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Repair work is underway, and I hope to be rid of that stowaway soon.

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The Battersea Park Cyclists’ Row

The bicycle literally and figuratively transported women beyond the bounds of the home and into public space in late-Victorian London. Not surprisingly, this incursion into open areas, such as city streets and country lanes, caused mild moral panic among a society clinging to increasingly outmoded ideas about the division of space into masculine and feminine spheres. Parks emerged as an in-between space where women’s cycling was accepted as part of a leisure trend popular with the respectable classes, which by Victorian definitions meant middle and upper class riders. Battersea Park in particular became known as the park of the lady cyclist during the craze years. Illustrations such as Samuel Begg’s interpretation of the Battersea Park cyclists’ row shown above depict a robust cycling culture as early as 1895 populated in the majority by women taking their leisure a wheel.

Battersea’s development as a cycle park was in part due to an accident of legislation. When the craze began around 1895, bicycles were banned in open spaces falling under the Parks Regulation Act, which had jurisdiction over royal and municipal parks, including Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and St. James’s Park. With these central greens off limits, there was a distinct want of a suitable grounds for cycling within city bounds. Battersea Park, however, was exempt from the Parks Regulation Act so lady cyclists soon gravitated there. The park, located south of the Thames in Surrey, was a relatively new park which had been established as part of a government intervention scheme to regenerate what had once been a notorious and impoverished part of town where raucous fairs were held.

Based on Thomas Cubitt’s 1843 recommendations to Queen Victoria’s Commission for Improving the Metropolis, an act was passed in 1846 allowing for the formation of a Royal Park in Battersea Fields. Three hundred and twenty acres were annexed, nearly two hundred of which were enclosed as parkland. In the 1890s, local Labour MP John Burns petitioned to have the park locally administrated, rather than put under royal parks jurisdiction. Burns’s vision was to maintain the park as an open green space for the use and benefit of the working class people who lived in the vicinity as a healthy alternative to other less desirable recreations such as drink and the music hall. For the duration of the cycle craze, the park was managed by the LCC, which proved amenable to cyclists.

Battersea_Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic NewsThough not intended explicitly for them, the middle classes who were drawn en masse to cycling in the 1890s benefited from Burns’ improving park plan. In the summer of 1895, The Pall Mall Gazette observed, “it seemed as if the whole of the aristocratic wheeling population pounced upon the spot at one and the same time.” The park’s primary appeal was unrestricted cycling access at a time when bicycles were banned in other parks. Its physical attributes were also a draw. Smooth, hard-surfaced paths shaded by mature trees traced the park’s perimeter, ran along the river, and cut through design features, including a tropical garden. Since the property had been leveled, the route was flat and effortless to ride. The riverside path was nearly two miles long, and the route running inland was one and a quarter miles in length. A full circuit of the park covered six-and-a-half miles, which was considered an ideal length for a woman’s run.

By 1895, Battersea’s cycle parade was one of the highlights of the season. The unprecedented crowds of thousands of lady cyclists who congregated in the park during the cycling craze attracted much attention. The Times noted in 1895 that, “This year has witnessed a great development of cycling among ladies, and the parks, especially Battersea, have become quite a parade-ground for them.” The scene left a powerful impression on Jerome K. Jerome, who recalled in My Life and Times, that,

“In Battersea Park, any morning between eleven and one, all the best blood in England could be seen, solemnly peddling up and down the half-mile drive that runs between the river and the refreshment kiosk… In shady bypaths, elderly countesses, perspiring peers, still at the wobbly stage, battled bravely with the laws of equilibrium; occasionally defeated…daughters of a hundred Earls might be recognized by the initiated, seated on the gravel, smiling feebly and rubbing their heads.”

