Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday Mailbox: What is a High Nelly?

VCC Northern Ireland Ride
Monday Mailbox is a weekly post dedicated to questions received over email. Here is one, for a nice change of pace:
It's been fun discovering what to call different styles of bikes through your blog... diamond frame, step-through, loop frame, mixte, truss frame, Frascona curve! But what exactly is a High Nelly?
I have wondered about this myself, especially about the term's origin.

Used predominantly in the UK and Ireland (and not very common anymore), in a general sense "High Nelly" describes upright bikes. More often than not, the term refers specifically to women's bikes, and particularly to vintage ones. So, for instance, an old fashioned loop frame with swept-back handlebars up higher than the saddle might be called a High Nelly - similar to what an omafiets is to the Dutch. 

VCC Northern Ireland Ride
But in Northern Ireland last summer, I was treated to a more detailed explanation. I was told that originally, "high nelly" referred to a specific style of a woman's bicycle frame, where the head tube was extended considerably past the height of the seat tube. This ensured that the handlebars could be set up as high as possible, for a fully upright and ultra-ladylike position. Apparently, only frames thus constructed are true high nellies. 

1970s and 1930s Raleigh Tourists
Interestingly, in manufacturing its popular Lady's Tourist model, some time in the 1940s Raleigh switched from the original extended headtube design to one where the headtube was more or less level with the seat tube. The measurements of my 22" 1973 DL-1 frame are almost identical to the measurements of my 22" 1936 Lady's Tourist frame, save for this aspect and the resulting difference in posture. So, going by the explanation above, only the very early Lady's Tourists can be considered high nellies, whereas the later DL-1s (as well as most other post-war English 3-speeds) are not. And according to the same definition, lots of modern bikes can be considered high nellies, since extended headtubes are now quite popular.

Unfortunately, I cannot find any written information about the origins of the term, so I can't cite my sources beyond "conversation with collectors." And sadly, who exactly this Nelly was, for whom I assume the style of bicycle was named, remains a mystery. 

33 comments:

  1. I can't think of a source more authoritative than one derived from your "conversation with collectors."

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  2. This charming bit of esoterica causes me to think of Miss Almira Gulch churning away on her bike and leavens a little of the childhood fear I still have of this image. Thanks!

    James F. Duncan

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  3. I always thought the name had to do with horses!

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  4. The name high nelly is given to ladies loop framed bicycles ( mostly pre 1940 ) in Ireland as the riding position is very upright due to the high head tube. I don't think you will find anything on the net as i think " high nelly " is a nick name for these amazing bicycles.

    chris531

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    1. Almost a year later and I'm still thinking about your bicycles, Chris!

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    2. you will get more time to play on them this summer we hope and fingers crossed the weather will be kind.

      Chris

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  5. As far as I am aware, 'High Nelly' was an Irish name for a 'sit and beg' roadster bicycle but not used in all areas of the island. A loop frame roadster bicycle was more commonly called a 'Daisy-belle' in the UK after the music hall song. 'Daisy-belle' was certainly used in this area of Tyrone to describe both lady's and gent's roadster bicycles by the older generation.

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  6. Top pic: short tt, super high ht, shallow hta = an unsustainable riding position.

    Looks great for going to the store on flat ground with no wind.

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  7. High Nelly = Don Nelson circa 1968.

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  8. From the sounds of the description it would appear that I have a "high Nelly" bike. http://www.specialized.com/us/en/bikes/multi-use/expedition/expeditionsportlowentry this is the link to the 2013 version, however mine is from 2011.

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    1. I love that bike, but wouldn't call it a High Nelly. Riding it you're laid back but your arms are straight-ish out with a longer tt.

      Entirely different vs. the top pic.

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  9. This takes me back ... I live in Northern Ireland and I always laughed when my mother talked about her 'High Nelly'. I thought it was just a term of endearment my mother had for the bike and never realised that other people used the same phrase. But there you go .... you learn something new!

    My Dad spent 'a fortune' (as he calls it), getting High Nelly restored, only for it to be relegated to the back of the shed and unridden for years. My mother ended up giving it away to a local collector - YIKES.

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  10. And when it's raining out and those rod brakes don't come close to stopping you, the bike become a "Whoaa Nelly!"

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    1. Believe it or not, I rode a bike in N Ireland with rod brakes that worked. In the rain. Downhill. This one. I was ever so surprised.

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    2. Wow, that's nice, if a bit rare. When adjusted properly they sorta work, but keeping them that way is difficult and frustrating. Modern brakes are much easier on both counts.

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  11. That's a really cool bike. I really enjoyed reading about your Irish Biking Adventures. Having never ridden a bike with rod brakes, I have no business commenting on their stopping power. On a somewhat related note, my wife and I were watching Downton Abbey the other day, and I observed that the bike messenger's ride appeared to be too modern for pre-World War I England. Of course I provided absolutely no justification for that claim, the bike just seemed a little too newish looking. Perhaps others who frequent this forum know more about bikes of the Downton Abbey era.

