‘Bicycles Against the Traffic’, Part Two

It was not only horse-drawn vehicles who cyclists had uneasy meetings with in the 1890s. Cyclists’ encounters with pedestrians on Britain’s roads had the potential to be equally awkward and difficult. Again, this ‘uneasy relationship’ often resulted from the less than ‘respectable’ behaviours of cyclists. As previously explored, a series of letters appeared in The Times in 1892 discussing the ‘tyrannical’ behaviours of cyclists on British roads. The letter which sparked this debate bemoaned how,

‘To many a business of professional man a walk along the green lanes of outer London or the pleasant main roads affords their only means of obtaining healthy and necessary exercise. This will soon become an impossibility, or, at all events, an extremely hazardous pastime, if the gentlemen of the wheel are allowed to continue their present style of racing along at the rate of 20 miles or more an hour, not to speak of hill descents, when it is the practice of a number of them, spread across the road, to rush down at headlong speed, more like a horde of Apaches or Sioux Indians, conches shrieking and bells going; and woe betide the luckless man or aught else coming in their way.’

‘Two sisters’ also wrote into The Times to explain how cyclists not only terrorised business men taking their country strolls. They commented how,

‘To become a cyclist apparently transforms an ordinary young middle-class Englishman into an active member of an unruly mob which it is fast becoming impossible to ignore. There is no law or order amongst them, and there is no attempt to keep to one side of the road. They come swirling along, sometimes 12 abreast, shouting to each other, or openly making remarks upon any ladies whom they happen to pass. Very often they do not even content themselves with bearing straight down upon one with overwhelming suddenness, but solitary cyclists will occasionally amuse themselves by adopting a serpentine coarse from one side of the road to the other, thus leaving a pedestrian undecided as to which way it is safest for her to take, and often obliging to retreat almost into the hedge until they have gone on their way laughing at her discomfiture. In a case like this a woman is powerless to do anything except look annoyed, which only increases their delight.’

Other cyclists certainly took more care when meeting pedestrians. However pedestrians were, as a body, a difficult group to please. One member of the Tottenham Cycling Club explained how on a Saturday morning ride upon approaching a party of pedestrians he would ring his bell, only to hear,

‘All right, hold yer blooming bell, plenty of room for you ain’t there?’

This meant the next time he would ring his bell, only to be asked,

‘Why don’t you ring your blooming bell? ‘E art ter be locked up.’

However these difficulties were nothing compared to what some other cyclists had to endure. One of the dangers of being a cyclist in the 1890s was, according to the cycling press, encountering gangs of ‘roughs’ on the roads, who would take pleasure in assaulting and attacking cyclists who they happened to meet. The activities of ‘roughs’, and the language used to describe them, does occasionally give them the feel of two well-known characters from Wacky Races. In 1897 Cycling described receiving,

‘Accounts of the attempted wrecking of cycles, by means of timber placed across the road, and by drawing string and rope across, so as to cause disaster’, and bemoaned the fact that,

‘There will always be found a number of roughs who delight in any cowardly and knavish tricks, and unfortunately they are once more paying their evil attention to cyclists.’

Moreover, ‘roughs’ did not only delight in these ‘cowardly and knavish tricks’. Cycling provided a number of accounts of how groups of men would assault cyclists, most often in the evening on quiet country roads. Despite the seriousness of these assaults, descriptions of them within Cycling did often possess more than a shade of the theatrical. One letter described how,

‘I would warn cyclists to beware of Shirley (on Sunday evening), on the Sevenoaks Road. Last night, as the West Croydon C.C. were riding by Shirley Inn a set of cads ran out into the road and pulled the last man off his machine, doing considerable damage, smashing his lamp and cutting his hands and wrists in several places; where upon five of us went back to see what was the matter, and then about a dozen of these roughs set on to us, with the result that one came away with two black eyes, and three more with one each. The third one ran into the inn and asked for help, but the landlord caught him by the throat, and, with three others, threw him in the road.’

Venturing out to meet who knows what? Source: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2012_01_01_archive.html

Even more dramatic was a description of an assault in 1895, where Cycling commented how,

‘On Sunday last a group of roughs had a useful little lesson in politeness and common decency, on the road near Riddlesdown. They came marching along, right across the road, defiantly blocking the way to a small party of cyclists that included one lady and four fellows. The leading cyclist cleared a road by charging one of the roughs, and upon one of the other cyclists remarking that it served him right, the anger of the mob was aroused.’

