Cycling Sources #7- ‘New Rules for Cyclists’

Many previous blogs (‘A Tyranny of the Road‘, ‘Bicycles Against the Traffic‘ ) have explored the un-easy relationships which existed between cyclists and other road users in the early years of cycling. In 1896 Punch, in typical satirical vein, used these contrasting views of cyclists to outline the ‘new rules for cyclists’ that both the riding and non-riding public would like to see introduced. The question is, are the suggestions under ‘What All Cyclists Would Like’ all so ridiculous?

And, perhaps, would it be so difficult to produce a similar article today?

Punch cycling cartoon from 1882. Source:

‘New Rules for Cyclists’.

I- What some other people would like.

Every cycle-rider to pay a tax of fifty percent of the total income that he would have if every mile ridden brought him in a sovereign, and every tinkle of his bell a ten pound note.

Nobody to cycle without a license, issued by the Governor of Newgate, after a fortnight’s strict examination (on bread and water) in elementary mechanics, advanced hydrostatics and riding on the head down an inclined plane.

Any person found riding without such a license to receive a minimum penalty of ten years’ penal servitude, followed by police supervision for the rest of his natural life.

If caught on, with, or under a cycle within fifty miles of any town of five thousand inhabitants, the culprit to be fined a hundred guineas and bound over his own recognisances to abandon cycling and take up golf instead

When a cyclist on any road sees, or has reason to believe that he might see if he chose to look, any horse, cart, carriage, gig or other vehicle, or any pedestrian approaching, he (or she) to instantly dismount, run the machine into the nearest ditch, and kneel in a humble and supplicating attitude till said horse, cart &C., has got at least a mile away.

Every cyclist to be presumed, in all legal proceedings, to be a reckless idiot and on the wrong side of the road, unless he can bring conclusive evidence to the contrary.

All tourists on wheels to report themselves at every police station they pass. If un-vaccinated, they may be taken to the nearest doctor and compulsory inoculated with any old lymph or ‘anti-cyclin serum’ he may have handy.

II- What all Cyclists would like

Cyclists to be given a special track on all roads, quite half the width of the thoroughfare, and well asphalted.

In case of any accident, coachmen and car-drivers to be bound over to keep the pieces, and supply a brand-new machine.

All vehicles of every description to at once skedaddle up side streets when a lady cyclist is descried in the offing on a main road.

No bells, horns, or lamps in future to be required. Pedestrians to keep to the sidewalks or take the consequences. Cyclists to have the right to use the sidewalks as much as they like, and at any pace.

The City streets to be cleared of traffic and left as practising grounds for new wheelmen and wheelwomen.

Rate-supported stations (with free meals) for blowing up burst tyres to be provided on all roads.

Cycles (and cyclists) to travel free by rail.

And, finally, any person reasonably suspected of not owning a cycle or being about to get one to pay a fine of five thousand pounds to the Exchequer, be handed over to the Lunacy Commissioners, and detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Punch’s warning to all cyclists who hunched over their handlebars. Source:

The Joys of Middle-Aged Cycling

Of all the different age groups who took to cycling, I have most often found that it was those men and women at a more mature stage in life who would most vividly write about the joys their cycling excursions brought them. To again quote from the self-titled ‘middle aged’ women who wrote in The Guardian,

‘We have had many pleasures in the way of travelling, but we have never yet experienced such exhilarating enthusiasm or such complete recreation. What once was impossible has become possible, and distance is no longer the barrier to the refreshment of country life or contact with kindred spirits. The woman who is neither strong nor young can throw herself free for a time into all that invigorates and renews, and in the midst of a busy life, both of public and private duties, find that contact with nature and humanity which enriches and emancipates.’

Male and female cyclists at this stage in life would often acclaim how, if only for an afternoon, their cycling excursions allowed them to escape the pressures of work, responsibilities and duties. Reflecting on a day cycling in the Cotswolds, the essayist and author Arthur Benson, aged forty-one, described how,

‘It was a very pleasant feeling up in the wolds, to be out in the brisk air and warm sun, miles from everything, no one knowing where one was. I have had a very gentle and pleasant feeling of content all day. This is one of the happiest days I have had for a long time.’

