When Britain Fell in Love With Cycling

‘I wonder if others have felt, as I have done since I took to cycling, that the old nature that one thought had been crushed out by the care, monotony, and pressure of work and duty was there all the time?’

The Manchester Guardian, August 21st 1895

‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope seems hardly worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a good spin down the road, without anything but thought for the ride you are taking.’

Arthur Conan Doyle

The story of cycling in Victorian Britain is not just a tale of moustached men atop penny farthings. It is a tale of men and women, young and old, rich and poor discovering the delights of not only cycling, but (for the most part) being able to use for the first time their own means of personal transportation. There is a rich history to be told on the period when Britain first fell in love with cycling, and it is the aim of this blog to tell it!

The period it will focus on for the most part is the late 1880s and the 1890s. It was during these years that bicycles grew into their modern form. The penny farthings or ‘ordinary’ bicycles that existed before were heavy, cumbersome and suitable mainly for the young and athletic (or those brave/foolhardy enough to mount them).

Man on a penny-farthing bicycle being chased by his sister (Maggie & Bob Spiers) - West Wyalong, NSW, C. 1900

Penny farthing made even more dangerous by woman with umbrella (source: http://www.copenhagenize.com/search/label/subversive%20photos)

The ‘safety’ bicycle (the one below is from 1891) started being produced in the late 1880s, with two equal sized wheels, a chain driven rear wheel and a diamond frame which is still used today as the basic bicycle design. It was also in 1888 that John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre, which not only made cycling much more comfortable, but also improved a cyclists’ speed by about a third. These improvements made cycling much less hazardous, much more comfortable and far more enjoyable. By the mid-1890s it is commonly estimated around a million and a half men and women were cycling in Victorian Britain.  With the motor car only beginning to be introduced to British roads at the turn of century, for a short period of time cyclists were by far the biggest road users in the country.

A Safety bicycle from 1891 (complete with wooden spokes)

When studying cycling in this period (first for my undergraduate dissertation and now for my MA) I am continually struck by the huge improvement cycling provided for people’s lives. In a period when over 60% of Britain’s population lived in urban environments, the bicycle provided a previously unheralded means of escape into the countryside. It drastically reduced journey times, and was particularly valuable for those living and working in rural communities. It allowed for cheap holidays, both at home and abroad, with no travel costs and the freedom to explore new places. It was used by young men and women to find new spaces for love and romance. It gave those weary from the pressures of work and home a means of escape, pleasure and relaxation. As one female writer described,

‘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 private and public duties, find that contact with nature and humanity which enriches and emancipates.’

The aim of this blog then is to capture the social history of cycling in late Victorian period, with its accompanying joys, pleasures and perils. It will explore everything from the controversies of women’s cycling dress to the methods used by the police for capturing speeding cyclists. Hope you find something interesting and happy reading!

Bon voyage!

N.B. I am very grateful to The Online Bicycle Museum (http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/) which, unless stated, has provided the photos used in this blog. It’s a fantastic source of old cycling photos which I would highly recommend! I have used some photos which are not from Britain but America and France- all three countries experienced the ‘cycling craze’ of the 1890s and had similar cycling cultures.

5 thoughts on “When Britain Fell in Love With Cycling

  1. Thank you for visiting my “1870 to 1918” blog. I wonder if you are familiar with the use of bicycles in the Anglo-Boer War. Bicycles were used on both sides. Danie Theron of the Boers formed a famous unit of scouts on bicycles, and the British had several cycling units. There is an article in the South African Military History journal titled “Bicycles in the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902” that has some fabulous photos. The time period of course catches the very end of the Victorian era.

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    • Hello, thank you for visiting my blog also! And many thanks for the link to the article- I have read a bit about cycling in warfare in this period in primary sources but have never come across a journal article on the topic, found it a very interesting read. The pictures are also fantastic- I’ve never seen anything like a war cycle before! I’ve often been struck by how cyclists would compare their own cycling activities to those of soldiers, as if the ‘pluck’ and ‘determination’ they needed to conquer hills would be enough to equip them for actual warfare. When reading these I often think of World War One and how men would have been so unprepared for the horrors they experienced, so I’ve found reading the first hand accounts and how men came to terms with the war in your blog really interesting (as well as very tragic of course).

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      • Yes, isn’t that war cycle amazing? Especially the idea of being able to use it on railroad tracks but also convert it to normal road use. I must say the photo is both intriguing and also somehow faintly humorous!

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  2. Anecdotal note: My father spoke of his cycling at the end of the 19th Century. Two things I remember about his comments were that he cycled from East London to Glasgow to go to the Great Exhibition of 1901 and the other was that his bicycle only weighed 19 ib and had wooden rims and pneumatic tires! He compared it to my teenage bike which weighed in at about 25 ib even with aluminium rims…
    My father was born into a working class family in Hoxton in 1879, so he would have been 22 at the time of his “epic” ride. He married late in life and was 59 when I arrived. I am now in my late 70’s. It is unfortunate that as teenager I was not more curious about his life and adventures.
    He took a lively interest in technological innovation. I can clearly remember his sense of wonder when we watched the Americans landed on the moon on our black and white TV. “I’ve lived from a time when people got around on a hobby horse to man landing on the moon. I have lived though wonderful times.”
    I know this adds nothing to the scholarship around your interest, but it does underline the classlessness bicycles enjoyed.

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    • Thankyou for your comment Mike, very interested to hear about your father’s cycling excursions. The lightness of his bike is news to me- can’t say I’ve researched too much into bicycle design during this period but things clearly developed quickly! Do you know where it ever ended up?
      And you’re right about the classlessness- whilst my research has focussed a lot on more middle-class cycling clubs I know that in the later half of the 1890s there was a big boom in the second hand bike trade which helped make bicycles much more widely available (although still not easily affordable- one of the examples I’m most familiar with is Alice Foley, who worked at a mill near Bolton. She saved 6d a week until she had 25 shillings which would have taken her a year I think- it is amazing the lengths people would go to to do something which we take for granted).

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