different sized wheels, with the rider seated high above the larger wheel at the front, propelling it with direct pedal action.

Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 14 August 1869.

In 1876, J H Lawson of Brighton UK, invented the “safety bicycle”.

The special feature of this machine is that the rider sits over the smaller wheel and as the big driving-wheel at his back; the feet are thus always within easy reach of the ground, and the danger of falling is reduced to a minimum.

“The Rainfall”, 9 December 1878

Within a short period of time the design of the safety bicycle had evolved to having two equal sized wheels, with the rear wheel driven by a pedals and a chain. In 1879, the cycle manufacturer George Singer started making safety bicycles under license from J H Lawson. Initial uptake was slow and …

“… it was not until 1885 that the safety bicycle was fairly established in public favour.”

The Riverina Grazier, 1 SePtember 1896
An 1892 advertisement for safety bicycles shows how little the basic design of the bicycle has changed in the last 130 years. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 8 December 1892.

The Bicycle Carnival

The Bicycle Carnival in March 1897 was held over two days, Thursday 25 March and Saturday 27 March. It would appear that Ralph Snowball has made a minor error in annotating his negative with the date 28 March 1897.

Advertisement for Bicycle Carnival in March 1897. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 22 March 1897.

The bicycle carnival was a huge event. The Newcastle Morning Herald reported on the following Monday 29 March 1897 that “there must have been nearly 6000 persons present, comprising visitors from all parts of the country, and especially from the metropolis.” Special tram services were arranged to get patrons to and from the event, and proceedings were attended by representatives from eight different newspapers.

One more thing to ponder about Snowball’s photograph – if the subject is a bicycle carnival, where are the bicycles? With the glass plate negative cameras that Snowball worked with, the exposure time meant that any cyclists on the track would be but a blur. One cyclist can just be made out at the left of the photo.

Long exposure times mean that cyclists appear as a blur.
Newcastle Bicycle Sports, 28 March 1897. Photo by Ralph Snowball. Newcastle Library, Hunter Photobank. Accession Number 001 000309.

Location of the Bicycle Carnival

A brief mention of the bicycle carnival in the newspaper on 29 March 1897 reports that it was held on the Rugby Football Ground.

Rugby Football Ground shown on an 1884 map, to the south of the A. A. Company coal railway. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.

The Rugby Football ground can also be seen in a 1906 Ralph Snowball photograph, which is part of a 4 panel panorama taken from the Obelisk hill. The brewery building from which Snowball almost certainly took the photograph is at the right of the ground, with the A. A. Company coal rail line running between.

View from Obelisk looking west, with Rugby Football Ground on the left and the brewery building at the right. Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.
The former brewery building, now part of Hamilton TAFE.

Australian Agricultural Company land and the “Garden Suburb”

Map showing the 2000 acres granted to the A A Company in Newcastle in 1830, The location of Snowball’s 1897 photo of the bicycle carnival is marked in red. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.
Approximate extent of A A Company 2000 acre grant, shown in Google Earth. The 1897 Rugby Ground is outlined in white.
The view in Google Earth (above) shows that almost all the land visible in Snowball’s 1897 photo (below) belonged to the A A Company.

In 1913 the A. A. Company announced a grand plan to develop their land into an attractive “model suburb”.

The first attempt at a practical application of the principles of modern town planning in the vicinity of Newcastle is about to be made by the Australian Agricultural Company, the scheme being yet another indication of the company’s enterprise in the direction of advancing the interests of the city and district. The proposal is to set apart a portion, of the company’s estate, consisting of about 250 acres, and lying west and south-west of Melville [now Union St] and Parry streets, for the purposes of a model suburb, and the requisite plans for the undertaking have already been completed. The design has been worked out by Messrs. John Sulman and John F. Hennessy, of Sydney, and every endeavour has been made to embody in it all the features which experience in other parts of the world has shown to be most desirable … Fine wide streets, planted with trees in such a way as to be ornamental in fact as well as in name, are naturally looked for in a model residential area, and they will not be looked for in vain in the A.A. Company’s so-far-unnamed suburb.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 28 April 1913.

The following year, in May 1914, the company advertised the first subdivision in their new suburb, promoting it as the “Garden Suburb”.

Advertisement for the A.A. Company’s land sale for their new “Garden Suburb” in 1914. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.

The name “Garden Suburb” was a marketing phrase and not the official name of the suburb, although it did make its way onto the plaques on the commemorative columns at Learmonth Park.

