Cycling Sources #6, ‘Spoiling for Spring’

Back in the 1890s, the average cyclist had even more reasons to look forward to spring than his or her modern counterpart. In the winter most of Britain’s un-tarmacked roads turned into muddy quagmires, which at best made cycling more difficult, and at worse nigh on impossible. The coming of spring (in theory) signalled a period when dry, easterly winds and warmer weather again made British roads hospitable for cycling. With the clocks going forward today, there seems no better time to publish this article from Cycling, which first appeared in 1894.

‘It is just about this time of year that a great craving for spring comes over the cycling world. With all the seasons except spring the change is so gentle and imperceptible that it causes no great commotion; we even glide into winter with comparative equanimity, and write the worn and subverted quotation, ‘now is the winter of our discontent’, rather from time honoured custom than any real feeling.’

About to enjoy some (not too muddy) roads. Source:

‘There is no such Platonic sentiment about a cyclist’s craving for spring; weary with winter, and particularly with such a soft road winter as the one we are at present suffering from, his craving is that of real hunger, that haunting visions fan into mad desire for the day of dry roads and sunshine. We all, even the least imaginative of us, have more or less clear glimpses of these visions,- dry, brisk winds that come charging along over the fields and the commons, licking up every drop of moisture from the sodden roads, turning the heavy surface into dust as fine as flour, lifting it, and throwing it about in its mad glee.’

‘Budding trees, that strew the land with a fairy tracery of delicate green, and border the roads with one long repeated promise of summer glory. Frisking lambs, crying on the hills; birds announcing tunefully with from every wood and hedge, that winter is going, so that even the blind may know; and over all, the brilliant sun, growing in strength and majesty every day.’

Henry Ward Ranger, ‘Spring Woods’ circa 1895-1900

‘It is then that the most played-out rider feels something of his early zeal, that the club-run is best attended, that riding is most consciously the best,  the most delightful pleasure in the world. May these days quickly come; may the sharp east wind blow its fiercest and do its noble work, may the sun shine long and brightly, and tempt with its blandishments the lady primroses forth, for even the mud plugging there cometh satiety at the last, and we are all spoiling for spring.’

Cyclist from 1897 (perhaps spoiling for spring). Source:

‘Bicycles Against the Traffic’, Part Two

It was not only horse-drawn vehicles who cyclists had uneasy meetings with in the 1890s. Cyclists’ encounters with pedestrians on Britain’s roads had the potential to be equally awkward and difficult. Again, this ‘uneasy relationship’ often resulted from the less than ‘respectable’ behaviours of cyclists. As previously explored, a series of letters appeared in The Times in 1892 discussing the ‘tyrannical’ behaviours of cyclists on British roads. The letter which sparked this debate bemoaned 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.’

‘Two sisters’ also wrote into The Times to explain how cyclists not only terrorised business men taking their country strolls. They commented how,

‘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.’

Other cyclists certainly took more care when meeting pedestrians. However pedestrians were, as a body, a difficult group to please. One member of the Tottenham Cycling Club explained how on a Saturday morning ride upon approaching a party of pedestrians he would ring his bell, only to hear,

‘All right, hold yer blooming bell, plenty of room for you ain’t there?’

This meant the next time he would ring his bell, only to be asked,

‘Why don’t you ring your blooming bell? ‘E art ter be locked up.’

However these difficulties were nothing compared to what some other cyclists had to endure. One of the dangers of being a cyclist in the 1890s was, according to the cycling press, encountering gangs of ‘roughs’ on the roads, who would take pleasure in assaulting and attacking cyclists who they happened to meet. The activities of ‘roughs’, and the language used to describe them, does occasionally give them the feel of two well-known characters from Wacky Races. In 1897 Cycling described receiving,

‘Accounts of the attempted wrecking of cycles, by means of timber placed across the road, and by drawing string and rope across, so as to cause disaster’, and bemoaned the fact that,

‘There will always be found a number of roughs who delight in any cowardly and knavish tricks, and unfortunately they are once more paying their evil attention to cyclists.’

