Campaigning Cyclists

For those interested in such things, the UK’s first ever national cycling and walking debate which took place earlier this week (you can find out more about it here: After reading around the issues discussed, you could be forgiven for seeing the 1890s as a golden age for cyclists. This was a period when cyclists were by far and away the largest body of road users. Free from dangerous junctions and, for the most part, busy roads, what issues could they possibly need to bring up with politicians?

Quite a few actually. Throughout the 1890s the Cyclists’ Touring Club, backed by the wider cycling press, campaigned for changes on a wide range of issues, all far removed from the debate which took place last Monday.

One particularly prominent issue for cyclists in this period was meeting other road users at night. Whilst this might not sound like much of a problem, there were no laws enforcing non-cyclists to have lights on their vehicles. For those cyclists sharing unlit country roads with horse drawn vehicles, this sometimes presented itself as an issue. The following letter appeared in Cycling in 1891:

‘Sir-Cannot something be done to enforce drivers of vehicles to carry lights, the same as cyclists who are compelled to, especially in country places, where there is always a scarcity of road lamps? On Thursday evening I was riding in Bexley from Foots Cray, when a man driving a fast-trotting cob harnessed to a light dogcart, without lights, came round the sharp curve by Bexley Church on the wrong side of the road, and having no time to get out of the way, the cob and trap came into collision with my bicycle, luckily doing no damage beyond smashing my lamp and bruising me a little.’

Horses and dogcarts: Not what you want to meet around a dark corner. Source:

You might expect the driver to be apologetic to the cyclist. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. The writer explained,

‘Of course there was the usual argument, which ended in the man refusing to give his name and threatening violence; and as there was no policeman to prevent him, he drove off, and I, having no light, was unable to follow him.’

Strange to say, it could have been even worse for the cyclist. In 1898 the Leeds Express reported on the case of a cyclist, who, after colliding with a horse dealer found himself being attacked by the driver and his whip after he asked for his name and address (maybe cars, with their headlights and their whipless owners aren’t so bad after all).

However, despite much agitation, both by the cycling press and the Cyclists’ Touring Club, by 1900 there were still no universal lights law. The second area in which cyclists campaigned for change was in relation to railway companies. For many cyclists in this period, especially those going on holiday, part of their journey involved a railway journey in which their bicycles were stored in general luggage compartments at the back of trains.

Cyclists had two main complaints about their experiences of rail journeys. The first was cost- English rail companies charged far more for storing cycles than any other cycling nation. However, cyclists would more frequently complain about the manner in which their bicycles were stored in train’s luggage compartments. Because train companies did not make special provisions for storing bicycles, this meant they were often crammed in with other items of luggage. As an article in Cycling explained,

‘In the matter of accommodation cycles are at present placed with other luggage and it is a common occurrence for cycles to be stacked together. So little consideration for the safe carriage of cycles is shown that many are rendered unrideable by the end of the journey, and the majority are scratched or damaged in some way.’

On top of this, most rail companies accepted no costs for damages done to machines. An article in cycling, commenting on the poor relationships between cyclists and train companies, described how,

‘It sometimes happens that a cyclist has to place himself at the mercy of the railway company. Whether going on tour, on benighted, or storm overtaken, or broken-down, it is an evil day for both man and machine, for verily he must have many shekels who can face the charges for the bike and the damages thereto. They give you a little piece of paper, printed on the back with some infernal nonsense about ‘the act of God and the Queen’s enemies, and this absolving themselves of any legal responsibility, proceed to pile milk-cans and packing cases on the top of the unoffending bike.’

Although there was a slight reduction in rates for cyclists in 1893, train companies did very little to provide better facilities for bicycles during this period, much to the annoyance of cyclists such as the one above. However, there was an issue which cyclists successfully campaigned on. Despite many proposals, no tax was placed on cycling and cyclists in this period (which continues to this day, long may it continue!)

Surprisingly, this was the one issue which actually divided cyclists. Some thought that by paying a tax cyclists would increase their status and standing in relation to other road users, and that the money raised might be used on improving roads. The issue was also a class one, with some wealthier cyclists arguing that a tax would effectively remove the rougher, lower class cyclists who they claimed were damaging the good name and ‘respectability’ of the sport (more on this another time).