‘One ran after the party, but did not appear over pleased at finding the cyclists slow up for him, as he fondly expected. The cyclists dismounted and the rough’s companions came up, and appear to have had a keen desire to fight Yeoman to the death, possibly because he looked the smallest and weakest of the party. Yeoman, however, had not been learning for boxing for nothing, and was soon showing the cowardly crew that they had made a serious error of judgement. S.F. Edge, not caring to see Yeoman have all the fun, was also soon busy, and in a very short time the bullies were slinking off; their chief with two cheeks cut open. It is, of course, a nuisance to have to do it, but this sort of thing is the best- the only way- to insure for cyclists decent treatment from louts of this stamp.’

Reading this account, in which ‘Yeoman’ and ‘S.F. Edge’ are presented as men who take justice into their own hands by fighting ‘cowardly crews’ in slightly comical boxing matches, does, in my mind at least, give them a certain resemblance to the crime fighting duo below.

1966 Batman and Robin

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British Cyclists in, ‘The Land of the Moosoo’, Part Two

A first-hand, very revealing account of a tour taken by three British cyclists’ in France appeared in the gazette of the London based Stanley Club in 1899. Describing waking up on the morning of the tour, the writer commented that he had,

‘A feeling something akin to a schoolboy on breaking up day. It is delightful to think that for a brief spell you are free from the eternal grind of business- the everlasting struggle after wealth and not getting it.’

A desire for escape and relaxation can certainly be seen in the activities of the three cyclists on tour. The articles title, ‘The Land of the Darned Moosoo’, sets the tone for an article in which the trio’s behaviours very much resembled those touring cyclists described in part one.

A central attraction of the tour certainly seems to have been the opportunity to visit French music halls or cabarets. These were spaces where popular entertainments took place on stage- whether it was singing, dancing (the can-can was very much at home in French cabarets) or comedy, whilst a seated audience who smoked and drank to their hearts content watched on (think something along the lines of Moulin Rouge).

File:1890 Seurat Can-Can anagoria.JPG

Georges Seurat Painting of the Can Can being performed at a Cabaret from 1890

That these were not places of entirely ‘reputable’ entertainment can be seen in the ‘finely developed’ lady singers and ‘stomach dancer’ that the three cyclists enjoyed at one music hall in Vannes. At another music hall visited by the trio, the author describes how,

‘A damsel from the stage kidded us to stand her a drink. Jack was particularly struck with her, and we had almost to use force to get him out of the place, in fact, I came to the conclusion that he is a man more amorous than the average.’

Drinking seems to have played a central part of the tour.  The writer stated his firm belief that, ‘to my mind, the best thing to cycle on in France is white wine and water’, whilst the youngest member of the group was awarded,

‘The insignia of the order of the Blotting Pad for meritorious conduct in connection with the absorption of French beer.’

Of course not all British cycling tourists drank. Many used the bicycle to experience foreign history and culture. However, even here British tourists seem to have made a habit of ‘distinguishing’ themselves. In 1891 Cycling remarked upon how you could see a typical English cycling tourist walking around Paris dressed in,

‘A dusty sweater, with hair unkempt, a dirty pipe in his mouth and his hands in his pockets’, before entering a Cathedral in the same attire. The tourist then, ‘slouches noisily about the aisles, talks in nearly full voice and does his best to maintain the glory of his country’. The article goes onto describe how such a cyclist, ‘ mostly gets broke about a week before his time is up and has to come back and tell everybody that he couldn’t stand those beastly French’.

Amidst this there were tourists who did nothing to damage Britain’s reputation abroad. Comparing themselves to their more rowdy touring brethren, writers in Cycling described how they would instead, ‘ride easily along the lovely Seine valley’, and ‘waste all their time looking at the scenery, the ruins, cathedrals and other such rot, instead of having ‘a good old rorty time’’.

French cycling poster from 1896

Perhaps rather than focussing on our rowdy ancestors we should instead be proud of our Victorian forbearers who used the bicycle as a means of exploring new countries, admiring new scenery and ‘improving alike their bodies and minds’. These were people who spread the good name of Britain abroad, behaving in a well-mannered and polite way.

However, the question remains of how should we feel about our less reputable Victorian ancestors? Ashamed and embarrassed? Perhaps.

Or maybe instead we should feel a sympathetic affinity to them. After all, these people were pioneers, English tourists abroad in an age when the world wasn’t built to cater for English tourists. They lived in an age where not everyone abroad spoke English, when there were few others singing badly in the early hours of the morning, when speaking loudly and being inappropriately dressed in a cathedral was something that didn’t make you fit in, but stand out. They very much took English culture to French villages that had never experienced it; in a period before cars, cheap air travel and the internet they were the frontiersmen of globalisation.

Perhaps then we should pay them the compliment given to all great historical figures, to all those who have cleared the way for later generations. This was a group who was before their time.