A Difficult Relationship- Victorian Cyclists and the Police, Part One

It is fair to say that cyclists and the police did not get on in Victorian Britain. In a period before motor vehicles cyclists were often the fastest road users on British roads, which meant they represented a much greater hazard to pedestrians and others using Britain’s highways. As such the police took a particular zeal in stopping cyclists who they viewed as breaking the law and being a danger to other road users. In turn, cyclists felt a strong resentment towards the ‘tyranny’ and ‘injustice’ they felt they often experienced at the hands of the police.

There were two main reasons why the police would stop a cyclist for breaking the law. The first was cycling without a lamp after ‘lighting up’ time. Every week ‘lighting up’ times were published in newspapers and cycling magazines, which told cyclists the time after which they were legally required to cycle with a light on their bicycles. If they did not have a light they were liable to be stopped and fined by the police.

Cyclists did not so much complain about this, as the manner in which they were stopped. For a policeman in the 1890s, stopping a cyclist posed a much greater problem than it would today. This was due to the simple reason that the police had no means of going faster than the cyclists travelling past them; if a fast moving cyclist went past a policeman and ignored their call to stop there was not a lot a policeman could do except wave their fist angrily as the cyclist disappeared into the sunset.

As such some policeman developed rather extreme methods of bringing to a halt cyclists who were travelling without lamps. In 1897 the Leeds Express reported on the case of a cyclist who prosecuted a policeman for assault after the policeman ‘stopped’ him for riding at night without a light. The cyclist was travelling along a quiet road at night, when he suddenly encountered a policeman, who,

‘In his zeal for due enforcement of the lighting up law, gave no warning whatsoever, but rushed suddenly out of a gap in the hedge and laid violent hands on the rider.’

This left the cyclist rather shaken and badly injured; however his case for assault was dismissed by the magistrate. Similarly, one cyclist writing into Cycling in 1894 described how,

‘Two friends and myself were returning from Ripley last night, on a tandem and a single. When we reached Ditton Marsh a plain clothes police officer (No.65) rushed into the road, at the same time catching hold of the handlebars of the tandem, throwing us off. He went through this idiotic and dangerous performance because, in his opinion, our light was not giving ‘sufficient’ light. We said he was exceeding his duty. ‘65’ thought otherwise, and said he would stop us or any other cyclist whose lamp was not giving ‘sufficient’ light.’

New York Cycling policeman in the 1890s (I could not find any British examples) (source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/1895-new-york-police-bicycle-squad.jpg)

There were of course other ways of bringing cyclists to a halt. Rather than tackling machines and riders to the ground, police would sometimes use the less violent method of a road block. Again,  in a period before cars, the police needed to use more novel methods for blocking the road.

One article in the Leeds Express described how a constable on horseback, standing side on in the middle of the road, was used to stop law breaking cyclists passing through.  Another stated how the police would buckle a couple of their capes together and hold them at arm’s length across the road. The article described in positive terms how being stopped by this method allowed cyclist to jump off their machines backward, and so avoid being roughly manhandled to the ground.

Not so gentle were the methods reported in the Bristol Mercury, which stated that it was necessary to,

‘Point out to thoughtful policemen that there are certain dangers attached to the rough and ready method adopted in many places of stopping cyclists with a stick.’

Elaborating on how sticks were used to stop cyclists, the article commented that,

‘We are sure that though a policeman uses a stick to stop a cyclist he has no intention of making an extemporary brake of it by placing it through the wheels. He simply puts it in front of the machine or the cyclist as a sign that the rider must stop, and does not think of the dangers of the proceeding. It is the easiest thing imaginable, however, if the cyclist disregards the signal, for the stick to become mixed up with the machine, to catch in the wheel or some other part, with the result that a serious accident occurs.’

After reading accounts such as these, it is easy to find yourself picturing Victorian policeman not those seen in the images above, but as the duo below.


One thought on “A Difficult Relationship- Victorian Cyclists and the Police, Part One

  1. Pingback: ‘Bicycles Against the Traffic’, Part One | The Victorian cyclist

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