It was not only cycle rides that allowed such feelings of escape and freedom. One of the main events in the social calendar of cycling clubs in this period were national ‘cycling camps’, in which different cycling clubs from all over the country would meet up for a week of camping in the English countryside. Whilst in theory these ‘camps’ were about healthy outdoor living and opportunities for racing and competition, in practice they often descended into rather hedonistic, all-night drinking affairs (more on them another time). Whilst you might expect this aspect of camp life to appeal mostly to the younger attendees, it would appear that older cyclists also made the most of the opportunities for revelry and merriment. One more senior member of the Stanley Club, describing their experiences of one of these camps, stated how,

‘Social distinction, rank of fortune, vanishes as you take your place at the shrine of Bohemianism; equal in one accord- the desire to knock as much enjoyment as you can into four days of grace. Can it be wondered then that men grown grey, be-bearded solemn pards, faced with the inevitable scourge of time, take to Harrogate as a duck to water, and for a brief spell throw aside the decorum and dignity incumbent with their station in life, to revel as they did in the heyday of their youth, when the blood ran freer and the pulse beat quicker? Such enthusiasts can fully endorse the poet’s couplet,

‘The age is on his temple hung,
His heart, his heart is very young’

Looking forward to revelry and merriment. Source:

That once on their bicycles older men would throw off many of the conventions they usually adhered to, and instead ‘revel’ as their younger selves had once done can be seen in an article in Cycling from 1893, which commented how,

‘Cycling seems to possess a potent and peculiar charm to the middle-aged, aye, and even the elderly man. It is not unusual to see swarthy, bearded men, the sober head of a business house, perhaps, and perchance the father of grown-up children, cutting capers that would put to shame the rollicking fledglings of some sixteen summers. It is no uncommon thing to see the man of forty, in company with a party of younger men, acting in a manner that seems positively childish, when considered, though, perhaps at the same time circumstances would hardly warrant you thinking so.’

‘We have noticed this levelling influence of the sport, and when you see bearded men- rulers among men, we may say- beyond the prime of life, vaulting five barred gates, turning somersaults, and otherwise sacrificing the dignity and discretion that is generally supposed to pertain to age for the frolicsomeness of youth, you cannot help believing that cycling does in reality give man a new lease of life.’

Further evidence of how, ‘swarthy and bearded men’ returned to more primitive states of existence when they took to their bicycles can be seen in an article written by a more senior member of the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club. The writer described how cycling in South Devon allowed a cyclist to,

‘Forget your cosmopolitanism and every other ism, again a British boy and proud of it, remember Nelson and Wellington and the brave tars and soldiers, who prevented the Corsican usurper from ever planting his foot on old England’s shores. Presently you’ll find yourself humming or shouting as of yore- Two skinny Frenchmen, One Portuguese, One jolly Englishman, Can lick ‘em all three.’

Further on it was described how cycling around Plymouth and Torquay, where ‘old England’s watch dogs’ sailed out and ‘singed the King of Spain’s whiskers’ when the Spanish Armada threatened, meant you could,

‘In imagination become a boy once more, and again experience that exultation that fired you when you first read ‘Westward Ho’, and when you took two slabs of wood and a tintack and made a sword with which you slew scores of moustachioed Spaniards, and rescued fair damsels and countless treasures (not forgetting the treasures) from their clutches.’

Who knows, maybe Federico Garcia Lorca was inspired by similar thoughts when he wrote,

‘My heart of silk,
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees,
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.’

The Imprisonment of Knees – Victorian Men’s Cycling Attire

For the many middle-class men who took to cycling in the 1890s, before they mounted their bicycles they were faced with a new and troubling dilemma. How should they dress for their cycling excursions? For middle-class male cyclists, retaining a ‘respectable’ and ‘dignified’ appearance on their bicycles was of great importance, and central to this were the clothes they cycled in. ‘Respectable’ attire needed to be ‘tasteful’ and as such could not reveal ‘unseemly’ parts of your anatomy; arms and legs needed to be safely hidden under layers of clothing. However, your Sunday best was not designed for exercise and physical exertion. As one writer in the cycling press put it,

‘When a person becomes transformed from an ordinary citizen to an enthusiastic cyclist, the question of clothing assumes a different aspect. Ignoring the Scriptural admonition, he begins to grow solicitous as to wherewith he shall be clothed. He recognises, as every sensible cyclist must do, that whatever merits or demerits may appertain to ordinary civilian dress, its unsuitability for cycling is axiomatically certain.’

