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.

Cycling Sources #9, Should Women Cycle?

As has been touched upon many times, the subject of women on bicycles was one which caused continued controversy and debate during the 1890s. Their riding styles, the clothes they wore, and indeed whether they should cycle at all, filled up column inches in both the cycling, and the national press.

To resolve this final question once and for all, in 1896 the women’s periodical, Hearth and Home, decided to write to a wide range of prominent individuals, asking for their opinions on the question ‘should women cycle?’

1890s cycling

Drawings of female cyclists (and selfie posers?) from the 1890s. Source:

These ‘prominent individuals’ were listed as including, ‘leading members of the Church, the Medical Profession, the Services, and the House of Commons’. Other than perhaps doctors, at first glance it is somewhat unclear as to how much insight Archbishops, Military Officers and M.P.s could provide into this question.

However, by seeking the opinions of these individuals, what Hearth and Home was really asking was something along the lines of, ‘is cycling a socially acceptable pastime for women to participate in?’ By having the Archbishop of wherever answer in the affirmative, Hearth and Home’s female readership could take to their wheels safe in the knowledge that cycling was a respectable, suitable activity for them to engage in.

Whilst it can be celebrated that most of these answers were of a positive nature, the fact that they were all coming from men, and the emphasis they gave to women cycling in a ‘fashionable’, ‘moderate’ and ‘graceful’ manner, highlights how both the position of women in society, and understandings of appropriately ‘feminine’ behaviours more generally, were very much removed from our own during this period. As the not-so discretely titled ‘Major-General Harcourt Bengough’ put it, ‘by all means ride, but if you cycle, cycle well.’

Finally, if anyone knows of any current school of medical thought which states that, ‘the physical perfection and nervous dexterity of our limbs react favourably on our intellect and moral character’ then I’d love to find out more!

The beginning of the article, and a selection of the responses, are listed below.

Thinking that our readers would like to know the views of people of authority on the all-important question, ‘Should women cycle?’, we sent letters to leading members of the Church, the Medical Profession, the Services, and the House of Commons, asking their opinions. The number of replies we received was very gratifying, while on the whole the verdict was decidedly in favour of the popular pastime.

Mr George Wyndham, M.P., is distinctly an advocate of cycling, when done in moderation, and we commend the sound common sense of his views,

‘You ask my opinion on ‘cycling for women’. I think it is a healthy exercise, and, when mastered, a graceful accomplishment. It is certainly exhilarating, and useful for developing self-reliance and dexterity. If, as some schools of medicine hold, the physical perfection and nervous dexterity of our limbs react favourably on our intellect and moral character, then cycling must have a high educational value.’

George Wyndham

Colonel A.C. Welby, M.P., evidently believes in cycling as a healthy pastime, but is in favour of moderate dress,

‘I am afraid, as a bachelor, I cannot claim views which are likely to be of any interest to others. It seems to me that in country districts, and where women have a long way to their work, cycling is an exercise, or a means of locomotion, both cheap and invigorating. Whether the riding is physically advantageous I must leave to doctors to decide.

When ladies in London parade up and down to look smart and attractive, I often think that if mirrors were arranged alongside, so that they could see the very ungraceful and inelegant position which, especially in wind, cycle-riding entails, they would go straightaway home, and never ride a cycle again for show.’

The Bishop of Bath and Wells is very decidedly in favour of the pursuit with certain restrictions, and,

‘Thinks cycling good for the health, good for the temper, and a good kind of amusement for men, women and children; but its practice by women should not be with a view to racing, nor in unfeminine dress, and never with disregard to the rules of the road.’

George Kennion, Archbishop of Bath and Wells in 1896

Among the opponents of rational dress for cycling is the Dean of Salisbury, who writes:-

‘My views on the subject of ‘cycling for women’ are hardly worth your notice. I cannot say I entirely disapprove of what may be a necessity almost for some who cannot drive or walk, but I think caution as to the effect on health is highly desirable. That ‘cycling’ should be common in large towns I think would be, as indeed has been seen, hardly possible from the fear of accidents. But wherever and whenever practiced I deprecate the possibility of the adaptation of any dress not entirely feminine. It seems to me that we are in danger of a fashion for male attire on the part of ladies, which may injure the true position of women in the world.’

‘Injuring the true position of women in the world’. Source:

Major-General Harcourt Bengough, C.B., gives very sound advice,

‘In the early days of cycling I confess I sided with the large majority of men and women who refused to believe that cycling would ever become a popular recreation with English ladies. In its early days it had many difficulties- prejudices if you will- to be overcome. There were difficulties as to becomingness of costume, fears as to the possibility of a graceful deportment on wheels, doubts as to the propriety of riding about unattended, and there were questions as to the effect of cycling on the health.

