When All the Princes Pedalled

JIM McGURN writes about the cycling boom as the cusp of the 20th century.

During the great cycling craze of 1896 fashion and fancy moved the moneyed middle and upper classes to take to the still-novel safety cycle in the major cities of the industrialised world, before it spread rapidly to ruling classes in the outposts of the Empire.

There was a high pitch of excitement, but the 1896 boom was no innocent return to a simple life: it was a prestigious pastime made to fit rigidly into the social structures of the time. Already in 1895, Jerome K Jerome was reporting that the aristocracy had begun to cycle in Battersea Park: 'In shady bypaths, elderly countesses, perspiring peers, still at the wobbly stage, battled bravely with the laws of equilibrium; occasionally defeated, they would fling their arms round the necks of hefty young hooligans who were reaping a rich harvest as cycling instructors: "Proficiency guaranteed in twelve lessons". Cabinet Ministers, daughters of a hundred Earls might be recognised by the initiated, seated on the gravel, smiling feebly and rubbing their heads.' (My Life and Times).

By the following spring cycling was allowed in Hyde Park, on the doorstep of Mayfair, thanks to aristocratic pressures exerted through the Cyclists' Touring Club. However the aristocracy was rarely visible on the highways of the capital. They were generally transported to the parks by carriage. Wealthy families parked their cycles ornamentally in their wide hallways, and some employed uniformed boys to take charge of visitors' bicycles and clean them. WS Gilburt, associate of Sullivan, kept a fleet of seven bicycles and employed a groom to tend them.

Aristocracy elsewhere in Europe was equally enthusiastic. The Danish royal family's stays at Fredensborg Castle became the excuse for an informal kind of cycling club for the prince and princesses of Europe, initiated by Czarevitch Nicholas of Russian. The older members of the Danish royal family enjoyed attending public cycle races.

The aristocracy quickly lost interest in a pursuit that was often arduous and readily adopted by upstarts and returned to the transport provided by their well appointed stables until the motor car arrived. By the spring of 1897 it was becoming clear that the Society cycling boom had lost its fizz.

The middle classes continued to cycle, and for the lower middle classes the bicycle was an aid to social mobility. The hero of HG Wells' History of Mr Polly is enabled by his bicycle to make middle class 'visitations' on distant friends and relatives, and it helps him court a woman living some way off. A bicycle was a major investment for the lower middle classes -- Mr Polly bought his with a legacy. Buyers might otherwise pay by installments.

British manufacturers had developed the misguided belief that quality would always sell and that there existed an endless national and international marked for prestigious machines destined for fashionable clienteles.

When it became obvious that the boom was over, in 1897, Rudge-Whitworth were the first leading company to react by reducing their standard cycle from £20 to 12 guineas. But as the best paid manual worker earned around a pound a week at the time, it was not until the Edwardian era that bicycles were affordable to those who had the greatest need for cheap and independent mobility. But the bicycle had begun to change the world forever.