“Should anyone be in doubt my advice is Buy a Bamboo:” A few pages on Bamboo Cycle Company Limited of London, England

A typical advertisement of the Bamboo Cycle Company Limited of London, England. Anon., “Bamboo Cycle Company Limited.” The Graphic, 31 July 1897, 179.

Over the past few years, yours truly must admit that the relatively limited number of pontificating road transportation texts aimed in your general direction have dealt with microcars – or farm tractors. I would like to fire my broadsides in a slightly different direction today with a peroration on bicycles. Not any boring bicycle, mind you, nay. You undoubtedly expect something more, my sophisticated reading friend. I shall therefore enlighten you with a text on what appears to be the second earliest manufacturer of bamboo bicycles, Bamboo Cycle Company Limited of London, England. Here goes.

I shall be brief.

Who laughed? Who? Sigh. Let us move on.

By the way, the source of the advertisement which adorns this edition of our remarkable blog / bulletin / thingee was a major and influential British weekly newspaper, The Graphic of London, published between December 1869 and July 1932, but let us bestride without further ado the bike which will take us to the heart of our story.

Bamboo is great. You just will not believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly great it is. Bamboo is a remarkable building material. It is both strong and light. Bamboo has been used for centuries in places like China and India – and is still used today. Mind you, bamboo can also be used as food, fuel, textile, etc. And yes, my botanically inclined reading friend, the 1 400 or so species of bamboo are grasses. Grasses which can be more 30 metres (100 feet) high and have a diameter of up to 30 centimetres (12 inches).

By the way, you do remember the bamboo forest fight scene in the 2000 award winning martial art motion picture Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, do you not?

As far as I can tell, the story of the bamboo safety bicycles made in jolly olde England did not begin in sooty and grimy and smelly London. Nay. It began in central England, north west of sooty and grimy and smelly Birmingham, in Wolverhampton.

That is where an outfit called Bamboo Cycle Company came into existence no later than 1894. Indeed, its 25 or so bamboo safety bicycles, “The Greatest Novelty for 1895,” allegedly attracted more attention than any of the 1 300 or so British and foreign bicycles on display at the 1894 edition (23 November-1 December) of the Stanley Cycle Show, a very important annual exhibition organised by bicycle manufacturers and members of the important Stanley Cycling Club of London.

And yes, numerous British daily newspapers mentioned the new machines in their coverage of the 1894 Stanley Cycle Show.

It is worth noting that Bamboo Cycle may have been linked to one of the great many Wolverhampton bicycle makers active in the later 19th century, Perry Richards & Company.

The frame and handles of Bamboo Cycle’s new machines were made of bamboo jointed with ash, a hard wood, or aluminium. The rims of the wheels were made of metal (steel?) or ash. Said rims embraced conventional rubber tires. The spokes of the wheels were made of steel.

Bamboo Cycle claimed that its machines would prove more durable than conventional safety bicycles. Easy to clean and robust, they were also corrosion and vibration free. At £ 20 a pop, or almost $ 4 450 in 2022 Canadian currency, the new bamboo safety bicycles were not cheap. Mind you, a high-grade steel safety bicycle then cost £ 25 a pop, or almost $ 5 550 in 2022 Canadian currency. Yikes!

And no, Bamboo Cycle seemingly had no intention to reduce that price significantly as long as its machines remained an attractive novelty, a reduction which was certainly possible given that a bamboo safety bicycle could be produced more cheaply than a conventional one, using a material which was said to be dirt cheap – about 6 pence a metre (2 pence a foot) or about 6 $ a metre in Canadian 2022 currency (about $ 1.85 a foot in that same currency).

Is capitalism, red in tooth and claw, if yours truly may paraphrase English poet Alfred Tennyson’s 1850 poem In Memoriam, not wonderful?

The new machines were agreeably lighter than conventional safety bicycles (9 or 10 kilogrammes (20 or 22 pounds) for a roadster allegedly as strong as a 16 kilogrammes (35 pound) steel roadster) but their appearance might have been a tad disappointing.

As you may well imagine, my reading (and biking?) friend, most if not all cycling enthusiast who laid eyes on the bamboo safety bicycles wondered if the new material would prove as strong as the steel structure of a conventional safety bicycle.

Even though a displayed bamboo safety bicycle fitted with aluminium joints and castings which had been ridden between London and Brighton, England, a distance of 85 or so kilometres (more than 50 miles), showed no apparent sign of damage, not everyone was convinced. The fact that one mud spattered machine on display had covered a distance of 1 600 or so kilometres (about 1 000 miles) during a series of tests was no guarantee that the bamboo bicycle had a future.

Indeed, many industry insiders, people closely associated with conventional bicycles mind you, did not think that the bamboo safety bicycle, or Chinese bicycle as some people called it, would amount to much.

Deliveries to bicycle shops in various British municipalities seemingly began in 1895.

Interestingly, Bamboo Cycle came into existence in London in early December 1894. Its primary purpose was to take over the aforementioned and similarly named Bamboo Cycle, which it did.

As the weeks turned into months, the testimonies quoted in company ads proved unable to increase sales. The bamboo safety bicycle was light and comfortable but seemingly could not find a large enough niche.

