Victorian Cyclist – The Book!

Realise it has been quite a while since I last posted anything new. Happily, however, I have been busy doing other things Victorian cycling related in this time. In particular, I’ve been researching/writing a popular history book on cycling in the Victorian period, which is due to be published by Duckworth Overlook in May next year.

With the pressures of getting this done and wanting to keep my weekends relatively work free I let the blog slide a bit (well, completely). However, with the book now handed in I’ll look to get back to posting – one of the good things about doing it is I now have a lot more material!

As a very quick overview, it focusses on the 1870s up until the turn of the twentieth century, with most attention being given to the 1890s and what occurred after the invention of the safety/pneumatic tyres. Rather than writing it chronologically, I thought I’d instead structure it around the different social uses/areas of public life the bicycle fed into in this period. These form its five chapters, which are about fashion/showing off, racing/competition, sociability/club life, romance/courtship and travel/adventure.  Needless to say, a fair bit of blog content was re-purposed in the writing of these!

A preview of the book can be found in Duckworth’s Spring 2018 catalogue, available on their website: Although I should point out the title/front cover/blurb are still a work in progress – we are still working on ideas for the title, so any ideas gratefully received! And if anyone wants to get in-touch about the book more generally will be more than happy to answer any questions.

Finally, just to say a very big thank you to everyone who has read/followed/commented on and shared the blog. The opportunity to do the book actually came about from the publishers finding it online, and the interest people have taken was a real source of encouragement when writing it. I promise to be more pro active in posting/responding to comments in the future!


Book Cover

Current book cover – happy to hear thoughts!









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

1890s Cycle Companies and Cycling Ads, Part One

Up until recently, I had always pictured adverts from the Victorian period as roughly resembling the one below, which beautifully combines an outdated product (a full body underwear suit?!) with outdated selling methods. Certainly, it is hard to imagine a modern day clothing company running an ad campaign which has the word ‘fastidious’ anywhere near it (that said, perhaps #befastidious could work well on Twitter?)

In any case, with such a preconception I have always been struck by 1890s cycling adverts. Not only are they selling a modern product, but they do so in a way which is undeniably ‘modern’. Contemporary bike adverts such as the one for ‘Gladiator’ cycles beneath don’t use long spiels of text, but rather striking visual imagery. They associate bicycles with freedom and liberation. They even add a sprinkling of sex appeal on top.

How then can we explain the rather striking contrast between a middle-aged man holding a full length underwear suit, and a naked goddess floating through space with her bicycle? Were adverts from this period were rather less awkward and outdated than the first picture might have us believe? Or were the ads used by cycle companies were revolutionary and well ahead of their time?

The answer lies in a happy medium somewhere between the two. Certainly, the selling methods on show in first image should not be seen as the best which ad men could come up with during the late nineteenth century. A quick Google image search showcases that 1890s adverts were often colourful artistic affairs, which not only used simple, eye-catching images, but also associated their product with personal gratification and pleasure.

Coca Cola advert from the 1890s

Such selling techniques were becoming increasingly utilised during this period. 1890s industrialists and marketers are recognised to have been the first to really pedal the now unavoidable message that their goods would make you happier, cooler and generally more satisfied with your lot in life. Before this point, they usually announced the availability and cost of a product, or at most touted its merits compared to its competition. They didn’t play on their readers hopes and expectations (or to put it negatively insecurities and self-doubts) to create a demand for what they were selling.

Being a clever Victorian ad man and employing a naked goddess to sell your latest bicycle model wasn’t then quite as revolutionary as first imagined. During the 1890s other companies were increasingly using similar methods and imagery to capture popular attention and create a demand for their products. Heavenly women were used to sell all manner of things, from bicycles to soaps, perfumes and chocolate.

Swiss Chocolat Suchard advert 

However, it is hard to find other businesses and that so fully and innovatively utilised modern, consumerist selling techniques in this period. This was largely due to a set of circumstances that will tug at the heartstrings of any good capitalist- fierce competition between profit making rivals. As cycling became more and more popular during the 1890s, there was a huge surge in manufacturers eager to grab a slice of an extremely lucrative and ever-expanding market. In the US there were 27 U.S. bicycles firms in 1890 who produced about 40,000 bicycles. By 1896, over 500 companies were making more than 1.2 million bicycles annually, with similar expansions also occurring in Britain and France.

