Uncle, Grandpa and The Boys: Cycling Clubs in the 1890s

To make up for the lack of recent posts on here, I thought I would upload a rather lengthy presentation which I recently did for a conference on Victorian studies. The theme for the session I was in was intergenerational tension, and my presentation looked at why this was often lacking in cycling clubs during the 1890s. Hope there are some areas of interest/some people manage to make it to the bottom!

Hello. I am sure I would not be stood in front of you today as someone who has spent a year of their life writing a 40,000 word dissertation, if I had not found a set of sources which have been in themselves a constant source of pleasure and interest to me. From my perspective at least, there are two main reasons why primary material on late nineteenth-century cycling is so wonderful.

The first is that all editions of Cycling, the largest cycling magazine from the 1890s, are digitised and word searchable, which has saved me countless hours of trawling through paper copies. The second, is the collection of cycling club gazettes from this period which can be found in archives throughout the country. These gazettes were produced by members of clubs for members of clubs, and as such provide very readable, revealing and perhaps above all else, humorous accounts of the activities which members of these institutions engaged in.

A good example of your typical 1890s cycling club can be found in this photo of the Boulevard C.C. from near Nottingham. Clubs were for the most part home to men from the middle and lower-middle classes, and whilst the growing popularity of cycling with women during this period saw many clubs developing ‘ladies sections’, creating two distinctive sections allowed the male members to, for the most part, enjoy their activities in exclusively male company.  The primary function of cycling clubs in this period was weekend ‘club runs’, in which members would spend an afternoon going for a group ride, typically between twenty and sixty miles out into the British countryside. Central to these ‘runs’ were stops for food and liquid refreshment at pubs and inns, which, along with the rides themselves, afforded plenty of opportunity for sociability between members.

Certainly what I view to be one of the defining features of cycling clubs in this period was how they were home to members in very different life stages, which if you look hard enough, is evidenced in this photo. Census records reveals that the ages of members of clubs regularly ranged from late teens to forties and fifties. This variety of ages is demonstrated in the nicknames of members of the Stanley C.C. from Derbyshire, which ranged from ‘the boys’, to ‘uncle’ and ‘grandpa’, as well including, ‘the boys of the old brigade’.

It is not this range of ages which makes cycling clubs such an interesting site of historical study. Middle-class homes, workplaces, schools and universities were all sites in which men of different ages spent plenty of time in each other’s company. What makes these sites so distinctive is rather the relationships which existed between middle-class at different stages in the lifecycle. Unlike these other sites, I would argue that the relationships between members of clubs of different ages would frequently be defined by sociability, friendship, admiration and affection.

This is not to say that such relationships wouldn’t have existed between middle-class fathers and sons, employers and employees, or teachers and students during the late-nineteenth century. However, existing studies of intergenerational relationships such as these, give a far heavier emphasis to the tensions which existed between middle-class men of different ages.

For example, Paul Deslandes’ work on late-nineteenth century Oxbridge has highlighted the conflicts which often existed between undergraduates and their dons. It is argued that,

‘The administrative and academic power of the college fellow, tutor, dean and university official was always seen as a threat to youthful manhood. Undergraduates…expressed a general distrust of all dons, regardless of chronological age or athletic propensities, and in doing so they fostered generational tensions and emphasised the impossibility of egalitarian friendships between these two segments of the university community.’

Rugby XV, 1889

Keble College Oxford’s Rugby Team from 1889. Source: http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/about/past/keble-sport-the-early-years

Studies of middle-class fathers from the Victorian period also highlights the often difficult and distant relationships which they had with their children. The ‘cult of motherhood’ established during the early nineteenth century, placed a much heavier emphasis on middle-class mother’s providing their children with love, care and affection than their fathers. Whilst John Tosh has recognised that Victorian fathers could enjoy intimate relationships with their children, his three other models for these relationships, in absent, distant and tyrannical, recognise the often limited relationships which existed between middle-class fathers and their children in this period.

This paper will explore the factors which, by and large removed the tensions which could be found between middle-class men of different ages in homes, workplaces and universities, and instead created different models of intergenerational relationships within late-nineteenth century cycling clubs.

Intergenerational mixing on a bicycle (of sorts). Source: http://www.cyclorama.net/viewArticle.php?id=315

Now, it can be recognised that tensions between middle-class men of different ages often emerged due to imbalances in power and authority. Middle-class men in their late teens and early twenties might often resent the authority and power wielded by those older than themselves, seeing it as something to be distrusted and even challenged. Whilst these imbalances were not necessarily a source of tension, they would certainly have placed barriers in the way of men of different ages forming relaxed, friendly and sociable relationships with each other.