In late 1896, Bamboo Cycle began to add steel tubing to the structure of its ladies safety bicycles. Its staff might, I repeat might, have painted these tubes so they would look like bamboo. Indeed, that same staff painted the steel rims it began to use that same year so they would look like wood.

Still in 1896, Bamboo Cycle began to produce bamboo tables which could be used as a dinner wagon – or as a storage crate for a safety bicycle.

These various efforts seemingly did not help Bamboo Cycle’s balance sheet all that much. In 1896, 1897 and 1898, the firm was constantly in the red.

A brief digression if I may. From the looks of it, an otherwise unidentified Canadian firm was making safety bicycles whose rims, handles, mud guards and frames were made of wood no later than 1896. It apparently had a booth at a bicycle show held that year in London. That outfit may well have been Comet Cycle Company of Toronto, Ontario, a firm which also made steel safety bicycles.

Incidentally, would you believe that an 1898 or so Comet wooden frame ladies safety bicycle, unrestored and in pretty darn good condition, sold for US $ 23 400, or about $ 36 100 in 2022 Canadian currency, at an April 2014 auction? This was (and still is?) the rarest Canadian bike ever sold, and purchased by a museum, an American museum that yours truly could not identify. End of digression.

Unable to stay afloat, Bamboo Cycle was wound up around June 1898.

Mind you, that firm was not the only bicycled manufacturer to go under around that time. Nay. And here lies a tale, and… All right, all right, a brief tale. There is no need to bring out the torches and pitchforks, jeez.

Here goes.

Back in the 1890s, the safety bicycle constituted quite a breakthrough for a great many people in the United Kingdom. Public enthusiasm was indeed high. As you may well understand, the stocks of publicly traded bicycle manufacturers were a hot commodity, a commodity which fuelled what has been described as the great British bicycle bubble of 1896.

As such things are wont to do, that bubble steadily and quite quickly increased in volume. Would you believe that, within a few months, the share price of British bicycle manufacturers was apparently multiplied by 3? You should, I think. More remarkable still, the number of British bicycle manufacturers apparently quintupled during those months.

As bubble are wont to do, again, the whole thing soon burst. The cause of the collapse in value was a flood of inexpensive American safety bicycles which simply swamped the British market. If I may quote the title of a popular and successful 1955 musical comedy, Damn Yankees. Sorry, sorry.

By 1901, more than 40 British bicycle manufacturers had gone belly up. As the months turned into years, more firms went bankrupt – or began to produce other items, automobiles for example. All in all, more than 70 % of the firms which had manufactured safety bicycles in the United Kingdom during the 1890s went bankrupt – or began to produce other items.

That, however, was not the end for the bamboo bicycle. Nay. That ecofriendly form of transportation was undergoing a bit of a renaissance as the first decade of the 21st century ended. One only needs to mention

- Bernice Dapaah’s Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative of Kumasi, Ghana and Kwame Sarpong’s Bamboo Bikes Limited of Kumasi, founded in 2009;

- Filipino American Bryan Benitez McClelland’s Bambike Revolution Cycles (Company? Limited Company?) of Makati, Philippines, founded in 2010;

- Ahsun “Sunny” Chuah’s Bamboobee Private Limited of Singapore, Singapore, founded in 2011;

- James Marr’s Bamboo Bicycle Club of London, founded in 2012;

- David Wang’s Zhú Zìxíngchē Běijīng of… Beijing, China, founded in 2014;

- Etc…

These organisations were still going strong as of 2022. It should be noted that Wang, an American, lived in Shanghai, China, at that time. And yes, he was still putting together bamboo bicycles.

Sadly, it looks as if Grass Frame Works Limited of Vancouver, British Columbia, a small firm founded in 2012, did not survive the pandemic caused by the coronavirus disease 2019.

Would you believe that, between 16 June and 28 August 2012, a certain Matteo Sametti rode a custom-made bamboo bicycle made by another maker, Zambikes Zambia, between Chongwe, Zambia, and London, home of the 2012 Paralympic Games? That experienced Italian sportsperson and co-founder of Sport2build, an Italian non government organisation whose goal was / is to “empower unprivileged children and youth using sport as a tool for social and behaviour change,” pedalled a distance of 8 375 or so kilometres (5 200 or so miles) to help raise funds for the construction of an innovative school in Zambia. The Chakwela Makumbi School in Chipapa, Zambia, was going strong as of 2022.

And that is it for today. Carpe diem, my reading friend, before some nogoodnik carpes the diem which is rightfully yours.

What is it, my effervescent reading friend? You remembered something? Gilligan’s Island? Err, yes, of course! Thank you. Professor Roy Hinkley seemingly put together several bamboo bicycles for the castaways of that American televised situation comedy broadcasted between September 1964 and April 1967. Yours truly remembers seeing many episodes of the (made in France?) dubbed version of that show between 1966 and 1977.

Now, that is it for today.

Well, almost. Yours truly would be remiss if I did not mention that bamboo was used by a number of early 20th century aviation pioneers. One only needs to mention the members of the Aerial Experiment Association, a Canadian-American organisation mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2018.

And that is it for today. Now I really mean it.

This writer wishes to thank the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier