In early June 1898 a young man called Victor Richard Ratten resigned from his position at the Union Bank in Forbes, a small town in the Central West of New South Wales. His colleagues presented him with a memento and wished him Bon Voyage. I was quite puzzled by this, having been researching Victor’s life for some time. My understanding was that he travelled only as far as Sydney, where he became apprenticed to a dentist. The expression Bon Voyage suggested a much longer trip, possibly by sea. This may seem a trivial issue, but as writer/researcher I felt a niggle of dissatisfaction.
The mystery was solved, at least in part, when I came across a brief report in The Australasian, dated June 11 the same year. It stated that two cyclists from Forbes; D. Campbell and V.R. Ratten, were about to depart from Sydney on a bicycle tour of the world. Eureka!
Twenty year old Victor had often appeared in The Western Champion newspaper as the winner of sprint races in cycling championships. He also played cricket, tennis and rugby. He was a member of the Forbes football team which won the 1897 district premiership.
His nuggety physique suggested he had the physical stamina to ride long distances. Later events in his life would prove that he also possessed the necessary initiative and mental strength.
At the time his father, George Ratten, was the headmaster of the Lachlan College in Forbes. He would later take up the ministry and become vicar of the local Anglican church . Two years earlier Ratten’s private college at Parkes had failed and there was certainly no family money to fund Victor’s expedition.
I have been unable to identify his fellow cyclist D. Campbell, but Victor raced against a W.T. Campbell at Forbes. It is possible that they were from the same family.
A decade earlier Australian pair George Burston and H. Stokes had completed a similar marathon ride on penny-farthings.
The men received huge publicity, and may have been the inspiration for Ratten and Campbell. Of course, recent advances in bicycle design meant that the Forbes riders would enjoy the advantages of chain driven transmission and pneumatic tyres. Increased comfort and speed meant that cycling, both as a recreation and a sport became extremely popular. In August 1896 an editorial in the Bendigo Independent stated;
Cycling can be pursued at all seasons and over most roads of the country….. In the past few years the improvements made in the bicycle are little short of wonderful. It is almost impossible that the next few years will be able in this respect to keep pace therewith. Should it, however, so eventuate, we will, about 1910, have a man rising from bed in Bendigo at five minutes to seven o’clock, bathing and dressing, mounting his bicycle, and with a nicely freshened appetite sitting down to his breakfast in Melbourne at nine o’clock A speed of 30 miles per hour has already been obtained; why not 100 miles?
Nevertheless, the logistics of a world tour would have been as daunting for Ratten and Campbell as for their predecessors. In order to travel as lightly as possible, Burston and Stokes had forwarded clothes and other possessions to various collection points along their intended route.
Oddly enough, there had been no reports in the Western Champion about the impending journey of the two Forbes cyclists. Surely they were given a suitable send-off from the town? On June 29 1898 it was the Victorian newspaper The Portland Guardian which reported that the pair had left Sydney six days earlier, and that, with the necessary sea voyages, it was estimated they would travel some 34,000 miles.
And then…..nothing! Not one more word of the epic trip was ever reported. Victor Ratten returned to the Central West in December 1899, setting up practice as a dentist in West Wyalong. Eight years later he did make a round the world trip, though not by bicycle. It would change his life, and that of many others.
I would love to hear from anyone who may have some knowledge of the cycle expedition; especially how far the young men rode, and what caused them to (presumably) abort their journey. I can be contacted at [email protected] or via this website.