Cycling Sources #10 – Arthur Balfour and ‘the most civilising invention’

Arthur Balfour was not a man known for getting carried away. British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, he is widely attributed with the remark, ‘nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all’, whilst one non-too impressed commentator summed up his personality as,

‘An attitude of convinced superiority which insists in the first place on complete detachment from the enthusiasms of the human race, and in the second place on keeping the vulgar world at arm’s length.’

Such an assessment may be seen as a little harsh. Certainly, Balfour’s Scottish family estate of Whittinghame where he returned to live every summer, offered a safe haven from the hustle and bustle of politics and London life. However, it also an environment in which he indulged an almost super-human set of sporting passions.

Balfour playing tennis

Balfour regarded his home county as the ‘paradise of golfers’, finding time every year to return and relax on North Berwick’s links, often finding the time for two rounds in a day. Coiner of the phrase ‘lawn tennis’, he had a couple of courts built on the estate. And if not in the mood for either of these, he would ride his bicycle around Whittinghame’s grounds and its surrounding countryside.

Balfour’s cycling energies were not just restricted to the pedalling of his machine. President of the National Cyclists’ Union, he served as the head of Britain’s biggest cycling institution which at its peak in 1899 boasted over 60,000 members. This was also the year that the Union celebrated the twenty-one years since its foundation by holding a lavish coming of age dinner, which it was Balfour’s responsibility to preside over.

Balfour playing golf in 1906

Safe to say he rose to the occasion. Balfour’s speech was widely picked up and quoted in the daily press. Cycling’s article on the event went so far as to call it ‘the most important event in the history of cycling’ before coupling this with the rather less striking,

‘took place on Friday evening last, when the Right Hon A.J. Balfour presided at the ‘coming of age’ dinner of the National Cyclists’ Union.’

Most attention was drawn to Balfour’s assertion that ‘there has not been a more civilising invention in the memory of the present generation than the invention of the cycle.’ Such a statement was remarkable not only given Balfour’s rather detached outlook on life. Those in the audience had also lived through a dizzying period of technological innovation and development. The thirty years preceding Balfour’s speech had seen the invention of, among other things, the electric lightbulb, the telephone, the motor-car and the refrigerator.

Admittedly none of Balfour’s contemporaries could have really imagined how widely used and popular these discoveries would become over the course of the twentieth-century. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the phone, held the not-so radical belief that one day ‘there will be a telephone in every town in America’.

Bell opening the long-distance telephone line from New York to Chicago in 1892

However, it is should come as no surprise that during the 1890s none of these other inventions inspired the same hopes, dreams and debates as the bicycle. As (I hope) has been made evident throughout this blog, it was a machine which impacted upon nearly all aspects of public life, from fashion to female emancipation, mass-spectator racing to music hall ditties. Still ‘open to all classes, enjoyed by both sexes and all ages’, it continues to top lists of inventions from this, and any other time period.

(The speech below has been abridged to remove bits at the beginning and the end. A similar testimony of the new possibilities which cycling opened up for escaping cities and experiencing the countryside is here).

Raleigh advert from the 1890s

‘Really and truly, without jest, there is a real connection between the problems presented by the vast aggregation of population such as now exists within the area of London, and the solution of some of those problems by the cultivation of cycling among all classes. After all, we have to recognise the fact that urban populations in this small island are destined to grow, and that rural areas are to some extent, destined to diminish. That is inevitable. It is the condition of national prosperity and of national growth; but the danger accompanying it is that we shall have in our great cities, a large population who, from the circumstances of their life, might be absolutely deprived of any personal knowledge and experience of the joys of country life and the beauties of country scenery.

From this, I think, the cycle has saved us, and the cycle almost alone. I do not believe I am exaggerating when I say that our grandfathers and great grandfathers, if their business kept them within the city, within the area of London, at a time when London was but a small fraction of what it is now had, nevertheless, fewer opportunities than we have of getting out of London rapidly on our holidays, be they brief or be they long, and enjoying by means of the cycle a breath of country air, a view of country scenery, a knowledge of their splendours, a knowledge of the magnificence which English scenery presents to us.

Enjoying a breath of modern day country air

Gentlemen, if that be so- and I speak to men who are capable of saying of their own experience whether it is so or not- then I say there has not been a more civilising invention in the memory of the present generation than the invention of the cycle, open to all classes, enjoyed by both sexes and all ages. The cycle gives us health, it gives us variety, it is less dependent upon preliminary circumstances, upon pecuniary means, upon preliminary organisation than almost any sport with which I am acquainted.

Those are great qualities. Those are qualities which are spreading the use of the cycle wider and wider, amid all classes of the community. My friend on my right (Mr. Cobb), has just informed me that of six Vice Chancellors for Cambridge who have been or who are to be in immediate succession, all, without exception, are cyclists. It, perhaps, somewhat detracts from that laudation to add the fact, which he also communicates to me, that one of those Vice Chancellors was prevented from fulfilling his duties for three months by a bicycling accident. But those things will occur. Probably many of us, certainly I, have suffered under them; but it has not diminished our love of cycling, or our belief that cycling has all the merits which its innumerable votaries believe it to possess.’

Mural of Edward Elgar cycling

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