08 August 2021

Death Rides a Penny-Farthing

Duggan family grave, Toowong Cemetery, 2020. ( C. Dawson)

This Toowong Cemetery headstone features one of the more unusual symbols I’ve found on a marker. Dating from the mid-1880s, it is on the grave of Alfred Joseph Duggan of Spring Hill, a 19-year-old chemist's shop assistant, a member of the Brisbane Amateur Cycling Club, and the proud owner of a penny-farthing.

The penny-farthing was popular in the 1870s and 1880s, when it was simply called a ‘bicycle’, the first machine to be known by that name. The ‘penny-farthing’ moniker actually came later, a reference to the disparity in the wheel sizes being like two British coins - the large penny and the tiny farthing.

Studio photograph of two men on penny-farthing bicycles, Queensland, ca. 1885. (John Oxley Library)

On Thursday 13 November 1884, Alfred was riding his penny-farthing along the North Quay near central Brisbane when he fell off and managed to dislocate the second joint of the ring finger of his right hand. He went to a doctor and had the finger set, and at first his injury did not appear to be too serious. However, a couple of days later tetanus set in and he was sent to the hospital on Wednesday 18 November. Tetanus is an infection caused by bacteria entering the body through a break in the skin such as a wound caused by a contaminated object. This produces toxins that interfere with normal muscle contractions and result in severe muscle spasms, each usually lasting a few minutes and sometimes severe enough to fracture bones. In the most common type, the spasms begin in the jaw a few days after infection (which is why tetanus is also sometimes referred to as 'lockjaw') and then progress to the rest of the body, with about 10% of cases proving fatal.

After monitoring his condition, the doctors decided to amputate the affected finger, but it was too late and Alfred never rallied, and he died, reportedly on ‘great agony’ during the night of Friday 20 November.

It was an interesting decision by his mother to incorporate a lead-rendered image of a penny-farthing on his headstone, seeing as his fall from one led to his eventual death, but it would also reflect his love of the contraption.* The wording on the stone also reads that he died 'in the 20th year of his age, by a fall from a bicycle'. Most contemporary records indicate that Duggan's given names were Alfred Joseph, although it is marked on his headstone as Joseph Alfred. A stonemason’s error, perhaps? It did happen from time to time.

The penny-farthing became obsolete from the late 1880s, when modern bicycles with evenly-matched wheel sizes became popular. These were marketed as ‘safety bicycles’ because they were much lower than penny-farthings, which reduced the danger of falling from them. A danger that was sadly demonstrated by the tragic demise of Alfred Duggan, and recognised on his headstone.

* Similarly, another marker in the cemetery for the victim of a motorcycle crash features a motorcycle symbol.

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