Mention the name ‘Broadbent’ and ‘map’ in the same sentence and you will immediately invite some lively discussion amongst trial and rally competitors on Australia’s eastern seaboard.

Opinion is divided equally between those who love the endless traps and map errors than can be found and used on a Broadbents map in navigational events, and those who loathe its vagaries and difficult scale that makes finding one’s way more than a challenge. But love them or loathe them, Broadbents maps have been used for longer than most of us care to remember and are still in use (albeit not as much) 110 years since the first map was released.

The passage of time and the evolution of rallying has meant that the use of maps to find one’s way around the country is much less necessary today than it was in the infancy of motoring after the turn of the century. In the early 1900s when people were just beginning to buy motorcars for recreational use, much of Australia was unknown to all except those who regularly travelled what passed for all-weather roads. Where once a horse and gig were the average means of transport, the new, modern motorcar opened up access to areas never before traversed, far in excess of anywhere a horse and cart could hope to reach.

As a result of the introduction of motorcars and the extension of the road network both in the city and the country, it became necessary to introduce a series of maps that would cover the sorts of areas that travellers, both commercial and recreational, would be likely to visit. In Victoria this challenge was taken up by George Broadbent, a cycling champion with an interest in mapping, and who successfully combined the two.

Over the years the art of serious navigation and map reading has been restricted to just three states – Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria, with Victoria currently still relying heavily on the navigational content of events to find a winner in many ‘trials’ or rallies. This is not to say that navigational events did not occur in other states, for indeed they did, but that the other states mentioned seemed to embrace the useage of maps for a much greater time.

The name ‘Broadbent’ is synonymous with maps and mapping in Victoria, thanks to the efforts of George Broadbent, a Geelong-born cyclist record-holder, who produced from 1896 the most comprehensive and detailed maps of that state until his death in October 1947, more than half a century later. That wasn’t the end of Broadbent and his maps, though, as his son had taken over map production in 1945.

George Robert Broadbent was born at Ashby, Geelong, in 1863, the son of George Adam and Elizabeth Broadbent. Broadbent senior was a draper and when the family moved to North Melbourne, the younger George Broadbent followed his father’s footsteps by joining him in the drapery shop and later taking up cycling and cycle racing.

Cycling was very much in vogue in the Broadbent family and George junior soon started making a name for himself in cycling events, at various times holding most Victorian and Australian road cycling records. Two of his performances, on bikes with solid tyres when he covered 203 miles (327 kilometres) in 24 hours on a penny farthing, and 100 miles (161 kilometres) in 6 hours and 27 minutes, were never bettered. He held numerous other records as well, establishing records for all distances between 130 and 220 miles, and for all times between eight and 12 hours at the Exhibition Grounds track in 1894. The Australian Cyclist named him “the finest road rider that Australia has ever produced.”

In 1896 Broadbent, a prolific cyclist, issued his first road map ‘prepared after some sixteen years riding and touring in all parts of the Colony.’ This map included general topography, distances and a description of the condition of the roads – good, fair, or ridden with difficulty. It went on to become Victoria’s standard map and was the start of a continuous publishing program by Broadbent’s Official Road Guides Co.

But the question remains – how did Broadbent acquire the information required in the publication of his maps? As mentioned above, George Broadbent regularly cycled all over the eastern states and elsewhere documenting distances, towns, topographical features and so on that he could apply to his maps. This would have taken much time, would have required him to ride huge distances to cover every road and track that was thought significant enough to warrant inclusion, and involved much expense and time away from home in all weathers.

It would be easy to think that all his mapping was done on his bike, but the reality is that it would have been physically impossible, without even considering the scope of such a task in other states outside Victoria. His biography claims that he bought a steam-driven motorcar in 1898 – did he use that to record his cartography? Probably unlikely, given its unsuitability for travel outside of the city, but he may have had a later model vehicle after the turn of the century which would have been more suitable.

The outbreak of war and the subsequent petrol rationing on two occasions would also have seen his mapping activities curtailed because of the necessity for the government to introduce rationing and the production of motor vehicles.

The George Broadbent story is an intriguing one that leaves many questions unanswered, especially from the mapping perspective. What is a fact is that while much of his work was surprisingly accurate, there were (as navigators were to find out later on) many inaccuracies that became apparent not only at the kitchen table when navigators were plotting, but out in the field as well.

Not surprisingly, trial and rally directors have blessed Broadbent maps when setting navigational events, while navigators have cursed them while trying to find their way through maps with a very large scale and full of errors. Even as late as the early 1950s, Broadbent was churning out more and more regional maps – one map book I picked up recently included 50 maps covering eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales, as far north as Sydney!

Whatever the true story, Broadbent’s famoust 321C (Western Half of Victoria) and 321D (Eastern half) must have been used in desperation more times than anyone could possibly imagine and, in many cases, are still causing navigators plenty of frustration today.

Broadbent’s story poses more questions than it answers in an age when even attempting today to drive every road covered by his many maps in a modern, go anywhere vehicle, would be a marathon task. In his prime he must have been one of the most familiar travellers on roads all around the country. And that’s no mean effort on a bike.

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