The pioneers of the movement, too, were not generally those recognised by society as empowered to introduce new fads. A bulging skirt, a crouching and too solid figure, a florid headdress surmounting a spectacled and somewhat over-earnest countenance, these were not traits to attract a huge number of votaries.

‘A spectacled and somewhat over-earnest countenance’. Source:

But all this has happily changed- youth, beauty and fashion have taken cycling by the hand, science and skill have been called in as allies, and the result is a fascinating and health-giving pastime. It is surely a pretty sight, that of a young girl confident in her skill, confident in her costume, floating along with a movement which partakes something of flying, something of skating, erect in her seat as a dragoon, supple as a willow branch. To those who hesitate to follow the fashion, I would say, ‘by all means ride’, but I would add this caution, ‘if you cycle, cycle well’.

Another distinguished military officer considers-

‘That cycling is a very desirable accomplishment for women, so long as not carried to extreme limits. Women often appear to advantage on bicycles, and can sit up gracefully on the saddle; while men on the other hand, most frequently appear at a disadvantage, on account of their stooping too much.

By bicycling, women who have for years been restricted to a neighbourhood of a radius from two to three miles can now extend this area to a radius of eight to ten miles, and have an opportunity of seeing the country when living in town. Bicycling has thus placed poor women on an equal footing with rich ones in a most important particular- getting fresh air and exercise and seeing new scenery. Bicycling will add to a new interest to life, and bring God’s lovely earth to the doors of thousands of women in poor circumstances who would otherwise see nothing but streets and squalor each day.’

To end up with, we give the opinions of that charming writer, Eden Phillpotts, containing as they do sterling common-sense with a sly dash of humour,

‘I approve most heartily of bicycling for anything with a liver, and to deny that the sex shares with us the responsibility and anxieties of that weird organ would be false modesty. Let our maidens ride by all means, and our wives and mothers and grandmothers if they care to risk it. Any women corporeally fitted for the pastime has a right to appear on a bicycle. Those who ought not to ride and do, truly make a judicious spectator sad; but even in the most grotesque cases I blame the relations of the performer rather than the lady herself.

Bicycling has a tendency to keep women out of the shops, which is another subtle advantage. Again, a bicycle is at once far cheaper and healthier than a sealskin jacket. Let man once grasp this great fact, and any remaining paltry prejudices will vanish into limbo.’

Eden Phillpotts, a man who could combine ‘sterling common-sense with a sly dash of humour’. Source:

Cycling Sources #8 ‘Women on Wheels’

Why exactly did women take to cycling in the 1890s? Was it just for the pleasures and liberation which accompanied riding a bicycle, or were there other factors which pushed them to take up the pastime? In 1899 a Berlin writer with the most fantastically German name, in Herr Paul Von Schnonthan, looked to explore this question by going round Berlin asking women why they had taken to cycling. The following article, which appeared in an Irish newspaper, offered a commentary on his findings.

Von Schnonthan’s research suggested that pleasure and emancipation were not the main reasons why women took to cycling. Those he interviewed gave a wide range of reason why they cycled- from the demands of fashion to a desire to please their prospective husbands, but few mentioned the enjoyment which cycling brought them.

As such, the writer of the article was somewhat cynical about Von Schnonthan’s findings, querying the fact that, ‘almost all the women interviewed allege that necessity, not pleasure, has set them on wheels.’

Instead, they offered a much simpler why cycling was so popular amongst women. They extolled the ‘new life’ it had given them, which was, ‘wider, freer, and more delightful than was dreamt of before its coming.’

In an article of fantastic images (the ‘match-making mamma’ tortuously accompanying her daughters on their cycling excursions being particularly enjoyable) my favourite is probably the one of ‘a younger and unmarried lady’ carrying a pair of tongs and a spirit lamp on her excursions so to curl her fringe (more on the oft neglected history of fringe fashioning can be found here).

“A married lady alleges she was reluctantly compelled to cycle by the increasing expansion of her waist. ‘My sister-in-law’, she writes, ‘lost six pounds through bicycling, so I thought I would try my luck too. That is the only reason, for I derive no pleasure from it, and am afraid of my bones every time I mount my bike. In the spring I ride twenty kilometres every day. I am a little thinner than I was, but nothing to what I should like to be.’

Fashion is the power which has converted a younger and unmarried lady into a reluctant cyclist. She wails as follows over the sacrifices it entails: – ‘One is obliged to do so whether one likes it or not. As you ask for the truth, I will tell you that I do not think it nice for girls to ride on a bicycle. One perspires so horribly, and after half an hour’s ride one gets into a dreadful state. I always take a little powder-box and a pair of tongs and a spirit lamp to curl my fringe, but it is very difficult to use them when there are gentleman present, for that makes such a fuss, and they might laugh at one. I am always getting bruises too, and hurting myself. I hope the fashion will soon die out.’