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  12. Do I have a discerning eye....Did you get a new saddle for your Seven?

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    1. You're talking about pictures elsewhere I assume!

      I have a Rivet saddle on loan for review. Just did 85 miles on it and will post a 1st impression write-up, possibly tonight.

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    2. Finding an appropriate saddle is not easy. I wish we all were allowed to ride one for 85 miles before choosing. Lucky you.

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    3. I am not choosing. I will be reviewing the product.

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  13. I absolutely love your blog but the bicycles you discuss are somehow out of my pricerange. Could you post a recommendation for bicycles between 500-1000? I'm currently looking between the linus and public bikes. Thank you!

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    1. I have reviews of bikes in that price range. I also used to have a page with links specifically to city bikes priced under $800, but suspended it because it required constant updating - for some reason the companies change the urls frequently. But I'll think of some way to bring this back, especially now that there are actually some great options.

      Linus vs Public... I've tried them both and they are nice bikes for the price. There are differences in geometry and tubing, but that might not matter much. As far as functional differences... When comparing them, take a look at the handlebars; Linus's are considerably more swept back and will put you in a different position than the Public (unless you plan to swap handlebars). Also, if you're interested in derailleur gearing, Public offers that option for their step-through frames, Linus step-throughs are hub only.

      In the same price range, take a look also at Bobbin, Brooklyn Cruiser, Heritage Bikes and Pappillionnaire.

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  14. Old rod-brake Roadsters are charming old things, dont'ya think? I would really enjoy a chance to ride a real "High Nelly". I've wondered whether there were ever "High Nelsons" or if the breed is all step-through ladies types. A "mens" version probably wouldn't look as nice since the high bars over a level top-tube would look out of proportion but the "Ladies" type has nice pleasing lines.

    I have a few old 28" rod-brake Roadsters and really like the stately posture and attitude, people wonder why I like them so much until they ride them and experience the unexpected mental recalibration that comes from rolling around at high-ish speeds on a good one.

    I just picked up an especially lovely old step-through Raleigh DL1, the chrome and paint are the nicest of any I've had so far and the brakes are the nicest too with tight joints and pivots. I wish it didn't make my Mom's old bike look so horrible in comparison. I'll have to find it a new home eventually but for now we've started calling her Nelly and put her in the fleet. My daughter Caroline says she feels like she's riding a broom when she rides it because it's a perfect witches bicycle.

    Spindizzy

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  15. Oh, how I love seeing photos of these beautiful bikes! I have a 1932 model identical to yours and it is a wonderful ride. I've ridden it on 20-25 miles rides with hills with very little effort--it just has a sweep and glide about it that makes it very comfortable.

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    1. That's impressive! My 1936 is not in good enough condition to ride, but some day!

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  16. I have heard the bar style as on your older DL-1" called "Sit up and Beg"

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  17. I often used to read about High Nelly bicycles in stories in Ireland's Own magazine, so I'm guessing the name was current among the rural and small town dwellers at whom the magazine is principally aimed. I never heard anyone in Dublin use it. I see from the Irish Independent that someone has tracked down the old bicycle, described as a High Nelly, used by the legendary figure Michael Collins to get around Dublin incognito during the War of Independence. There's a photograph of him with it. It's a man's frame with two parallel top tubes, like some current Opafiets designs, and a steeply-raked head tube. It must have weighed a ton, but I bet it gave a very smooth ride. I've made some enquiries about the origins of the name High Nelly, and I'll report back should any plausible explanation reach me.

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  18. I sent an email to the good folks at highnelly.ie where they still make these traditional bikes in Ireland. They also supply a range of spares, such as replica Raleigh handlebars and rod brake components, rod brake wheel rims, etc. They say they get asked the origin of the term High Nelly quite a lot. Seems it goes back to the days when most people in Ireland only had a bicycle for transport, and you'd see dozens of bikes parked outside dance halls and sporting events. At a dance, it was a favourite chat-up line to tell a girl you had your bike outside, and could offer her a lift home on the crossbar (as everybody called the top tube in those days). In the early hours of the morning, men would be seen pedalling their way along the boreens and by-roads with a young lady perched on the crossbar, and hence quite high up. Nelly was just a generic name for a girl whose name you didn't know, as Paddy was for a man. It was incumbent on anybody who was out and about in the early hours, and witnessed this spectacle, to shout "High Nelly" at the cyclists. Seems as good an explanation as any.

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  19. Big fan of the DL-1. Have several including a prized (and apparently increasingly rare) ladies model. I always thought the ladies model came in one size - essentially a 24" frame with the seat post cut down. (There doesn't seem to be enough head tube to attach the curvy upper down tube on a 22" frame). Does there exist, as you refer to, a 22" ladies DL-1? Would be most interested to know of this animal.

    ------- JAT

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