I would argue that such dynamics were much less prevalent in cycling clubs. These were voluntary institutions, focussed around members shared interest and enjoyment of cycling. This immediately placed the relationships between members of different ages on a different footing compared to the home, workplace, school or university. Their relationships were built much more upon a common enthusiasm, than differing levels of power and authority.

As well as this, the activities of cycling clubs took place in men’s leisure time. This meant that members shared a mutual desire to engage in activities which they found to be enjoyable, relaxing and pleasurable whilst in the company of like-minded individuals On-top of their common interest in cycling, members of different ages possessed a common desire for sociability and friendship with each other.

This is not to say that members of different ages would always find pleasure and enjoyment in the same activities. Unlike team sports such as football or cricket, there were no rules stating how members should engage in the pastime of cycling. This meant that when on ‘club runs’ or group rides together, there were plenty of opportunities for younger and older members to engage in separate activities.

For example, an article in the gazette of the Stanley C.C., written by a more senior member of the club, stated how during a stop at a park during a ‘club run’

‘Under the chestnut trees I focussed the boys, and then they ran away to the top of Bury Hill. Magnificent scenery all around here, but too much for my poor camera.’

Clearly, ‘the boys’ did not share in the writer’s interest in photography, nor the writer their enthusiasm for rushing up hills. As well as this, it is apparent that members of different ages held differing levels of authority and responsibility. The age of the writer meant he represented some form of ‘authoritative’ figure, who would encourage ‘the boys’ to engage in certain activities whilst he partook in others.

However, it can be recognised that the nature of this authority was much softer than would often have been found in homes, workplaces or universities. The writer of the article did not tell the club’s younger members how to behave, but instead ‘focussed’ them. By doing so, the writer of the article was looking to give both himself, and the younger members of the club, the space and opportunity to engage in different activities which brought mutual enjoyment and pleasure.

Moreover, even when older members of clubs did take on more authoritative roles, this authority seems to have frequently been a source of admiration and respect rather than resentment. This was particularly the case when more senior members of clubs helped with the physical training of those younger than themselves.

Younger members of Cheadle Cycling Club about to go off racing. Source: http://www.cheadlephotos.net/contents/en-uk/d3_1890s.html

Clubs in this period would often organise inter-club ‘race meets’, in which members of each club would compete in various races, with the winners scoring points for their clubs. Older members would often act as mentors to those younger than themselves who were in training for these events, providing them with advice and support, which was in-turn valued and appreciated. An article in Cycling on a more senior member of the Polytechnic C.C. described how,

‘The polytechnic racing boys of to-day look up to Leach as a kind of benevolent father figure, whose advice must be followed at any cost, and the good show, made by the Polyites in their recent match with the Catford, was to a great extent, due to the fatherly solicitude of Leach.’

Now, this quote does highlight how the relationships between members of different ages were not completely removed from those which might exist in sites such as the home- the nicknames ‘Uncle’ and ‘Grandpa’ which were given to members of the Stanley C.C. reinforce this point.

However, compared to father sons relationships I would argue that the interactions between older members and those they mentored within cycling clubs would have been much simpler, being focussed almost exclusively around their shared goal of winning races for their club. This would have helped remove tensions which might have existed in certain aspects of father son relationships, and ensured that differing levels of knowledge and experience would be a far more frequent cause of respect and admiration. Indeed, such dynamics can be recognised to more closely resemble relationships which might have existed between young men and their uncles and grandfathers, which in-turn can explain the nicknames given to older members of the Stanley C.C.

In the last part of this presentation, I will look to move these arguments on, and argue that the relationships between members of different ages could sometimes break free from connotations with authority and power, and instead be defined by friendliness and sociability.

Now, whilst cycling club members in different stages of the lifecycle would often engage in activities separately or differently to each other, the goings-on of clubs also gave plenty of opportunity for joint excursions and adventures. ‘Club runs’ might involve all members of the club cycling together at a pace which suited both the younger and older members. As well as this, stops for food and drink at pubs created opportunities for members of different ages to interact and socialise with other more or less as equals.

Joint activities, engaged in by member’s young and old, allowed for more senior members to, on occasion, throw off their home and work identities, and behave in a much less restrained and ‘dignified’ manner. An article in Cycling, titled ‘It makes you young again’, described how,

‘Cycling seems to possess a potent and peculiar charm to the middle-aged, aye, even the elderly man. It is not unusual to see the swarthy, bearded man, the sober head of a business house, perhaps, and perchance the father of grown-up children, cutting capers that would put to shame the rollicking fledgling of some sixteen summers. It is no uncommon thing to see the man of forty, in company with a party of younger men, acting in a manner that seems positively childish, when considered, though at the time the circumstances would hardly warrant your thinking so.’

