Entente Imperial: British and French Power in the Age of Empire 
by Edward J. Gillin.
Amberley, 288 pp., £20, February 2022, 978 1 3981 0289 7
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Early​ in July 1853, eighty thousand Russian troops crossed the River Pruth and invaded the Ottoman Empire. By 15 July they had occupied Bucharest, the capital of Ottoman Wallachia, as well as its other major towns. It was an unprovoked attack, justified on spurious grounds: Tsar Nicholas I claimed that more than ten million Orthodox Christians were imperilled by the indifference and barbarism of their Ottoman overlords. Russia asserted a historic right and duty to protect these people, though the vast majority had expressed no interest in such protection. It refused to leave, despite intense international diplomacy. The motivation for this expansionist gamble was Russia’s anxiety about the balance of power across Central and Eastern Europe. The Revolutions of 1848 had demonstrated that Western liberals could stimulate uprisings against the status quo in Italian, Hungarian, Polish and Balkan lands; now the Ottoman Empire, which Russia was used to bullying, was being bullied more effectively by Britain and France. In response to the invasion, Sultan Abdulmejid I declared war on Russia, and Britain and France sent ships to the Bosphorus to protect him against attack. On 30 November 1853, Russian missiles destroyed the Ottoman navy in the Black Sea. The British and French press lamented their countries’ humiliation. In March 1854, both of them joined the Ottoman side.

Though the conflict that followed is almost always known as the Crimean War, it was not a war for the liberation of the Crimean peninsula, which Russia had annexed in 1783. Britain and France aimed simply to prevent a maritime attack on the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, by neutralising the Russian naval base on the peninsula – a task which turned out to be not at all simple. It took eleven months. Britain and France agreed on the political need to secure Constantinople, but some British naval strategists would instinctively have preferred a naval blockade and the bombardment of Russia’s Baltic ports, and it was the eventual decision to focus on the Baltic theatre that forced Russia to make peace in 1856. British public opinion saw Russian ambitions and values as a threat to Europe as a whole, and particularly to the liberal and national cause in Hungary, Poland and Italy. The press presented the war as a defence of ‘English’ ideals – liberalism, constitutionalism and international law – against the Russian bear.

There wasn’t much British postwar identification with the Crimea either. It never caught the imagination as a ‘lieu de mémoire’. In her excellent new book on the afterlife of the conflict, Lara Kriegel shows that memorial tourism was only sporadic.* The peninsula was not on major British trade routes, had no magnificent classical or Renaissance attractions, and, most problematic, remained Russian territory. The Prince and Princess of Wales visited in 1869 but found the battlegrounds strewn with ruins, slowly reverting to agriculture. Most of the 139 burial sites had been neglected; it was another fifteen years before they were consolidated into one memorial on Cathcart’s Hill. This was itself never adequately safeguarded: it was ravaged during the Second World War and later by Khrushchev’s bulldozers. The military campaign itself was remembered mainly for a single piece of ghastly incompetence – the charge of the light brigade during the Battle of Balaklava. Even before Tennyson’s poem appeared in December 1854, its painful lessons were well established. The Times noted that the British soldier would always ‘do his duty’, even when sentenced to probable death by ‘some hideous blunder’. During their lifetimes, the surviving chargers were still seen as heroes – in October 1875, they were reunited at Alexandra Palace for an afternoon of celebrations featuring another war veteran, an Arab horse, together with trapeze artists and a banquet topped off with Balaklava pudding – but this was because the experience of most other Crimean soldiers was tediously inglorious: the long, cold, muddy siege of a faraway naval base. Tony Richardson’s cinematic treatment in 1968 was the sharpest of several 20th-century attempts to reinterpret the charge as a symbol of officer-class arrogance and privilege. The light brigade’s failure is still a touchstone: in February, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, made reference to the Crimean War while puffing the Ukraine conflict as a glorious stand against Russian expansionism; the Daily Mail retorted by using the charge to illustrate the foolishness of intervention in remote quarrels.

