The pedal-powered ethnographer

Letter,  March 6, 1903, to Mary Beattie, from Herries Beattie (left) and excerpt from notebook...
Letter, March 6, 1903, to Mary Beattie, from Herries Beattie (left) and excerpt from notebook entitled "Miscellaneous historical gleanings" (right). Hocken Collections, Te Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, MS-582/L/6, MS-582/D/8
Herries Beattie’s travels around the South were pedal powered, Rauhina Scott-Fyfe writes.

In March 1903, 21-year-old James Herries Beattie (known as Herries) set out from Gore on a cycling adventure.

On day five of the journey, stopping at Black’s Hotel in Ophir, Beattie began a letter to his mother, Mary Roden Beattie (nee Thomson). His letter describes the journey through Central Otago.

"Dear Mother," Herries wrote. "In accordance with your request I am writing to you. Because I am in an hotel and the handwriting is wobbly you must not think I have imbibed too freely ... I can scarcely hold the pen my hand is so shaky with the two days jolting and jarring over rough roads."

The trip started off with a punctured tyre "before reaching the shop" - referring to the family’s business in Gore, Thomson and Beattie Ltd, a general store and drapery. Herries had a train to catch, however, so the tyre was not patched and fixed until reaching Queenstown.

"I saw you waving the tablecloth (?) as the train passed Dalbeattie [the Beattie family home] but I don’t know if you noticed my tiny handkerchief fluttering."

Meeting up with his friend Charlie Inglis in Lumsden, the pair crossed Whakatipu Waimāori on the ferry Ben Lomond, arriving in Queenstown at 8pm. The following day, the young men embarked again on a trip around the lake in the Ben Lomond, stopping in at Glenorchy, Pig Island and Walter Peak.

"Next morning (Wednesday) we mounted our bikes and bade adieu to the ‘city of the lakes’."

Beattie describes the ride around the Frankton Arm, past Lake Hayes, stopping in at Arrowtown for lunch, before continuing on to Cromwell, Clyde, Alexandra and Ophir.

Biking the Kawarau Gorge made a particular impression, as Herries writes in the letter, "It needs strength of limb, straightness of eye and coolness of nerve to ride all the way thro’ the Kawarau Gorge as the track is about a foot wide and at the outer edge of the track so that at places a slip would cost a fellow his life most probably".


The 1903 letter is just one of many cycling trips which Beattie recorded in his papers held at the Hocken Collections. Though he learned to cycle at the age of 10 or 11, Herries bought the bicycle that he would continue to use on his travels for the rest of his life in 1903: a second-hand Canadian-made Massey-Harris bicycle, made in 1901, for which he paid a somewhat pricey sum of £6.

Beattie took his Massey-Harris bike to many locales around the South Island.

"I used it to visit the Southern Maori and some of them knew me as ‘The Man With the Bike’, a name that was also applied to me by backblock settlers."

Whilst the bike’s "distinctive" handlebars and frame remained the same, Herries had the bicycle converted to a "freewheeler" in 1908.

In a note about his "famous bike" in the mid-1960s, Beattie wrote ‘I am the proud owner of this machine - just one of those humble vehicles sometimes patronisingly referred to as ‘push-bikes’.

"I have had at least three seats, numerous tubes and many tyres but the framework is sturdy after 62 years riding."

In his eighties, Beattie still took his "humble vehicle" for a spin four or five times a week. Beattie donated his bike to the Waimate Museum in 1969.

The digitised collection of Herries Beattie’s papers will be launched on the Hocken Digital Collections website in June.

• Rauhina Scott-Fyfe (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe) is Māori archivist at Hocken Collections.