Despite these arguments, cycling remained an activity which you did not need to pay a tax to enjoy. Those campaigning against a cycle tax benefited from having the support of high ranking politicians. In 1893 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, replying to proposals to tax cyclists stated that,

‘I have no sympathy with the proposals which have been made in various quarters for levying a tax upon cyclists. In my view cycling has afforded opportunities for healthy enjoyment and facilities for business purposes which are highly advantageous to large classes of the community, whose restricted means exclude them from more expensive methods of locomotion. Many thousands of persons with small incomes are thus enabled to obtain fresh air and exercise, and to escape from the influences of large towns, and also to carry on with less labour and fatigue their ordinary occupations. I see with satisfaction in the delightful part of the country in which I live that vast numbers of people are capable of enjoying its beauties to an extent which in former times was impracticable. I regard cycling as a cheap, a healthy and a useful pleasure, and I have no difficulty in assuring you that, so long as I have any responsibility in the matter, it is the last thing I should be taxing.’


Sir William Harcourt

Cycling Sources #5, ‘Mrs. Matilda Manleigh’

As an add on to the articles on ‘Womanly Cycling‘, here is an piece which appeared in Cycling shortly after the furore that surrounded Tessie Reynolds racing from Brighton to London and back. In it a journalist from Cycling goes forward in time to 1920, where he interviews ‘Mrs Matilda Manleigh’ (pun intended), who is a symbol of the new ‘women’s era’. It gives some idea of why Cycling was so opposed to female cyclists breaking records and cycling in ‘masculine’ attire (and also the ridiculous nature of this opposition). If female cyclists carried on like this, who knew where it might lead?

We are advanced; this is the women’s era. It is the year 1920, and I, a masculine worm, crushed out of recognition by the feminine heel, have been deputed by Cycling (full of energy as ever), to interview Mrs Matilda Manleigh, the famous female phenomenon of the period. Mrs. Manleigh is a marvel. She has just won, for the second successive year, the one hundred miles championship of the Up-to-date Female’s Emancipation Society’s Cycling Club; and she also holds the twenty-five miles path, and fifty miles road, championships for the Women’s Rights Federation C.C. In addition to her connection with the institutions named above, Mrs. Manleigh is also a member of the ‘Female Society for the Suppression of Despotic Man’ (Mr. Manleigh knows it!) and is President for the ‘Women’s Records Association.

Cartoon from Punch. Source:

There is no denying that Mrs. Matilda Manleigh is a truly remarkable woman, and as the male servant- whom I afterwards discovered was none other than the deposed and despised Mr. Manleigh himself- cringed and ushered me into the presence of the Amazonic creature, I confess to a feeling of some trepidation, and a desire to be anywhere out of the way- running a trial trip on that 150-mile-per-hour-electric railway for preference.

Mrs. Manleigh is a tall, imposing (very!) woman. On this occasion I discovered her dressed for a ride in the cycling costume of the period, which I would describe were it not for the fact that several personal friends of mine, and a relation- an aunt with money and respect for myself-read this paper.

On my entrance Mrs. Manleigh laid down her cigarette and rose to greet me. Gripping my hand like a vice, and shaking it as though my arm were a refractory signal, she bade me be seated.

‘A representative of Cycling, I see’, said Mrs. Manleigh, glancing at my card.

‘Yes madam’, I replied, politely.

‘Ah! Some time ago, I am given to understand, your journal had the temerity to enter a protest against the, ‘female scorcher’. Your presence here for the purpose of interviewing me suggests the inference you have changed your views. Pardon me, do you smoke?’

‘Thank you’, I replied, accepting the proffered cigar. ‘Yes madam, we have, as you remark, changed our views. You see, first the editor got married, and then I got- but why bother you with my little troubles, Mrs Manleigh?’ I said, apologetically.


‘And on the subject of dress?’ queried the lady.

‘Well, in the matter of dress our wives have long since convinced us that the more masculine the costume adopted by females, the more inconspicuous the person so attired.’

‘Just so. Now here, Mr. Cycling, is a portrait of myself taken just before the start of the, ‘Up-to-date Female’s Emancipation C.C.’s Championship. None but the brutal and depraved could cavil at that, and any man- but no; what has he got to do with it? Why, you are blushing sir!’

‘No madam, I assure you not. I have the toothache, and as you know the poet says, ‘There never was a philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently. Do you train seriously?’, I enquired, anxious to change the topic.