In such a crowded environment, effective advertising campaigns which distinguished you from your rivals was essential. Encouraged by the huge returns promised by an ever-expanding market, cycle manufactures and retailers poured huge sums into their advertising budgets, the result of which was a widespread distribution of the types of forward-thinking adverts pictured below. To again draw on an American example, it is estimated that during the mid-1890s $6 to $9 million was invested annually in cycling advertising, with 10% of all newspaper adverts being for bicycles.  

1890s Stearns bicycle advert

Of course, newspaper and magazine ads were by no means the only advertising techniques by which you might look to promote your latest brand of bicycle. Since the 1880s cycle manufacturers had sponsored individual cycle racers in an attempt to closely associate themselves with successful, well-renowned athletes. After Albert Schock broke the world record for distance travelled in six days inside a huge Minneapolis Exhibition Hall in 1886 (both other competitors had to retire after one suffered a violent vomiting attack due to exhaustion and the other crashed into a railing after falling asleep), he credited his Victor bicycle for the win, calling it,

‘A vast improvement on all other bicycles ridden by me.’

This did not go down particularly well with their rival company, American champion bicycle, who pointed out that Schock had ridden over half the race on their machine, and had switched to Victor only ‘on account of a pecuniary inducement.’

Unsurprisingly, the 1890s saw manufacturers becoming more professional in how they associated themselves with nationally, and even internationally renowned racers. They placed these individuals at the centre of far-reaching ad campaigns, with the poster below showing the then world-famous American track-racing cyclist Arthur Augustus Zimmerman in an advert for the Raleigh bike company, with his long list of his accomplishments to boot.

However, for all their innovation and forward-thinking, cycle companies still drew upon much older selling techniques which have not stood the test of time particularly well. Whilst sportsmen and women can be found endorsing all manner of brands today, they can rarely be found doing so through polite letters of recommendation. The text below was produced by the British cycle racer A.J. Wilson, and was proudly displayed in an advert for an English cycle clothes manufacturer.

‘Dear Sir- I never signed a cheque with greater pleasure than the enclosed, in payment of your bill. The clothes fit exceptionally, and are very pleasant wear. The price is marvellously low.’

To take us back to where we started, it is certainly difficult to imagine Nike bringing our attention to a similar letter from a ‘most contented Mr C Ronaldo’.

(N.B. Many of the examples above are taken from Margaret Guroff’s new book ‘The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American life (hence the strong American theme throughout!). A very good read for anyone interested in cycling history, covering everything from the early nineteenth century to the present day, with much more on the consumerist advertising methods employed by cycle manufacturers during the 1890s.)

Victorian men on bicycles: The original hipsters?

There is an undeniable air of ‘the hipster’ in photos such as the one above. To own a bicycle, have slightly avant-garde facial hair, and wear vintage clothing, are all key ingredients if (as a man- two will suffice for women), you want to claim membership of that ever-expanding modern tribe which is ‘hipsterdom’.

For those who are unfamiliar with the hipster and his or her ways, let me try to briefly explain. Perhaps the best starting point is the recently published ‘Ladybird book of the hipster’ which provides the following definition and illustration:

After living in Leeds for a while I have built up an understanding (primarily through observation rather than doing), that to be hipster is to wherever possible, reject mainstream culture in favour of more organic, vintage and bearded alternatives. You don’t drive a car, you pedal a bicycle. You don’t grow and groom stubble, but rather nurture a moustache which you can twiddle the ends of. For some reason unbeknown to me, you drink coffee out of a glass instead of a mug.

As was first mentioned, you don’t have to look far if you want to find parallels between 1890s men on bicycles and your modern day hipster. If the individual pictured below suddenly appeared in an organic cafe in Shoreditch, I doubt that few, if any eyelids would be batted. This (to me at least) raises the question: to what extent can we claim 1890s male cyclists as the forefathers of modern-day hipsterdom?

Unfortunately, when exploring this assertion in greater detail, a number of problems quickly emerge. Whilst male cyclists during the 1890s often styled fantastic facial hair, this was not a rejection of mainstream culture, but rather an attempt to conform to it. The same is true of the bicycles they owned and the clothes they wore. By the standards of their day, these were certainly not ‘vintage’ or ‘alternative’ but rather emphatically ‘modern’.