Russia’s late 18th-century expansion into the Crimea and most of present-day Ukraine had been paralleled, further north, by the partition of Poland after a series of agreements between Russia, Austria and Prussia. These agreements were possible, in large part, because of the disruption of European diplomacy caused by bitter Anglo-French discord. During the Crimean War, there was pressure on Britain and France to make amends for Poland’s disappearance from the map. Domestic radicals and influential Polish expatriate networks wanted its independence restored, but nothing happened. Nor did the allies instigate any national uprisings against the Russians around the Black Sea coast – two decades earlier, the ambitious young British diplomat David Urquhart had been sacked for making such an attempt in Circassia, just east of the Crimea, which Russia was then trying to subjugate. British and French caution reflected an anxiety that a Balkan war of nationalities would destroy Ottoman rule. At the 1856 peace talks, Palmerston tried to keep Russia out of Circassia and if possible Georgia, but was frustrated because France supported Russian claims.

So the Anglo-French alliance of the 1850s did not seek to bring liberalism and nationalism to Russia’s borderlands. Did it have any wider meaning? Was it an aberration? On 17 April 1855, Queen Victoria held a ball at Windsor Castle to celebrate the state visit of Napoleon III. Its location was the magnificent Waterloo Chamber, a symbol of Britain’s global ascendancy. If Napoleon III, nephew of the original, minded dancing with George III’s granddaughter in this setting, he was careful not to say so. The visit suggested that after many centuries Anglo-French hostility was finally at an end – but not that war would automatically give way to peace, since the Crimean conflict killed half a million people. The alliance wasn’t without tensions. In 1853 there had been a media scare that Napoleon III might be planning to invade Britain across the Channel. Britain’s decision to work with him was shaped by a concern that, unrestrained by British counsel, France would compromise with Russia in order to divide up the East between them.

On the other hand, if Britain and France united, they might reshape the world themselves, representing the forces of modernity. One useful way of analysing the scope of Anglo-French global ambitions in the 19th century is to focus on the role of technology. This is the approach taken by Edward Gillin, a historian of science, in his entertaining overview. The Crimean crisis can itself be seen as an attempt by these two technologically superior countries to intimidate the Ottomans into accepting their political guidance in return for military protection. Technology also allowed unprecedented media coverage of the war, much of it illustrated: Queen Victoria was given a documentary photograph album. In April 1855 a daily telegraph link from the battlefield to Constantinople was established. Two months later a British newspaper of the same name appeared, exploiting widespread anger at the incompetence of the war effort. It is still complaining to this day.

The war established a precedent for attempts to impose Western power on recalcitrant forces elsewhere in the world. (It was a fitting irony that Napoleon III’s son, the prince imperial, was killed serving with the British army during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.) The most infamous of these forays was the joint British and French attack on China in 1859-60, after the Chinese emperor resisted a trade treaty insisted on by the two powers, who had just bombarded Canton. More than 200 ships arrived with 23,000 men and modern artillery, attacked the forts on the river Pei-ho, and opened a path to Peking. After the Chinese captured and tortured a Times correspondent, the allied forces razed the fleeing emperor’s Summer Palace to the ground (the British couldn’t resist blaming the French for the worst of the looting). Much priceless art was destroyed, though some magnificent pieces were shipped back to royal residences in Britain and France, together with five Pekinese dogs – the one given to Queen Victoria was christened Looty. Such vandalism was not the expedition’s intention, but it left a permanent and painful legacy.

The greatest monument to Anglo-French technological co-operation in these years was the Suez Canal, planned during the Crimean War, funded by a French company established in 1858, and opened in 1869. The canal is too often (but not here) seen as a French attempt to challenge British commercial and political predominance in Egypt – hardly a realistic aim by this point. Though the British government was initially hostile and investors were sceptical about its viability, the appeal of a seaway connecting the Mediterranean with India was overwhelming for the world’s greatest economic power, once it became clear that it could indeed be completed. The publicity for the canal also gave an enormous fillip to the ambitions of finance capitalists in London and Paris, who now looked to fund infrastructure projects anywhere in the world where steam power offered plausible prospects of returns. Napoleon III had already allowed investment banks to tap French public savings for domestic railway construction and war loans. After the Crimean War, these banks set their sights further afield, and in 1863 the first investment banking consortia were established in Britain. Back in 1851, an early beneficiary of the new telegraph cable across the Channel had been Paul Julius Reuter, who saw that profits could be made from the swift communication of information – particularly stock market prices – between the two capitals.