Choosing a cycling outfit was therefore no easy matter. On the one hand it had to make the rider appear ‘respectable’, and dignified. However, it also had to be tailored to the demands of cycling and taking physical exercise. To help middle-class men overcome these difficulties the 1890s saw a rapid growth in the sale and marketing of ‘cycling suits’. As shown in the image above, they maintained a ‘respectable’ appearance by often including a jacket, tie and shirt. At the same time, the outfit was made more cycle friendly by including hoses or stockings, which ensured that a cyclists trousers did not get caught in the chain of their machine, and was made mostly out of wool. Describing the benefits of woollen clothing to a cyclist, one commentator in 1896 described how,

‘It is not enough that his shirt be woollen, every portion of his clothing should all be of the same material. Stiffening’s, linings, pockets all pure wool. It may sound faddy, but it is the secret of comfort. Woollen garments are the coolest in the heat, and the warmest in the cold; a wool-clad cyclist can stand a thorough soaking with impunity, and his clothes will not cling to him with that chilling and deadly embrace of cotton or linen.’


For those men who were members of clubs, the difficulties of choosing a cycling outfit were sometimes solved by the club having a prescribed uniform for members. The Anfield Bicycle Club’s annual report stated that,

‘The uniform shall be a black patrol jackets, knickerbockers and hose, with black cricket cap and a blue and black scarf.’

Such outfits would certainly have appeared ‘respectable’. However, it’s practicality for engaging in the long distance races frequently organised by the club, was questionable. In 1894 the club dropped the rule requiring all members to be attired in this uniform, and instead asked them to dress in the clubs colours of blue and black.

Moreover, however breathable wool is, an outfit consisting of trousers, a jacket, scarf and cap would clearly not be the most practical attire for long distance cycle rides. Not only would its weight make cycling more arduous, but the number of layers combined with trousers would also have made it very difficult to stay cool whilst cycling.

Modelling a cycling sweater (and a might fine moustache). Source:


This meant that some cyclists who cycled competitively and engaging in scorching took to wearing lighter, more comfortable outfits. However, this of course meant they pushed the boundaries of ‘respectability’. Writing in 1897 one commentator described how the young man who took up cycling might,

‘Develop into that terrible creature the ‘scorcher’, who, absolutely unmindful of the beauties of the scenery through which he passes neglects, in his one idea of pace, the clothes and customs of a respectable individual’.

The writer, Gilbert Floyd, went onto describe how,

‘He will affect strange garments, sad as to colour, and roomy in cut, whilst his shoes must be stamped from one piece of leather to meet his depraved taste for simplicity and lightness. His only adornments will be his club badge and the silk handkerchief, in which are embodied his club colours, which he wraps loosely round his neck, leaving the ends to flutter pennon-like in the breeze, as he urges his wild career, on space-devouring thoughts intent.’

In 1895 Cycling made similar complaints against men competing in cycling races, who would,

‘Not only race in the most scanty attire, bare arms, almost bare legs, the short breaches at no time reaching the knee, being frequently pulled up until they are almost like bathing drawers, and with the rest of the costume so light and tight that it only serves to accentuate their form, and so loosely fitted that the rider finishes as often as not with bare loins, but they stroll about in front of the grand-stand, and elsewhere, in this barbarous guise, sometimes, as we ourselves have heard, calling forth shouts of coarse chaff from the rougher portion of the crowd, to the embarrassment of the refined.’

Preparing to race in the ‘most scanty attire’. Source:


To fix this state of affairs Cycling argued that men dressed in such a manner should not allowed to compete in cycling races, stating that,

‘It is not matter of prudery, but the supporting of the unwritten, but universally observed, law of civilised society, as well as obeying the dictates of gentlemanly instinct, that men should not be allowed to appear on the race path, to race and stroll about before refined women, in a state of semi-nudity.’

It was not only male cyclists who felt the pressures to dress ‘respectably’ however ill-suited the outfits were for the activities they were engaging in . In June 1896 William MacDonald, a forty-four year old accountant living in London briefly became a media sensation, when he walked around Regent’s Park dressed in,

‘A blue serge short-sleeved tunic, a pair of sandals, and, it was said a pair of knickerbockers, but the last named could not be seen, although the skirt of the tunic was by no means long.’

