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Historic Iziko bicycles on loan to the Trail’s End Bicycle Museum.


The Iziko Social History Centre is a world-class museum facility responsible for housing, conserving and digitising the collections and archives of Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Mike Bruton, Curator, Trail’s End Bicycle Museum, shares his experience.

When Pieter Silberbauer approached Tessa Davids, Chief Collections Manager, Social History & Art, at Iziko Museums, he was pleasantly surprised by her positive response. We inspected the Social History Centre’s intriguing collection and selected three historic bicycles, a penny-farthing, a four-wheeled rail bike and a Humber Sunbeam safety bike, and an old typewriter, to fill gaps in the Bicycle Museum’s displays. All these artefacts were assessed and prepared by the Iziko Conservation Unit (B Mottie & J Van Wyk), who approved the loan with recommendations of the method of display. After the correct loan procedures had been implemented, the bicycles, and the typewriter, were duly delivered to Grabouw – amidst much excitement.

Installation View: | The high-wheeler, classic Humber Sunbeam safety bike, and four-wheeled rail bike from the Iziko bicycle collection, on show at the Trail’s End Bike Museum © Pieter Silberbauer.

Many people think that the penny-farthing was the first bicycle to be invented, but it was, in fact, the fourth in a long line of vehicles with two wheels in line that is propelled by the rider. Karl von Drais’ hobbyhorse (1816), which you pushed along with your feet, Kirkpatrick Macmillan’s bicycle (1837), which had a treadle propulsion system, and the Michauxs’ boneshaker (1863), which had pedals on the front wheel hub, preceded it.

But the stately penny-farthing, or high wheeler, with its giant front wheel, stole the limelight in the late 1870s and 1880s. We have displayed the Iziko high wheeler with a mannequin, Miss Penny Farthing, who is dressed in the ‘rational’ style of the late 1880s, in an exhibit that celebrates the significant role that bicycles played in the emancipation of women.

Installation View: Ms Penny Farthing amid the Iziko high wheeler, on show at the Trail’s End Bike Museum © Pieter Silberbauer.

Iziko’s extraordinary four-wheeled rail bike demonstrates that, although the bicycle is essentially a benevolent machine, it was used during the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. At the time the bicycle had the advantage over horses in that it was silent, provided fast mobility with minimal visibility, placed few demands on material resources, and did not need to be fed or watered! Nor did they kick or bite. Rail bikes were made in one-, two-, four- and eight-seater configurations and were used for dispatch riding, spying, returning the wounded from the front lines and even releasing carrier pigeons. The Iziko quadricycle was almost certainly the one-seater rail bike that Jack Rose, a champion cyclist and important transport pioneer in the early 1900s, used as his personal reconnaissance vehicle during the Anglo-Boer War.

nstallation View: | Iziko four-wheeled rail bike on show at the Trail’s End Bike Museum © Pieter Silberbauer.

Iziko’s classic Humber Sunbeam safety bike has pride of place in the exhibition on the evolution of safety bikes that were first invented in the mid-1880s; they were called ‘safeties’ as they were far safer to ride than the precarious high wheelers. In addition to having pedals that rotate a large sprocket that is connected to a smaller sprocket on the rear wheel by a chain, the Sunbeam had a number of advanced features, including freewheeling, variable gears, a closed chain guard and a special oil bath for the chain. It is an incredibly special bike.

Installation View: | Close-up of the typewriter which forms part of the historic bike ride by Sol Plaatje © Pieter Silberbauer.

And the typewriter? We needed that unusual item for a display on the historic bike ride by Sol Plaatje, the pioneering campaigner against racial discrimination and journalist, who, in 1914 and 1915, rode the length and breadth of South Africa on his bicycle, with his sturdy old typewriter strapped to the rear carrier. During this epic trip he recorded the impact of the so-called Native Land Act on Black people. He later published his findings in a book that was widely publicized and first raised international public indignation about the plight of Black people in South Africa. 

We are extremely grateful to the Iziko Collections and Digitisation Department staff for their generosity and professionality in allowing us to bring these historic bicycles ‘out of retirement’ and to display them for the benefit of the visiting public at the Trail’s End Bicycle Museum.

About the Trail’s End Bicycle Museum:

The Trail’s End Bicycle Museum at the Trail’s End Bike Hotel in Grabouw is the first bicycle museum in Africa and one of a handful in the southern hemisphere. The creation of this museum, which celebrates the history and role of the bicycle in society, was made possible by the collaboration of cyclists, museums and cycling historians led by Pieter Silberbauer, founder of Trail’s End Bike Hotel. Our collaborators included the Franschhoek Motor Museum, Cycleworks in Woodstock and especially the Social History Centre at the Iziko South African Museums in Cape Town.

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