Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Bicycles Against Traffic - England 1890!

Cycling in the Victorian Era - England 1890!

I am very pleased to share the following post of my dear friend Will!
Here he shares the tribulations of Cycling as was wont during the Victorian Era!

There were two main groups who cyclists shared the roads with in this period: horse drawn vehicles and pedestrians. Cyclists were by no means impeccable in their conduct with either of these groups. Those cyclists who 'scorched' and cycled in a fast and competitive manner were often criticised in the cycling and the wider press for startling horses and pedestrians. One member of the Hull St. Andrews C.C. commented that,

‘The effect of these scorching propensities is to frighten horses, startle people out of their wits, and cause numerous accidents of more or less consequence. If people wish to cycle for pleasure they adopt a moderate pace and cause injury and annoyance to nobody.’

Cyclist and a horse getting along more happily. Source:
Some cycling clubs looked to ‘uphold the reputation of the pastime’ by making sure their members cycled in an orderly, courteous manner. On ‘club runs’ certain clubs would be led by a captain and sub-captain, who controlled their member’s behaviour with a military-like discipline. Reading the Canterbury Cycling Club’s handbook for members from 1893-94, you might be forgiven for thinking they regularly ventured into dangerous, unknown and hostile lands, not the Kent countryside. A few of the rules stated that:

  1. That in all Club Runs the Captain shall lead, and no-one shall be       allowed to pass him without his permission.  
  2. That the Captain shall have entire control during all runs, and (for the safety of the public) the power of compelling members to slacken speed or dismount when passing horses &c.
  3. The Sub-Captain in all runs shall keep to the rear and look after stragglers, but in the absence of the Captain, shall take his place, nominating his own Sub-Captain for the time being.
  4. Any member desiring to fall out must report himself to the Captain or Sub-Captain.

As well as this, the captain possessed a whistle which he would use to communicate orders to members. The handbook revealed the different instructions indicated by different blasts of the whistle,

One- Mount, also proceed slowly
Two- Dismount
Three- Go-ahead
One long and two short- Single File
The same blown twice- Double File

Members of a Cycling Club from a slightly later period. Source:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some clubs were less strict in controlling the behaviours of their members. One letter into Cycling in 1894 vividly described the transformation of his friend ‘Juggins’ after he went on a Saturday run with his club. The writer explained how ‘Juggins’ is,

‘Something of the city, a very nice, affable fellow of good attainments, well-read, a thoroughly good companion for a walking tour or a cruise, in brief, to all intents and purposes, a gentleman. But when Juggins, shortly after mid-day on Saturday, dons his cycling clothes, he undergoes the transformation so well illustrated in the case of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ By the time he has ridden five miles, and warmed to the exercise, his thin veneer of civilisation drops off. He harks back to some low ancestor- in a word he becomes little better than a savage.’

‘You, Mr Editor, can meet Juggins on every main road leading out of London every week-end. He, and his club companions, ‘spread-eagle’ the road, and not only insult the pedestrian, but do not spare their fellow cyclist who happens to be in their way, although Juggins always rides on the wrong side. This is not an overdrawn picture.’

Cyclists clearly then were by no means impeccable in their behaviour towards other road users. This was recognised by an article in the Leeds Express, which commented that,

‘Cyclists, as a body, are by no means impeccable, either on the score of manners, consideration for others, or capacity to manage their metal steeds’.

However, the article also argued that, ‘cads are not only on castors’, and explained how,

‘In a narrow part of a road or lane, or at some awkward spot, some drivers, even of large and bulky vehicles, will hold very steadily to the centre of the road, or even incline slightly to the wrong side, with evident glee in the possible embarrassment of the oncoming cyclist, whose margin of safety is thus ill-naturedly reduced. There is almost a tacit plot amongst drivers of a certain disposition and type to ‘bore’ the wheelman to the very side of the road.’

An Omnibus. 

It was whilst in cities that cyclists had most reason to complain about other road users. One letter into Cycling in 1899 asked the editor to,

‘Allow me to call your attention to what I consider the greatest danger to cyclists (especially from the City Westwards), that is the hansom cab. He cares not where he drives, or whom he runs down, so long as he gets along. Plenty of insolence with it also. Omnibuses and four-wheelers and all other vehicles are law abiding and respectful; but the hansom cabs are far worse than scorchers, as they don’t care for the rules of the road or anyone; even the policeman gives them a rest.’

‘They are without doubt the worse phase of road traffic, and the sooner the authorities stop them the better. I myself am constantly through the City and the West End, and am constantly being pushed and crushed out of line by them. I maintain that cyclists are the most correct of any traffic on the roads, and that is why they are not popular with the hansoms.’

A Hansom Cab from 1895. 

A couple of weeks later another letter appeared which responded to the one above, painting a similarly bad picture, but this time of all horse-drawn vehicles who cyclists shared the roads with. The letter’s author explained how,

‘I ride to and from the city every day, through the most crowded parts, and am constantly coming across evidence of the cabby’s selfishness and contempt for cyclists.’

‘I cannot, however, agree with your correspondent when he says that omnibuses and four-wheelers and all other vehicles are law abiding and respectful. There are many cases quite as bad, if not worse than the hansom cab. They go round on the right of trams and other vehicles, taking no notice of cyclists or others who happen to be coming in the opposite direction, on the left of the road. The cyclist must move for the cab, ‘bus, or whatever the law breaking vehicle may happen to be, or else suffer the consequences of a collision, and as the latter is nearly always more or less expensive and painful than getting out of the offending vehicle’s way, the consequence is that cabmen and others know that cyclists will move for them, and they take advantage accordingly.’

There is undoubtedly an air of timelessness in quotes such as the one above. As someone once (sort of) said

‘And so we cycle on, bicycles against the traffic, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

I would be pleased to hear your comments!

Will and his Blog "Victorian Cyclist" can be accessed at

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting about cycles. Now is the segway era. Waiting to buy one & getting rid of my driver's tantrums !!!