However, amongst 1890s cyclists there was a group who, perhaps more than most, held values which are also found at the heart of hipsterdom today. To provide some context: after the invention of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tyre in the mid-to-late 1880s, old fashioned ‘ordinary’ bicycles (which we would also recognise as ‘penny farthings’) slowly became obsolete. Safeties fitted with pneumatic tyres were cheaper to buy, required less energy to pedal, were far more comfortable to ride, and as suggested by the name, were far less dangerous to their user than ordinaries. Looking back on the 1870s from the vantage point of the 1890s, a member of the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club commented,

‘The cycler of these days risked his neck, with the other parts of his anatomy, on what, in appearance at least, was a pair of cart wheels connected by a pump handle. On this fearful contrivance he ventured forth into the country, at that time, practically a terra icognita to the ordinary town resident.’

However there were groups of cyclists who, in true hipster spirit, steadfastly rejected modern, mainstream safeties in favour of their more alternative and vintage ordinary cousins. Their reasons for doing so I am sure will tug on the heart-strings of anyone reading this who still buys and listens to vinyl, or owns a film camera and develops their own pictures. Sure ‘safeties’ were far more user friendly than ordinaries and, by nearly all conceivable standards, represented a technological improvement. However, as was pointed out by a dissident few, the process of riding an ordinary, which required you sit above your huge front wheel with a stiff straight back, had an aesthetic elegance and gracefulness which the modern ‘safety’ could not hope to match. As a correspondent to Cycling stated,

‘As far as looks go I am sure the public would rather see a group of graceful ordinary riders than a group of men rushing along cramped up on their machines, and more resembling monkeys than cyclers.’

A graceful ordinary rider

Moreover, the difficulties which accompanied ordinary riding; namely the serious health risks of falling off, could (with a little imagination) be presented as endearing positives rather than life-threatening negatives. Another correspondent’s letter to Cycling, published in 1891, described how,

‘Thirteen years ago, when I first conceived the idea of taking refuge ennui atop a high wheel, there was some appearance of justification for a young man’s aspiration to master the stately, tall machines then in vogue, as to do so certainly required one to face violence and risk sudden death-two considerations dear to the typical Britain, and essential conditions to the favourable reception by him of any new form of athletic sport.

So for a time bicycling (as we do not understand it now-a-days) flourished, and every Saturday afternoon it was a pretty sight to see the thousands of bicyclists on their graceful tall machines, riding outward from London on every main road.’

A cycling club with their ‘graceful, tall machines’. Source:

Building up a head-of-steam, the writer went onto argue that,

‘The modern cyclers have degenerated (like the rest of humanity) into a race of scuttling, quacking, geared-up-dinner-plate-riding ground-game, who, in their pitiable search for safety, have managed to get a saddle just above the surface of the road, and in their luxurious desire for comfort, have hit upon the marvellous expedient of twisting an inflated German-sausage skin around their apologies for wheels; so that we hear now of such incidents as ‘tyres bursting!’

As wonderfully disdainful as this piece is, is does unfortunately undermine the idea that those men who pedalled ordinaries during the 1890s were late-Victorian incarnations of ‘the hipster’. Rather than being young males who rejected mainstream culture in favour of vintage alternatives, they were instead older men, who resolutely carried on doing things the way they had (until recently) always been done. An article in Cycling from 1895 titled ‘The Veteran’, described how your typical older had just one key weakness, namely,

‘His extravagant regard for the memory of his ordinary. He positively bores with his frequent and prosy recitals of all its virtues, and the marvellous adventures he and it have had together; he paints it now as a golden age that has passed forever, and of which the modern safety scorcher can never hope to taste.’

Ready to bore with ‘prosy recitals’. Source:

Rather than being the forefathers of modern day hipstersdom, I would argue that 1890s ordinary cyclists are better understood as individuals who carried the flame for a worldview which, I imagine, has existed as long as human history. To again draw on my own experiences of living in Leeds, it will not be present in the young, tattooed, bearded males who spend time in bars and cafes in the city centre, but can instead be found in those who now frequent darkened pubs and tell anyone who cares to listen that modern day cricketers have ‘nowt on Geoffrey Boycott’. As with those who resolutely stuck to their ordinaries, no amount of reasoning can shake them from their resolute belief that things really were better ‘back in the day’.

(For anyone wanting to see this worldview in action, please follow the link below and listen to Van Morrison’s preamble from 45 seconds onwards- the rest of the song is well worth a listen too!

Cycling Schools- Part One

As was recently discussed, men and women living through the 1890s rarely relished the prospect of mastering the art of cycling. Learning how to maintain your balance whilst pedalling forward on two wheels was a wobbly and often hazardous process, which could leave shins, knees and various other body parts battered, bruised and injured.

