Victorian men on bicycles: The original hipsters?

There is an undeniable air of ‘the hipster’ in photos such as the one above. To own a bicycle, have slightly avant-garde facial hair, and wear vintage clothing, are all key ingredients if (as a man- two will suffice for women), you want to claim membership of that ever-expanding modern tribe which is ‘hipsterdom’.

For those who are unfamiliar with the hipster and his or her ways, let me try to briefly explain. Perhaps the best starting point is the recently published ‘Ladybird book of the hipster’ which provides the following definition and illustration:

After living in Leeds for a while I have built up an understanding (primarily through observation rather than doing), that to be hipster is to wherever possible, reject mainstream culture in favour of more organic, vintage and bearded alternatives. You don’t drive a car, you pedal a bicycle. You don’t grow and groom stubble, but rather nurture a moustache which you can twiddle the ends of. For some reason unbeknown to me, you drink coffee out of a glass instead of a mug.

As was first mentioned, you don’t have to look far if you want to find parallels between 1890s men on bicycles and your modern day hipster. If the individual pictured below suddenly appeared in an organic cafe in Shoreditch, I doubt that few, if any eyelids would be batted. This (to me at least) raises the question: to what extent can we claim 1890s male cyclists as the forefathers of modern-day hipsterdom?

Unfortunately, when exploring this assertion in greater detail, a number of problems quickly emerge. Whilst male cyclists during the 1890s often styled fantastic facial hair, this was not a rejection of mainstream culture, but rather an attempt to conform to it. The same is true of the bicycles they owned and the clothes they wore. By the standards of their day, these were certainly not ‘vintage’ or ‘alternative’ but rather emphatically ‘modern’.

However, amongst 1890s cyclists there was a group who, perhaps more than most, held values which are also found at the heart of hipsterdom today. To provide some context: after the invention of the safety bicycle and pneumatic tyre in the mid-to-late 1880s, old fashioned ‘ordinary’ bicycles (which we would also recognise as ‘penny farthings’) slowly became obsolete. Safeties fitted with pneumatic tyres were cheaper to buy, required less energy to pedal, were far more comfortable to ride, and as suggested by the name, were far less dangerous to their user than ordinaries. Looking back on the 1870s from the vantage point of the 1890s, a member of the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club commented,

‘The cycler of these days risked his neck, with the other parts of his anatomy, on what, in appearance at least, was a pair of cart wheels connected by a pump handle. On this fearful contrivance he ventured forth into the country, at that time, practically a terra icognita to the ordinary town resident.’

However there were groups of cyclists who, in true hipster spirit, steadfastly rejected modern, mainstream safeties in favour of their more alternative and vintage ordinary cousins. Their reasons for doing so I am sure will tug on the heart-strings of anyone reading this who still buys and listens to vinyl, or owns a film camera and develops their own pictures. Sure ‘safeties’ were far more user friendly than ordinaries and, by nearly all conceivable standards, represented a technological improvement. However, as was pointed out by a dissident few, the process of riding an ordinary, which required you sit above your huge front wheel with a stiff straight back, had an aesthetic elegance and gracefulness which the modern ‘safety’ could not hope to match. As a correspondent to Cycling stated,

‘As far as looks go I am sure the public would rather see a group of graceful ordinary riders than a group of men rushing along cramped up on their machines, and more resembling monkeys than cyclers.’

A graceful ordinary rider

Moreover, the difficulties which accompanied ordinary riding; namely the serious health risks of falling off, could (with a little imagination) be presented as endearing positives rather than life-threatening negatives. Another correspondent’s letter to Cycling, published in 1891, described how,

‘Thirteen years ago, when I first conceived the idea of taking refuge ennui atop a high wheel, there was some appearance of justification for a young man’s aspiration to master the stately, tall machines then in vogue, as to do so certainly required one to face violence and risk sudden death-two considerations dear to the typical Britain, and essential conditions to the favourable reception by him of any new form of athletic sport.

So for a time bicycling (as we do not understand it now-a-days) flourished, and every Saturday afternoon it was a pretty sight to see the thousands of bicyclists on their graceful tall machines, riding outward from London on every main road.’

A cycling club with their ‘graceful, tall machines’. Source: collections.beamish.org.uk

Building up a head-of-steam, the writer went onto argue that,

‘The modern cyclers have degenerated (like the rest of humanity) into a race of scuttling, quacking, geared-up-dinner-plate-riding ground-game, who, in their pitiable search for safety, have managed to get a saddle just above the surface of the road, and in their luxurious desire for comfort, have hit upon the marvellous expedient of twisting an inflated German-sausage skin around their apologies for wheels; so that we hear now of such incidents as ‘tyres bursting!’

As wonderfully disdainful as this piece is, is does unfortunately undermine the idea that those men who pedalled ordinaries during the 1890s were late-Victorian incarnations of ‘the hipster’. Rather than being young males who rejected mainstream culture in favour of vintage alternatives, they were instead older men, who resolutely carried on doing things the way they had (until recently) always been done. An article in Cycling from 1895 titled ‘The Veteran’, described how your typical older had just one key weakness, namely,

‘His extravagant regard for the memory of his ordinary. He positively bores with his frequent and prosy recitals of all its virtues, and the marvellous adventures he and it have had together; he paints it now as a golden age that has passed forever, and of which the modern safety scorcher can never hope to taste.’

Ready to bore with ‘prosy recitals’. Source:http://etatrust.org.uk/2013/03/roads-were-not-built-for-cars/

Rather than being the forefathers of modern day hipstersdom, I would argue that 1890s ordinary cyclists are better understood as individuals who carried the flame for a worldview which, I imagine, has existed as long as human history. To again draw on my own experiences of living in Leeds, it will not be present in the young, tattooed, bearded males who spend time in bars and cafes in the city centre, but can instead be found in those who now frequent darkened pubs and tell anyone who cares to listen that modern day cricketers have ‘nowt on Geoffrey Boycott’. As with those who resolutely stuck to their ordinaries, no amount of reasoning can shake them from their resolute belief that things really were better ‘back in the day’.