‘Why rather! I spend four months every year up north, and..’,

At this moment the interview was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Mr. Manleigh in an apron carrying a broom and a basin of tea leaves. On viewing the situation he immediately departed with a scared look, muttering apologies for having broken up our têteà-tête.

Female cyclist in rational dress (does it say Tessie Reynolds underneath?) from 1889. Source:

‘Do you allow men to pace you?’ (when a cyclist in front protects the one behind from headwinds and creates a slipstream for you to cycle in), I enquired.

‘Certainly; why not? In the ordinary work of life I regard man as a necessary evil, but as a pacer he is a faithful creature. Under ordinary circumstances I find him an unmitigated bore, but we endure him as he is; it is as a pacer, however, that we find in man a useful and truly well-meaning automaton. He has a place, and as the chairwoman of the ‘Society for the Suppression of Despotic Man’, I can assure you it should be the endeavour of every right-minded woman to keep him there!’

Mrs. Manleigh delivered this speech with flashing eyes, and the terrible last words showed the pent-up enthusiasm that burned her soul. Wonderful woman I thought, fumbling for my hat, and edging towards the door.

‘I think I have gleaned all the information necessary, thank you Mrs. Manleigh. I will leave you now.’

‘Good day! Said the Amazon, extending her hand. ‘Mrs. Cycling will be welcome at our next Suppression Society conference on Saturday- subject for discussion, ‘Man, and where to keep him.’ Good day!’

‘Good day madam!’

With that I fled back, and here I am in 1893.

A husband at home looking after the babies while his rationally dressed wife prepares for a spin. Source:

‘Womanly Cycling’- Part Two

Opposition to female cyclists who used the bicycle as a tool for anything other than graceful, leisurely riding was strongly revealed in the furore that followed the achievement of Tessie Reynolds, who, aged sixteen years old, raced from Brighton to London and back (a distance well over a hundred miles) in 8 and a half hours in 1893. This is was not a cause for celebration within the cycling press. Dubbing the whole event a ‘lamentable incident’, Cycling argued that,

‘Every wheelman who has managed to retain a belief in the innate modesty and sense of becomingness in the opposite sex, will hear with real pain, not unmixed with disgust, of what we will call a lamentable incident that took place on the Brighton road early last Sunday.’

Cycling’s main objection to Tessie Reynold’s achievement came from their belief that,

‘Nothing is more calculated to give cycling for women a set-back than this racing, above all, the sight of a young girl tearing her heart out along the highway, cheered on by a crew of male pacemakers. Gentlemen of England, doth (you) like the picture?’

Cycling did not just object to Tessie Reynold’s style of riding. The editorial also included a complaint about her manner of dress, which Cycling had heard was,

‘Of a most unnecessary masculine nature and scantiness.’

As you can see in the picture above, Tessie Reynold’s wore cycling attire which revealed, horror of horrors, her legs and calfs. In the late-Victorian period for a woman to reveal even a clothed pair of legs in public was seen to challenge her feminine modesty and ‘becomingness’. Ideas of feminine beauty were very much focussed on women appearing refined and graceful, and it was deemed that women’s legs, particularly those belonging to ‘stouter’ women, did not fill this criteria. As one writer in the Yorkshire Evening Post put it,

‘A pair of legs working like cranks on a pair of pedals is ugly enough in a man; but in a woman, especially with abnormal hips, the sight is a caricature of the sweetest and best half of humanity’.

As such it was commonly advised that women wore skirts whilst cycling. These were not ideal from a practical point of view. These skirts were often heavy and cumbersome, offered a large surface area to any headwinds and made the very act of pedalling much more exerting. In the words of one lady cyclist,

‘A skirt is intrinsically feminine, though it is idiotically irrational for cycling.’

There was also the additional worry of skirts getting caught in the wind and flying up whilst a lady cycled. A vicar described how watching ladies cycling down hills in a wind had led to him and a ‘group of idle lads at the street corner’ seeing,

‘What none of the male sex ought to be allowed to see, and what every woman with any pretention to modesty takes great care to avoid being seen.’

Efforts were made to combat these problems. Many women wore narrower, shorter skirts which rested an inch or two above the ankle, with knickerbockers underneath to replace the layer of petticoats. However, although an improvement this attire still did not offer the same freedom, safety and lightness as trousers.

