The course of history

Considering our path through life its easy to overlook the infinite number of individual and seperate events that are not at all related to each of us but which, at some point, shape our lives and make them more interesting and certainly richer.

One event in the summer of 1879 could have ended very differently, and if it had I almost certianly wouldn’t be writing this post about cycling today.

Photo – Darren Glanville – South Stack Light House, CC BY-SA 2.0

The South Stack Lighthouse is a 200 year old lighthouse on Holy Island just off the west coast of Anglesey in north Wales. It was built to help guide shipping past the rocks on the shipping route from southern Ireland to Holyhead and Liverpool.

On the evening of Monday 28th July, 1879, Alfred Dupont Chandler, a 32 year old Harvard educated Lawyer from Boston, Massachusetts was travelling with his friend, the 19 year old John C Sharp, aboard the White Star Line’s four masted iron steamship “Baltic” on route from New York to Liverpool with around 750 passengers. That morning they had steamed out of Queenstown (Cobh) on the final leg of the passage into Liverpool and at 10pm, in poor visibility, had a brush with the rocks below the lighthouse at South Stack.

The Steamship ‘Baltic’ Antonio Jacobsen (1850–1921) National Maritime Museum

Fortunately for the ship and all aboard, it was not fatal, some other ships in the same year had not been so lucky. The Times reported the incident after the ships arrival into Liverpool but the near catastrophic event had been somewhat hushed up and only a brief mention made it to the broadsheet:

Chandler, writing two years later, viewed it somewhat differently:

” Touched,” indeed! On that voyage the “Baltic” left Queenstown at about eight o’clock in the morning, and, a fog setting in, the run up St. George’s Channel was made partly at half speed. About four o’clock in the afternoon the steamer just escaped cutting a large sailing vessel in two; at ten o’clock in the evening the crash came, and it being the last night at sea, most of the passengers were up and very social. There was a rush for the deck; ladies fainted; all felt apprehension. The sight from the deck was terribly grand. Two hundred feet above us, glimmering through the fog, was the revolving light of the South Stack; rising from three hundred to five hundred feet from the water where the steamer struck were dark, almost perpendicular rocks ; an alarm bell and guns were heard from off the shore. The steamer, having struck head on in deep water, was backed off; she at once listed heavily to starboard. The blow had crushed the bow; no one knew how soon she would go down. The boats stuck ; it was a quarter of an hour and more before some were loosened. A small boat forward was launched by sailors and ordered back. The steamer listed heavily again, and passengers moved to the port side. The water was not rough; we were near enough at first to swim to shore, but we did not then know that the current there was too strong for any swimmer, and we did not know that the rocks were too steep to climb, with a tide rising sixteen feet to wash off any, perhaps, who got a footing. It is a horrible place; many a vessel has been lost on this shore. When the ” Arizona,” of the Guion line, struck an iceberg that fall, the ice crumbled down by the ton; when the “Baltic” struck at South Stack, the solid rock was unyielding: true, speed had been slackened, because, a moment before the steamer struck, the danger was seen, and the engines reversed, but altogether too late to stop the vessel. The strength of modern steamers is thus shown:’ their division into compartments is a great safeguard ; this saved the ” Baltic.”

So what, may you ask, has this got to do with either cycling or indeed me? Well, Alfred Dupont Chandler was “….an athlete, an early devotee of the bicycle with which he toured England.” and indeed was one of the first to import a bicycle into the USA from England as well as being President of The Suffolk Bicycle Club, of Boston, MA which was formed in 1878. His friend John C Sharp was the young Captain of the club.

Chanders trip to England (and Germany) in the summer of 1879 was principally for business purposes, however he concluded his business interests early and had a month available before his booked return passage to the USA. What might young athletic men do when they have time to spare you ask? Why of course, head out on the bicycle and visit some pubs (or inns as they were back in those days). So that’s exactly what he and Sharp did.

Now, I wouldn’t know any of this, or indeed have any more than a passing interest in it, if it wasn’t for the fact that Chandler was pestered on his return to write up his exploits, which he did in four articles for “Bicycling World” published in Boston in early 1881. Fortunately for all of us these articles were, a short time later, edited by Chandler into a book. “A Bicycle Tour in England and Wales” published in May 1881.

Next we owe gratitude to the efforts of Google as part of its overly ambitious efforts to create a Library of Everything (you probably know it as Google Books) working with libraries and other institutions around the world to digitise content. Fortunately they got arround to scanning Chandlers book at least twice and you can find it via the Hathi Trust Digital Library which has links to the versions of the original book held at Harvard College Library and the New York Public Library. You can access viewable versions from here

It’s a really interesting read and I shall talk more about it in future posts as it has provided me with lots of ideas for a new cycling tour. For now I’ll just leave you with this question. What was a “bicycle” in 1879?

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