(For anyone wanting to see this worldview in action, please follow the link below and listen to Van Morrison’s preamble from 45 seconds onwards- the rest of the song is well worth a listen too! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxk6Rjg7dOo)

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 #4- The Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club

The article below appeared in the monthly gazette of the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle Club in 1897. It reflects on the twenty one years that had passed since the club was founded, and talks about all manner of things- the dangers of cycling in the days of penny farthings, the mannerisms of England’s ‘honesty peasantry’  and at the end, the growth of female cyclists (and bicycles made for two). The writer of the article had the pen name ‘The Unchained’, and used the club’s gazette to give kiss and tell accounts of what went on during club tours (alcohol and landladies daughters certainly featured prominently, more on these at a later date). Unlike the last couple of blogs on female cyclists, reading the first three paragraphs, in which ‘The Unchained’ looks back at childhood and ahead to old age, you are struck by the closeness, rather than distance, between you and those who lived in this period.

(All images of the Bristol Club are taken from http://www.babelstone.co.uk/BBTC/souvenir.html, where you can find the retrospect which appeared at the start of the club’s gazette.)

Members of the Bristol Club, modelling many a fine moustache

‘One and twenty years ago some of number had not even entered upon this worldly sphere and into its mystery termed life. Others had entered long enough before to have experienced to the full its joys and sorrows, and possibly something of its regrets for the ‘might have been’. The most of us, I doubt not, at that time still beheld the world, with its actualities and potentialities, through the telescope of childhood, and thought of manhood as another state of existence, to be reached in the dim and almost impossible future.’

‘Then ‘all the world was young, John’, our geese were indeed swans, our ponds lakes, our streams rivers, and the line of blue hills showing faint on the horizon, mighty mountains, immediately beyond which to our youthful imagination lay the world of adventure and romance’ (this is a reference to the poem Old and Young by Charles Kingsley, which I’ve put at the end of the blog).

‘When we reach old age, those of us who may, shall we, I wonder- peer through the reverse end of the telescope, and our perceptions be correspondingly dwarfed and lessened; lessening still as time extends the instrument to its full. Who shall answer yay or nay; were it so, as in childhood, we unconsciously beheld the world with a magnifying vision, so when time has whitened the hair and dimmed the eye, would old age, unconsciously, minify our vista of the world. And the second awakening- but we may but conjecture and pass on.’

Members of the Club from 1892

‘Twenty-one years ago cycling may be said to have outgrown its swaddling clothes, and arrived at the stage (to pursue the simile) represented by the period in life when the garments of infancy consist of underdeveloped bloomer costume. The cycler of these days risked his neck, with the other portions of his anatomy, on what, in appearance at least, was a pair of cart wheels connected with by a pump handle. On this fearful contrivance he ventured forth into the country, and at that time, practically a terra incognita (unknown land) to the ordinary town resident. Like unto the Ishmaelite was he in the sense that every man’s hand was against him. The street loafer and gamin considered him fair sport to chuck ‘arf a brick at, and delighted to push a stick through his wheel, an ‘honest peasantry their country’s pride’ putting a clod of earth or a hayrake to the same noble end, ‘cos why, wot d’ ‘um want ter ‘ave then things fer; wy don’t ‘um buy our hosses.’ As, for consideration by other road users, why the very coaster’s or market woman’s donkey considered it infra dig to give an inch of road to the man of the wheel. No wonder, cyclists early found it necessary for self-protection to go for their afternoon spins in company, and started bicycle clubs.’

Two men on penny farthings, 1886

‘One and twenty years ago, a dozen or thereabout of the pioneers of the sport in the old city met in solemn concave, also in the house of one of their number, and decided to form a bicycle club. The next procedure was to find a name. Various high sounding titles were suggested and discarded, until one of the dozen, enthused for a love of his native city, arose and requested to know why, in the name of common sense and the Town Council, can’t we call ourselves the Bristol. There could be but one reply to this question, and the Bristol Bicycle Club was it named.’

‘Seven years are supposed to have elapsed, and many merry little jinks have been had by the boys on their boneshakers during the lapsing, and we come to the time when the tricycle was pushing forward its claims to favour. It is another meeting, at the Swan Hotel, Bridge Street, and a proposition to alter the name of the club to the Bristol Bicycle and Tricycle is under consideration.’

1880s cycling scene

Image of men and women on tricycles and penny farthings from the 1880s. Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/bikes-1800s/1869-1885/1880s-tiller-treadle-velocipede-tricycle/1880s-cycling-scene/

‘One member let himself go in the following strain, ‘Gentlemen, I must vote against this resolution. If we admit the riders of the three wheeler into the club, we shall have an older set of men joining, and wanting to manage us; perhaps have ladies becoming members and ordering us about on club runs- and so on.’ The tricycle at that time was looked upon as a machine for the elderly and non-venturesome and a few lady riders, whose love of the pastime led them to brave the jeers of the vulgar and the jeers of Mrs Grundy. What must our said member think of cycling today with its vast number of lady votaries gracing the sport by riding the two-wheeled safety. And mark the irony of Fate- shortly after the date of his ungallant speech, he fell captive to the charms of a widow, and ere now might have been seen propelling a three (or was it a four) wheeler, this too, without the pedal accompaniment, and carrying a passenger.’

Old and Young by Charles Kingsley

When all the world was young lad,
And all the trees were green;
And every goose a swan lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among;
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.

Charles Kingsley