Images of Battersea Park from this era, such as Samuel Begg’s image at the top of this post, depict its paths teeming with neat rows of impeccably dressed lady cyclists. The Queen’s London printed the image of the cyclists in Battersea Park shown right, and described the emergent cycling scene as,

“‘Better late than never,’ cyclists said when Society took to riding bicycles on every possible occasion. Someone discovered that the roads in Battersea Park were excellent. and ere long the cycling parade there became quite one of the sights of the 1895 season. Rotten Row, in Hyde Park, soon became almost deserted by riders on horse-back, who preferred wheeling at Battersea. Scores of ladies and gentlemen belonging to the upper classes could be counted on any fine morning cycling at Battersea…Our picture shows a few of the cyclists, one of whom, a lady, is evidently a novice.”

Though one of the riders does look a bit wobbly on her wheels, the image gives a strong impression of the throng of cyclists that could be observed most mornings in the park.

Battersea’s flourishing cycle promenade was supported by the parks’ infrastructure and amenities, as well as entrepreneurial schemes devised to capitalise on the cyclists’ row. Restaurants, cafes, and club enclosures provided a socially selective, comfortable, and safe place to meet friends and relax. The Lake House, a café attached to an LCC refreshment kiosk, was the park’s preeminent gathering spot. In an article called “The West End on Wheels,” for Badminton Magazine, August 1895 The Earl of Onslow described it as “a charming spot…where screened by a wealth of may and blossoming chestnut from the gaze of the passing cyclists, the breakfast table may be spread on the shores of the ornamental water.”

Cycling clubs often met for tea and riding in the park, including the exclusive Green Park Club and White’s Club. Novices could take lessons in the park, bicycles were available to rent, and porters offered to watch bicycles while their riders went for tea. Sections of grass were set aside as rest areas for the cyclists, and the park even had lavatory, much to the relief of many lady cyclists (pun intended). Riders could rest easy about crime and harassment, since constables patrolled the park in case of accident, crime, or cycling infractions–unless of course they were scorchers in which case the police were onto them.

Interestingly, the majority of the highly fashionable and well dressed women who rode in the park did not arrive there on their own pedal-powered volition. Instead, lady cyclists had their bicycles delivered by carriage and off-loaded by footmen. The carriages then waited, often in lines so thick that the LCC was forced to restrict standing vehicles in the park. Another option was to hire a machine on site, or arrange for an agent to bring a machine to the park as needed. Battersea Park’s proximity to a rail station made it convenient for women to transport their bicycles by train. For those who lived close to the park, and for whom chaperonage and public appearances were not an issue, it would have been simplest to arrive a-wheel. Once safely inside the park, anxieties about women’s cycling were alleviated by Battersea Park’s reputation as a respectable place for ladies to ride.

Society bicyclists were quick to desert Battersea Park when cycling hours were finally granted in Hyde Park late in the season in 1895. Nonetheless, Battersea had by then secured its reputation as an excellent cycle ground where women could ride relatively free from public comment or harassment faced on the roads. Spaces like Barrersea Park played an important role in gaining acceptance for women’s cycling as a popular leisure fad, a status that in turn helped to some extent minimise resistance to women’s cycling in the wider idea public sphere.

Selected Sources

Jerome K. Jerome, My Life and Times, 1926.

David Rubinstein, “Cycling in the 1890s,” Victorian Studies, 1977
The Queen’s London: A Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 London: Cassell & Company, 1896.

Badminton Magazine, August 1895, 124.

Pall Mall Gazette, August-November, 1895

Lady Cyclist, July 1895

Harper’s, January 1896

Golf and Cycling Illustrated, 1 April 1897, 18.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1895

Queen, 16 March 1895

The Times, 1857, 1874, 1895

Wheelwoman, April 1897


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Ladies’ Cycle Races at The Royal Aquarium: A Late Victorian Sporting Spectacle

The-Royal-Aquarium-SBegg-1896-www.sheilahanlon.comS.Begg, Lisette takes the lead at The Royal Aquarium, 1896

On November 18th, 1895 novice racer Monica Harwood, a young woman from Buckinghamshire who had only learned to bicycle six months earlier, took her place on the track at The Royal Aquarium. It was day one of a wildly anticipated twelve days’ of ladies racing, and the race was about to start. Chief among the stars of the track were French and English champions Mdlle Lisette Marton and Miss Grace respectively, fierce rivals accomplished cyclist who promised a close competition.