The consequences of him wearing this outfit? He was taken into custody, after a police constable found him addressing a crowd of some 500 people in Regent’s Park. The Illustrated Police News described how at the court hearing Mr MacDonald defended himself by stating that,

‘He was not responsible for the crowd assembling. It was his practice to go out wearing different costumes, suitable to the time of year and the weather, and he usually went to Regent’s Park every day…Personal reformers in the matters of dress were necessary, in order to break down old conventionalities and have dress worn consistent with the weather and common sense.’

All very reasonable, and after the hearing Mr MacDonald was discharged. However, this was only agreeing to the magistrate’s demands that,

‘If you promise not again to appear in this ridiculous dress, which can only attract attention and possibly lead to a breach of the peace, I will discharge you; if not, I will remand you in custody for a week.’

There is undoubtedly a hugely important story to tell about how women cycling in rational dress challenged gender norms and paved the way for later generations of women to dress in more practical, comfortable clothing. It is hard to place the case of William MacDonald on quite the same level; it appears that his efforts to challenge ‘old conventionalities’ ended after the court hearing, with it being reported how,

‘The magistrate then discharged Mr MacDonald, who, amid laughter, hurriedly made his way out of the court and up the road.’

However, when we men in modern Western societies feel free to dress in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops on hot summer days, or wear cycle in clothes far more practical than the ones shown in the adverts above, we should perhaps spare a thought for men such as William MacDonald, who suffered at the hands of iron bound laws of custom. As he himself asked,

‘What could be more pleasant in the hot summer than feeling the breeze playing on one’s knees, so to speak?’


The Significance of Cycling

The following blog is one that I have written for the British Association of Victorian Studies postgraduate blog. Apologies for the overlaps with many topics already covered, but after a few hours writing it I thought it a shame not to post it on here!

It is now ten years since Radio 4 listeners were asked to vote on what they thought to be the most significant innovation since 1800. The list of possible inventions was, to say the least, impressive. Their share of the votes, perhaps less so. Three percent of voters thought the internal combustion engine was worthy of the title. The internet fared slightly better, receiving four percent of votes. A dizzying five percent of people believed the germ theory of disease was a deserving winner.

What then was the invention that (admittedly a rather specific section of) the British public deemed to be more significant than the computer, the discovery of DNA and the invention of vaccinations? The answer may surprise you. Receiving more votes than the rest of the nominations put together, the unequivocal winner of the competition was the bicycle. (A link to the results is here:

Before I started my research into cycling in the late nineteenth century I might have thought these results slightly laughable. Now however, I am not quite so sure. When studying the impact that the safety bicycle had in late nineteenth century Britain, I am continually amazed at just what a difference being able to pedal to places unreachable by foot made to people’s lives.

Firstly a little bit of context. I am sure that most people’s first thought when they here ‘bicycle’ and ‘late nineteenth century’ is of moustached men perched precariously on penny farthings. However, it was in this period that the modern ‘safety’ bicycle emerged, with two equal sized wheels, a chain driven real wheel and a diamond frame (the one below is from 1891). It was also in 1888 that John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre, which not only made cycling much more comfortable, but also increased the speed a cyclist could travel by a third. These improvements made cycling much less hazardous, much more comfortable and far more enjoyable than it ever had been on penny farthings. By the mid-1890s around a million and a half men and women were cycling in Britain.

Moreover, as the 1890s progressed bicycles became increasingly affordable, with the growth of a second hand market and an influx of cheap American models into the British market. Combined with rising living standards, at the turn of the century bicycles had become increasingly attainable for large portions of the population. For the vast majority who did not own horses or motor cars, purchasing a bicycle meant that for the first time in their lives they possessed their own personal means of transportation.

The impact this had on British society was remarkable and, in many cases, unexpected. The bicycle’s effect on rural communities was particularly pronounced as it dramatically increased the distances people could travel and the places they could visit. The bicycle opened up new opportunities for rural priests, postmen, doctors and nurses. Moreover, it was not those working in rural occupations that benefitted from cycling. P.J. Perry has attributed the decline in same parish working-class marriages in rural Dorset in the late 1880s to the bicycle and the greater distances it allowed individuals from these communities to travel.

Owning a bicycle also benefitted the love lives of those living in urban communities. The links between cycling and romance were recognised by Harry Darce in 1892 when he penned, ‘Daisy Bell’ with the famous ‘bicycle made for two’. The 1890s also saw ‘cycling courtships’ becoming increasingly common among members of the middle-classes, as young men and women used bicycle rides as opportunities for unsupervised and unchaperoned meetings. As one female cyclist described,

‘The chief merit of the bicycle in the eyes of the young is that is dispenses with the chaperon. It imparts open air freedom and freshness to a life heretofore cribbed, crabbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy and have ridden triumphantly over her prostrate body.’

