Wheeling Matilda: A Review

wheeling matilda

I met Jim Fitzpatrick, author of Wheeling Matilda, at an international conference on cycling in Adelaide earlier this year. It became clear from listening to his presentation on the early uses of the bicycle as a form of transportation and then talking further with him about the subject, that he is an enthusiastic expert on the history of the bicycle in Australia. In addition to Wheeling Matilda, Fitzpatrick has published The Bicycle and the Bush, The Bicycle in Wartime, and Major Taylor in Australia.

Wheeling Matilda, his most recent publication (2013), covers some of the same material as his earlier books (judging by the titles only as I’ve not yet read his earlier work), but within the broader framework of the place of the bicycle and some well-known cyclists in Australian culture. Fitzpatrick does present discussions on the importance of the bicycle as a form of transportation during early twentieth-century wars as well as for sheep shearers, patrollers of the rabbit fence, and various other ‘swagmen’ during the same time period. However, Fitzpatrick also talks about cyclists who established and broken cross-country records and the place of the bicycle in contemporary Australian society.

The most interesting chapters for me, as a randonneur, are the chapters titled “The Overlanders” and “A Racing Powerhouse.” Having lived in Western Australia for a number of years, I found it interesting to learn that a number of the early long-distance cyclists began their trips in Western Australia and that many of them had gained cycling experience from riding in the W.A. goldfields. “The Overlanders” talks about a number of riders who established and/or broke long-distance records, starting in the late 1890s through the early decades of the twentieth century. Record attempts were made across the southern regions of the country, around the whole country, and from the north to the south. Roads were often primitive at best and could be quickly made impassable by weather or other local conditions. One late 1890s rider, William Virgin, cycled from Perth to Brisbane in 60 days, covering 2700 miles. During his journey, he was slowed down when heavy rains made roads impassable in one place and then when he needed two days to recuperate from a severe dog bite in another location (52). These early ultra-distance cyclists were some tough and determined riders.

In “A Racing Powerhouse,” Fitzpatrick discusses the early popularity of track racing. Among the highlights of the chapter is the mention of Madamoiselle Serpolette from France who was unable to race in Australia because there were no Australian woman cyclists of equal ability at that time (135). Of equal interest is Fitzpatrick’s discussion of African American cycling star Marshall W. ‘Major’ Taylor, simply called Major Taylor, who won many races in the U.S. before being enticed to race in Australia. According to Fitzpatrick, the “White Australia” policy made Major Taylor’s Australian racing career difficult. During a second visit, though, his most intense challenges came from fellow (white) American cyclists whose behavior is reported to have been incredibly unprofessional (139-145).

Fitzpatrick thoroughly documents his sources at the back of the book, so I have no doubt that his account is truthful. His style is clear and readable, in the fashion of good journalistic writing. Having met Fitzpatrick and listened to him giving a talk, I believe that he is a careful and thorough researcher. Wheeling Matilda provides a quick and interesting overview of cycling Down Under and is also excellent as a resource for discovering additional titles on this subject.

[Next review: Road to Valor by Alli and Andres McConnon]

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