In both countries, scientists and commercial men urged the benefits of standardising other sorts of data, arguing that global trade and communication would be enhanced by greater uniformity in measurement. In 1884, an international conference agreed to organise global time around the Greenwich Meridian. Many Frenchmen wanted the world to accept the metric measurements of weights and distance that France had adopted in a bout of rationalising revolutionary fervour. Metres, litres and grams were all defined by reference to the Earth’s dimensions. When Britain obstructed these strange notions, Richard Cobden lamented his countrymen’s ‘Chinese conservatism’. On the whole, however, co-operation outweighed controversy. The French dominated the natural sciences and mathematics, but admired the British steam engine and its manifold applications. At the Great Exhibition in 1851, many Britons agreed that French luxury goods were superior to homegrown mass-produced articles. For two French economists, Joseph Garnier and Hippolyte Dussard, the exhibition’s lesson was that ‘the United States can feed the world, England can clothe it, and France can beautify it.’ Gillin traces the ramifications of these lines of thought to the 1860 Anglo-French Commercial Treaty, which weakened traditional tariff barriers to trade, but also to Ruskin’s worship of the medieval cathedrals of northern France, which he saw as antidotes to the modern materialist spirit.

The 1860 treaty opened Britain to many beautiful things, not least to French wine, which by 1898 was producing 35 per cent of the total consumed in England, against 5 per cent in sherry-and-port-sodden 1843. Champagne became so popular that by 1890 the major vineyards had altered its taste to suit London appetites, drastically reducing the sugar content and adding more fizz. To discerning Frenchmen, such adjustments were painful: ‘Le champagne, on ne le prépare pas comme une omelette,’ one manufacturer commented ruefully. In London, the 1890s were a boom-time for French-style hotels and restaurants: César Ritz and Georges Escoffier revived the Savoy and established its culinary reputation, before going on to found the Carlton and the Ritz. Six decades earlier, the French émigré Alexis Soyer had become the first celebrity chef, employed initially by Whig aristocrats and then at their new party headquarters, the Reform Club. Many British noble families had cultivated French habits and culture since before the revolution, as a signifier of cosmopolitanism and taste. As the 19th century went on, and Continental travel became easier for the middle classes, France was naturally the most popular destination.

Of course, national rivalry, articulated through long-standing stereotypes, often imperilled collaboration. This was certainly the case in the Crimea; each side accused the other of misjudgments at the Battle of the Alma. No British officer at that time had fought a war that wasn’t against the French, and Captain Kingscote ridiculed the appearance of the French officers, ‘like monkeys, girthed up as tight as they can be and sticking out above and below like balloons’. The 1860 treaty, a political gesture symbolic of its moment, fell foul of ideologues on both sides and was replaced in 1882 by less ambitious arrangements, as France turned back to protectionism.

The rapidity of technological progress also occasionally undermined British self-confidence about its invulnerability to French military power. The Crimean War made it clear that, despite the Waterloo myth, Britain wasn’t very good at fighting. By January 1855, France had four times as many soldiers in the field. They were also better organised. One day the French provided 35,000 loaves for hungry British troops. In the winter of 1854-55, British fatality rates in the Crimea were double those of the French. Britain fell back on reassuring tropes of naval superiority, until Napoleon III completed his great new harbour at Cherbourg and floated the first ironclad warship, La Gloire. Britain’s sail ships now seemed irrelevant. Palmerston had to rally public opinion with a spending spree on ironclads and fortifications including four sea forts in the Solent, which have still not found their raison d’être, even as luxury hotels.

