Learning to Cycle in the 1890s

As I am sure will be the case with most people reading this, learning how to ride a bicycle is one of my first and indeed, one of my happiest memories. After much trouble and difficulty, remaining upright and moving forward without stabilizers, brought about feelings of success and, perhaps more than anything, excitement.

An exception to this rule

By contrast, for the majority of those living through the 1890s who had up until this period never before cycled, mastering a bicycle was an event which occurred at a much later stage in life. However, in the absence of any acquired experiences that could prepare you for maintaining your balance whilst pedaling forward on two wheels, this did nothing to make the whole experience any easier. In her book, A Wheel within a wheel. How I learned to ride a bicycle, with some reflections by the way (available for online reading here: https://archive.org/details/wheelwithinwheel00williala), Frances Willard, aged fifty-three, described the process by which she learnt to ride a bicycle she named ‘Gladys’ as involving,

‘First, three young Englishman, all strong-armed and accomplished bicyclers, held the machine in place while I climbed into the saddle. Second, two well-disposed young women put all the power they had, until they grew red in the face, off-setting each other’s pressure and thus maintaining the equipoise to which I was unequal. Third, one walked beside me steadying the ark as best she could by holding the centre of the deadly cross-bar, to let go whose handlebars meant chaos and collapse. After this I was able to hold my own if I had the moral support of my kind trainers, and it passed into proverb among them, the short emphatic word of command I gave them at every few turns of the wheel: ‘Let go but stand by.’

H.G. Wells also captured the difficulties you would encounter when taking your bicycle out for it’s first public spin in his 1896 novel The Wheels of Chance (available online here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1264/1264-h/1264-h.htm).

Cover to the Wheels of Chance. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wheels_of_Chance

The subject of the book was a ten day cycling tour taken by ‘Mr Hoopdriver’, a man in his early twenties who was based on Wells’ own experiences of working as a drapers assistant. Wells described how on the first day of his cycling holiday that there was,

‘Only one phrase to describe his course at this stage, and that is- voluptuous curves. He did not ride fast, he did not ride straight, an exacting critic might say he did not ride well- but he rode generously, opulently, using the whole road and even nibbling at the footpath. The excitement never flagged. So far he had never been passed by anything, but as of yet the day was young and the road was clear. He doubted his steering so much that, for the present, he had resolved to dismount at the approach of anything else upon wheels.’

After seeing a carter making his way towards him, Hoopdriver was able to put this approach into practice and ‘according to his previous determination, resolved to dismount’. However, this did not altogether go as planned, as,

‘He tightened the brake, and the machine stopped dead. He was trying to think what he did with his right leg whilst getting off. He gripped the handles and released the brake, standing on the brake and waving his right foot in the air. Then- these things take so long in the telling- he found the machine was falling over to the right. Whilst he was deciding upon a plan of action, gravitation appears to have been busy. He was still irresolute when he found the machine on the ground, himself kneeling upon it, and a vague feeling in his mind that Providence had dealt harshly with his shin.’


Wells and his wife awheel. Source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/bitsandbins/

It would appear that such an experience was commonplace for those who learned to cycle in the 1890s, with Willard also describing how,

‘One bright morning I bowed on down Priory drive waving my hand to my most adventurous aide-de-camp, and calling out as I left behind, ‘Now you will see how nicely I can do it- watch!’ when behold! that timid left foot turned traitor, and I came down solidly on my knee, and the knee on a pebble as relentless as prejudice and as opinionated as ignorance.’

Indeed, both the writings of Wells and Willard highlight that the process of learning to ride a bike as an adult in this period, was not an altogether different one to the one which we all experienced way back when. Following these initial difficulties and injuries, came slow feelings of mastery. As Wells somewhat imaginatively put it,

‘To ride the bicycle properly is very much like a love affair- chiefly it is a matter of faith. Believe you do it, and the thing is done: doubt, and, for the life of you, you cannot.’

Drawing by Wells showing an old classmate how to dismount from a bicycle. Source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/bitsandbins/

And then, of course, came the excitement of confidently pedaling a machine which opened up previously unheralded opportunities and possibilities. Soon after the quote above Wells stated how upon reaching the top of a hill Hoopdriver,

‘Put his feet upon the footrests, and now riding moderately straight, went, with a palpitating brake, down that excellent descent. A new delight was in his eyes, quite over and above the pleasure of rushing through the keen, sweet, morning air. He reached out his thumb and twanged his bell out of sheer happiness.’

