‘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).
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.
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!
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.