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!’

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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!