The race had a surprise ending in store. The favourites to win had their chances dashed by accidents on the track and competition from young new upstart Harwood, who was about to make a name for herself as a champion racer. The spectators who turned out in droves to see the lady cyclists at The Royal Aquarium we witnessed the emergence of a novel, though only briefly popular and profitable, new forum for women’s bicycling as that blurred the lines between sport and and entertainment.

On one hand, the ladies cycling races held at The Royal Aquarium in 1895 and after were a form of entertainment not dissimilar to the gymnastic and theatrical shows performed by women at pleasure gardens and cheap theatrical venues of the time, but on the other they marked a milestone in the recognition of women’s cycling as a professional sport, international contest and profitable commercial venture.

This post explores the context, press reaction, and gender politics of the ladies’ cycle races held at The Royal Aquarium, a short-lived enterprise that was part sport and part spectacle within the spectrum of late Victorian culture.


Sport or Spectacle: Victorian Women’s Cycle Racing in Context

RoyalAquarium“The ladies’ twelve days cycle races,” as the competition was billed, was promoted as the first event of its kind held in Britain. The series was certainly the first multi-day women’s track races to captivate the public imagination. Daily play-by-play reports of the action ran in newspapers throughout the duration of the races, including The Times, Standard, Daily News,and Lloyds Weekly, and magazines covered them as both cycling and entertainment news. Press and magazine coverage painted a vivid picture of the ladies’ races as a mix of athletics and amusement. The competition attracted sold-out audiences, mostly composed of men curious to see the novel, dangerous, and voyeuristic spectacle of women cycle racers. The Queen magazine for 28 December 1895 confirmed that “Quite a number of notabilities have been to see the racing at the Aquarium, which has proved such a success that it is to be continued, while as much as a guinea is asked for the best seats.”

The twelve day racing series was the most prominent part of a larger program of ladies’ cycle races held at the Royal Aquarium in 1895.”A total of 29 days of women’s racing took place between November 18 and December 31 1895, with further races beginning in January 1896. The twelve days’ of racing was divided into several events, rather that being one continuous race, starting with a six day race. The competition was international, attracting riders from France, Belgium, England, Scotland and as far afield as Canada. Most of them were experienced racers with their eye on cash prizes, though there were a few novices like Harwood. The six day race that opened the event, held from November 18th-30th, was the most popular event on the program. It garnering tremendous press attention and attracting sold out crowds in its final days. The racers registered to compete were divided into two sections of ten riders, each of which ran two races per day, one mid day and the other in the evening. The first run was generally 3-3.5 hours, and the second run 1.5-2 hours. Competitors’ daily mileages were added to their totals as the race progressed, with the greatest aggregate distance on the final day determining the winner.