Moreover, ‘roughs’ did not only delight in these ‘cowardly and knavish tricks’. Cycling provided a number of accounts of how groups of men would assault cyclists, most often in the evening on quiet country roads. Despite the seriousness of these assaults, descriptions of them within Cycling did often possess more than a shade of the theatrical. One letter described how,

‘I would warn cyclists to beware of Shirley (on Sunday evening), on the Sevenoaks Road. Last night, as the West Croydon C.C. were riding by Shirley Inn a set of cads ran out into the road and pulled the last man off his machine, doing considerable damage, smashing his lamp and cutting his hands and wrists in several places; where upon five of us went back to see what was the matter, and then about a dozen of these roughs set on to us, with the result that one came away with two black eyes, and three more with one each. The third one ran into the inn and asked for help, but the landlord caught him by the throat, and, with three others, threw him in the road.’

Venturing out to meet who knows what? Source:

Even more dramatic was a description of an assault in 1895, where Cycling commented how,

‘On Sunday last a group of roughs had a useful little lesson in politeness and common decency, on the road near Riddlesdown. They came marching along, right across the road, defiantly blocking the way to a small party of cyclists that included one lady and four fellows. The leading cyclist cleared a road by charging one of the roughs, and upon one of the other cyclists remarking that it served him right, the anger of the mob was aroused.’

‘One ran after the party, but did not appear over pleased at finding the cyclists slow up for him, as he fondly expected. The cyclists dismounted and the rough’s companions came up, and appear to have had a keen desire to fight Yeoman to the death, possibly because he looked the smallest and weakest of the party. Yeoman, however, had not been learning for boxing for nothing, and was soon showing the cowardly crew that they had made a serious error of judgement. S.F. Edge, not caring to see Yeoman have all the fun, was also soon busy, and in a very short time the bullies were slinking off; their chief with two cheeks cut open. It is, of course, a nuisance to have to do it, but this sort of thing is the best- the only way- to insure for cyclists decent treatment from louts of this stamp.’

Reading this account, in which ‘Yeoman’ and ‘S.F. Edge’ are presented as men who take justice into their own hands by fighting ‘cowardly crews’ in slightly comical boxing matches, does, in my mind at least, give them a certain resemblance to the crime fighting duo below.

1966 Batman and Robin

‘Bicycles Against the Traffic’, Part One

After last week’s look at those issues cyclists campaigned for in the 1890s, the next couple of blogs will explore another area with other obvious modern parallels- cyclists relationships with other road users. As previous blogs have suggested (‘A Tyranny of the Road Part One and Part Two), they did not always get along happily (this was also mirrored in their relationship with the police, more on that here).

There were two main groups who cyclists shared the roads with in this period: horse drawn vehicles and pedestrians. Cyclists were by no means impeccable in their conduct with either of these groups. Those cyclists who ‘scorched’ and cycled in a fast and competitive manner were often criticised in the cycling and the wider press for startling horses and pedestrians. One member of the Hull St. Andrews C.C. commented that,

‘The effect of these scorching propensities is to frighten horses, startle people out of their wits, and cause numerous accidents of more or less consequence. If people wish to cycle for pleasure they adopt a moderate pace and cause injury and annoyance to nobody.’

Cyclist and a horse getting along more happily. Source:

Some cycling clubs looked to ‘uphold the reputation of the pastime’ by making sure their members cycled in an orderly, courteous manner. On ‘club runs’ certain clubs would be led by a captain and sub-captain, who controlled their member’s behaviour with a military-like discipline. Reading the Canterbury Cycling Club’s handbook for members from 1893-94, you might be forgiven for thinking they regularly ventured into dangerous, unknown and hostile lands, not the Kent countryside. A few of the rules stated that:

  1. That in all Club Runs the Captain shall lead, and no-one shall be allowed to pass him without his permission.
  1. That the Captain shall have entire control during all runs, and (for the safety of the public) the power of compelling members to slacken speed or dismount when passing horses &c.
  1. The Sub-Captain in all runs shall keep to the rear and look after stragglers, but in the absence of the Captain, shall take his place, nominating his own Sub-Captain for the time being.
  1. Any member desiring to fall out must report himself to the Captain or Sub-Captain.

