‘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: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2012_01_01_archive.html

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

7 thoughts on “‘Bicycles Against the Traffic’, Part Two

  1. Those “roughs” sound really vicious. I wonder why they were so antagonistic toward the cyclists. You’ve had something to say before about the reasons folks were opposed to the madcap cyclists, but this goes beyond the casual opposition. Very strange.


    • I know, I think it might have been something to do with cyclists being new to roads- I think the attacks were more common in the 1870s and 1880s in the days of penny farthings, and they are reported a lot less after 1895 which is when cycling became much more mainstream and popular. I think that they maybe resulted from a human trait of being antagonistic towards anything that’s new and a bit different to the norm.


    • Many thanks for the reblog! And from what I have read these were pretty common occurrences, have found a quote in Cycling (which was Britain’s most read cycling magazine) from 1898 which said that,

      ‘The numerous cases which have been reported in the daily papers of assaults upon cyclists by tramps or labourers show that we have an important matter to be dealing with in the coming years. Robbery appears to be, without exception, the reason d’etre of these attacks, and the cyclist, taken unawares, and probably unaccompanied, offers peculiarly favourable opportunities, which these gentry have not been slow in realising’.

      I also remembered this quote from 1891 which might link into your studies on masculinity (coincidently my dissertation is on the masculinities cyclists constructed through cycling clubs in the 1890s so very interested to read about your research),

      ‘Three merry cyclers of Paris, returning from a run, were assaulted and grievously maltreated by some roughs. So violent was their handling that the cyclers pulled out revolvers, and after shooting for some time managed between them to hit one of their aggressors. But why all this revolver frenzy? A crop of good vintage fists, with a handbook on their use, should be quite sufficient for the needs of the average rough. We have found it so, at any rate.’


  2. Pingback: Self Defense and the use of Improvised Weapons | Civilian Combatives

    • Hi Steven – many apologies for the delayed reply. I’ve come across his name a few times before and knew he was a famous racing cyclist, so did think it was probably him. But I’ve never done any proper research into Edge previously, so really interesting to read about the career path he took after – was clearly a pretty phenomenal character! Have you done any research into him previously?


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