One young lady, however, recently engaged, is an honest enthusiast. She has learnt to cycle at the request of her prospective bridegroom, and is determined to ride tandem with him after her marriage. She does not mention which is to take the front seat.

A young woman’s righter is a cyclist because she thinks the greatest movement runs fastest and smoothest on wheels. She contrasts her own condition before and after the emancipation of the bicycle. There are two very different girls that she describes:- ‘The one that walks along the Ringstrasse by mama’s side, clad in a long gown, terribly hampering to the legs, that can scarcely dare to look to the right or the left, and must certainly not look behind; the other, in a smart and coquettish attire, decent and sportsmanlike – a cap and a man’s scarf, and a divided skirt- rides along the street. One feels then, as free as a bird in the air, and a little like a man! And really, the best of all is to be a man! Of course, a good many ride who ought not to do so. They have not the necessary figure. One must be nineteen and have a good figure if one wants to ride a bicycle.

Cycling in ‘smart and coquettish’ attire. Source:

An appeal is made to our sympathy on behalf of the match-making mamma, whom duty, not pleasure, has planted solidly on the bicycle saddle. ‘Just because I am married and have grown-up daughters, I am obliged to take up cycling. All their girl friends bike, and it is now a part of a girl’s education to do so. I resisted as long as I could, because my husband does not approve of it, and four bicycles make a big hole in one’s annual income; but is was of no use, when we saw that two of my husband’s nieces, who are not anything like so pretty as my three girls, had got engaged whilst bicycling. It was my duty as a mother, though an unpleasant one. Young men nowadays are quite made about bicycling. Formerly they used to come to one’s house; now their bicycling excursions always prevent them from doing so, and one is always hearing that Miss so-and-so is going with them. So I had to let my girls learn to ride too; and as I cannot let them go alone, I have had to learn as well in my old days, though it is torture to me. Do you think I would be such a fool as to ride at my age if I was not positively obliged to do so?’

The good lady can dismount as she pleases. The chief merit of the bicycle in the eyes of the young is that it dispenses of the chaperon. The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator. It imparts an open aired freedom and freshness to a life heretofore cribbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy, and driven triumphantly over her prostrate body. Delightful excursions, fresh air, and lovely scenery are the boons which the cycle has offered to the girl, and of which the girl has testified her enthusiastic appreciation.

Engaging in ‘Delightful Exursions’. Source:

Yet it cannot be said that cycling makes women ‘fast’ except as pace is measured by the cyclometer. We are not surprised that in matrimonial advertisements in Germany it has come to be regarded as an essential condition. To men the bicycle has been as unquestionable boon. But after all, men had their fair share of fresh air and country pleasures before the advent of the wheel. To women, it has brought a new life, wider, freer, and more delightful than was dreamt of before its coming.”

An example of a marriage advertisement from the 19th Century. Many more equally amusing examples can he found at

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.

Cycling Sources #1- ‘The Joys of Cycling by a Middle Aged Woman, Part Two

‘A charm of cycling is the ease with which one casts off all restraint when one becomes indifferent to all remark and criticism. A delightful feeling of ‘abandon’ possesses us, and we almost lose our own individuality in a sense of absolute freedom. Once I envied the tramp who could slip off the roadside into the nearest field and, stretching himself on the green earth, find deep sleep and rest with his face turned up to the open sky; but I envy him his freedom from restraint and encumbrance no longer, nor does the ease of the man in his carriage as he rolls along excite any desire for similar possessions.’

Image from a cycling catalogue (source:

‘I am writing this from a small seaside resort in Cumberland. A year ago we should have been limited to the enjoyment of the shore and walks within easy distances. Now with our wheels we are within reach of places twenty-five miles away, and get delightful inland journeys. Yesterday a ride of twenty miles revealed to us all the grandeur of one of the nearest lakes, and though certainly there were some rough and hilly places, there were also long spells of level, good surface, which made the ride all enjoyment.’

‘We passed cottage gardens fragrant with stock and mignonette and old fashioned country flowers; we passed quiet farmhouses, where we were tempted to stop to look into the byres to see the cows ready for milking; and onto the small picturesque village with its trim hedges and beautiful trees. Leaving our machines on the roadside, we turned aside to the river bank and wandered along its course till we saw the outlet from the lake and caught glints of the river as it made its way through the valley to the sea. The earth was all lovely, garlanded with briars and ferns and bracken; here and there a patch of richly coloured fungi lay like jewels on the grass or encircled the moss coloured roots of some old tree; and brighter light gleamed from gorse and bell-heather as the afternoon sunshine poured its glory around and flooded the mountain tops in a purple and golden glow. All this, no doubt, is a common experience to the general tourist, but to us is part of a new world to which cycling is leading us.’