Thereis, however, another way of conceiving of the Anglo-French international political project after 1815, one focused on geography and geopolitics. Both countries wanted peace: France was saddled with war reparation payments, while Britain’s industrial and commercial growth made it the greatest beneficiary of the new global status quo. Over the next two decades, British and French politicians agreed to share responsibility for the Atlantic coastline, particularly Iberia and the Low Countries, the main Anglo-French battlegrounds during the recent wars. They created Belgium as a model liberal constitutional monarchy following a southern rebellion against the king of the Netherlands, and settled a Spanish civil war in favour of the constitutionalists, all while minimising the local influence of Russia, Austria and Prussia. British recognition of France’s interests along the European coast also helped persuade it not to seek revenge for Waterloo by intriguing with Russia. International historians of the 19th century place great emphasis on a ‘Concert of Europe’ – represented in action at the Congress of Vienna – but its main concern was to stabilise Central and Eastern Europe. Britain and France quickly worked out how to check the interference of the eastern powers further west.

Dealing with the affairs of Spain and Portugal also required the two countries to agree on a new liberal settlement for the Americas. In the 18th century, the Atlantic powers had greedily competed to dominate and exploit the New World’s trade and resources, but after 1815 Britain and France belatedly accepted that this competition had badly damaged them (as well as almost everything they touched). It had lost them the most important parts of their North American empires: Britain had ousted France from Canada, and France had assisted with Britain’s ousting from what was now the United States. Post-Napoleon, France tried briefly to use its power in Spain to maintain some influence in Spanish South America, now the site of multiple rebellions against European rule. By the 1820s, it accepted that the rebels, helped by British naval and commercial power, had won their independence. The Atlantic trade boomed, and British cotton products flooded into the new South American states. In the 1830s, Britain abolished slavery in the West Indies and stepped up its naval and diplomatic assault on the Atlantic slave trade. In support of this, Britain and France signed agreements in 1831 and 1833 permitting mutual rights of search and arrest on their countries’ trading vessels in the Atlantic. Britain reconstituted an enlarged Canada as a liberal and increasingly self-governing colony after the French minority rebelled in 1837, in co-operation with France.

We should see this emerging collaboration in Western Europe and the Americas as the foundation stone of Atlanticism. This was a distinctive Anglo-French project that the US eventually joined once it expanded its horizons. It was based on common strategic interests and on the Enlightenment values of which Britain and France were the leading exponents: free institutions, international law and socio-economic evolution powered by commercial and intellectual exchange. It assumed that Russia, Austria and Prussia could not seriously obstruct the advance of these principles and would eventually have to bow to them. Disraeli said Anglo-French co-operation was ‘the key and cornerstone of modern civilisation’.

This informal Anglo-French understanding is rarely given proper attention because politicians and newspaper editors in both countries did their best – as they often still do – to pretend it wasn’t happening. The same thing occurred when the US joined the party. Memories of past conflicts were so visceral – and so easy to exploit in speeches and headlines – that they continued to dominate the discourse. There were many legitimate reasons for each country to be suspicious of the territorial and economic ambitions of the other two. Britain and France were both perplexed by US expansion across the continent, especially the acquisition of Texas in 1845, though neither could prevent it since the Texans were in favour. In addition, though the creation of a liberal North Atlantic world was an Enlightenment project, each of the three states felt that it had made the pre-eminent contribution to liberal thought through its own political revolution – Britain in 1688, America in 1776, France in 1789 – and that this was manifestly superior to the other two.

Ever since, so many politicians and journalists in the three countries have gleefully ridiculed their rivals’ behaviour that it’s easy to forget that for nearly two hundred years it has been almost inconceivable that they could ever go to war with one another. Initially, the logic of co-operation rested on two planks. The first was British naval power. From its bases in Halifax and Bermuda, and later at Esquimalt on the western Canadian coast, Britain could – if the US ever chose to invade Canada – blockade and bombard Boston, New York, Washington and San Francisco into severe deprivation or worse. Britain was also usually confident that its ships could keep the French fleet confined to harbour in any war (though it was not quite so confident that it could manage both these tasks at the same time). It was unnecessary and counterproductive to draw attention to such possibilities, however, because each country derived obvious worldwide trading benefits from the absence of conflict between them. In the 19th century, some wars were acceptable to the British and French publics, but only if they could be justified by liberal rhetoric, took place far away, and did not cost much – something that technological superiority over non-Western peoples helped to ensure.