As well as this, the captain possessed a whistle which he would use to communicate orders to members. The handbook revealed the different instructions indicated by different blasts of the whistle,

One- Mount, also proceed slowly

Two- Dismount

Three- Go-ahead

One long and two short- Single File

The same blown twice- Double File

Members of a Cycling Club from a slightly later period. Source:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some clubs were less strict in controlling the behaviours of their members. One letter into Cycling in 1894 vividly described the transformation of his friend ‘Juggins’ after he went on a Saturday run with his club. The writer explained how ‘Juggins’ is,

‘Something of the city, a very nice, affable fellow of good attainments, well-read, a thoroughly good companion for a walking tour or a cruise, in brief, to all intents and purposes, a gentleman. But when Juggins, shortly after mid-day on Saturday, dons his cycling clothes, he undergoes the transformation so well illustrated in the case of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ By the time he has ridden five miles, and warmed to the exercise, his thin veneer of civilisation drops off. He harks back to some low ancestor- in a word he becomes little better than a savage.’

‘You, Mr Editor, can meet Juggins on every main road leading out of London every week-end. He, and his club companions, ‘spread-eagle’ the road, and not only insult the pedestrian, but do not spare their fellow cyclist who happens to be in their way, although Juggins always rides on the wrong side. This is not an overdrawn picture.’

Cyclists clearly then were by no means impeccable in their behaviour towards other road users. This was recognised by an article in the Leeds Express, which commented that,

‘Cyclists, as a body, are by no means impeccable, either on the score of manners, consideration for others, or capacity to manage their metal steeds’.

However, the article also argued that, ‘cads are not only on castors’, and explained how,

‘In a narrow part of a road or lane, or at some awkward spot, some drivers, even of large and bulky vehicles, will hold very steadily to the centre of the road, or even incline slightly to the wrong side, with evident glee in the possible embarrassment of the oncoming cyclist, whose margin of safety is thus ill-naturedly reduced. There is almost a tacit plot amongst drivers of a certain disposition and type to ‘bore’ the wheelman to the very side of the road.’

It was whilst in cities that cyclists had most reason to complain about other road users. One letter into Cycling in 1899 asked the editor to,

‘Allow me to call your attention to what I consider the greatest danger to cyclists (especially from the City Westwards), that is the hansom cab. He cares not where he drives, or whom he runs down, so long as he gets along. Plenty of insolence with it also. Omnibuses and four-wheelers and all other vehicles are law abiding and respectful; but the hansom cabs are far worse than scorchers, as they don’t care for the rules of the road or anyone; even the policeman gives them a rest.’

‘They are without doubt the worse phase of road traffic, and the sooner the authorities stop them the better. I myself am constantly through the City and the West End, and am constantly being pushed and crushed out of line by them. I maintain that cyclists are the most correct of any traffic on the roads, and that is why they are not popular with the hansoms.’

A couple of weeks later another letter appeared which responded to the one above, painting a similarly bad picture, but this time of all horse-drawn vehicles who cyclists shared the roads with. The letter’s author explained how,

‘I ride to and from the city every day, through the most crowded parts, and am constantly coming across evidence of the cabby’s selfishness and contempt for cyclists.’

‘I cannot, however, agree with your correspondent when he says that omnibuses and four-wheelers and all other vehicles are law abiding and respectful. There are many cases quite as bad, if not worse than the hansom cab. They go round on the right of trams and other vehicles, taking no notice of cyclists or others who happen to be coming in the opposite direction, on the left of the road. The cyclist must move for the cab, ‘bus, or whatever the law breaking vehicle may happen to be, or else suffer the consequences of a collision, and as the latter is nearly always more or less expensive and painful than getting out of the offending vehicle’s way, the consequence is that cabmen and others know that cyclists will move for them, and they take advantage accordingly.’

There is undoubtedly an air of timelessness in quotes such as the one above. As someone once (sort of) said

‘And so we cycle on, bicycles against the traffic, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Campaigning Cyclists

For those interested in such things, the UK’s first ever national cycling and walking debate which took place earlier this week (you can find out more about it here: After reading around the issues discussed, you could be forgiven for seeing the 1890s as a golden age for cyclists. This was a period when cyclists were by far and away the largest body of road users. Free from dangerous junctions and, for the most part, busy roads, what issues could they possibly need to bring up with politicians?

Quite a few actually. Throughout the 1890s the Cyclists’ Touring Club, backed by the wider cycling press, campaigned for changes on a wide range of issues, all far removed from the debate which took place last Monday.

