How the Victorians sparked a cycling revolution

As we celebrate another British win in the Tour de France, one of our postgraduate history students takes a pedal through time to explore the impact of the bike on late 19th century society

Ten years ago, the listeners of BBC Radio 4 were asked to vote on what they thought to be the most significant invention since 1800. Some chose the communications satellite, a few more went for the internal combustion engine, and more still for the internet, the radio and the transistor. But one invention received more votes than all the rest put together – the bicycle.

“Before I started my research I might have thought these results slightly laughable,” says William Manners, an MA by Research student in our Department of History. “Now, however, I am not quite so sure. When studying the impact that the bicycle had in late 19th century Britain, I am continually amazed at just what a difference being able to pedal to places unreachable by foot made to people’s lives.”

“For the vast majority of people,” continues William, who also studied History as an undergraduate at the University, “purchasing a bicycle meant that for the first time they possessed their own personal means of transportation. It represented freedom and opportunity – the chance to work, socialise and simply explore further afield.”

Crucially, as his research bears out, the benefits of the bicycle were felt across society: men and women; young and old; rural and urban; rich and poor.

“It is difficult,” he says, “to think of another invention which has done so much to meet individual needs for liberation, enjoyment and freedom and bring about changes which benefit society as a whole.

Widening the gene pool

“In terms of human evolution, the bike has enabled people in rural areas to travel beyond their local communities, meet a higher number of potential marriage partners, and so widen the gene pool.”

Despite all of these benefits, the perception of cycling has always been much more negative. In The Victorian Cyclist, a blog based on his research, William documents the many trials and tribulations of riding a bike in the late nineteenth century. There were the gangs of ‘roughs’ who took pleasure in stopping and assaulting any cyclists they happened to meet – in some cases ‘by means of timber placed across the road, and by drawing string and rope across, so as to cause disaster’.

Then there were the police who could be overzealous in arresting, prosecuting and fining cyclists for ‘furious riding’ – judged to be anything which ‘constituted a serious danger to pedestrian and vehicular traffic’. William highlights how it wasn’t the fact of being stopped that led to complaints from cyclists so much as the methods that the police used, such as unexpectedly jumping out of hedges and hauling a rider off their machine.

Knickerbockers and bloomers

And there were enduring concerns about the clothing worn by cyclists, especially women, whose very participation in the pastime often provoked catcalls on the street and stern words in the editorials of national newspapers. Choosing to wear ‘rational dress’, which consisted of either knickerbockers or ‘bloomers’ being worn without a skirt on top of them was condemned as being ‘of a most unnecessary masculine nature and scantiness’.

Some of these attitudes proved to be short-lived, as the novelty of cycling as a social phenomenon died away and nineteenth-century gender norms became out-dated.

However, as William points out, it is not hard to find parallels with perceptions of cycling today. “Cyclists still face a lot of criticism for going through red lights or not paying ‘road tax’ – a tax which was actually abolished in 1937. There remains quite a lot of aggression on both sides.”

He hopes that his research can help shape a more productive relationship between cycling and society today – perhaps making Britain a more bicycle-friendly country in the process.

“Cycling history is an under-explored area. As a nation we are much more aware of our heritage in sports and pastimes such as football, cricket and rugby, which emerged around the same era.

Shifting perceptions

“I think if I can bring the story of the early days of cycling to a wider readership – the impact the bicycle has had and the opportunities, freedoms and benefits it has opened up – then that might help shift perceptions of how bicycles are seen today, and perhaps even influence policy.

“After all, more people cycling equals a healthier society, less congested cities and lower levels of pollution. The bicycle is an invention that still has so much to offer.”

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I am continually amazed at just what a difference being able to pedal to places unreachable by foot made to people‚Äôs lives”

William Manners
Department of History
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William Manners

William Manners, an MA by Research student in our Department of History.

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Discover the details

Read more about William’s research in his blog The Victorian Cyclist

The secret history of 19th century cyclists was published in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian

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