As I am sure all of us who have fallen off bicycles in public spaces are aware, being unceremoniously flung from a saddle, or slowly collapsing as you vainly attempt to unclip cleats from pedals, is also highly humiliating. However, for 1890s gents, and, in-particular ladies, the embarrassment of publicly parting company with a bicycle would have, in all probability, been even more acute.

Article on a ‘New Woman’ falling off a bicycle. Source:

Other blogs have highlighted how during this period, there were huge pressures on female cyclists to pedal their machines in a manner which was seen to be graceful and elegant. Whilst the 1890s saw discourses of middle-class femininity become reconciled with the notion of women on bicycles, they still expected ‘the fairer sex’ to cultivate more genteel and dignified riding styles than their male counterparts. Women who ‘scorched’, wore rational dress or who appeared red faced whilst cycling, could expect to be denounced as being inappropriately and dangerously ‘masculine’ in the cycling and wider press.

As such, learning to ride a bicycle required middle-class women to carefully navigate their way through a set of highly conservative and rigid gender norms. How could you learn to ride a bicycle without being seen as undignified, clumsy and inelegant?

“Maidens with a disregard for convention” by William Gordan Davis, 1895. National Cycle Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

‘Maidens with a disregard for convention’ by William Gordon Davis, 1895. Source:

Some found a solution to this problem by learning to ride at times of day when the roads they practised on were quiet, such as early in the morning or late at night. Others utilised roads away from city centres which were subject to little traffic. Both these practices can be seen in an article that appeared in The Aberdeen Weekly Journal in 1896, a piece which also recognised how quiet and remote spaces could be employed for purposes other than induction into the mysterious art of pedalling a bicycle. The article described how ‘Albyn Lane, the once secluded vernal bye-way sacred to whispering lovers’, had become a place where,

‘Any fine evening maidens may be seen acquiring the art of cycling with the aid of their male friends and advisors, and the comicalities of the situation- the ill-concealed flirtation- the agonising efforts to sit on a bicycle- form a spectacle worth a visit.’

Albyn Lane as it appears today

However, the growing numbers of middle and upper-class men, and, to a greater extent women, who wanted to learn how to ride bicycles without embarrassing themselves in public, not only led to cyclists flocking to previously ‘secluded vernal bye-ways’. The rising demand for more private spaces in which those on comfortable incomes could learn to cycle, also meant that from the mid-1890s onwards there was a rapid growth of so called ‘cycling schools’. An article on these schools, or ‘academies’ as they were also known, published in Cycling in 1896, described how,

‘Schools for cycle teaching have been in vogue for twenty years…but it required the advent of the better classes into our ranks, especially the female portion thereof, to create the schools we have with us on all sides at the present time.’

Cycle schools were typically based in large indoor spaces, such as halls or gymnasiums. Another article in Cycling, which gave details on a new cycling academy which had opened in Newcastle, stated how,

‘Mr T.D. Oliver…has opened the new gymnasium at Newcastle as a school for cycling… (His) enterprise in this direction is bound to secure a fair amount of patronage during the winter months, particularly from the fairer sex. The hall has an area of 5,300 feet available for cycling.’

Poster  for a cycling school. Source:

The costs of attending these schools were roughly similar to those outlined in the poster above- around two shillings (roughly £6.50 in today’s money) for a lesson, or 10 shillings sixpence for ‘full tuition’ (around £33-£35). These prices covered the expense of hiring a bicycle, and being solicitously guided by a so-called ‘master’, who would carefully and efficiently induct you into the art of pedalling a cycle.

Well that was the theory. Certainly the proprietors of cycling academies were usually respectable, well-renowned men who had many years cycling experience. A popular cycling school in Birmingham made much of the fact that their main instructor was ‘Professor J.M. Hubbard’, although what exactly his field of academic expertise was, and whether it was at all related to riding bicycles, was never made clear in their adverts.

However, beneath these ‘head masters’ were usually a number of young, male employees, who found a fairly easy, if moderate income by bequeathing their knowledge on how to ride a bicycle to others. Their method of teaching appears to have been fairly simple- they would typically put their arm around the side of the cyclist they were mentoring, and guide them round a track until they felt comfortable and confident enough to cycle by themselves.

Frances Willard receiving female support whilst learning to cycle.