Or in the words of Willard,

‘In less than a day as the almanac reckons time- but practically in two days of actual practice- amid the delightful surroundings of the great outdoors, and inspired by the bird-songs, the colour and fragrance 0f an English posy-garden, in the company of devoted and pleasant comrades, I had made myself master of the most remarkable, ingenious and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet.

Moral: Go thou and do likewise!’






Victorian Intellectuals Awheel

‘Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.’

H.G. Wells

Many writers at the turn of the century made good use of the bicycle, using it as a means of resting wearied brains as they searched for adventure, stimulation and relaxation. H.G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, was a keen cyclist, and his 1896 book The Wheels of Chance described the adventures of a draper’s assistant from London on his ten day cycling tour.


Cover to Wells’ The Wheels of Chance 

Wells himself spent three unhappy years as a draper’s assistant, and he put these and his own cycling experiences into the main character of Hoopdriver, whose cycling holiday represents freedom, escape and adventure. As Hoopdriver cycling in the countryside contemplates,

‘Here was quiet and greenery, and one mucked about as the desire took one, without a soul to see, and here was no wailing of ‘Sayn’, no folding of remnants, no voice to shout, ‘Hoopdriver forward!’

Wells captures many of the joys of cycling when Hoopdriver realises,

‘There were miles of this- scores of miles of this before him, pinewood and oak forest, purple, heathery moorland and grassy down, lush meadows where shining rivers wound their lazy way, villages with square-towered, flint churches, and rambling, cheap and hearty inns, clean, white country towns, long downhill stretches, where one might ride at one’s ease (overlooking a jolt or two) and far away, at the end of it all- the sea.’


H.G. Wells with his wife Jane (source: http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/bitsandbins/)

Amongst the ranks of literary cyclists could also be found Arthur Conan Doyle, who advised,

‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope seems hardly worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a good spin down the road, without anything but thought for the ride you are taking.’

All very sensible. Not so sensible was the riding style of George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, novelist and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. After taking to the bicycle at the age of 29, Shaw developed his own distinctive riding style. In his biography of Shaw, Michael Holroyd describes how,

‘For someone physically timid, Shaw’s experiments by bicycle were extraordinary. He would raise his feet to the handlebars and simply toboggan down steep places. Many of his falls, from which we would prance away shouting, ‘I am not hurt’, with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism.’

After four years of cycling he could claim, ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.’

George Bernard Shaw- Nobel Prize winner in Literature, questionable cyclist.

However, not all of Shaw’s accidents came as a result of his own unique approach to bicycle riding. In 1895 he went on a cycling trip around Monmouthshire in Wales with Bertrand Russell and Sidney Webb. Given the former was a leading philosopher and mathematician who would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the latter an economist and co-founding member of LSE, you would not have expected bicycle riding to have posed the group too great a challenge.

However, it appears Russell remained ignorant of Conan Doyle’s advice to go, ‘without anything but thought for the ride you are taking’. Shaw describes how,

‘We three rode on our bicycles down a steep hill on our way to Tintern Abbey. Russell is rather absent-minded, and he is presently occupied with a work on non-Euclidian space. He suddenly woke up from a fit of mathematical absorption, and jumped off his machine to read a signpost.’

As it was reported in the Sheffield Independent,

‘The consequences may be imagined. G.B.S. was just behind him, and there was a ‘terrific smash’ and the great critic and Fabian was hurled, ‘five yards through space (Euclidian) and landed impartially on several parts of himself.’

Bertrand Russell

Fortunately Bertrand Russell remained unhurt. Shaw demonstrated some his famed resilience by recovering and cycling home. However, this was only after,

‘Lying flat on his back on the roadway for a while, and defending himself against all proposals to poison him with brandy’. Shaw attributed his escape to his clothing and his, ‘splendid quality of bone and muscle’ resulting from a vegetarian diet.

The lesson? Renowned philosophers and Nobel Prize winners don’t make for great cycling companions.