Cycling Sources #2- ‘A Tyranny of the Road’, Part One

The 1890s was not only the period when ‘Britain fell in Love with Cycling’. The increasing number of cyclists, combined with the increasing speeds they could travel, gave birth to strong feelings of opposition to ‘wheelers’, particularly from their fellow road users. Stories frequently appeared in newspapers describing desperado cyclists who would crash into people before hurrying off into the distance. One member of the Tottenham Cycling Club bemoaned the fact that,

‘A great portion of the non-riding public seem to think that it is one of the pleasures of cycling to knock some old woman down and then ride off.’

Cartoon from ‘The Picture Magazine’, Source:

This ill feeling towards cyclists was on show in a series of letters which appeared in The Times from 1892. The letter below was the first to appear in the newspaper, and gave rise to a series of responses in which the activities of cyclists were discussed under the heading, ‘A Tyranny of the Road’. In his letter the writer, named ‘pedestrian’, commented how,

‘To many a business of professional man a walk along the green lanes of outer London or the pleasant main roads affords their only means of obtaining healthy and necessary exercise. This will soon become an impossibility, or, at all events, an extremely hazardous pastime, if the gentlemen of the wheel are allowed to continue their present style of racing along at the rate of 20 miles or more an hour, not to speak of hill descents, when it is the practice of a number of them, spread across the road, to rush down at headlong speed, more like a horde of Apaches or Sioux Indians, conches shrieking and bells going; and woe betide the luckless man or aught else coming in their way.’

Such a letter invited responses, and responses it got. Cycling, complained how one correspondent caricatured the average cyclist as,

‘A bloodthirsty desperado speeding on with dire and determined intent to slaughter men, women and children in his wild career.’

One particularly memorable letter in came from ‘two sisters’, who would often encounter cyclists on their walks out of London. It would appear they did not relish these occasions. They stated that,

‘In addition to the troubles mentioned by your correspondents of the other sex, there is another which only women experience in connection with these cycling, ‘tyrants of the road’. It is fast becoming impossible to take one’s exercise on any of the high roads leading out of London…on account of the bands of these young men on wheels who seem to be trying their best to turn one’s walk from pleasure into a penance. From ‘E.A.P.’s’ letter in defence of the cyclists, it would seem they are a mild and inoffensive class of men taking their pleasure in a mild and inoffensive manner; but, on the contrary, to become a cyclist apparently transforms an ordinary young middle-class Englishman into an active member of an unruly mob which it is fast becoming impossible to ignore.’

‘There is no law or order amongst them, and there is no attempt to keep to one side of the road. They come swirling along, sometimes 12 abreast, shouting to each other, or openly making remarks upon any ladies whom they happen to pass. Very often they do not even content themselves with bearing straight down upon one with overwhelming suddenness, but solitary cyclists will occasionally amuse themselves by adopting a serpentine coarse from one side of the road to the other, thus leaving a pedestrian undecided as to which way it is safest for her to take, and often obliging to retreat almost into the hedge until they have gone on their way laughing at her discomfiture. In a case like this a woman is powerless to do anything except look annoyed, which only increases their delight.’

File:Vélodrome Parc des Princes.jpg

Not who you would want to encounter on a quiet country walk

‘One of the causes of congratulation of the present day is that, as a rule, young Englishwoman can go for walks alone without attracting any special attention from men. This, however, is being rapidly changed by the cyclists. We may say that, in the course of numerous long walks, it is only the cyclists who have caused us annoyance. They make a point of trying to attract attention in unexpected ways, one of which is to let off a perfect volley of unnecessary alarm signals, and when off one’s guard for the moment one does happen to look up; the result is an impertinent leer and some silly and frivolous remark of a topical character such as, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.’ (See British Cyclists in the Land of the Monsoo for more Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-aying).

‘There was a time when the attitude of cyclists was unobtrusive and even apologetic; this was when their number was comparatively small. Now, however, possibly in accordance with the proverb, ‘L’union fait la force (unity is strength) their recreation, the healthful advantage of which all are willing to allow, has degenerated into a veritable, ‘tyranny of the road.’

What could pedestrians do to defend themselves from such cyclists? Travel in groups? Contact a policeman? One individual who wrote in had developed an altogether more assertive method. The writer, signing as ‘self-help’, described how,

‘I always carry a good strong stick, with an iron point, and when a cyclist comes ringing his bell and expecting me to get out of his way, I hold my stick out to receive him. He sometimes laughs, and he sometimes swears, but he always takes good care not to run upon my stick.’

Perhaps drivers who don’t check their mirrors aren’t so bad after all.


3 thoughts on “Cycling Sources #2- ‘A Tyranny of the Road’, Part One

  1. Fascinating! But of course nowadays cyclists are at the bottom of the food chain, competing with motor vehicles, as pedestrians no longer exist along the roads (at least, not here in North Carolina where I live).


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

  3. Pingback: Cycling Sources #7- ‘New Rules for Cyclists’ | The Victorian cyclist

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