It would appear that the women who were on the receiving end of the verbal and physical instructions of sweaty and, in all likelihood, rather awkward adolescences, did not always fully appreciate their teaching methods. A piece in Hearth and Home, a publication aimed at women from the middle classes, bemoaned the fact that in most cycling schools,

‘The average teacher, generally a raw youth, considers the whole duty of instruction is to hold the timorous tyro on her machine, but the masters at St. George School have a happy knack of quickly placing a rider en rapport with her bicycle.’

To avoid the awkwardness of physical contact between trainer and trainee, some schools implemented alternative forms of instruction. Another piece in Hearth and Home stated how,

‘The best instructors provide a leather belt for their pupils with a handle on the back, a method far preferable to being held on one’s machine by a perspiring youth.’

Learning to cycle on the road (and avoiding awkward young men)

However, not all women who attended these schools resented being held on their machines by ‘perspiring youths’. Indeed, such teaching methods appear to have occasionally been conducive to the types of romancing which occurred on Albyn Lane. An article in Cycling from 1896 described how,

‘A youth of some nineteen summers, employed in one of the large cycling schools, to teach ladies to cycle, recently captured the heart and hand of one of his fair pupils, and married her without delay. As the lady is well endowed with this world’s goods, the fortunate youth has no further necessity to teach cycling, except as a recreation’.

Let us hope their marriage out better than other instances when young men of humble means won the affections of women ‘well endowed with this world’s goods’ after experiencing close physical encounters with them.

Learning to Cycle in the 1890s

As I am sure will be the case with most people reading this, learning how to ride a bicycle is one of my first and indeed, one of my happiest memories. After much trouble and difficulty, remaining upright and moving forward without stabilizers, brought about feelings of success and, perhaps more than anything, excitement.

An exception to this rule

By contrast, for the majority of those living through the 1890s who had up until this period never before cycled, mastering a bicycle was an event which occurred at a much later stage in life. However, in the absence of any acquired experiences that could prepare you for maintaining your balance whilst pedaling forward on two wheels, this did nothing to make the whole experience any easier. In her book, A Wheel within a wheel. How I learned to ride a bicycle, with some reflections by the way (available for online reading here:, Frances Willard, aged fifty-three, described the process by which she learnt to ride a bicycle she named ‘Gladys’ as involving,

‘First, three young Englishman, all strong-armed and accomplished bicyclers, held the machine in place while I climbed into the saddle. Second, two well-disposed young women put all the power they had, until they grew red in the face, off-setting each other’s pressure and thus maintaining the equipoise to which I was unequal. Third, one walked beside me steadying the ark as best she could by holding the centre of the deadly cross-bar, to let go whose handlebars meant chaos and collapse. After this I was able to hold my own if I had the moral support of my kind trainers, and it passed into proverb among them, the short emphatic word of command I gave them at every few turns of the wheel: ‘Let go but stand by.’

H.G. Wells also captured the difficulties you would encounter when taking your bicycle out for it’s first public spin in his 1896 novel The Wheels of Chance (available online here:

Cover to the Wheels of Chance. Source:

The subject of the book was a ten day cycling tour taken by ‘Mr Hoopdriver’, a man in his early twenties who was based on Wells’ own experiences of working as a drapers assistant. Wells described how on the first day of his cycling holiday that there was,

‘Only one phrase to describe his course at this stage, and that is- voluptuous curves. He did not ride fast, he did not ride straight, an exacting critic might say he did not ride well- but he rode generously, opulently, using the whole road and even nibbling at the footpath. The excitement never flagged. So far he had never been passed by anything, but as of yet the day was young and the road was clear. He doubted his steering so much that, for the present, he had resolved to dismount at the approach of anything else upon wheels.’

After seeing a carter making his way towards him, Hoopdriver was able to put this approach into practice and ‘according to his previous determination, resolved to dismount’. However, this did not altogether go as planned, as,

‘He tightened the brake, and the machine stopped dead. He was trying to think what he did with his right leg whilst getting off. He gripped the handles and released the brake, standing on the brake and waving his right foot in the air. Then- these things take so long in the telling- he found the machine was falling over to the right. Whilst he was deciding upon a plan of action, gravitation appears to have been busy. He was still irresolute when he found the machine on the ground, himself kneeling upon it, and a vague feeling in his mind that Providence had dealt harshly with his shin.’


