Chains of Freedom: The Bicycle’s Impact on 1890s Britain.

Will is an MA student at the University of York. His dissertation studies how moving through the life cycle altered the masculinities constructed by middle-class cyclists, and the appeal of inter-generational mixing within cycling clubs. Further information on the weird and wonderful effects the bicycle had on late Victorian society can be found on his blog ‘The Victorian Cyclist’ (https://thevictoriancyclist.wordpress.com) and its Twitter feed (@theviccyclist).

It is now ten years since listeners of Radio 4’s You and Yours were asked to vote on what they thought to be the most significant innovation since 1800. The list of inventions was, to say the least, impressive – their share of the votes, perhaps less so. Three percent of voters thought that the internal combustion engine was worthy of the title. The Internet fared slightly better, receiving four percent of nominations. A dizzying five percent of people believed that the germ theory of disease was a deserving winner.

What then was the invention that (admittedly a rather specific section of) the British public deemed to be more significant than the computer, the discovery of DNA and the invention of vaccinations? The answer may surprise you. Receiving more votes than the rest of the nominations put together was the bicycle.[i]

Before I started my research into cycling in the 1890s I too might have thought that these results were slightly laughable. Now, however, I am not quite so sure. When studying the impact that the safety bicycle had on British society in this period, I am continually amazed at how much difference being able to pedal to places unreachable by foot made to people’s lives.

Firstly a little bit of context. I am sure that most people’s first thought when they hear ‘bicycle’ and ‘1890s’ is of moustached men perched precariously on penny-farthings. Bike1It was, however, in this period that the modern ‘safety’ bicycle emerged, with two equal sized wheels, a chain driven rear wheel and a diamond frame (the to the right is from 1891). In 1888 John Dunlop also invented the pneumatic tyre, which not only made cycling much more comfortable, but also increased the speed a cyclist could travel by a third. These improvements made cycling much less hazardous, much more comfortable and far more enjoyable than it ever had been on penny-farthings. By the mid-1890s around a million and a half men and women were cycling in Britain.[ii]

Moreover, as the 1890s progressed, bicycles became increasingly affordable, with the growth of a second hand market and an influx of cheap American models into the British market. Combined with rising living standards, at the turn of the century bicycles had become increasingly attainable for large portions of the population. For the vast majority who did not own horses or motorcars, purchasing a bicycle meant that, for the first time in their lives, they possessed their own personal means of transportation.

Moreover, as the 1890s progressed, bicycles became increasingly affordable, with the growth of a second hand market and an influx of cheap American models into the British market. Combined with rising living standards, at the turn of the century bicycles had becomeBike2 increasingly attainable for large portions of the population. For the vast majority who did not own horses or motorcars, purchasing a bicycle meant that, for the first time in their lives, they possessed their own personal means of transportation.[iii]

The impact this had on British society was remarkable and, in many cases, unexpected. The bicycle’s effect on rural communities was particularly pronounced as it dramatically increased the distances people could travel and the places they could visit. The bicycle opened up new opportunities for rural priests, postmen, doctors and nurses.Bike3 Additionally, it was not just those working in rural occupations that benefitted from cycling, the invention also allowed long-distance romances to blossom. P. J. Perry has attributed the decline in same parish working-class marriages in rural Dorset in the late 1880s to the bicycle and the greater distances it allowed individuals from these communities to travel.[iv]

Owning a bicycle also aided the love lives of those living in urban communities. The links between cycling and romance were recognised by Harry Darce in 1892 when he penned ‘Daisy Bell’ with the famous ‘bicycle made for two’. The 1890s also saw ‘cycling courtships’ become increasingly common among members of the middle-classes; young men and women used bicycle rides as opportunities for unsupervised and unchaperoned meetings. As one female cyclist described:

The chief merit of the bicycle in the eyes of the young is that is dispenses with the chaperon. It imparts open air freedom and freshness to a life heretofore cribbed, crabbed, cabined and confined by convention. The cyclists have collided with the unamiable Mrs Grundy and have ridden triumphantly over her prostrate body.[v]

The benefits for women cyclists, however, went far further than romance. After society and the aristocracy briefly took to cycling in 1895 in the so-called ‘bicycle craze’, women took to cycling in increasing numbers. Previous arguments about the ‘unbecomingness’ of women being sat astride a machine that they powered with their legs were overridden as the number of female cyclists swelled. Writing at the height of the craze in 1895 Home and Hearth stated:

