stanley bicycle BLACK

uganda railway british east africa


The European powers started claiming African territories in earnest in the early 1880s. To avoid conflict, in 1886, Germany and Britain signed a treaty to agree what lands they would exclusively pursue. Germany claimed Tanzania, and Britain created British East Africa, comprising Kenya and Uganda.

Not only was Uganda rich in natural resources, but it was also strategically important as it controlled the source of the Nile. East Africa had been trading with India for over 1000 years, and introduced its rupee currency there. Most traders were Indians, who travelled either on foot or bicycle many miles daily to bring manufactured goods into the interior of the country. The presence of the Indians had helped the British establish a Consulate General in East Africa. So when the British decided to build a railway from Mombasa to Uganda, to provide this inland region – and Lake Victoria – with a seaport, 32,000 Indians, including carpenters, mechanics, engine drivers, etc, were recruited for the construction of the railway line. 2,498 workers died during its construction.

With the British government focusing mainly on South Africa and other territories, Queen Victoria granted a royal charter in 1888 to the Imperial British East Africa Company to manage this region. The Company was committed to the elimination of slavery and equal treatment for all nations, and its first major task was to build the Mackinnon-Sclater Road – a 600 mile ox-cart track – in 1890, through Kenya to Busia on the Ugandan border. This became the main way to transport goods to and from Uganda.

Administration of the region was transferred to the Foreign Office in 1895, and the British government subsequently undertook the Uganda Railway project in 1896. The railway was a huge logistical achievement and became strategically and economically vital for both Uganda and Kenya. It helped to suppress slavery, by removing the need for humans in the transport of goods, and heavy equipment could now be transported far inland with relative ease. There was opposition to the expense of its construction from the Liberal Party in England; as a compromise, the railway was initially built only to Kisumu, on the shore of Lake Victoria. It was completed in 1901, and services started in 1903, and extended further into Uganda some years later. With their new steam-powered access to Uganda, the British could now transport people and soldiers about to ensure their domination of the region.

1900 SS William MackinnonSS William Mackinnon in Dry Dock

One of the first large items to be sent to Lake Victoria by train was a ‘knock down’ kit comprising the 110 ton SS William Mackinnon steamboat, built in 1890 by Bow, McLachlan & Co of Paisley, Scotland, and disassembled into many hundreds of numbered parts. It was named after the founder of the British East African Company. Reassembly started in 1898 and it went into service in 1901.

1910 BSA Railcar

The High Commissioner to Uganda had the railway extended to his estate. It was used by the Governor Frederick John Jackson who owned a 1910 BSA Railcar, which was used for hunting parties. When the American President Theodore Roosevelt visited Uganda he borrowed the railcar. The BSA Railcar above was restored by the Sandstone Heritage Trust in South Africa.

Drewry Railcar

The Railcar was built by the Drewry Car Co, using a BSA engine. Drewry & Sons had previously been cycle builders, run by Charles Drewry and his two sons, and located at the Herne Hill Cycle Works, 286-290 Milkwood Road. James Drewry delivered a motorised railway inspection trolley to Africa (below). Subsequently the company started building the BSA-engined Railcars. BSA took over production themselves in 1908.


Uganda Railway – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uganda_Railway

Drewry & Sons photos and info with thanks to – http://www.drewry.net/TreeMill/indiI213.html

Restored BSA Railcar – http://www.sandstone-estates.com/index.php/railway-heritage/39-railway-heritage/95-bsa-rail-car-moves-to-next-stage-of-its-restoration



…Heedful of our world-wide reputation for products only of the very first class, we emphasise that in spite of the reductions, the quality – always associated with the Raleigh – has been fully maintained, and we again renew for the ALL-STEEL RALEIGH our world-famous ‘For-Ever’ guarantee.

Whilst on the subject of quality, we cite an instance which illustrates that the reputation we enjoy at home is, if anything, over-shadowed by that which exists in our markets abroad. So thoroughly impressed have been the natives of Buganda – a large province of Uganda, situated in East Africa, and for many years a splendid market for our machines – with the ‘Raleigh’ that the name has been adopted as their common definition of quality, and should a neck-tie, cap, or any other object meet with their enthusiastic approval, immediately it is dubbed ‘Raleigh.’

Greater tribute than this is difficult to imagine, and we pride ourselves upon the knowledge that the ‘Raleigh’ should merit such generous and unstinted appreciation.

– Introduction to the 1932 Raleigh Sales Catalogue


Raleigh exported bicycles to the Commonwealth countries in Africa from the earliest days. The advert below is from 1927. Mr. A.J. Cook, aged 17, rode from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 28 days, on a Raleigh bought in 1900 and in continuous use ever since. In a tradition inherited from earlier days of intrepid British explorers, vehicle manufacturers often illustrated long journeys on their products to promote their reliability and sturdiness: “Only the All-Steel bicycle can endure such wear and tests, and all the time be running so easily. That is why it can be and is GUARANTEED FOR EVER.”


The straight top-tube diamond frame bicycle, subsequently known as a roadster, was introduced in 1896. Until 1895 top tubes sloped upwards (known these days as an ‘upsloper’). (Even the 1896 Raleigh Road Racer, below, still has a slight rake to its frame). It was a radical design revolution and, of course, it made the previous design of bicycle obsolete.

With the introduction of the freewheel hub in 1898, followed shortly after by conventional gears and rod brakes, the roadster bicycle design remained unchanged for the following eighty years. The Raleigh Superbe is the epitome of this design, still being manufactured in the 1980s. When it was no longer economical to build roadsters in Great Britain, production was taken over by companies in India, where they are still manufactured.

The British cycle industry established export markets throughout the Colonies from the earliest years of cycle manufacture. By the late 1890s, when home markets became saturated and prices started to fall, many companies were sustained by foreign sales. Raleigh set up in South Africa in the 1890s, subsequently appointing agents in neighbouring countries. The Tanganyika (Tanzania) agent, in Dar-es-Salaam, was Mr G H Jetha, established in 1925, and Mr. Martin was the Raleigh agent in Nairobi, Kenya.

The 1978 All-Chrome Raleigh Superbe below was known as a ‘Boss-Bike.’ It was sold in Africa for shop displays, though presumably was also for sale at a high price for bosses to ride to the envy of their staff.

In 1952, Raleigh opened a factory in Calcutta, in partnership with their Indian distributors S.K Sen. In due course, cheaper Indian Raleigh bicycles were exported to Africa, taking the place of British models. The Roadmaster is a leading Indian Raleigh brand.


Bicycles in India and Africa have always been used for commercial purposes as well as for personal riding. Of course, they were used in a similar way in Great Britain from the 1880s until the 1960s, until motorised transport fully took their place. In India and Africa you will see people everywhere piling goods onto bicycles and either riding them or pushing them. India manufacturers three-wheeled commercial bicycles as well as two-wheelers for this purpose. But in Africa, it is mostly two-wheelers that are used. I photographed the knife-grinding bicycle, below, in the Konge area of Kampala, Uganda.

knife grinder conje kampala uganda

I was born in 1952, so I’m old enough to remember similar bicycles that made the rounds of local areas in England. You can see my British version below.

1950s knife sharpening service