‘We have often noticed this levelling influence of the sport, and when you see bearded men- rulers among men we may say, vaulting five barred gates, turning somersaults, and otherwise sacrificing the dignity and discretion that is generally supposed to pertain to age for the frolicsomeness of youth, you cannot help believing that cycling does in reality give man a new lease of life.’

Imbued with ‘a new lease of life’. 

Even if younger members were not ‘turning somersaults’ along with those older than themselves, witnessing more senior members throwing off their ‘dignity and discretion’ was an undoubted source of entertainment and amusement for them. A more junior member of the Stanley C.C. described how when on a club run,

‘The old ‘uns- I refer to William and Charles- began to show rare sprinting powers. It only required a little encouragement. I rode alongside Charles and hinted that William fancied himself at riding. Charles remarked that ‘he could beat his head off’. ‘Betsy’ sidled up to William and said that on the next level bit Charles had announced his intention of taking his number down. We gradually brought the two together, and taking a glance at each other, they were off for a couple of miles- the two ‘who ride only for pleasure’ were plugging away for all they were worth. I do not know how it finished; ‘Betsy’ and I laughed so much we could not keep up with them, but both admitted to me afterwards that they did not think the other would ‘come that game again’.

This quote highlights how older members of clubs did not simply return to a youthful state of existence when they joined up with their club mates on a Saturday. The reason the sight of William and Charles racing was such a source of amusement to the two other members was that it challenged their usual demeanour of being two more senior, dignified individuals who would ride ‘only for pleasure’.

However, it does show how cycling clubs did provide opportunities for men in later stages of the lifecycle to on occasion leave behind their ‘dignity and discretion’, in favour of more frivolous and carefree behaviours associated with men much younger than themselves. It can be recognised that older members of clubs were not only much ‘softer’ authority figures when compared to fathers, employees and teachers, but could also leave behind notions of authority altogether, which created new opportunities for sociability, friendship and humour between men of different ages.

Managing to find enjoyment in the fixing of punctures. Source: https://www.pannier.cc/journal/a-history-of-cycle-touring-part-1

I am aware that such arguments do not exactly conform to the theme of this session. However, I hope this paper has at least provided a couple of insights into the topic of intergenerational tension, and perhaps some useful reminders when we are studying it.

Firstly, common interests and enthusiasms could cut through differences in life-stages, and help soften the boundaries separating individuals at alternative stages of the lifecycle. Whilst a lot has been written about the role of the middle-class father in the Victorian home, there have been far fewer studies of their relationships with their children in other sites. Seaside holidays and joint memberships of leisure and sporting associations such as cycling clubs (which club journals reveal did often exist) would have lent themselves to very different intergenerational dynamics compared to domesticity.

Secondly, we should be wary of basing too much of our understanding of those we are studying on the attributes which their society attributed to individuals of their age. The identities men and women had at the age of twenty had not completely disappeared by the time they were forty, but remained in some way a part of who they were. Younger selves could, if only for a brief period on a Saturday afternoon, be re-experienced and re-enjoyed. I can think of no better way of ending my paper than by using two quotes to re-illustrate this point.

The first is from a member of the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club, and describes the joys of cycling in South Devon and visiting sites associated with the Spanish Armada. The writer told the club’s other members that a cycling tour in this area would allow you to,

‘Forget your cosmopolitanism and every other ism, again a British boy and proud of it. Remember Nelson and Wellington, those brave tars and soldiers who prevented the Corsican usurper from ever planting his foot on old England’s shores. Presently you’ll find yourself humming, strumming and shouting as of yore, two skinny Frenchmen, one Portugese, one jolly Englishman can lick ‘em all three.’

‘In imagination become a boy once more, and again experience that exultation that fired you when you first read ‘Westward Ho’, and when you took two slabs of wood and a tintack and made a sword with which you slew scores of moustachioed Spaniards, and rescued fair damsels and countless treasures (not forgetting the treasures) from their clutches.’

