Cycling Schools- Part One

As was recently discussed, men and women living through the 1890s rarely relished the prospect of mastering the art of cycling. Learning how to maintain your balance whilst pedalling forward on two wheels was a wobbly and often hazardous process, which could leave shins, knees and various other body parts battered, bruised and injured.

As I am sure all of us who have fallen off bicycles in public spaces are aware, being unceremoniously flung from a saddle, or slowly collapsing as you vainly attempt to unclip cleats from pedals, is also highly humiliating. However, for 1890s gents, and, in-particular ladies, the embarrassment of publicly parting company with a bicycle would have, in all probability, been even more acute.

Article on a ‘New Woman’ falling off a bicycle. Source: https://storify.com/DigiVictorian/tit-bits-from-the-illustrated-police-news

Other blogs have highlighted how during this period, there were huge pressures on female cyclists to pedal their machines in a manner which was seen to be graceful and elegant. Whilst the 1890s saw discourses of middle-class femininity become reconciled with the notion of women on bicycles, they still expected ‘the fairer sex’ to cultivate more genteel and dignified riding styles than their male counterparts. Women who ‘scorched’, wore rational dress or who appeared red faced whilst cycling, could expect to be denounced as being inappropriately and dangerously ‘masculine’ in the cycling and wider press.

As such, learning to ride a bicycle required middle-class women to carefully navigate their way through a set of highly conservative and rigid gender norms. How could you learn to ride a bicycle without being seen as undignified, clumsy and inelegant?

“Maidens with a disregard for convention” by William Gordan Davis, 1895. National Cycle Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

‘Maidens with a disregard for convention’ by William Gordon Davis, 1895. Source: https://wellcomehistory.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/women-and-cycling/

Some found a solution to this problem by learning to ride at times of day when the roads they practised on were quiet, such as early in the morning or late at night. Others utilised roads away from city centres which were subject to little traffic. Both these practices can be seen in an article that appeared in The Aberdeen Weekly Journal in 1896, a piece which also recognised how quiet and remote spaces could be employed for purposes other than induction into the mysterious art of pedalling a bicycle. The article described how ‘Albyn Lane, the once secluded vernal bye-way sacred to whispering lovers’, had become a place where,

‘Any fine evening maidens may be seen acquiring the art of cycling with the aid of their male friends and advisors, and the comicalities of the situation- the ill-concealed flirtation- the agonising efforts to sit on a bicycle- form a spectacle worth a visit.’

Albyn Lane as it appears today

However, the growing numbers of middle and upper-class men, and, to a greater extent women, who wanted to learn how to ride bicycles without embarrassing themselves in public, not only led to cyclists flocking to previously ‘secluded vernal bye-ways’. The rising demand for more private spaces in which those on comfortable incomes could learn to cycle, also meant that from the mid-1890s onwards there was a rapid growth of so called ‘cycling schools’. An article on these schools, or ‘academies’ as they were also known, published in Cycling in 1896, described how,

‘Schools for cycle teaching have been in vogue for twenty years…but it required the advent of the better classes into our ranks, especially the female portion thereof, to create the schools we have with us on all sides at the present time.’

Cycle schools were typically based in large indoor spaces, such as halls or gymnasiums. Another article in Cycling, which gave details on a new cycling academy which had opened in Newcastle, stated how,

‘Mr T.D. Oliver…has opened the new gymnasium at Newcastle as a school for cycling… (His) enterprise in this direction is bound to secure a fair amount of patronage during the winter months, particularly from the fairer sex. The hall has an area of 5,300 feet available for cycling.’

Poster  for a cycling school. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/1900s/fashion-costumes/mens-cycling-costume/

The costs of attending these schools were roughly similar to those outlined in the poster above- around two shillings (roughly £6.50 in today’s money) for a lesson, or 10 shillings sixpence for ‘full tuition’ (around £33-£35). These prices covered the expense of hiring a bicycle, and being solicitously guided by a so-called ‘master’, who would carefully and efficiently induct you into the art of pedalling a cycle.

Well that was the theory. Certainly the proprietors of cycling academies were usually respectable, well-renowned men who had many years cycling experience. A popular cycling school in Birmingham made much of the fact that their main instructor was ‘Professor J.M. Hubbard’, although what exactly his field of academic expertise was, and whether it was at all related to riding bicycles, was never made clear in their adverts.

However, beneath these ‘head masters’ were usually a number of young, male employees, who found a fairly easy, if moderate income by bequeathing their knowledge on how to ride a bicycle to others. Their method of teaching appears to have been fairly simple- they would typically put their arm around the side of the cyclist they were mentoring, and guide them round a track until they felt comfortable and confident enough to cycle by themselves.

Frances Willard receiving female support whilst learning to cycle.

It would appear that the women who were on the receiving end of the verbal and physical instructions of sweaty and, in all likelihood, rather awkward adolescences, did not always fully appreciate their teaching methods. A piece in Hearth and Home, a publication aimed at women from the middle classes, bemoaned the fact that in most cycling schools,

‘The average teacher, generally a raw youth, considers the whole duty of instruction is to hold the timorous tyro on her machine, but the masters at St. George School have a happy knack of quickly placing a rider en rapport with her bicycle.’

To avoid the awkwardness of physical contact between trainer and trainee, some schools implemented alternative forms of instruction. Another piece in Hearth and Home stated how,

‘The best instructors provide a leather belt for their pupils with a handle on the back, a method far preferable to being held on one’s machine by a perspiring youth.’