One particularly prominent issue for cyclists in this period was meeting other road users at night. Whilst this might not sound like much of a problem, there were no laws enforcing non-cyclists to have lights on their vehicles. For those cyclists sharing unlit country roads with horse drawn vehicles, this sometimes presented itself as an issue. The following letter appeared in Cycling in 1891:

‘Sir-Cannot something be done to enforce drivers of vehicles to carry lights, the same as cyclists who are compelled to, especially in country places, where there is always a scarcity of road lamps? On Thursday evening I was riding in Bexley from Foots Cray, when a man driving a fast-trotting cob harnessed to a light dogcart, without lights, came round the sharp curve by Bexley Church on the wrong side of the road, and having no time to get out of the way, the cob and trap came into collision with my bicycle, luckily doing no damage beyond smashing my lamp and bruising me a little.’

Horses and dogcarts: Not what you want to meet around a dark corner. Source:

You might expect the driver to be apologetic to the cyclist. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. The writer explained,

‘Of course there was the usual argument, which ended in the man refusing to give his name and threatening violence; and as there was no policeman to prevent him, he drove off, and I, having no light, was unable to follow him.’

Strange to say, it could have been even worse for the cyclist. In 1898 the Leeds Express reported on the case of a cyclist, who, after colliding with a horse dealer found himself being attacked by the driver and his whip after he asked for his name and address (maybe cars, with their headlights and their whipless owners aren’t so bad after all).

However, despite much agitation, both by the cycling press and the Cyclists’ Touring Club, by 1900 there were still no universal lights law. The second area in which cyclists campaigned for change was in relation to railway companies. For many cyclists in this period, especially those going on holiday, part of their journey involved a railway journey in which their bicycles were stored in general luggage compartments at the back of trains.

Cyclists had two main complaints about their experiences of rail journeys. The first was cost- English rail companies charged far more for storing cycles than any other cycling nation. However, cyclists would more frequently complain about the manner in which their bicycles were stored in train’s luggage compartments. Because train companies did not make special provisions for storing bicycles, this meant they were often crammed in with other items of luggage. As an article in Cycling explained,

‘In the matter of accommodation cycles are at present placed with other luggage and it is a common occurrence for cycles to be stacked together. So little consideration for the safe carriage of cycles is shown that many are rendered unrideable by the end of the journey, and the majority are scratched or damaged in some way.’

On top of this, most rail companies accepted no costs for damages done to machines. An article in cycling, commenting on the poor relationships between cyclists and train companies, described how,

‘It sometimes happens that a cyclist has to place himself at the mercy of the railway company. Whether going on tour, on benighted, or storm overtaken, or broken-down, it is an evil day for both man and machine, for verily he must have many shekels who can face the charges for the bike and the damages thereto. They give you a little piece of paper, printed on the back with some infernal nonsense about ‘the act of God and the Queen’s enemies, and this absolving themselves of any legal responsibility, proceed to pile milk-cans and packing cases on the top of the unoffending bike.’

Although there was a slight reduction in rates for cyclists in 1893, train companies did very little to provide better facilities for bicycles during this period, much to the annoyance of cyclists such as the one above. However, there was an issue which cyclists successfully campaigned on. Despite many proposals, no tax was placed on cycling and cyclists in this period (which continues to this day, long may it continue!)

Surprisingly, this was the one issue which actually divided cyclists. Some thought that by paying a tax cyclists would increase their status and standing in relation to other road users, and that the money raised might be used on improving roads. The issue was also a class one, with some wealthier cyclists arguing that a tax would effectively remove the rougher, lower class cyclists who they claimed were damaging the good name and ‘respectability’ of the sport (more on this another time).

Despite these arguments, cycling remained an activity which you did not need to pay a tax to enjoy. Those campaigning against a cycle tax benefited from having the support of high ranking politicians. In 1893 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, replying to proposals to tax cyclists stated that,

‘I have no sympathy with the proposals which have been made in various quarters for levying a tax upon cyclists. In my view cycling has afforded opportunities for healthy enjoyment and facilities for business purposes which are highly advantageous to large classes of the community, whose restricted means exclude them from more expensive methods of locomotion. Many thousands of persons with small incomes are thus enabled to obtain fresh air and exercise, and to escape from the influences of large towns, and also to carry on with less labour and fatigue their ordinary occupations. I see with satisfaction in the delightful part of the country in which I live that vast numbers of people are capable of enjoying its beauties to an extent which in former times was impracticable. I regard cycling as a cheap, a healthy and a useful pleasure, and I have no difficulty in assuring you that, so long as I have any responsibility in the matter, it is the last thing I should be taxing.’


Sir William Harcourt