Charles Kingley - 1899 Westward Ho! cover 2.jpg

Front Cover to an 1899 edition of Westward Ho! Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westward_Ho!_(novel)

The second is by a member of the Stanley C.C., describing their experiences of visiting an annual ‘cycling camp’ in Harrogate. These were large scale events in which members of clubs from across the country would meet up for a long-weekend of camping, frivolity and late-night drinking, occasionally interspersed with some cycling. It was described how,

‘Social distinction, rank of fortune, vanishes as you take your place at the shrine of Bohemianism, equal in one accord- the desire to knock as much enjoyment as you can into 4 days of grace. Can it be wondered then that men grown grey, be-bearded solemn pards, faced with the inevitable scourge of time, take to Harrogate as a duck to water, and for a brief spell throw aside the decorum and dignity incumbent with their station in life, to revel as they did in the heyday of their youth when the blood ran freer and the pulse beat quicker? Such enthusiasts can fully endorse the poet’s couplet,

Tho age is on his temple hung,

His heart, his heart is very young.’

A be-bearded Joseph Bazalgette with age on his temple hung (but possessing a young heart?). Source: http://thevictorianist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/twitters-top-five-victorians-or-straw.html

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: http://www.victoriana.com/Fashion/cycling-clothing.html

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: https://www.pinterest.com/aminatyg/cycle-chic/

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 http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2014/03/10/vegetarian_personal_ads_19th_c_matrimonial_advertisements.html

Wheel Wictims

Newspaper obsessions with cycling accidents in the 1890s (talked about in the previous blog), were not just recognised as being a bit ridiculous by the cycling press. In October 1897 Punch, in usual satirical vein, used newspaper descriptions of cycling accidents as inspiration for an article titled ‘Wheel Wictims’. The article detailed some cycling ‘accidents’ which they claimed to have strayed from the pages of the St James Gazette (a London evening newspaper from the period).

The lesson? Perhaps that no matter what the time period, worries about people participating in new social practices and activities will always make for good satire.

‘The long and terrible list of bicycling accidents, which (at this time of year) we publish daily, still continues to grow. The latest batch is more alarming than usual, and proves conclusively that no one with the smallest respect for their safety should ever be induced to ride a bicycle. There are some persons who seem unable to relish any amusement that is not fraught with peril, but to such we would recommend bathing in the whirlpools of the Niagara as, on the whole, a less dangerous recreation.

From the highland village of Tittledrummie comes the news of one terrible disaster. As James Macranky, a youth of fifteen, was attempting to mount his machine for the first time in his father’s garden, the unfortunate lad lost his balance and was precipitated into the middle of a gooseberry-bush, with the result that his right hand was severely scratched. Although he is still alive at present, it is highly probable that he will develop symptoms of blood-poisoning in consequence of his misadventure, when tetanus will certainly supervene, and the fatal bicycle will once more have brought one more victim to a premature death.

What might have been a fatal accident was averted by the merest chance in Kensington on Monday last. According to an eye-witness of the thrilling scene, a young lady was riding by herself (a dangerous practice which we have repeatedly censured) along the Cromwell Road, when a hansom-cab suddenly appeared, advancing rapidly in the other direction. With marvellous nerve the young lady guided her machine to the left hand side of the road while the cab was still fifty yards from her, and was thus able to pass it in safety. But supposing she had lost her nerve in this alarming crisis, and had steered straight for the horse’s feet, she could only have escaped destruction by a miracle.

Cartoon of a lady engaging in the ‘dangerous practice’ of ‘velocipeding’. Source: http://fitisafeministissue.com/2013/03/

We are loath to inflict too many of these gruesome stories upon our readers, so will only add one more for the present, which may well serve as a warning to all those who tour in districts unknown to them. A party of ladies and gentlemen made an expedition on bicycles last week in the neighbourhood of Beachborough. Being unfamiliar with the locality, they dismounted at the point where two cross-roads meet, and hesitated as to which direction they should take. By a providential chance, they decided to keep to the left, and so reached their destination in safety. Afterwards they learned with horror that had they chosen the other road, ridden two miles along it, turned to the right, and then to the left again, they would have found themselves close to the edge of the cliff, from which there is a sheer drop of some six hundred feet to the beach beneath! And there are still some foolish persons who attempt to deny the perils of cycling!’

Cycling Accidents and 1890s Moral Panics

You might have thought that to embark on a bicycle ride in the 1890s would be, compared to today, are relatively safe undertaking. In a period before cars and dangerous junctions, surely the risks associated with cycling were relatively small?

However, newspapers from the period paint a rather different picture. A regular feature in papers during this period was vivid descriptions of accidents which had occurred on British roads involving cyclists. In 1896 The Yorkshire Herald ran a piece which described how when cycling down a hill in York and faced with an oncoming cab, a young ‘Miss Ada Seale’ ran onto the curb of the pavement and,

‘With the force of the machine striking violently against the curbstone, Miss Seale was thrown violently into Mr Epworth’s shop window, a large pane of heavy glass being smashed. It was seen by the large amount of blood which fell onto the pavement, that the young lady was much cut and injured.’

