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!

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

The Joys of Middle-Aged Cycling

Of all the different age groups who took to cycling, I have most often found that it was those men and women at a more mature stage in life who would most vividly write about the joys their cycling excursions brought them. To again quote from the self-titled ‘middle aged’ women who wrote in The Guardian,

‘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.’

Male and female cyclists at this stage in life would often acclaim how, if only for an afternoon, their cycling excursions allowed them to escape the pressures of work, responsibilities and duties. Reflecting on a day cycling in the Cotswolds, the essayist and author Arthur Benson, aged forty-one, described how,

‘It was a very pleasant feeling up in the wolds, to be out in the brisk air and warm sun, miles from everything, no one knowing where one was. I have had a very gentle and pleasant feeling of content all day. This is one of the happiest days I have had for a long time.’

It was not only cycle rides that allowed such feelings of escape and freedom. One of the main events in the social calendar of cycling clubs in this period were national ‘cycling camps’, in which different cycling clubs from all over the country would meet up for a week of camping in the English countryside. Whilst in theory these ‘camps’ were about healthy outdoor living and opportunities for racing and competition, in practice they often descended into rather hedonistic, all-night drinking affairs (more on them another time). Whilst you might expect this aspect of camp life to appeal mostly to the younger attendees, it would appear that older cyclists also made the most of the opportunities for revelry and merriment. One more senior member of the Stanley Club, describing their experiences of one of these camps, stated 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 four 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,

‘The age is on his temple hung,
His heart, his heart is very young’

Looking forward to revelry and merriment. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/1900s/fashion-costumes/1890s-bicycles/

That once on their bicycles older men would throw off many of the conventions they usually adhered to, and instead ‘revel’ as their younger selves had once done can be seen in an article in Cycling from 1893, which commented how,

‘Cycling seems to possess a potent and peculiar charm to the middle-aged, aye, and even the elderly man. It is not unusual to see swarthy, bearded men, 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 fledglings 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, perhaps at the same time circumstances would hardly warrant you thinking so.’

‘We have noticed this levelling influence of the sport, and when you see bearded men- rulers among men, we may say- beyond the prime of life, 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.’

Further evidence of how, ‘swarthy and bearded men’ returned to more primitive states of existence when they took to their bicycles can be seen in an article written by a more senior member of the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club. The writer described how cycling in South Devon allowed a cyclist to,

‘Forget your cosmopolitanism and every other ism, again a British boy and proud of it, remember Nelson and Wellington and the 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 or shouting as of yore- Two skinny Frenchmen, One Portuguese, One jolly Englishman, Can lick ‘em all three.’

Further on it was described how cycling around Plymouth and Torquay, where ‘old England’s watch dogs’ sailed out and ‘singed the King of Spain’s whiskers’ when the Spanish Armada threatened, meant you could,

‘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.’

Who knows, maybe Federico Garcia Lorca was inspired by similar thoughts when he wrote,

‘My heart of silk,
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees,
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.’

Campaigning Cyclists

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

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

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

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

Horses and dogcarts: Not what you want to meet around a dark corner. Source: http://mike.da2c.org/igg/rail/00-app1/rthdbike.htm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sir William Harcourt

A Difficult Relationship- Victorian Cyclists and the Police, Part One

It is fair to say that cyclists and the police did not get on in Victorian Britain. In a period before motor vehicles cyclists were often the fastest road users on British roads, which meant they represented a much greater hazard to pedestrians and others using Britain’s highways. As such the police took a particular zeal in stopping cyclists who they viewed as breaking the law and being a danger to other road users. In turn, cyclists felt a strong resentment towards the ‘tyranny’ and ‘injustice’ they felt they often experienced at the hands of the police.

There were two main reasons why the police would stop a cyclist for breaking the law. The first was cycling without a lamp after ‘lighting up’ time. Every week ‘lighting up’ times were published in newspapers and cycling magazines, which told cyclists the time after which they were legally required to cycle with a light on their bicycles. If they did not have a light they were liable to be stopped and fined by the police.

Cyclists did not so much complain about this, as the manner in which they were stopped. For a policeman in the 1890s, stopping a cyclist posed a much greater problem than it would today. This was due to the simple reason that the police had no means of going faster than the cyclists travelling past them; if a fast moving cyclist went past a policeman and ignored their call to stop there was not a lot a policeman could do except wave their fist angrily as the cyclist disappeared into the sunset.

As such some policeman developed rather extreme methods of bringing to a halt cyclists who were travelling without lamps. In 1897 the Leeds Express reported on the case of a cyclist who prosecuted a policeman for assault after the policeman ‘stopped’ him for riding at night without a light. The cyclist was travelling along a quiet road at night, when he suddenly encountered a policeman, who,

‘In his zeal for due enforcement of the lighting up law, gave no warning whatsoever, but rushed suddenly out of a gap in the hedge and laid violent hands on the rider.’

This left the cyclist rather shaken and badly injured; however his case for assault was dismissed by the magistrate. Similarly, one cyclist writing into Cycling in 1894 described how,

‘Two friends and myself were returning from Ripley last night, on a tandem and a single. When we reached Ditton Marsh a plain clothes police officer (No.65) rushed into the road, at the same time catching hold of the handlebars of the tandem, throwing us off. He went through this idiotic and dangerous performance because, in his opinion, our light was not giving ‘sufficient’ light. We said he was exceeding his duty. ‘65’ thought otherwise, and said he would stop us or any other cyclist whose lamp was not giving ‘sufficient’ light.’

New York Cycling policeman in the 1890s (I could not find any British examples) (source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/1895-new-york-police-bicycle-squad.jpg)

There were of course other ways of bringing cyclists to a halt. Rather than tackling machines and riders to the ground, police would sometimes use the less violent method of a road block. Again,  in a period before cars, the police needed to use more novel methods for blocking the road.

One article in the Leeds Express described how a constable on horseback, standing side on in the middle of the road, was used to stop law breaking cyclists passing through.  Another stated how the police would buckle a couple of their capes together and hold them at arm’s length across the road. The article described in positive terms how being stopped by this method allowed cyclist to jump off their machines backward, and so avoid being roughly manhandled to the ground.

Not so gentle were the methods reported in the Bristol Mercury, which stated that it was necessary to,

‘Point out to thoughtful policemen that there are certain dangers attached to the rough and ready method adopted in many places of stopping cyclists with a stick.’

Elaborating on how sticks were used to stop cyclists, the article commented that,

‘We are sure that though a policeman uses a stick to stop a cyclist he has no intention of making an extemporary brake of it by placing it through the wheels. He simply puts it in front of the machine or the cyclist as a sign that the rider must stop, and does not think of the dangers of the proceeding. It is the easiest thing imaginable, however, if the cyclist disregards the signal, for the stick to become mixed up with the machine, to catch in the wheel or some other part, with the result that a serious accident occurs.’

After reading accounts such as these, it is easy to find yourself picturing Victorian policeman not those seen in the images above, but as the duo below.