This meant that, like Tessie Reynolds, some women took to wearing ‘rational dress’ whilst cycling, costume which consisted of either knickerbockers or ‘bloomers’ being worn without a skirt on-top of them. These were often accompanied with a jacket, cut in a manner similar to those worn by men. As revealed by the case of Tessie Reynolds, the British public were not exactly enamoured with this new form of feminine attire. There will be another article about how women in rationals were received by the wider British public, but for the time being here is one women’s description of riding through a town in rationals from 1895.

‘I was favoured on numerous occasions with selections from ‘Daisy Bell.’ Thirteen persons saluted me with the polite command of, ‘Git yer ‘air cut!’ Eight were extremely anxious to know my tailor’s 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 thoughtfully suggested that I should, ‘Git 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!’ In spite of the attention my appearance excited, several acquaintances passed me without notice.’

‘Womanly’ Cycling- Part One

It was only during the 1890s that it became commonly accepted that cycling was a pastime which women could participate in as well as men.  This period, and in particular the mid-1890s saw a rapid growth in the presence of female cyclists, both from middle and working-class backgrounds. Whilst the beginning of the 1890s saw attitudes towards women who cycled slowly begin to shift, it was the ‘cycling craze’ of 1895, in which members of the aristocracy and ‘society’ took to cycling in great number, which appears to have done the most towards changing attitudes towards female cyclists. One female cyclist, charting the progress of women’s cycling in Dublin, explained how,

‘By 1890, one could ride a bicycle around Dublin without being actually mobbed, by 1891, curses and strong epithets were only heard occasionally in the streets, although Society still totally ignored the existence of the pastime, and society with a small ‘s’ thought it very fast and vulgar. 1892 and 1893 saw an increase, although not a very big one, in the number of ladies safeties; in 1894 Society began to cast sheep’s eyes at the pastime which it had so long stigmatised as ‘impossible’, and a few grandes dames mounted the wheel in strict privacy. In 1895 came the cycling boom, ‘Society’ at last took the plunge on the verge of which it had so long been hesitating, and bicycling all at once became, ‘the thing’. (Quoted from Cycling and Gender in Victorian Ireland, Brian Griffin).

However, whilst cycling was no longer seen as an activity too ‘fast and vulgar’ for women to enjoy, notions of femininity and ‘what was proper’ for women placed heavy restrictions on those women who took to cycling. Although this period saw a slight widening in qualities and behaviours that could be seen as ‘womanly’, middle-class notions of femininity still remained heavily focussed on women appearing graceful, refined and unflustered. There was, therefore, a great pressure on female cyclists to conform to these qualities when awheel. As one female writer put it,

‘It has been said, and said rightly, that the woman who allows herself to be seen hot and red with exertion, and panting from want of breath, loses much of her feminine dignity’.

To cycle in a ‘womanly’ fashion then was to appear calm, unflustered, elegant and poised. As the write above went on to comment,

‘The ideal rider more resembles a hawk on the wing than anything else, the perfect poise and effortless movement, graduating almost at the will of the rider, with no violent external effort shown.’

Perfect poise mastered, now time to practice effortless movement. Source:

Advice on how women could achieve, ‘perfect poise and effortless movement’, appeared in a number of women’s publications during in this period. These advice pieces gave particular focus to hill climbing, for the obvious risk that women might show, ‘violent external effort’ whilst travelling up steep ascents. One female writer in Hearth and Home explained how,

‘The best way to take a long hill is to go slowly, not to rush up to full speed until it is impossible to go on any further, but to ease up at the bottom and deliberately begin the ascent sitting quite upright with a slight pull of the handles now and then, but no crouching or straining.’

To achieve this upright position with no ‘crouching or straining’ it was advised that,

‘The ankle muscles must do the work; they must keep both pedals working one with the other. The toes must do their part in forcing one set of pedal bars forward whilst the other hooks them backwards.’

It was not only woman who gave advice on ‘feminine’ cycling. A male member of the Hull St. Andrews C.C. told the club’s female members to,

‘Cultivate a good style of riding, sit upright and don’t stick your elbows out, nothing looks so objectionable as the latter.’

Cultivating a ‘good style of riding’. Source:

The risk of appearing ‘unwomanly’ was not the only reason why women were advised to cycle in a slow and steady manner. Doctor’s frequently advised against woman over-exerting themselves whilst cycling, drawing on medical thinking which stated that women possessed weaker constitutions to men. As such those women who, ‘over-did’ it were thought to be seriously endangering their health. One doctor from the period advised female cyclists that,

‘It is never worth-while to go beyond your strength, either by attempting long distances or with the wish to show your power of endurance.’