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Report on a ‘new woman’s’ cycling accident, 1896. Source: https://storify.com/DigiVictorian/tit-bits-from-the-illustrated-police-news

It is possible to find many similar articles, which would describe in fairly graphic detail accidents which had befallen cyclists, with particular attention given to incidents which involved well-known figures such as M.P.s and reverends (and indeed women). However, it is not just the grisly detail which makes these articles interesting. One particularly noticeably feature about them is that they only really started appearing in newspapers in the early 1890s.

On the face of it this isn’t particularly remarkable (or indeed interesting). However, it is worth remembering that it was in this period that ‘safety’ bicycles began to replace old fashioned ‘ordinaries’ or penny farthings. You would have thought that the accidents which occurred to individuals perched on penny farthings would be much more eventful than those experienced by men and women sat much closer to the ground on ‘safeties’. Why then did newspapers suddenly start taking an interest in cycling accidents when the ‘golden age’ of such events had seemingly just past?

There were certainly many more cyclists in the 1890s than the 1880s. This would have meant there were more cycling accidents, and in particular more which would have involved individuals known to a newspaper’s readership. Moreover, cycling as an activity was much more ‘mainstream’ in this decade than the one preceding it. The increased popularity for cycling would seemingly have created a higher demand for cycling based stories.

However, this doesn’t quite explain why newspapers were so keen to report cycling accidents. Why was it that instead of giving their focus to feel good tales about the benefits of cycling, they were instead focussing on grizzly details of cycling accidents?

It is worth remembering that in the 1890s large numbers of people pedalling ‘safety’ bicycles represented a new social phenomenon. In much the same way that there are occasional panics today about the dangers of social media, or teenagers playing first-person shooting games, the 1890s saw similar concerns and anxieties raised about cycling. Is it safe? What are the risks of getting involved? Does the increasing number of people pedalling these machines represent a danger to society? Reporting on cycling accidents fed into these debates and fears about whether cycling was a suitable activity for people to engage in.

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One type of cycling accident British cyclists didn’t need to fear. Source: https://storify.com/DigiVictorian/tit-bits-from-the-illustrated-police-news

And of course, a number of those who did not cycle resented the fact that there was suddenly a new type of road user who they had to contend with. The Yorkshire Herald began the article quoted above by stating,

‘A rather serious cycling accident, which will perhaps serve as a caution to the many ladies and youths who ride on their bicycles through the busy streets of the city, occurred on Thursday.’ (More on outdated gender norms later.)

Serious Bicycle Accident

Description of a Bicycle Accident in the Brecon and Randor Express, 1891. Source: http://a-day-in-the-life.powys.org.uk/eng/cult/eu_bicy.php

Certainly Cycling saw the willingness of the press to report on cycling accidents as symptomatic of a wider hostility and suspicion shown towards cyclists by large sections of the general public. In 1896 it commented that,

‘Street accidents occur almost daily in every city; but it is only when a cyclist becomes involved that the Press indulges in sub-leaders about them. Unfortunately, Mr T Harrington, M.P., was knocked down by a cyclist in Dublin recently, and injured. The wheelman was a military cyclist, and evidently riding furiously. The papers, of course, took the text as a text, and the burden of the sermon was to characterise wheelmen generally as a reckless lot, riding about the streets with the one object of killing the citizens. It is time this type of journalism disappeared.’

Similarly, in 1898 it bemoaned the fact that,

‘More pedestrians than cyclists are killed in city streets in the course of a year, yet nobody contributes long articles about the ‘terrors of walking’. This eternal prating about the ‘dangers of cycling’ is so very foolish. It makes us quite tired.’

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Another one of the ‘dangers of cycling’. Source: https://storify.com/DigiVictorian/tit-bits-from-the-illustrated-police-news

However, Cycling did not just deliver disdainful rejoinders in response to newspaper coverage of cycling accidents. Alongside its criticism of the press was a veiled criticism of the type of cyclist who might be involved in these accidents. The article just quoted did earlier comment that,

‘The majority of traffic accidents happen to lady cyclists, and we must say that, in our opinion, unless a lady possesses extraordinary nerve, and also is a really expert wheelwoman, the streets of London are no place for her to indulge in cycling…After riding by cycle to town each day the writer feels convinced that in many cases the parents are to blame for allowing young girls to ride through the traffic. Probably the bicycle has been purchased for the young lady on her representation to papa that she can ride to business and save the fares. However this may be, many of the young girls we pass on our way to town appear quite unfitted for the task of dodging the traffic, and their parents, if they have respect for life and limb, should insist on their cycles being used in the country lanes for recreation only.’