Wells and his wife awheel. Source:

It would appear that such an experience was commonplace for those who learned to cycle in the 1890s, with Willard also describing how,

‘One bright morning I bowed on down Priory drive waving my hand to my most adventurous aide-de-camp, and calling out as I left behind, ‘Now you will see how nicely I can do it- watch!’ when behold! that timid left foot turned traitor, and I came down solidly on my knee, and the knee on a pebble as relentless as prejudice and as opinionated as ignorance.’

Indeed, both the writings of Wells and Willard highlight that the process of learning to ride a bike as an adult in this period, was not an altogether different one to the one which we all experienced way back when. Following these initial difficulties and injuries, came slow feelings of mastery. As Wells somewhat imaginatively put it,

‘To ride the bicycle properly is very much like a love affair- chiefly it is a matter of faith. Believe you do it, and the thing is done: doubt, and, for the life of you, you cannot.’

Drawing by Wells showing an old classmate how to dismount from a bicycle. Source:

And then, of course, came the excitement of confidently pedaling a machine which opened up previously unheralded opportunities and possibilities. Soon after the quote above Wells stated how upon reaching the top of a hill Hoopdriver,

‘Put his feet upon the footrests, and now riding moderately straight, went, with a palpitating brake, down that excellent descent. A new delight was in his eyes, quite over and above the pleasure of rushing through the keen, sweet, morning air. He reached out his thumb and twanged his bell out of sheer happiness.’

Or in the words of Willard,

‘In less than a day as the almanac reckons time- but practically in two days of actual practice- amid the delightful surroundings of the great outdoors, and inspired by the bird-songs, the colour and fragrance 0f an English posy-garden, in the company of devoted and pleasant comrades, I had made myself master of the most remarkable, ingenious and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet.

Moral: Go thou and do likewise!’






Festitivites from Cycling past/Blog Update

To begin on a brief personal note- it is rather noticeable looking down the side panel that I haven’t posted on here for a while. This can be explained by the fact that over the past few months I have been at bit overwhelmed with work and Victorian cycling as I’ve been in the process of finishing my master’s dissertation, which I am pleased/massively relieved to say has finally been handed in, hurrah!

At this stage I am not too sure whether I’ll go down the route of trying to have it published in some form so won’t be putting it online, but if anyone would like to read it then please email me and I will be very happy to send it over (warning, it is rather long and has much more on late nineteenth-century middle-class masculinity than is the case here).

Although I’ve now finished my masters I will carry on with the blog and be updating it much more frequently than I have been recently- it’s something which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing since I started it last January and I’m excited to see where it might take me next. A huge thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and follow it throughout this year.

Anyway, with Christmas just round the corner I thought it would be good to firstly post some musings which Cycling published in 1891 on the links between Christmas cheer and cycling, and secondly to wish everyone reading this happy festive feasting and jollification!

Courtesy of Staffordshire Archives and Heritage:

Victorian postcard of winter cycling on a boneshaker. Source: Staffordshire Archives and Heritage

‘Christmas and Cycling! What affinity exists between the two? Not a great deal, one would imagine; and yet the season of Yule is one that the cycler cannot pass over without notice. For it is as an everyday human being that Christmas, with its time-honored associations, appeals to him. Judged purely from the cycling standpoint, it has no great claim upon his feelings. It is a time when the idea of active participation in the wheel’s delights may generally be dismissed from the mind, and when feasting and jollification hold supreme sway.

As a bright oasis of goodwill and generosity in the dreary desert of selfish strife, the season of Nowell comes as a refreshing solace to any man- be he cycler or no. The cynic may decry the observance of the festival of Christmas, but the great majority of the world’s civilised races are as ardent as ever they were in keeping the one day in the calendar which has wrought such wonderful effects upon humanity. The keynote of ‘Goodwill towards men’ still rings out as clearly as it did nineteen centuries ago, and no doubt it will to the end of the world’s history.

Broad in his view must the cycler necessarily be, and our pastime has been one of the most potent factors in increasing that feeling of mutual goodwill, which should be even more general than it is. Nowadays few men mix so much with their fellow mortals and see so much of the varied phases of life as we cyclers, and so in all our rides abroad do we learn some lesson either from fellow humankind or from Mother Nature. Thus it is that while the rest of the world is at this Christmastide indulging in actions and expressions of goodwill, the cycler joins in the mighty chorus with a heartiness that has no equal.’

Victorian Christmas winter bike ride: Vintage Christmas Cards, Bicycles, Post Cards, Idea, Christmas Postcards, Bike, Vintage Card, Bumble Button

Victorian Christmas Postcard. Source: