Cycling Sources #2- A Tyranny of the Road, Part Two

It was not only pedestrians whose lives were made more dangerous by cyclists. Horse riders and those using horse drawn vehicles used the debate in The Times to write in and complain about how speeding cyclists were a menace to their and their horse’s safety. One correspondent commented how,

‘It may be observed on any high road, near any important town, at any time of general meeting of cyclists, that a stream of riders will spread themselves across a road, some-one among them steering directly for the head of an approaching horse until close quarters are reached, and then sheering off, giving an instance of dexterity and adding yet another excitement to the interest of the ride of himself and his companions. Little he knows of the anxiety of the driver, first as to whether his horse will stand the close approach of a machine which he does not readily get accustomed to, and the second trouble to the driver is whether the dexterity may be sufficient to avoid a serious collision.’

‘In every grade of life we meet with people who regard but little the safety and comfort of their neighbours. Cyclists seem to have a full proportion of these, and it is already a question with owners of nervous horses whether they will not have to part with them, rendered unserviceable and dangerous from the habits of the riders alluded to.’

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Cyclists and horses not getting on (and interesting which of the two cyclists is blamed for this?) Source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/sims/

The reputation cyclists had for upsetting horses can be seen in Cycling’s response to the letters in The Times, which stated,

‘We impress upon all our readers the necessity of politeness and forbearance with pedestrians, equestrians, and other users of the highway, and we also impress upon them the necessity and safety of the exercise of care when passing horses.’

However, not all horse riders viewed cyclists unfavourably. One individual who wrote into The Times described how,

‘I am a horse rider and not a cyclist, but I must say that I have never had occasion to complain of the conduct of cyclists when on the road. This is possibly because I do not share the opinion that the roads are the private property of horse-owners. Some time ago I was riding a nervous mare, when a bicycle passed me, and she shied at it, as she would have done at a cock-sparrow. The cyclist at once stopped and apologised, although he was absolutely without blame. I said, ‘My dear fellow, don’t apologise; you have done nothing; it is I that should apologise to you for bringing a bad-mannered horse on the public road.’

If only such sentences were given utterance nowadays.

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Cyclists and horses getting on more happily. Source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/sims/

One particularly contentious issue in this period was which class of riders were responsible for cycling’s poor reputation? One correspondent provided a very definite answer. They described how,

‘During the last 10 or 15 years I have noticed that the nuisance of the irresponsible cyclist gets worse every year. Formerly no one without means and education became a wheelman, but not everyone who can get together a few shillings a month can get one on the hire system. I do not find fault with that, but the class who do so are not, as a rule, attached to any recognised or responsible club, and never learn and practise the rules enforced by such clubs.’

However, such a theory did not bare up to reality. As the ‘two sisters’ mentioned in part one, it was ‘young middle-class Englishmen’ who resembled an ‘unruly mob’ whilst cycling. Rather than members of cycling clubs conforming to the rules of the road, it would appear that it was often the activities of these clubs which damaged cycling’s reputation. Cycling’s response to the letters in The Times commented how,

‘The wheelman-whom we will call selfish for want of a better term- is apt to show an impolite and an unnecessary impatience with pedestrians. He imagines that a ring from his bell, or a screech from his abominable horn, much perforce clear the highway in front of traffic and humanity alike.’

‘We regret very much to state it, but such is the case, that wheel clubs are as a rule the greatest offenders in this respect. We have frequently noticed that on the club run out of London the men will spread across the road four, five, and sometimes six abreast. It is granted that on an obstruction appearing in front the men will close in, but there is, as a rule, a ringing of bells and as a general, ‘you-must-get-out-of-our-way-can’t-you-see-us-coming’ sort of demeanour, which looks like an attempted monopoly, and is, undoubtedly, aggressive in the eyes of the public. The clubs must mend their ways in this respect, or we shall be having all sorts of unpleasantly binding regulations brought to bear on the cycler.’

This issue, that middle-class cyclists would damage the reputation of the pastime by behaving in a manner totally at odds with middle-class values such as politeness, decorum and self-control, cropped up continuously throughout the 1890s. The ways in which cycling journals negotiated this issue reveals much about late-Victorian class structure, for as in the letter above the blame was often shifted onto those cyclists who could only get together ‘a few shillings a month’. This will be a blog for another day, but to finish I will leave you with the figure who cycling journals blamed for the poor reputation of the pastime. His name? ‘Arry.

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5 thoughts on “Cycling Sources #2- A Tyranny of the Road, Part Two

  1. I used to ride horseback with a group in a park that had trails shared with cyclists. (This was Great Falls National Park not far from Washington D.C., a really nice park in our national system here in the U.S.) No matter how well-behaved the horse was, it would generally go into a panic if a cyclist rode past. I finally realized that there was something about the size and the speed of the approaching cyclist that affected the horse on an instinctive level, as being similar to the size and gait of an attacking predator—think lion or tiger moving along, ready to pounce! This may sound funny, but I am convinced something like this was going on.

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    • Haha, there might be something in it! I’ve never had too many problems with horses cycling on roads in the countryside, maybe being overtaken by cars makes cyclists seem less scary. Have had a quick google of Great Falls National Park and it looks amazing, must be a fantastic place for horse riding and cycling!

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      • I am glad you explored information about Great Falls National Park. It is a wonderful place. My family lived on the border of the park for many years. There was a catastrophic event in 1972 with Hurricane Agnes. I remember walking down to the park and seeing picnic tables stuck in the upper branches of the trees, due to the incredibly high water level of the Potomac River at that point. I’m sure most people who visit this site are British. I would just say that you might still find it interesting to visit this place in America. And please contact me personally if I can do anything to help you if you venture to this side of the ocean. I would love to help.

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      • Sounds incredible, don’t get many events like that here in the UK! I’ve actually had quite a few more American visitors than British ones actually, I clearly need to do more pestering of my family and friends! And thank you for the offer of help- have no plans to head over at the moment but will let you know if I do

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

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