It is quite something to find a quote that so effortlessly combines outdated gender norms, and an age old response to individuals engaging in new social practices. Unexpected social phenomenon? Young people engaging with it in a manner you deem to be inappropriate? Blame the parents!

Ramblings on Amsterdam and Cycling History

Visiting Amsterdam for the first time with my girlfriend was an experience which can definitely be defined as eye opening. Staying in a district a bit outside the city centre, it was difficult not to wander round without constantly being struck by a sense that we had stumbled across some kind of Utopian model of the future.

A lot of this awe and wonder came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the continual sight of cyclists. Whilst at times it felt as though you had been placed in a game of ‘Crossy Road’, with a continual stream of hazards flying at you from either side, for the most part the sheer number of cyclists was the cause of delight. After spending a good amount of time writing about how wonderful the bicycle is, going to a place which has done so much to cater and support cyclists did feel a bit like arriving at a holy site after a long pilgrimage.

As much as it may feel this way, Amsterdam’s extensive cycling network did not appear by some miracle. A brief bit of research reveals that it was the result of committed activism combining with a general popular support of cycling and politicians who recognised the potential of the bicycle to solve a range of different issues (the best article I’ve found is here). The result of all this is a city where 35% of journeys are completed by bicycle. The effects? People who seemingly enjoy their morning commute to work, roads which are eerily quiet and a general sense of the wonderfulness of it all.

As with most people who cycle, leaving Amsterdam was accompanied by a feeling of why can’t we have something like this where I live? Of course, the location and geographical features of Amsterdam makes it much more naturally cycle friendly than where I live in Leeds. However, lots more could certainly be done to implement Amsterdam’s system of cycling infrastructure in towns and cities around the UK. The question is, how can we make this happen?

The best place to start is perhaps learning from how changes started to occur in Amsterdam, with the combination of activists, a general sympathy to cyclists, and politicians prepared to listen. As was the case in Amsterdam, I would say that the UK is also home to a large number of people strongly committed to promoting cycling. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, there are certainly no lack of individuals firmly committed to and prepared to argue for building the type of infrastructure that exists around Holland.

The recent C.T.C. survey of politicians in the run up to the general election also suggests that, if there is not a strong political commitment for investment in cycling, then there is at least a general acknowledgement of the benefits which can be brought about by getting more people into cycling.

Just over a sixth of current M.P.s surveyed gave strong support for increased funding towards cycling, a number which includes the current Prime Minister. Writing a letter in response to the survey, David Cameron stated that he is, ‘a huge cycling fan’ who is committed to doubling cycling by 2025 and spending £10 per person on cycling each year. Of course, actions speak much more loudly than words, but responses to the C.T.C. survey at least suggest that there is a level of political backing for promoting and supporting cycling.

I would say that what the UK is missing more than anything (apart from cities built on flat, low-lying land), is a more general popular sympathy and support for cyclists. Whilst there is no lack of committed individuals and groups at the bottom, and a number of people at the top who appear prepared to listen, there is not the general groundswell of opinion required to push through significant and substantial change.

Cycling as an issue never once really threatened to become anything other than a minority issue in the run up to the general election. Whilst prospective M.P.s might agree in principle to questions put to them by the C.T.C., because of the low-level status of cycling as an issue, there is very little pressure on them to now turn their principles into meaningful actions and investments. It is one thing making some general comments to the C.T.C, it is quite another making sincere promises to an electorate.

To begin to see anything like the changes many of us would like to see, I would say that what is required is a general popular shift in attitudes to cycling, from a general disinterestedness and even aggression, to a recognition of the many benefits more people cycling brings to communities, cities and wider society, and a strong commitment to bringing these changes about.

The question then becomes how can we bring about this shift? The obvious answer is by getting more people cycling. More cyclists equals more people realising the benefits of the bicycle as either a means of transport and leisure activity, and a greater agitation for improvements in cycling infrastructure. However, this can quickly turn into a chicken and egg situation. My girlfriend will happily cycle in Amsterdam, but not in Leeds. She would only start cycling if she felt safe doing so, which of course requires a much greater investment in cycling infrastructure. To get more cyclists requires a significant level investment which, as was discussed above, there is little popular agitation for, and as such is unlikely to happen.

This is not to say such an approach is hopeless- more people are now cycling in the UK than ever before, and with schemes such as the ‘Cycling ‘Superhighways’ in London, there is no reason to think that the ranks of British cyclists will stop growing. The results of this (in theory), should be more and more popular support for cycling.