Second, co-operation was promoted by representative politics itself. Nineteenth-century politicians constantly had to interact with legislative assemblies. Taxpayers wanted to prioritise peace, commerce, low taxes and the preservation of capital and property. Political language often incorporated appeals to prestige and honour, but hardly ever to the glory of combat. The language of patriotism helped bolster state legitimacy, while also allowing shrewd practitioners to prevent hotheads from taking control of the narrative. Such language could be used to establish a national consensus, which was often a valuable diplomatic weapon. Alternatively, it could reveal that no consensus existed, which encouraged compromise. Palmerston is often thought of as a populist, but he lost office twice in the 1850s because he supported a French entente. Far from imperilling Western collaboration, the rituals of the liberal parliamentary order have provided its bedrock.

There is another reason for thinking of the Anglo-French project as an Atlanticist one. Though it’s common to see the relationship between the two countries as waxing and waning over the decades (as Gillin does), its strengths and strains are better understood if we think less about time and more about place. There has been a sustained understanding on Western Europe and the Americas, but the Mediterranean has proved infinitely more troublesome for both states. France had dominated it in the 18th century; in 1798, Napoleon occupied Egypt in order to challenge Britain’s new Indian empire. Nelson retaliated by destroying the French fleet; Britain soon took Malta and Corfu and became a Mediterranean naval power in order to protect the route to India. Thereafter, neither country quite trusted the other’s activities in Greece, which the European powers permitted to leave the Ottoman Empire, or in Lebanon, which they did not. For more than seventy years, both accepted the status quo that Egypt should be a buffer state under nominal Ottoman sovereignty: British domination of commerce and the Red Sea thoroughfare was disguised by a varnish of French culture. But the inrush of Anglo-French finance capital in search of unrealistically high interest rates after the Crimean War led to Egyptian bankruptcy and political disorder. The subsequent British occupation in 1882 poisoned relations with France for more than twenty years. Finally, an entente was engineered in 1904, presided over by Edward VII, Britain’s most famous devotee of French champagne and Parisian boudoirs. It resolved the Mediterranean tensions, but at the cost of Britain ceding naval superiority there so that it could protect both countries against the German threat along the Atlantic coast. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Britain had no way of rejecting French claims to Syria and Lebanon as a counterweight to British Egypt and Iraq. During the two world wars, agents of both powers engaged in very damaging conspiracies and plots against each other in Syria and Palestine, even while their alliance continued elsewhere.

If we see​ Anglo-French relations functioning in different ways in different geopolitical contexts – Atlantic, Mediterranean and domestic – this may provide some comfort as we confront the post-Brexit situation. The Brexiters’ shrill rejection of Theresa May’s deal with the European Union, which aimed at preventing costly trade friction and at preserving the integrity of the UK, led to the defenestration of most of the Conservative Party’s foreign policy experts: Ken Clarke, David Gauke, Oliver Letwin, David Lidington and Rory Stewart. With them went the liberal Tory realist tradition of foreign policy which had been a constant of British statecraft since it became a world power. Instead we are in the hands of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities, who told us last autumn that ‘the French are always grumpy in October, the anniversaries of Trafalgar and Agincourt.’

The reality, however, is that two countries which share a long frontier and common pursuits have many reasons to co-operate day to day. Border communities have done so for centuries, despite the irritations and difficulties caused by distant officials. The long-running dispute about the right of French fishermen to fish in Jersey waters after Brexit may yet be settled by a modest increase in the number of licences awarded to French boats; in November 2021, the president of the Ille-et-Vilaine Fisheries Committee said that his members would prefer to negotiate directly with Jersey than rely on EU mechanisms. In 1991, in preparation for the opening of the Channel Tunnel, Britain and France reached an agreement on border policing which, supplemented in 2000 and 2003, still generally functions well (in spite of a dysfunctional British Home Office). The number of registered French residents in the UK in 2021, though lower than before Brexit, is roughly the same as in 2011 – the British census in that year revealed that there were more than two and a half times as many French-born residents as there had been in 1991. Sporting contacts remain highly developed, unsurprisingly given that France imported rugby and cycling from Britain. As for the nationalist posturers and their references to ingrained Anglo-French hostility, it’s likely that Brexit will eventually reduce the purchase of such language. Most voters will be unimpressed if a government that boasts of its success in reclaiming sovereignty simultaneously blames the EU for every domestic setback. The Ukraine crisis has in any case changed the mood by making the need for Western co-operation abundantly clear.

Since the 1960s, Britain and France have shared two fundamental Atlanticist aims: to keep the US committed to European defence, and to check any German impulses to accommodate Russia, whether through Ostpolitik in the 1970s or energy dependency under Merkel. During the Cold War, the guarantee of US protection occasionally disguised this common aim, allowing British and French politicians the luxury of spats which gave their domestic audiences the comforting impression that their countries were still independent global powers. The prevailing uncertainty since the 1990s has required more direct Anglo-French collaboration, including a Joint Nuclear Weapons Commission established in 1993 and the 2010 Lancaster House treaties on security and defence integration. Work on cyber security is ongoing. Although the EU amplifies French power to a degree, French politicians also need to maintain a distinct identity from it, given the amount of domestic Euroscepticism. The Ukraine tragedy seems to have secured the two great Anglo-French objectives, tying the US to Europe more completely than it probably wishes, and forcing Germany to confront the reality of Russian imperialism. It has also soothed French anger at Britain’s recent agreement with the US and Australia on military security in the Indo-Pacific.

Evangelists for Atlanticism have always assumed that their gospel – the free exchange of goods, labour and ideas – will win converts further and further east. Ukraine’s refusal to accept Russian dictation appears to provide fresh evidence for the dynamism of the West as a concept. Plainly it has unifying power in contrast to Russian oppression. The image of the Russian ‘other’ is all the more potent for having been presented in so many forms over the years: tsarist, Bolshevik, imperialist, kleptocratic, barbaric. Some new form of security arrangement against it is clearly necessary, but ‘Western’ may not be the right word for it. The current coalition against Russia relies on a degree of co-operation with Poland and Turkey which recalls France’s 18th-century barrière de l’est, forged with the Ottomans, the Poles and the Swedes against Russia, but also against the Austrian Habsburgs. Absorbing all of Eastern Europe into the EU as properly valued member states must eventually create something unthinkable in 1957, when the EEC set its borders at the familiar gateways of Passau and Trieste. For this to happen, European politicians would need to cultivate more sensitivity in dealing with varying cultures and economic circumstances than British newspapers showed when discussing Italy in the late 19th century. Having boasted of Britain’s role in establishing a liberal constitutional monarchy there, they tended to succumb to racial and religious stereotyping when articulating their disappointment at its failure to develop appropriately. For most Britons, the West hardly extended beyond the Rhine, leaving aside a few historic Baltic ports, German university towns and Italian city-states.

Presently, we share many of our talking points with the 1850s. Faced with unpredictable Eastern autocrats, is the West too pusillanimous or too insensitively ambitious? Are Russia’s desires for a ‘sphere of influence’ acceptable? Should we fear its military machine or deride its underlying feebleness, stemming from its rejection of representative politics? It seems likely that Russian nationalism, insecurity, opacity and unpredictability will be a force in international politics for years to come, and that enormous care will be needed in dealing with it. This is partly a matter of the natural and nuclear resources at its disposal, but also of its complex relationship with the greater power of China. Growing Chinese influence outside Europe was not something anyone needed to worry about in the 1850s. Those who boast about the spread of Western power over the last two centuries might reflect on the astonishment of the philistine soldiers at the Summer Palace, or Cobden’s free market liberals, if they were to be confronted with the world of 2022 and the survival of ‘Chinese conservatism’.

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Vol. 44 No. 11 · 9 June 2022

Tom Wells rejects Jonathan Parry’s supposition that France imported cycling from Britain (Letters, 26 May). It was, he says, the other way round, and ‘the first person to attach pedals to a draisine (hobby horse) was a Parisian mechanic called Pierre Lallement, in 1863.’ Here in Dumfriesshire we dispute that. A blacksmith cum dentist called Kirkpatrick Macmillan (1812-78, known locally as ‘daft Pate’) of Keir Mill near Thornhill built his own bicycle in 1839. He saw a ‘hobby-horse’ – also known as a velocipede, pushed along by the cyclist using their feet on the ground – and decided to attach pedals to it. He rode his invention to Glasgow (a distance of 68 miles) and back in 1842. As he entered Glasgow he bumped into a little girl, hurting her leg, and was arrested and fined five shillings for obstruction of the queen’s highway. On the return journey, Gavin Dalzell in Lesmahagow saw the contraption and made a copy of it in 1846; for more than fifty years he was generally regarded as the inventor of the bicycle.

Pate was apparently quite unconcerned with the fuss he had prompted, preferring to enjoy the quiet country life to which he was accustomed. His tombstone in Keir churchyard commemorates his invention, and there is a plaque to him on his former smithy at Courthill, Keir.

Sue King-Smith
Tynron, Dumfries and Galloway

Vol. 44 No. 12 · 23 June 2022

Sue King-Smith makes a case for Kirkpatrick Macmillan as the inventor of the bicycle (Letters, 9 June). Unfortunately, his claim doesn’t withstand serious scrutiny. The only primary evidence ever adduced was the court report in the Glasgow Herald about the accident to which King-Smith alludes, and this poses difficulties for Macmillan’s claim in at least four ways. First, he is not established as the defendant. Indeed the person placed at the Gorbals police bar is nowhere named, but referred to as a gentleman. In the socially stratified 1840s, a mechanic and part-time teeth-puller would probably not be so described. Second, it doesn’t establish that the rider of the velocipede in question was its inventor, or even its owner. Third, the term velocipede at the time referred to three and four-wheeled machines, as well as two-wheeled hobby horses. It is not established that this was a two-wheeler; three-wheeled cranked vehicles were not uncommon at the time. Fourth, the report refers to a hand-cranked transmission rather than foot treadles (never mind rotary pedals), also indicating a tricycle.

Whats more, the claim for Macmillan only surfaced in the early 1890s, a full fifty years after the supposed fact. It was put forward by a man called James Johnston, whose only direct evidence was this newspaper report. Macmillan left no patents, drawings or designs, did not refer to the machine in personal correspondence, and made no attempt to engage in commercial production. 

In the 1890s, there were competing nationalistic reasons for wanting to stake such claims. As well as Macmillan’s tombstone and plaque, there is in Bar-le-Duc a memorial monument from 1893 to Pierre and Ernest Michaux, celebrating them as the inventors  a claim that appears to be as specious as Macmillan’s in the light of more convincing evidence about Pierre Lallement, whose claim I outlined in my original letter (26 May). The Russians have equally speciously also put forward a candidate (Efim Artamonov) and built a monument to him.

Tom Wells
Cardigan, Ceredigion

Vol. 44 No. 10 · 26 May 2022

Contrary to what Jonathan Parry supposes, France did not import cycling from Britain – it was the other way round (LRB, 21 April). The first person to attach pedals to a draisine (hobby horse) was a Parisian mechanic called Pierre Lallement, in 1863. According to his testimony in an 1866 patent (reported in David Herlihy’s Bicycle: The History), he conceived the bicycle in 1862, and built it in his spare time in 1863, whence he ‘took (it) to the boulevards and all the people saw it’.

Tom Wells
Cardigan, Ceredigion

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