Ornamental column at Learmonth Park in Hamilton South, with a plaque commemorating the opening of the Australian Agricultural Company’s “Garden Suburb” in 1914.

One interesting feature of the original 1913 design of the suburb that never eventuated, was an ornamental garden and recreation area in the middle of Stewart Ave.

About half-way along Stewart avenue a large oblong-shaped space is to be utilised for enclosed grass plots, and in the centre of it a band-stand will be placed. There probably will be two of these turfed squares, and at each end of these will be a semi-circular plot, one having an ornamental fountain within it, and the other a piece of statuary.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 28 April 1913.
Proposed ornamental area in the middle of Stewart Avenue. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.

Note that the modern suburb named “Garden Suburb” dates back to 1918, when the Assurance and Thrift Association Ltd developed a subdivision in the Cardiff area.

Garden Suburb subdivision in the Cardiff area, December 1918. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.

Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
9 Dec 1878Article with some details about the invention of the safety bicycle by Mr Lawson ... "The great advantage of these safety bicycles is that you can mount by throwing your leg over—as over a pony—and start instantly ; you can then go as slowly and steadily as you like, even in the most crowded thoroughfares, where high bicyclists must dismount."
1 Apr 1882Earliest advertisement (in Trove) for a safety bicycle for sale in Australia.
28 Jul 1886Earliest mention of a safety bicycle in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate. Program for upcoming Newcastle Bicycle Club race day includes a "One Mile Safety Bicycle Handicap."
19 Mar 1892First "Hums of the Wheel" column in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate. "Since the advent of the safety bicycle, cycling has received an impetus which has placed it on a par with any other sport in the world. The introduction of the cushion, pneumatic, and other tyres of the kind to the safety has completely outstride the old-fashioned ordinary, and it is to be relegated to a back seat. Although the ordinary bicycle has been tried with the pneumatic tyres, it has not proved anything near so fast as its dwarfed brother."
8 Dec 1892Advertisement for "Star", "Humber", and "New Rapid" safety bicycles.
1 Sep 1896Interview with the H J Lawson, the inventor of the safety bicycle.
"In 1879 Mr. Singer, the well-known maker, sent for me and offered to manufacture my cycle for the market, paying me a royalty of £2 on each machine. Somehow the innovation did not meet with popularity at this time, and it was not until 1885 that the safety bicycle was fairly established in public favor. By this time, though, I had relinquished my patents, so that I have never reaped any pecuniary profit from my invention."
29 Mar 1897
27 Mar 1897
"Between 5000 and 6000 persons attended the bicycle sports on the Rugby Football Ground on Saturday. The weather was all that could be desired, and the sport was of a most interesting character."
29 Mar 1897
27 Mar 1897
Report on day 2 of the bicycle carnival.
23 Dec 1899
16 Dec 1899
Final "Hums of the Wheel" column in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate.
"The result of last Saturday's carnival should be sufficient to deter the cycling clubs from running another for some time to come. The sport is as flat as it can possibly be, and the public require something more novel to attract them. It was thought that the cause would have been in itself sufficient to draw a gate of at least a couple of thousand, but the total of sixty reflected anything but credit upon the sport-loving public of Newcastle. The Benevolent So ciety will not benefit to the extent of a copper, but on the contrary the Federal Bicycle Club will have to make good the loss over the meeting. The cycling authorities must therefore abide by the will of the public, and unless some extra attractiveness is introduced the less meetings held the better for the clubs' coffers. The racing was fairly good, but there was a sameness about the whole affair that became monotonous."
18 Feb 1907
16 Feb 1902
"Saturday last witnessed the final day's racing on the Newcastle Jockey Club's course at Hamilton, as the club's next fixture will be decided on the new course at Broadmeadow in April. In bidding adieu to the old site the president and several members of the committee grew reminiscent, and compared the condition of the course at the present time with what it was when taken over by the club. Then it was a mere waste of marsh and brushwood, but during the club's possession it had been drained and wonderfully improved, so that its subsequent conversion into a golf links for the local club became a comparatively easy matter."
29 Apr 1907
27 Apr 1907
Official opening of the Newcastle Jockey Club's new racecourse at Broadmeadow.
28 Apr 1913The Australian Agricultural Company announces its plan to create a new "garden suburb" in an area of 250 acres to the south of Parry Street.

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