How London’s ‘Cycling Superhighways’ might look. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/04/segregated-cycle-lanes-london-tfl

However, whilst the number of cyclists might carry on expanding, it seems highly unlikely they will reach levels comparable to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in the near future. To bring about a popular demand for ‘Dutch-style cycling infrastructure’, a wider range of approaches are needed to communicate the benefits of cycling to both individuals and wider society.

It is also here that I believe that cycling history can play a (perhaps significant) role. Much of the popular sympathy for cyclists in Amsterdam in the 1970s came from the fact that cycling had remained a fairly popular activity since the 1890s. Cycling as an activity was much more ingrained in the national and local culture than it ever has been over here.

It is my hope that the history of cycling can do something to change this. If a few years of speaking to friends and relatives about my research is anything to go by, there is very little popular knowledge about how the UK’s cycling heritage. Before I started my research, I too knew next to nothing about the UK’s cycling history.

However, as I near the end of my research I now find it difficult to think of another invention which has done so much to both meet individual needs for liberation, enjoyment and freedom, whilst at the same time bringing about wider changes which have benefited society as a whole. I hope that this blog has been able to in some way communicate the many weird and wonderful effects the bicycle had on late Victorian society, from opening up opportunities for romance, allowing individuals for the first time to visit the British countryside, and helping shift conservative notions about appropriate ‘womanly’ behaviour.

Visiting Amsterdam hammered home to me that the story of how cycling can benefit both individuals and wider society is one which belongs as much to the present as the past. Combining these two narratives, of the positive changes which the bicycle both can and has brought about, I believe can create an overarching tale which is relevant to cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It might not create new Amsterdams. But it might do something.

Cycle path in America, 1896. Source: http://narrative.ly/on-two-wheels/cycles-of-fashion/

Alan Titchmarsh and Victorian Cyclists

It must be said that I did not anticipate writing a blog about Alan Titchmarsh and Victorian cyclists. For those unaware of his work Alan is famous for being the UKs foremost gardening journalist and personality, and is certainly not renowned for pedalling old fashioned bicycles. However, after reading a recent article of his about cycling it was very hard to resist an attempted comparison with a couple of articles from the 1890s. (A link to the Titchmarsh’s article is here: http://bit.ly/1F1orkQ)

Alan used his article to proclaim his backing for ‘gentle’ cyclists, who compared to muscled men in Lycra, go cycling to admire nature and gardens whilst enjoying the scenery. He states that,

‘I know that hardy types ride their bikes at all times of year, but unlike fair weather gardeners, we fair weather cyclists are not to be disparaged on account of our apparent lack of grit. For we are the gentle ones. To us, cycling is a calm pursuit. We may pant a bit on uphill stretches and we may even dismount and push our charges while other cyclists (the ones in national costume) power past us wearing sunglasses on the dreariest of days. But we enjoy our sedate pedalling and try not to frighten the wildlife.’

‘We whistle softy to ourselves while admiring the gardens we can see over the tops of hedges. We may have a wicker basket on the front, or panniers on the back. We tinkle our bell to warn pedestrians of our approach and we are ever ready with a cheery ‘Good morning’! This is quite unlike our bulging-limbs counterparts who seem to have muscles in places where we don’t even have places and whose eyes are riveted on the tarmac.’

‘I love cycling, but sedately. Give me what they used to call a, ‘sit-up-and-beg’ machine in shiny black with proper chrome handlebars and metal brake leavers. Give me a wicker basket on the front, proper metal mudguards and one of those bells that goes, ‘ding-dong-ding-dong’ and I will show you a happy man.’

The ‘Mamils’ (middle-aged men in Lycra) who Titchmarsh complains about certainly did not exist in the 1890s. However, in this period a similarly new breed of cyclists appeared, who in more traditional circles were the cause of just as much comment and complaint.

Cyclists who had always used penny farthings or ‘ordinary’ bicycles suddenly encountered a new generation, mounted on ‘safety’ bicycles with pneumatic tyres who were capable of travelling much faster than themselves. This, combined with the greater safety and comfort of ‘safety’ bicycles meant that as the 1890s progressed ‘ordinaries’ and their riders increasingly became a thing of the past.

It would seem that those who clung onto penny farthings did not welcome this changing of the guard. The piece below, which appeared in Cycling in 1893, bemoaned the fact that,

‘Coasting is a practice which seems to have died out in the most inexplicable manner. In the old days, when the high bicycles ruled supreme, a cycler was considered to be a sorry exponent of wheeling if he could not coast in good style. Every slope, not absolutely dangerous, was always navigated ‘legs up’, with hand on brake ready for emergency; an productive of gloriously exciting and delightful sensations were these swift passages of flight, as, perched high above the hedgerows on his wheel, the rider whizzed on his way.’

