1818-1819: JOHNSON’S LADIES WALKING MACHINE
Denis Johnson was Great Britain’s first cycle manufacturer, making his own version of the Draisenne in 1818. The first major frame variation was Johnson’s 1818/1819 design for a lady’s version of the Draisenne, created to make it easier for women to mount the machine …and therefore avoid ridicule within the strict conservatism of the day. He had two riding schools, in the Strand and Soho, and he exhibited it there in May 1919. It is a steerable machine propelled by the rider’s feet.
The only original example of the Johnson’s Ladies’ Walking Machine known to exist is owned by the Science Museum (above).
Two of my friends who are specialists in this field have built the superb replica featured here. It is one of only five that they produced, and apart from some gentle riding (as you can see in the video at the bottom of the page, we tried it out at the International Cycling History Conference in 2018) it is otherwise as new.
LONG ACRE, COVENT GARDEN, LONDON
Long Acre’s most famous cycle manufacturer is Denis Johnson, who had a workshop at 69-75, Acre House. His Hobby Horse – he called it apedestrian curricle – was an improved version of the German Draisene, invented by Karl Drais. This forerunner of the bicycle was also known as aSwift Walker. He made at least 320 machines in early 1819 and, in May of that year, introduced a dropped-frame version for ladies to accommodate their long skirts. He also opened riding schools in the Strand and Soho.
For about six months the machine had a high profile in London and elsewhere, its principal riders being the Regency dandies. About eighty prints were produced in London, depicting the ‘hobby-horse’ and its users, not always in a flattering light. Johnson’s son undertook a tour of England in the spring of 1819 to exhibit and publicise the item. Nevertheless, by the summer of the same year the craze was dying out, and a health warning against the continued use of the velocipede was issued by the London Surgeons.
In Johnson’s machine, like that of von Drais, propulsion was simply by ‘swift walking’, with the rider striking his (or her) feet on the ground alternately. However, it led directly (albeit after a long delay) to the invention of the bicycle in the 1860s, when rotary cranks and pedals were attached to the front-wheel hub of a machine based on Johnson’s.
The coachbuilding trade had dominated Long Acre in the nineteenth century. By 1906, forty one buildings in the street were occupied by firms associated with transport. They were a mixture of businesses connected with the motor trade, and traditional coachbuilders from the previous century who found plenty of work in this new industry.
Like many cycle manufacturers based in the Midlands, Swift Cycle Co Ltd also had a showroom in London. Theirs was at 132-134 Long Acre (above).
By 1916 the transition to motor cars and related trades was almost complete. The Mercedes showroom was at number 127 to 130, close to Daimler and Fiat. Armstrong Siddeley’s ‘Connaught Coackworks’ was on the corner of Long Acre and Mercer St (above).
In 1929, John Logie Baird made the first British television broadcast, at 132 Long Acre.
SHORT VIDEO OF THE JOHNSON AT THE
INTERNATIONAL CYCLING HISTORY CONFERENCE,
LONDON GUILDHALL, 2018