Would Darcy Have Ridden a Bicycle?


The combination of this fantastic print and the discussion in the UK press recently about encouraging cycling and making it safer prompted this post. Unfortunately the “Pedestrian Hobby Horse” arrived in England soon after Jane Austen’s death – I’ve love to know if she’d have ever given one of her characters a ride. I can imagine Lydia Bennett, skirts flying, shrieking with laughter!

The print, from Ackermann’s Repository (1819) is entitled Pedestrian Hobbyhorse and the text says it was invented by Baron von Drais, “a gentleman at the court of the Grand Duke of Baden.” The baron apparently invented a horseless carriage powered by two servants but it proved heavy and expensive so was abandoned, much to the relief of the unfortunate servants, I imagine!

 The baron went on to invent the hobbyhorse which he used for getting around large parks and gardens and it was introduced to London by Denis Johnson, a coach maker of 75, Long Acre. The Repository considered it simple, cheap and useful, especially in the country and in gentlemen’s pleasure grounds and parks. Medical men in France were already recommending it as a form of exercise.

 “The swiftness with which a person, well practised, can travel, is almost beyond belief: eight, nine, and even ten miles may be passed over within the hour, on good and level ground…the principle of this invention is taken from the art of skating.”


The rider sat astride a padded seat and rested his forearms on a padded board while steering with a small handle right at the front. Although it appears incredibly simple to us, used to bicycles and motorbikes, it was apparently necessary to take lessons and the  print above shows one of Mr Johnson’s Hobbyhorse Riding Schools. He opened one at 377, Strand and another at 40, Brewer Street, Golden Square in 1819. As you can see from the dress of the riders, this was a sport for well-to-do gentlemen. A hobbyhorse cost between £8-£10.

In Georgette Heyer’s novel Frederica the engaging youth Jessamy Merriville who cannot afford to hire a horse tries out the cheaper option of  a hobbyhorse, which Heyer calls a Pedestrian Curricle.

After a few lessons he hires one and,“Boy enough to want to startle his family with his unsuspected prowess, Jessamy had said nothing to them about his new hobby. Once he had perfected his balance, and could feel himself to be master of the Pedestrian Curricle, he meant to ride up to the door, and call his sisters out to watch his skill…he could not resist the temptation to coast down the long slope of Piccadilly, both feet daringly lifted from the flagway. This feat attracted a great deal of attention, some of it admiring some of it scandalised….”

Poor Jessamy finds himself in the midst of a dog fight and “…trying to control his balance, charged into a man mending chairs, lost control of his machine, and was flung on to the cobbled highway almost under the hooves of a high-stepping pair harnessed to a landaulet.”

The hobbyhorse proved impractical for any surface other than very well-maintained paths and so dropped out of fashion by the early 1820s. Two-wheeled progression lapsed until the invention of a device in 1865 called a velocipde which had pedals which worked directly on the front wheel. It became known as the Boneshaker and was almost entirely made of wood, with metal tyres and no springs – hence the name.


This photograph shows one in the Birmingham Museum’s Store.

Which of Jane Austen’s characters would you like to see on a Pedestrian Hobbyhorse? Would it be below Mr Darcy’s dignity? Perhaps Mr Collins would think it an improving way to take exercise…


August 15, 2013 · 1:41 pm

10 responses to “Would Darcy Have Ridden a Bicycle?

  1. That’s a wonderful print there. I’m more used to later bicycles, but I can definitely see Mr Collins on a hobby horse.

  2. helenajust

    I was thinking about Jessamy as soon as I saw the print at the top of your post. Frederica is one of my favourite Heyers.
    Given that the rider had to sit astride, I can’t imagine any female character of Jane’s riding it, not even Lydia! Willoughby would like the opportunity to show off his legs…
    I’m reading your Walking Jane Austen’s London and enjoying it very much! It must be a boon for any writer of Regencies who can’t get to London and or doesn’t know it.

  3. I agree, Stevie – Mr Collins would love a hobbyhorse and would look a complete idiot on one too! Thank you, Helena – I’m so pleased you are enjoying Walking Jane Austen’s London!

  4. Dom Walker

    I have seen a copy of this old picture for sale next weekend that I rather like but did not know what a pedestrian Hobby Horse was and if they still exist or how old this would be?
    Any help would be most welcome.
    Kind regards,
    Dominic Walker.

    • This looks like the Ackermann print that I illustrate above applied to the back of glass. It is therefore after 1819, the date of the print, but without having it ‘in the hand’ I can’t speculate about when it was done. It doesn’t look modern. Pedestrian Hobby Horses were invented about 1817 and were fairly soon replaced by the first bicycles with pedals. Good luck if you decide to bid on it – it is a charming and very decorative print!

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  7. Roger Street

    A good blog. Just a couple of small points. The hobby-horse was also officially described as a velocipede. In May 1819 Johnson invented a lady’s pedestrian hobby-horse with a looped frame, so the dandizettes (female dandies) could also join in the fun. And yes, there are still hobby-horse riders today – see the online references to The Dandy Chargers (I am their Captain). And of course we now also have the young striders on their balance bikes, today’s junior hobby-horse riders.

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