The doctor went onto to warn female cyclists that they should, ‘avoid pounding up hills. If breath begins to fail dismount at once.’

Even sitting in an upright position was seen as a necessary precaution against ill health. Another doctor commented that,

‘One of the most important points in riding is position. The upright position is the only one that will not entail injury to internal organs. If this is maintained it will benefit all of these, removing the congestion from which so many distressing symptoms arise.’

However, perhaps the most archaic piece of feminine cycling medical advice came from Fanny Erskine, publisher of books on cycling for women during the 1890s. She advised her readers that if a female cyclist found herself panting then,

‘Something is radically wrong, and a doctor should be consulted.’

Advice which will hopefully forever remain in the 1890s.

Victorian Intellectuals Awheel

‘Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.’

H.G. Wells

Many writers at the turn of the century made good use of the bicycle, using it as a means of resting wearied brains as they searched for adventure, stimulation and relaxation. H.G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, was a keen cyclist, and his 1896 book The Wheels of Chance described the adventures of a draper’s assistant from London on his ten day cycling tour.


Cover to Wells’ The Wheels of Chance 

Wells himself spent three unhappy years as a draper’s assistant, and he put these and his own cycling experiences into the main character of Hoopdriver, whose cycling holiday represents freedom, escape and adventure. As Hoopdriver cycling in the countryside contemplates,

‘Here was quiet and greenery, and one mucked about as the desire took one, without a soul to see, and here was no wailing of ‘Sayn’, no folding of remnants, no voice to shout, ‘Hoopdriver forward!’

Wells captures many of the joys of cycling when Hoopdriver realises,

‘There were miles of this- scores of miles of this before him, pinewood and oak forest, purple, heathery moorland and grassy down, lush meadows where shining rivers wound their lazy way, villages with square-towered, flint churches, and rambling, cheap and hearty inns, clean, white country towns, long downhill stretches, where one might ride at one’s ease (overlooking a jolt or two) and far away, at the end of it all- the sea.’


H.G. Wells with his wife Jane (source:

Amongst the ranks of literary cyclists could also be found Arthur Conan Doyle, who advised,

‘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.’

All very sensible. Not so sensible was the riding style of George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, novelist and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. After taking to the bicycle at the age of 29, Shaw developed his own distinctive riding style. In his biography of Shaw, Michael Holroyd describes how,

‘For someone physically timid, Shaw’s experiments by bicycle were extraordinary. He would raise his feet to the handlebars and simply toboggan down steep places. Many of his falls, from which we would prance away shouting, ‘I am not hurt’, with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism.’

After four years of cycling he could claim, ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.’

George Bernard Shaw- Nobel Prize winner in Literature, questionable cyclist.

However, not all of Shaw’s accidents came as a result of his own unique approach to bicycle riding. In 1895 he went on a cycling trip around Monmouthshire in Wales with Bertrand Russell and Sidney Webb. Given the former was a leading philosopher and mathematician who would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the latter an economist and co-founding member of LSE, you would not have expected bicycle riding to have posed the group too great a challenge.

However, it appears Russell remained ignorant of Conan Doyle’s advice to go, ‘without anything but thought for the ride you are taking’. Shaw describes how,

‘We three rode on our bicycles down a steep hill on our way to Tintern Abbey. Russell is rather absent-minded, and he is presently occupied with a work on non-Euclidian space. He suddenly woke up from a fit of mathematical absorption, and jumped off his machine to read a signpost.’

As it was reported in the Sheffield Independent,

‘The consequences may be imagined. G.B.S. was just behind him, and there was a ‘terrific smash’ and the great critic and Fabian was hurled, ‘five yards through space (Euclidian) and landed impartially on several parts of himself.’

Bertrand Russell

Fortunately Bertrand Russell remained unhurt. Shaw demonstrated some his famed resilience by recovering and cycling home. However, this was only after,

‘Lying flat on his back on the roadway for a while, and defending himself against all proposals to poison him with brandy’. Shaw attributed his escape to his clothing and his, ‘splendid quality of bone and muscle’ resulting from a vegetarian diet.

The lesson? Renowned philosophers and Nobel Prize winners don’t make for great cycling companions.