‘We have had many pleasures in the way of travelling, but we have never yet experienced such exhilarating enthusiasm or such complete recreation. What once was impossible has become possible, and distance is no longer the barrier to the refreshment of country life or contact with kindred spirits. 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 public and private duties, find that contact with nature and humanity which enriches and emancipates. With Walt Whitman, she sings,

‘Light hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading where I choose.
I think whoever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me;
All seems beautiful to me.
I can repeat over to men and women, ‘You have done such good to me, I would do the same to you.’
I shall scatter myself among men and women as I go;
I will toss and new gladness among them;
Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me;
Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, shall bless me.’

Walt Whitman

Cycling Sources #1- ‘The Joys of Cycling by a Middle Aged Woman’, Part One

The following article first appeared in the Manchester Guardian in August 1895. It was written by a self-described ‘middle aged woman’, and is a wonderfully poetic piece, joyfully describing the difference cycling made to the lives of those living in busy cities. For the first time people had their own personal means of transportation, which allowed them to journey into the countryside and experience nature, fresh air and ‘the grandest milk you ever tasted’. In an article full of fantastic quotes, the one at the end of the second paragraph is by far my favourite. Enjoy!

‘I took to cycling recently, and it has become a passion- a passion that does not wane, but grows with every fresh experience and lengthened ride. Judge of it you who can! Out of the heart of a busy manufacturing town, with its perpetual hum of men and machinery; out of its grimness and smoke, its bustle and unrest, its struggles and failures, into pure spaces filled with peace and calm, into quiet nooks fragrant with meadowsweet and briar, woodruff and honeysuckle, into valleys whence one sees the clear, still mountain tops, and realises anew a, ‘central peace subsisting at the heart of ceaseless agitation’; and this to be had so easily, requiring only will, energy, and a bicycle.

The other day when talking of the delights of cycling to a man who spends the greater part of his life at his last, in a small shop hung with leather- there is a blessed sense of comradeship amongst cyclists- he said to me, ‘I had a beautiful ride last Sunday. Such a day! I can never forget it. I had to stop and get off my machine once, for my heart got so full at the sight of violets growing all in bunches on a bank by the roadside.’

‘When speaking of the joys of cycling I am not speaking of the ‘scorcher’ or the man who hurries along in the pursuit of speed, and speed only- he has his reward, but of the ordinary rider, man or woman, who can slow quietly to see with glad eyes the beauty of the hedgerows, or pause to listen to the wild bird’s song or to watch its flight, and this, perhaps, with a feeling of sympathy, for was it not akin to flying that we came down that last hill with almost bird-like motion? I wonder if others have felt, as I have done since I took to cycling, that the old nature that one thought had long since been swept away or crushed out by the care, monotony and pressure of work and duty was there all along? It only wanted releasing to spring back with all its gladness and enthusiasm and keenness of enjoyment into life again; it only wanted opportunity to escape to the healing, restoring powers of nature and to free-and-easy contact with wider surroundings to understand that age is a matter of feeling and not of years, and that cares can sit lightly if the heart keeps young. In speaking of the comradeship that comes with cycling one is set wondering if this is to be among the methods for bringing about that sympathy which makes the ‘world akin.’

A woman with a bicycle in 1896 (source:

‘Some Sundays ago, slipping the leash of conventionality and orthodoxy, we set out for a quiet day in the country, choosing a round of thirty miles which is a favourite excursion from our town. We were overtaken by three typical Lancashire weavers, who, like ourselves, were new to the joy of cycling and were taking their ‘first long ride’. We passed and re-passed each other several times, thus giving opportunity to observe and grow friendly, to remark on the distinctive merits of our machines, and to warn each other of bits of newly metalled road and quick or sudden turn. The last time we saw them was towards noon, and it was hot. They were sitting by the roadside with pockets full of fern roots and flowers, very warm but radiantly happy, and the salutation was, ‘Theer’s the grandest milk you ever tasted at yon farm. We’se getting some at 3d. a quart. There’s still some in this jug if you’d like to sup.’ It was good to see those three so completely free to natural enjoyment and pure pleasure, and to know that probably hundreds more that fine Sunday, escaping from factory and warehouse, office and workroom, were finding the true recreation both for body and mind that would help them through a week of pressure and narrow limits, and that anticipation of many such days would shine like a beacon light all through the working hours.’