The benefits of cycling to women went far further than the opportunities it opened up for romance. After society and the aristocracy briefly took to cycling in 1895 in the so called, ‘bicycle craze’, women took to cycling in increasing numbers. Previous arguments about the ‘unbecomingness’ of women being sat astride a machine which they powered with their legs were overridden as growing numbers of women took to the pastime. Writing at the height of the craze in 1895 Home and Hearth stated that,

‘In our opinion the ugliness- let us put it uncompromisingly- the necessary awkwardness and ugliness of cycling are compensated a thousand times by the delights of the sport. And then it so health-giving, and so brightens both mind and eyes. What relief to leave behind all the things about which modern women are so much in earnest, all high ideals and utopian aims, and to wander forth along the pleasant country lanes.’

This is not to say that by cycling women completely overturned conservative notions of appropriate ‘womanly’ behaviour. Cycling advice literature for women gave most of its attention to how they could cycle whilst maintaining a ‘graceful’ womanly appearance in which they appeared un-flustered and showed few signs of exertion. Women who cycled in ‘rational dress’, consisting of knickerbocker trousers which revealed theirs legs were widely commented on and criticised in the cycling and wider press for the ways in which they ‘unsexed’ themselves. One women described how when cycling through a town in rational dress,

‘Thirteen persons saluted me with the polite command of, ‘Git yer ‘air cut!’ Eight were extremely anxious to know my tailors address; an even greater number requested the name of my hatter. A ragged urchin ran alongside for some distance, and asked, ‘Could yer oblige us with a match guv’nor?’ A barber further down the road went one better by standing on his step and enquiring, ‘Shave sir?’ Several pedestrians helpfully suggested that I should ‘get orf and push!’ While an elderly lady imparted the information I was a ‘forward young minx!’ One man- how I thanked that man- doffed his oily cap and exclaimed, ‘Bravo! I likes yer pluck!’

For reasons such as this the majority of female cyclists wore skirts, whose weight made cycling much more arduous and difficult. However, even in skirts women were able to benefit from the opportunities cycling offered for journeying into the British countryside which would have been unthinkable a generation before. One female cyclist described how,

‘To men the bicycle has been an unquestionable boom. But after all, men had a fair share of fresh air and country pleasures before the advent of the wheel. To women it has brought new life, wider, freer and more delightful than was dreamt before its coming.’

However, for many men living and working in cities, particularly those from working and lower-middle class backgrounds, owning a bicycle offered equally new and exciting opportunities for escaping cities in favour of the countryside and nature. One writer in the Manchester Guardian described how,

‘The other day I was talking of the delights of cycling to a man who spends the greater part of his life at his last, in a small shop hung with leather- there is a blessed sense of comradeship amongst cyclists-he said to me,  ‘I had a beautiful ride last Sunday. Such a day! I can never forget it. I had to stop and get off my machine once, for my heart got so full at the sight of violets growing all in bunches on a bank by the roadside.’

It is difficult not to form a very human connection when reading quotes such as this. There is something wonderfully knowable and understandable in the activities of those men and women who took to cycling over a hundred years ago. The enjoyment of nature, the opportunities for romance and the pleasure of travelling to places previously unimaginable all speak of desires and wants that all of us can probably in some way relate to.

Maybe then those Radio 4 listeners were onto something when they crowned the bicycle the most significant invention of the last two hundred years. Moreover, it must be remembered that cycling not only benefits those on their bicycles, but society as a whole. More people cycling equals a healthier society, less congested cities and lower levels of pollution. However, the value of cycling is perhaps felt most keenly when reading accounts such as the one below, written by as self-titled, ‘middle-aged women’, which appeared in The Guardian in 1893,

‘I wonder if others have felt, as I have done since I took to cycling, that the old nature that one thought had been swept away or crushed out by the care, monotony and pressure of work and duty, was there all along? It only wanted releasing to spring back with all its gladness and enthusiasm and keenness of enjoyment into life again; it only wanted opportunity to escape to the healing, restoring powers of nature and free-and-easy contact with wider surroundings to understand that age is a matter of feeling and not of years, and that cares can sit lightly if the heart keeps young.’