In our opinion the ugliness- let us put it uncompromisingly- the necessary awkwardness and ugliness of cycling are compensated a thousand times by the delights of the sport. And then it so health-giving, and so brightens both mind and eyes. What relief to leave behind all the things about which modern women are so much in earnest, all high ideals and utopian aims, and to wander forth along the pleasant country lanes.[vi]

This is not to say that women cyclists completely overturned conservative notions of appropriate ‘womanly’ behaviour. Cycling advice literature for women gave most of its attention as to how they could cycle whilst maintaining a ‘graceful’ womanly appearance; they should appear un-flustered and show few signs of exertion. Women who cycled in ‘rational dress’, consisting of knickerbocker trousers which revealed theirs legs, were widely commented on and criticised in the cycling and wider press for being ‘unsexed’. One woman described how, when cycling through a town in rational dress:

Thirteen persons saluted me with the polite command of, ‘Git yer ‘air cut!’ Eight were extremely anxious to know my tailor’s address; an even greater number requested the name of my hatter. A ragged urchin ran alongside for some distance, and asked, ‘Could yer oblige us with a match guv’nor?’ A barber further down the road went one better by standing on his step and enquiring, ‘Shave sir?’ Several pedestrians helpfully suggested that I should ‘get orf and push!’ While an elderly lady imparted the information, I was a ‘forward young minx!’ One man- how I thanked that man- doffed his oily cap and exclaimed, ‘Bravo! I likes yer pluck![vii]

Bike5For reasons such as this the majority of female cyclists wore skirts, their weight making cycling much more arduous and difficult. Even in skirts, however, women were able to benefit from the opportunities cycling offered for journeying into the British countryside, which would have been unthinkable a generation before. One female cyclist described:

To men the bicycle has been an unquestionable boom. But after all, men had a fair share of fresh air and country pleasures before the advent of the wheel. To women it has brought new life, wider, freer and more delightful than was dreamt before its coming.[viii]

Nevertheless, for many men living and working in cities – particularly those from working and lower-middle class backgrounds – owning a bicycle offered equally new and exciting opportunities for escaping cities in favour of the countryside and nature. One writer in the Manchester Guardian noted:

The other day I was talking of the delights of cycling to a man who spends the greater part of his life at his last, in a small shop hung with leather- there is a blessed sense of comradeship amongst cyclists-he said to me, ‘I had a beautiful ride last Sunday. Such a day! I can never forget it. I had to stop and get off my machine once, for my heart got so full at the sight of violets growing all in bunches on a bank by the roadside.[ix]

It is difficult not to form a very human connection Bike6when reading quotations such as this. There is something wonderfully knowable and understandable in the activities of those men and women who took to cycling over a hundred years ago. The enjoyment of nature, the opportunities for romance, and the pleasure of travelling to places previously unimaginable all speak of desires that we can relate to in some way.

Maybe then, those Radio 4 listeners were onto something when they crowned the bicycle the most significant invention of the last two hundred years. It must be remembered that cycling not only benefits those on their bicycles, but society as a whole. More people cycling equates to a healthier society, less congested cities and lower levels of pollution. The value of cycling, however, is perhaps felt most keenly when reading accounts such as the one below, written by as self-titled, ‘middle-aged women’, which appeared in The Guardian in 1895:

Bike7I wonder if others have felt, as I have done since I took to cycling, that the old nature that one thought had been swept away or crushed out by the care, monotony and pressure of work and duty, was there all along? It only wanted releasing to spring back with all its gladness and enthusiasm and keenness of enjoyment into life again; it only wanted opportunity to escape to the healing, restoring powers of nature and free-and-easy contact with wider surroundings to understand that age is a matter of feeling and not of years, and that cares can sit lightly if the heart keeps young.[x]


[i] ‘Bicycle chosen as best invention’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4513929.stm

[ii] David Rubinstein, ‘Cycling in the 1890s’, Victorian Studies 21 (Autumn, 1977) pp. 47-48.

[iii] Ibid, p. 58

[iv] P.J. Perry, ‘Working-Class Isolation and Mobility in Rural Dorset 1837-1936: A Study of Marriage Distances’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 46, (1969), pp. 121-141

[v] Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, (August 30th, 1899), p. 4

[vi] Hearth and Home, Issue 210, (May 23rd, 1895), p. 59

[vii]The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, (April 9th, 1895), p. 3

[viii] Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, (August 30th, 1899), p. 4

[ix] The Manchester Guardian, (21st August 1895), p. 8

[x] Ibid, p. 8

– For a fantastic selection of historical cycling images, please see oldbike.eu, which gives permission to freely use images.

Advertisements

3 responses to “Chains of Freedom: The Bicycle’s Impact on 1890s Britain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s