Meet the Yorkshire man who hand crafts Penny Farthings after curious hobby turned to serious trade

Snapping up a lathe at auction for the bargain price of £50, Christian Richards had thought he might try his hand at building a Penny Farthing.

Penny Farthing maker Christian Richards, pictured on one of the cycles he has built, Image: Simon Hulme.
Penny Farthing maker Christian Richards, pictured on one of the cycles he has built, Image: Simon Hulme.

A decade on, and his hobby has evolved. There’s the replica heritage racing cycle, and another of the first known electric vehicles ever built.

Now the 34-year-old, who used to make websites for a living, is immersed in a world of Victorian engineering where these ‘Rolls-Royce’ of machines can take three months to build.

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His first attempt turned out a disaster, he now admits. While it may have looked like a Penny Farthing, it didn’t go very far.

Penny Farthing maker Christian Richards, pictured with one of the cycles he has built, Image: Simon Hulme.

“It was a starting point,” said the father from Hull. “I figure out a better way with each project. It’s an evolution, that you could see if there was a parade of all the Penny Farthings I’ve made.”

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Hand made 'true to time'

At the Richards of England workshop, Mr Richards crafts every bike. Every saddle and spoke is hand made, and true to its time.

Penny Farthing maker Christian Richards, pictured at work in his workshop. Image by Simon Hulme

There is a vivid enthusiasm to his tone when he is asked about why, and he lights up when talking about the intricacies of 19th century engineering.

“In Victorian times, when the Penny Farthing ruled the road, there were patent wars, you see,” he explained. “Lots of engineers invented ways to make the bicycle more efficient, and there was a 10-year period where almost everything we see with bikes today was invented.

“That is really interesting, if you’re interested in engineering.

“I made one for a bit of fun, and my obsession began,” he added. “It’s a slow pace, it takes time.”

Penny Farthing maker Christian Richards, pictured at work in his workshop. Image by Simon Hulme

Curious commissions

Ten years ago, said Mr Richards, he was doing “mission critical” computer repairs, and would tinker with classic car parts to keep his mind at rest. Now he needs no hobbies, he laughed.

“For me it’s about making something that is period correct,” he said. “Everything, as it would have been. Although a lot of people think electric vehicles are new.”

One of his commissions saw him recreate a Victorian tricycle with an electric motor, as trialled by a French inventor in 1881. It has a top speed of 10mph and less than one horsepower.

Another is of racing heritage, replicating George Waller’s endurance feat in the 1879 World Championships, in which he cycled 1,172 miles. There is a Singer, the ‘most luxurious’ of its kind, and a Rapid, in a ‘new’ design created towards the end of the period’s heyday fashion.

'Freedom'

“It was a freedom to travel, the Penny Farthing,” said Mr Richards. “Back then, people would have had to walk or get a horse, but a human on a machine can pedal quite some way.”

And while for him it now feels ‘bizarre’ to travel on an ordinary cycle, he insists a Penny Farthing is easy to ride, provided a rider has the confidence to climb on.

“If you can ride a modern bike, it’s pretty much the same,” he said. “But because of the distance from the floor, you’ve got to plan ahead. There’s no way of making an emergency stop.”

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