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

Surprisingly, Victorian cyclists’ greatest complaint against the police was not the rough and ready manner in which they were made to ‘dismount’ from their machines. It was the reasons by which they were arrested for ‘furious riding’. In this period a cyclist could be arrested for,

‘Riding and driving furiously, or so endangering the life or limbs of any person, or the common danger of passengers on the thoroughfare.’

As such cyclists who policemen judged to be travelling ‘excessively fast’ (generally anything over 14 m.ph.) could be arrested, prosecuted and fined. The main cause of disagreements between cyclists and policemen rested on the fact that it was the police who judged a cyclists’ speed. In a period before speed guns this was, of course, a rather arbitrary judgement. One disgruntled cyclist from the Tottenham Cycling Club in London described how they were travelling down a hill at night at ten miles an hour, when,

‘Noticing something black at the foot of the hill, I rang the bell. Immediately the something in black began to wave its arms and cape, taking up the whole of the roadway, and yelling, ‘Hi! Go steady will yer. No scorching on this road or I’ll soon ‘ave yer off!’

The article concluded by cautioning fellow club-men against, ‘furiously loitering’ in the area. The dislike cyclists had for policemen can be seen in how they often caricatured them as rather simple, aggressive folk. One letter into Cycling described how,

‘On Sunday week a ‘bumptious bobby’ stood in the middle of the gateway at Richmond Park, and as two cyclists carefully passed him at a slow speed, he offensively remarked, ‘We’ll ‘ave yer comin’ back.’

Cycling magazines in the 1890s were full of complaints from cyclists who felt they had been unfairly charged with ‘furious riding’ by policemen. Another letter into Cycling in 1897 commented that,

‘Many of the recent cases appear little better than highway robbery up-to-date; and it is positively a fact that in some places it is absolutely dangerous to be out on the road with a cycle.’

The same letter expressed a widely held view, that as police were incapable of catching those cyclists travelling excessively fast they would simply charge the next group of cyclists they encountered to make up for this.

What then could cyclists do to fight the persecution they felt they were dealt at the hands of the police? One possibility was protest. The Manchester Courier reported on an ‘extraordinary demonstration of cyclists’ which took place outside a police station in Altrincham. The article described how,

‘Shortly after nine o’clock about 150 riders appeared coming in the direction of Altrincham. Bells and whistles were going the whole of the time, and one of the individuals in the centre of the group had a large hand bell which he rang continuously as they passed the police station.’

Other cyclists were more devious. The Manchester Courier described another case where,

‘Two cyclists were propelling a tandem safety, the front man was plugging steadily on with his head down, as is his wont, whether going fast or slow; the back man, noticing they were approaching a policeman, sat up and folded his arms to show how slow the pace really was. They were going about eight miles per hour. The officer called upon them to stop, and running alongside, seized the machine, nearly throwing the tandem and it’s riders over. The officer only wanted the name and address of the front rider, as he said he could see the other man was going steadily enough.’

This made, you would imagine, for a very awkward ride home.