‘The old order changeth. Whoever thinks of ‘coasting’ nowadays? It is considered old fashioned, an almost forgotten luxury of bygone times, now only to be indulged in by elderly tourists, and faddists lost to all sense of deportment. Advise the youth of today who contemplates the purchase of a machine, to have footrests and a break. He will regard your suggestion with scorn, and will later on be seen humping his back and labouring intensively in his efforts to back pedal down a steepish slope; whereas by carrying a few ounces of extra weight in the shape of footrests and brake, he might have flown swiftly and safely down the hill, resting his legs the while, besides enjoying that delightful sense of exhilaration we have endeavoured to describe.’

Of course the writer may have exaggerated the benefits of ‘coasting’ on penny farthings. Another writer, reflecting on their experiences of penny farthings in 1892, recalled how

‘You would be speeding head, shoulders and body above the hedgerows, when suddenly you would feel magnetised, and with arms outstretched, a tickling sensation in your throat, and a mighty rushing of wind by your ears, you would swoop through the air, arriving on earth with a ‘Ugh!’ and proceeding on your journey for a yard or so like a grovelling reptile.’

However, if Alan’s main needs for a bicycle are for it to be clearly visible to acquaintances whilst allowing him to peep over hedges and admire gardens, perhaps the way forward is not sit-up-and-beg models, but rather the approach taken by the gentleman below,

Cycling Sources #7- ‘New Rules for Cyclists’

Many previous blogs (‘A Tyranny of the Road‘, ‘Bicycles Against the Traffic‘ ) have explored the un-easy relationships which existed between cyclists and other road users in the early years of cycling. In 1896 Punch, in typical satirical vein, used these contrasting views of cyclists to outline the ‘new rules for cyclists’ that both the riding and non-riding public would like to see introduced. The question is, are the suggestions under ‘What All Cyclists Would Like’ all so ridiculous?

And, perhaps, would it be so difficult to produce a similar article today?

Punch cycling cartoon from 1882. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/magazines/humour/cycling-humour/

‘New Rules for Cyclists’.

I- What some other people would like.

Every cycle-rider to pay a tax of fifty percent of the total income that he would have if every mile ridden brought him in a sovereign, and every tinkle of his bell a ten pound note.

Nobody to cycle without a license, issued by the Governor of Newgate, after a fortnight’s strict examination (on bread and water) in elementary mechanics, advanced hydrostatics and riding on the head down an inclined plane.

Any person found riding without such a license to receive a minimum penalty of ten years’ penal servitude, followed by police supervision for the rest of his natural life.

If caught on, with, or under a cycle within fifty miles of any town of five thousand inhabitants, the culprit to be fined a hundred guineas and bound over his own recognisances to abandon cycling and take up golf instead

When a cyclist on any road sees, or has reason to believe that he might see if he chose to look, any horse, cart, carriage, gig or other vehicle, or any pedestrian approaching, he (or she) to instantly dismount, run the machine into the nearest ditch, and kneel in a humble and supplicating attitude till said horse, cart &C., has got at least a mile away.

Every cyclist to be presumed, in all legal proceedings, to be a reckless idiot and on the wrong side of the road, unless he can bring conclusive evidence to the contrary.

All tourists on wheels to report themselves at every police station they pass. If un-vaccinated, they may be taken to the nearest doctor and compulsory inoculated with any old lymph or ‘anti-cyclin serum’ he may have handy.

II- What all Cyclists would like

Cyclists to be given a special track on all roads, quite half the width of the thoroughfare, and well asphalted.

In case of any accident, coachmen and car-drivers to be bound over to keep the pieces, and supply a brand-new machine.

All vehicles of every description to at once skedaddle up side streets when a lady cyclist is descried in the offing on a main road.

No bells, horns, or lamps in future to be required. Pedestrians to keep to the sidewalks or take the consequences. Cyclists to have the right to use the sidewalks as much as they like, and at any pace.

The City streets to be cleared of traffic and left as practising grounds for new wheelmen and wheelwomen.

Rate-supported stations (with free meals) for blowing up burst tyres to be provided on all roads.

Cycles (and cyclists) to travel free by rail.

And, finally, any person reasonably suspected of not owning a cycle or being about to get one to pay a fine of five thousand pounds to the Exchequer, be handed over to the Lunacy Commissioners, and detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Punch’s warning to all cyclists who hunched over their handlebars. Source: http://www.bicycle-and-bikes.com/bicycle-news.html