Dandy horse riders gather at Britain’s first bike shop

Tourists gawped on Saturday as ten riders on their early 19th Century "pedestrian curricles" paraded through London.

The ride started at 76 Long Acre, the site of Britain’s first bike shop, which is now back selling-high end bicycles.

Brompton laid on refreshments for the dandy horse re-enactors, some of whom had delivered academic papers at the three-day Bicycle-Association-sponsored International Cycle History Conference, which finished on Friday.

Brompton’s flagship store is currently taking orders for the manufacturer’s Electric model. On the same site, 200 years earlier, coach builder Denis Johnson made and sold Britain’s first bicycle, a wooden "hobby horse". There’s a history plaque on the exterior of today’s shop, and also one inside, commissioned by Brompton.

"We were struggling to find a location for our Brompton Junction, mostly because the funds that own most of central London didn’t think that a grubby bike shop fitted with their brand profile," Brompton’s CEO Will Butler-Adams told BikeBiz.

(The current shop is far from grubby – it features bespoke fixtures and fittings, many made by Brompton, including brazed frame tubes used as stair hand-rails.)

"We heard that there was a chocolate shop that had gone bust on Long Acre, and that if we bought the business, we would also get the lease," continued Butler-Adams.

"It was over our budget, but we went to look at it anyway. It was when we were standing outside that we saw the plaque – we couldn’t believe our eyes, so decided to go for it."

The plaque has been on the exterior of the premises since 1997, and was placed at the instigation of historian Roger Street by the Covent Garden Area Trust and the Veteran-Cycle Club. Street is a leading expert on early velocipedes, and author of The Pedestrian Hobby-Horse. However, Street doesn’t just study the period, he lives it – he is the "captain" of the Dandy Chargers, a reenactment group which rides reproduction machines in period costumes.

Johnson’s original hobby-horse – he preferred the term "pedestrian curricle" – was an improvement on Karl Drais’s Laufmachine, or "running machine", of 1817.

According to the rating records for the parish of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, Johnson took occupation of 75 Long Acre in March 1818. The current building dates from the nineteenth century but the position of Acre House is the same, as is the road layout. (Johnson patented his pedestrian curricle in December 1818.)

"Denis Johnson continued in business as a coachmaker at 75 Long Acre for a number of years after the pedestrian hobby-horse had been largely forgotten," Street told BikeBiz.

"He is still to be found under his own name in the Post Office London Directory for 1824, but the following year the same directory refers to Johnson & Allen, Coach-makers, 75 Long Acre. Johnson’s partner was another coachmaker, John Allen, who also became his son-in-law as a result of marrying his older daughter Mary. The partnership between the two men continued for about nine years, until Johnson’s death on Christmas Day 1833."

Street adds: "Although we have no depiction of 75 Long Acre in Johnson’s day, we do have an interesting old print of the Hatchett family’s coach making premises at 121 Long Acre. I would expect Johnson’s property to have been similar."

Brompton, too, has a long history. It was founded in 1975 by inventor Andrew Ritchie, who created prototypes of his iconic folding bike from his bedroom, which overlooked the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington. Each bike is hand brazed at the brand’s new London factory in Greenford, close to the site of Britain’s first protected cycleway, built in 1934.

There are twelve Brompton Junction stores across the world, and the brand – one of Britain’s few cycle manufacturers – has 1450 global dealers.

The 2018 International Cycle History Conference was held in London’s Guildhall. Next year’s event will be staged in Naples.

In other news...

Construction work to begin soon on new cycle route between Finsbury Park and Holloway Road

Transport for London (TfL) has confirmed that construction work will begin on a new cycle route between …