The Significance of Cycling

The following blog is one that I have written for the British Association of Victorian Studies postgraduate blog. Apologies for the overlaps with many topics already covered, but after a few hours writing it I thought it a shame not to post it on here!

It is now ten years since Radio 4 listeners were asked to vote on what they thought to be the most significant innovation since 1800. The list of possible inventions was, to say the least, impressive. Their share of the votes, perhaps less so. Three percent of voters thought the internal combustion engine was worthy of the title. The internet fared slightly better, receiving four percent of votes. A dizzying five percent of people believed the germ theory of disease was a deserving winner.

What then was the invention that (admittedly a rather specific section of) the British public deemed to be more significant than the computer, the discovery of DNA and the invention of vaccinations? The answer may surprise you. Receiving more votes than the rest of the nominations put together, the unequivocal winner of the competition was the bicycle. (A link to the results is here:

Before I started my research into cycling in the late nineteenth century I might have thought these results slightly laughable. Now however, I am not quite so sure. When studying the impact that the safety bicycle had in late nineteenth century Britain, I am continually amazed at just what a difference being able to pedal to places unreachable by foot made to people’s lives.

Firstly a little bit of context. I am sure that most people’s first thought when they here ‘bicycle’ and ‘late nineteenth century’ is of moustached men perched precariously on penny farthings. However, it was in this period that the modern ‘safety’ bicycle emerged, with two equal sized wheels, a chain driven real wheel and a diamond frame (the one below is from 1891). It was also in 1888 that John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre, which not only made cycling much more comfortable, but also increased the speed a cyclist could travel by a third. These improvements made cycling much less hazardous, much more comfortable and far more enjoyable than it ever had been on penny farthings. By the mid-1890s around a million and a half men and women were cycling in Britain.

Moreover, as the 1890s progressed bicycles became increasingly affordable, with the growth of a second hand market and an influx of cheap American models into the British market. Combined with rising living standards, at the turn of the century bicycles had become increasingly attainable for large portions of the population. For the vast majority who did not own horses or motor cars, purchasing a bicycle meant that for the first time in their lives they possessed their own personal means of transportation.

The impact this had on British society was remarkable and, in many cases, unexpected. The bicycle’s effect on rural communities was particularly pronounced as it dramatically increased the distances people could travel and the places they could visit. The bicycle opened up new opportunities for rural priests, postmen, doctors and nurses. Moreover, it was not those working in rural occupations that benefitted from cycling. P.J. Perry has attributed the decline in same parish working-class marriages in rural Dorset in the late 1880s to the bicycle and the greater distances it allowed individuals from these communities to travel.

Owning a bicycle also benefitted the love lives of those living in urban communities. The links between cycling and romance were recognised by Harry Darce in 1892 when he penned, ‘Daisy Bell’ with the famous ‘bicycle made for two’. The 1890s also saw ‘cycling courtships’ becoming increasingly common among members of the middle-classes, as young men and women used bicycle rides as opportunities for unsupervised and unchaperoned meetings. As one female cyclist described,

‘The chief merit of the bicycle in the eyes of the young is that is dispenses with the chaperon. It imparts open air freedom and freshness to a life heretofore cribbed, crabbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy and have ridden triumphantly over her prostrate body.’

The benefits of cycling to women went far further than the opportunities it opened up for romance. After society and the aristocracy briefly took to cycling in 1895 in the so called, ‘bicycle craze’, women took to cycling in increasing numbers. Previous arguments about the ‘unbecomingness’ of women being sat astride a machine which they powered with their legs were overridden as growing numbers of women took to the pastime. Writing at the height of the craze in 1895 Home and Hearth stated that,

‘In our opinion the ugliness- let us put it uncompromisingly- the necessary awkwardness and ugliness of cycling are compensated a thousand times by the delights of the sport. And then it so health-giving, and so brightens both mind and eyes. What relief to leave behind all the things about which modern women are so much in earnest, all high ideals and utopian aims, and to wander forth along the pleasant country lanes.’

This is not to say that by cycling women completely overturned conservative notions of appropriate ‘womanly’ behaviour. Cycling advice literature for women gave most of its attention to how they could cycle whilst maintaining a ‘graceful’ womanly appearance in which they appeared un-flustered and showed few signs of exertion. Women who cycled in ‘rational dress’, consisting of knickerbocker trousers which revealed theirs legs were widely commented on and criticised in the cycling and wider press for the ways in which they ‘unsexed’ themselves. One women described how when cycling through a town in rational dress,

‘Thirteen persons saluted me with the polite command of, ‘Git yer ‘air cut!’ Eight were extremely anxious to know my tailors address; an even greater number requested the name of my hatter. A ragged urchin ran alongside for some distance, and asked, ‘Could yer oblige us with a match guv’nor?’ A barber further down the road went one better by standing on his step and enquiring, ‘Shave sir?’ Several pedestrians helpfully suggested that I should ‘get orf and push!’ While an elderly lady imparted the information I was a ‘forward young minx!’ One man- how I thanked that man- doffed his oily cap and exclaimed, ‘Bravo! I likes yer pluck!’

For reasons such as this the majority of female cyclists wore skirts, whose weight made cycling much more arduous and difficult. However, even in skirts women were able to benefit from the opportunities cycling offered for journeying into the British countryside which would have been unthinkable a generation before. One female cyclist described how,

‘To men the bicycle has been an unquestionable boom. But after all, men had a fair share of fresh air and country pleasures before the advent of the wheel. To women it has brought new life, wider, freer and more delightful than was dreamt before its coming.’

However, for many men living and working in cities, particularly those from working and lower-middle class backgrounds, owning a bicycle offered equally new and exciting opportunities for escaping cities in favour of the countryside and nature. One writer in the Manchester Guardian described how,

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

It is difficult not to form a very human connection when reading quotes such as this. There is something wonderfully knowable and understandable in the activities of those men and women who took to cycling over a hundred years ago. The enjoyment of nature, the opportunities for romance and the pleasure of travelling to places previously unimaginable all speak of desires and wants that all of us can probably in some way relate to.

Maybe then those Radio 4 listeners were onto something when they crowned the bicycle the most significant invention of the last two hundred years. Moreover, it must be remembered that cycling not only benefits those on their bicycles, but society as a whole. More people cycling equals a healthier society, less congested cities and lower levels of pollution. However, the value of cycling is perhaps felt most keenly when reading accounts such as the one below, written by as self-titled, ‘middle-aged women’, which appeared in The Guardian in 1893,

‘I wonder if others have felt, as I have done since I took to cycling, that the old nature that one thought had been swept away or crushed out by the care, monotony and pressure of work and duty, was there all along? It only wanted releasing to spring back with all its gladness and enthusiasm and keenness of enjoyment into life again; it only wanted opportunity to escape to the healing, restoring powers of nature and free-and-easy contact with wider surroundings to understand that age is a matter of feeling and not of years, and that cares can sit lightly if the heart keeps young.’