Learning to cycle on the road (and avoiding awkward young men)

However, not all women who attended these schools resented being held on their machines by ‘perspiring youths’. Indeed, such teaching methods appear to have occasionally been conducive to the types of romancing which occurred on Albyn Lane. An article in Cycling from 1896 described how,

‘A youth of some nineteen summers, employed in one of the large cycling schools, to teach ladies to cycle, recently captured the heart and hand of one of his fair pupils, and married her without delay. As the lady is well endowed with this world’s goods, the fortunate youth has no further necessity to teach cycling, except as a recreation’.

Let us hope their marriage out better than other instances when young men of humble means won the affections of women ‘well endowed with this world’s goods’ after experiencing close physical encounters with them.

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

Cycling Sources #5, ‘Mrs. Matilda Manleigh’

As an add on to the articles on ‘Womanly Cycling‘, here is an piece which appeared in Cycling shortly after the furore that surrounded Tessie Reynolds racing from Brighton to London and back. In it a journalist from Cycling goes forward in time to 1920, where he interviews ‘Mrs Matilda Manleigh’ (pun intended), who is a symbol of the new ‘women’s era’. It gives some idea of why Cycling was so opposed to female cyclists breaking records and cycling in ‘masculine’ attire (and also the ridiculous nature of this opposition). If female cyclists carried on like this, who knew where it might lead?

We are advanced; this is the women’s era. It is the year 1920, and I, a masculine worm, crushed out of recognition by the feminine heel, have been deputed by Cycling (full of energy as ever), to interview Mrs Matilda Manleigh, the famous female phenomenon of the period. Mrs. Manleigh is a marvel. She has just won, for the second successive year, the one hundred miles championship of the Up-to-date Female’s Emancipation Society’s Cycling Club; and she also holds the twenty-five miles path, and fifty miles road, championships for the Women’s Rights Federation C.C. In addition to her connection with the institutions named above, Mrs. Manleigh is also a member of the ‘Female Society for the Suppression of Despotic Man’ (Mr. Manleigh knows it!) and is President for the ‘Women’s Records Association.

Cartoon from Punch. Source: http://www.sheilahanlon.com/?p=270

There is no denying that Mrs. Matilda Manleigh is a truly remarkable woman, and as the male servant- whom I afterwards discovered was none other than the deposed and despised Mr. Manleigh himself- cringed and ushered me into the presence of the Amazonic creature, I confess to a feeling of some trepidation, and a desire to be anywhere out of the way- running a trial trip on that 150-mile-per-hour-electric railway for preference.

Mrs. Manleigh is a tall, imposing (very!) woman. On this occasion I discovered her dressed for a ride in the cycling costume of the period, which I would describe were it not for the fact that several personal friends of mine, and a relation- an aunt with money and respect for myself-read this paper.

On my entrance Mrs. Manleigh laid down her cigarette and rose to greet me. Gripping my hand like a vice, and shaking it as though my arm were a refractory signal, she bade me be seated.

‘A representative of Cycling, I see’, said Mrs. Manleigh, glancing at my card.

‘Yes madam’, I replied, politely.

‘Ah! Some time ago, I am given to understand, your journal had the temerity to enter a protest against the, ‘female scorcher’. Your presence here for the purpose of interviewing me suggests the inference you have changed your views. Pardon me, do you smoke?’

‘Thank you’, I replied, accepting the proffered cigar. ‘Yes madam, we have, as you remark, changed our views. You see, first the editor got married, and then I got- but why bother you with my little troubles, Mrs Manleigh?’ I said, apologetically.

Source: alpenatweed.blogspot.com

‘And on the subject of dress?’ queried the lady.

‘Well, in the matter of dress our wives have long since convinced us that the more masculine the costume adopted by females, the more inconspicuous the person so attired.’

‘Just so. Now here, Mr. Cycling, is a portrait of myself taken just before the start of the, ‘Up-to-date Female’s Emancipation C.C.’s Championship. None but the brutal and depraved could cavil at that, and any man- but no; what has he got to do with it? Why, you are blushing sir!’

‘No madam, I assure you not. I have the toothache, and as you know the poet says, ‘There never was a philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently. Do you train seriously?’, I enquired, anxious to change the topic.

‘Why rather! I spend four months every year up north, and..’,

At this moment the interview was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Mr. Manleigh in an apron carrying a broom and a basin of tea leaves. On viewing the situation he immediately departed with a scared look, muttering apologies for having broken up our têteà-tête.

Female cyclist in rational dress (does it say Tessie Reynolds underneath?) from 1889. Source: http://1890swriters.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/1890s-womens-fashion.html

‘Do you allow men to pace you?’ (when a cyclist in front protects the one behind from headwinds and creates a slipstream for you to cycle in), I enquired.

‘Certainly; why not? In the ordinary work of life I regard man as a necessary evil, but as a pacer he is a faithful creature. Under ordinary circumstances I find him an unmitigated bore, but we endure him as he is; it is as a pacer, however, that we find in man a useful and truly well-meaning automaton. He has a place, and as the chairwoman of the ‘Society for the Suppression of Despotic Man’, I can assure you it should be the endeavour of every right-minded woman to keep him there!’

Mrs. Manleigh delivered this speech with flashing eyes, and the terrible last words showed the pent-up enthusiasm that burned her soul. Wonderful woman I thought, fumbling for my hat, and edging towards the door.

‘I think I have gleaned all the information necessary, thank you Mrs. Manleigh. I will leave you now.’

‘Good day! Said the Amazon, extending her hand. ‘Mrs. Cycling will be welcome at our next Suppression Society conference on Saturday- subject for discussion, ‘Man, and where to keep him.’ Good day!’

‘Good day madam!’

With that I fled back, and here I am in 1893.

A husband at home looking after the babies while his rationally dressed wife prepares for a spin. Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2012/06/25/a-comic-look-at-the-1890s-bicycle-boom/