The Berkhamsted man who cycled around the world

After the news that a British man last week became the first man to cross Australia on a skateboard, the Gazette looks back at the story of a Berkhamsted man who achieved an even more impressive feat of travelling endurance.

Thomas Stevens, born in Castle Street, on Christmas Eve 1854, became the first man to cycle around the world, becoming an international celebrity in the process.

The eldest son of a labourer, Thomas attended the Bourne Charity School before becoming an apprentice greengrocer in Berkhamsted.

In 1871, aged just 16, Thomas emigrated to Missouri in post-Civil War United States where he became a frontiersman. He was joined by his parents and brothers a couple of years later.

According to contemporary reports Thomas was a voracious reader of travel literature and after arriving in the US took on a number of different jobs, including working as a miner, before arriving in San Francisco.

At some point during this period he became interested in cycling and bought, at great expense, his first Standard Columbia or Pennyfarthing bicycle.

Attempts had been made to cycle across the United States in the early 1880s but all had failed.

In 1884 at the age of 29, Thomas decided to give it a go.

He managed to get funding for the venture by getting a contract to write about his travels in an outdoors magazine and on April 22, 1884 he set out from San Francisco on his 50 inch-wheel bicycle with just a spare pair of socks, a shirt, a raincoat that doubled as a tent, a bed roll and a revolver.

Despite the weight of his bike (more than 25kgs) and the rough terrain, 104 days later Thomas Stevens arrived in Boston after fending off mountain lions in the Rocky Mountains and having to drag his bike through rivers and push and pull it over large sections of the journey.

Thomas' serialisation of his journey in Outing magazine read like an adventure story and proved hugely popular with readers.

Following this remarkable achievement Outing magazine made him a special correspondent and agreed to fund further adventures for the young Berkhamstedian.

Setting off from New York the following year Thomas arrived in Liverpool in mid-1885 with his trusty Standard Columbia bicycle and set out around the globe.

During his travels Thomas stopped in Berkhamsted and gave a lecture on his experiences at the Town Hall, before continuing his journey across France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumelia (part of the Ottoman empire that covered the Balkans) Turkey, Armenia, Iraq and Persia.

During his time in the Middle East Thomas spent the winter as the guest of the Shah of Persia.

Later in his journey he was expelled from Afghanistan by the local authorities and ended up taking a series of steamers and trains to Hong Kong. His route took him through the South of China where he is said to have escaped hostile rioters and on to Japan, where his adventure was widely reported in the national press.

He eventually arrived back in San Francisco in January 1887 as a major celebrity.

His vividly written articles and often unbelievable adventures struck a chord with the American public.

According to research by Berkhamsted Historian Percy Birtchnell, perhaps the greatest tribute to Thomas Stevens appeared in Outing magazine after his incredible 13,500 mile journey.

It read: "It only remains to be said that our hero stands 5ft 6in, is built like a compressed giant, bears the stamp of personal courage and chivalrous enthusiasm upon his handsome features and, whether you call him Briton or Yankee, reflects honour upon the Anglo-Saxon stock, of which he is a magnificent type. Long live Tom Stevens!"

Thomas' adventures were gathered together in one volume, Around the World on a Bicycle, which is still available today.

According to Percy Birtchnell, Thomas would occasionally visit Berkhamsted on his international travels and recount his adventures. He would stay with relatives and friends, including a family on Ellesmere Road.

After a career working for various high profile publications in the US he eventually returned to the UK in 1895 and married the widowed mother of two famous actresses Irene and Violet Vanburgh. He became the business manager of the Garrick Theatre in London and died in 1935. He is buried in St Marylebone Cemetery in London.

Despite not being widely known Thomas Stevens was a genuine adventurer and a true Hertfordshire Hero.

With thanks to the Dacorum Heritage Trust and the Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society.

Perhaps you have more information on Thomas Stevens?

Or maybe one of your ancestors was also a Hertfordshire Hero?

If so write to Pete Bennett, The Gazette, 39 Marlowes, Hemel Hempstead, Herts, HP1 1LH or email pete.bennett@ccnltd.com

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