Pram tricycle 1926

Where It All Began

Cargo bikes and trikes are experiencing a renaissance. Though they were all the rage in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they fell out of favour with the vogue for fuel-guzzling cars and trucks. But today manufacturers all over the world are developing ever slicker, greener pedal-powered freight transport.

We got back to our roots and found out more about the history of cargo cycling.

It turns out the Brits have had a major hand – in fact we’re part of a proud tradition of British cycle innovation. When Karl Von Drais’ hobby-horse style Laufmaschine (“running machine”) was created in Germany in 1817, it kicked off decades of British creativity, with the world’s first mechanically propelled two-wheeler believed to have been built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith, in 1839.

Kirkpatrick MacMillan's first pedal bike 1839

Kirkpatrick MacMillan’s first pedal bike 1839

The bicycle was soon recognised as a practical and convenient mode of transport, and was used increasingly as a means to carry equipment. Specialised fittings were developed to carry the doctor’s ubiquitous black bag, croquet mallets, cricket bats… When Englishman Thomas Stevens became the first person to circumnavigate the globe in 1886, he carried much of his luggage (including a tent) strapped to the front of his penny-farthing.

Early freight bicycles were used by tradesmen to deliver mail, bread, milk and anything else you could think of, with heavy carriers on the front or back. Bikes like these are still known in the UK as butcher’s bikes, although the Post Office (who were pioneers of the bicycle-delivered service, experimenting right back to the 1870s) have always had by far the largest fleet.

Royal Mail bike fleet c.1900

Royal Mail bike fleet c.1900

With cargo, safety and stability in mind, the tricycle came into play, and the British jumped on board. In 1877, James Starley developed his Coventry Rotary, which was one of the first rotary chain-drive tricycles. It started a trike craze in Britain: by 1879, there were twenty different tricycles and multi-wheel cycles produced in Coventry, England, and by 1884, there were more than 120 different models produced by multiple manufacturers nationwide. They were designed with front boxes, rear boxes and sidecars, to transport anything from photography equipment (the Quadrant Cycle Company) to window-cleaning gear. Later, the pedal-powered window-cleaner became such a familiar feature of the 1930s British street scene that Salco included one in their Toyland range.

Salco Toyland window cleaner

Salco Toyland window cleaner

Carrying freight by bike didn’t stop there – riders soon caught onto the idea of people (and dog) carrying. The bicycle childseat dates back to 1891, when Dan Albone made a wicker seat to fit over a bicycle’s front wheel, and in the days when physical exertion was considered unladylike, there was a vogue for tricycles and quadricycles designed to carry a delicate, non-pedalling passenger. Sidecar tricycles were also particularly popular for carrying children, with Watsonian side-cars from Birmingham dominating the market. As the 20th century roared into gear, trikes were converted to ambulances, prams, rickshaws, ice cream vendors – you name it, trikes carried it. And then the car became mainstream and the cargo trike experienced a bit of a hiatus.

Today we’re joining our pioneering British industry ancestors and giving the cargo bike a leg-up to its rightful place in transport glory!