Zazel Royal Aquarium 1877The inclusion of ladies’ cycle races in The Royal Aquarium’s program reflects the late-nineteenth century perception of women’s cycling as something novel with taboo undertones within Victorian culture. Cycling was a relatively new pastime, with women only taking up the pastime en mass in the mid 1890s as the safety bicycle invented in the mid 1880s became readily available on the mainstream market and cycling became a popular leisure fad. The Royal Aquarium was a well known entertainment venue, which by the mid 1890s when it hosted ladies cycle racing, was in the business of presenting a rough class of popular amusement. When it first opened in 1876, however, it had much nobler aspirations as a cultural institution. The Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden, shown left from a photo near its time of opening found in Harold P. Clunn’s The Face Of London (1956), was built on a grand scale on Tohill Street next to Westminster Abbey. It was designed by Alfred Bedborough as a successor to The Crystal Palace and a venue for intellectual entertainment such as art exhibitions, classical concerts, and plays. These forms of high culture, however, quickly proved unpopular. Management soon turned to variety acts to bring the crowds needed to make ends meet. The Royal Aquarium’s reputation may have crumbled, but it remained, nonetheless, an impressive structure both inside and out. The exterior of the building featured stately Portland stone. It’s main hall, where the cycling track was erected, measured 340 feet by 160 feet. Soaring glass and iron cathedral ceilings resembled those of the Crystal Palace and the palm houses at the Royal Botanical Gardens. The interior was decorated with palm trees, fountains and classical sculptures to create an enlightened atmosphere. Smaller rooms off the central hall offered more intimate surroundings for eating, smoking, reading, chess and art appreciation. The complex was also home to a theatre, skating rink, art gallery, and thirteen massive aquarium tanks. Unfortunately, a mechanical fault rendered the marine facilities unusable. They were left empty for the duration aside from the exhibit of a dead whale in 1877, an incident which became a comic short hand for The Aquarium’s reputation as a grand failure.

By the time the ladies cyclists took to the track, The Royal Aquarium’s reputation as a place of ill repute was firmly established. Its halls were said to crawl with single young ladies looking for male companions, at a price for their company of course. It was also a place where the lowest form of entertainment awaited spectators at a cheap price. Included in the ticket price for the 1895 lady cycle races at The Royal Aquarium was a packed bill of entertainments performed in the rooms adjacent to the main event, which spectators could dip in and out of at will. Most highly recommended was the Human Horse, who promised to amaze onlookers by playing the harmonium, reading, writing and performing addition, subtraction, and multiplication “with accuracy.” (Curiously, accurate division was not listed.) The Daily News claimed this equine miracle possessed “human intelligence,” while The Morning Advertiser called the act “really marvelous.” There were also dancing elephants, ballerinas, an attractive girl called “The Human Arrow” who was shot from a giant bow, flying and mid-air feats, eccentric knock-abouts, fire dancers, serio-comics, a boxing kangaroo, Japanese performers, conjurers, mandolin players, a man hatching from an egg, swimming performances, The Harrison Lady Acrobats, and countless other variety acts. Those curious to see women riding bicycles, especially in revealing costumes, could take in the Lady Dunedin Trick Cyclists in addition to the women’s cycle races on the main stage. The Royal Aquarium also hosted men’s cycle races, though as Aquarium manager Mr Ritchie, explained “As men’s races were no novelty, I put on the ladies races first and they were an instantaneous triumph.” (“How Ladies Races are Managed,” The Hub, 1896)

Bordeaux Velocipede Race, 1868 Le Monde Illustre, www.sheilahanlon.comVelodrome racing reached its height of popularity around 1895-98. Races took place on both permanent tracks, some of which had been around since the 1880s, and temporary tracks specially devised in the 1890s for use in exhibition halls like The Royal Aquarium and Olympia Hall. Moving races off the road and into velodromes transformed the nature of cycle racing and transformed it into a mass spectator sport. Cycle enthusiasts had long experimented with race formats and innovative ways to test their personal abilities. Six day races first emerged for men in the 1870s, growing popular in the US in the 1880s and 1890s, and emerging in Europe and the UK soon after, with women’s versions beginning during the cycling craze of the late 1890s. Women’s cycle racing pre-dates the late Victorian era when they became part of popular entertainment, but it had always been conducted on the margins of sport. One of the earliest recorded appearances of female velocipede racers dates to 1868, when four women entered a race in Bordeaux, the illustration of which shown left emphasizing their bare legs appeared in Le Mode Illustre. Women’s racing may have been more popular in the 1890s, but their competitions were not sanctioned by racing bodies such as the International Cycling Union until much 1893. Even then, women’s races were only held sporadically and without the professional recognition granted to that men’s races. Women’s cycle races were generally relegated to the status of novelty acts and light entertainment, as they were at The Royal Aquarium, rather than respected as sports competitions.

The track erected in The Royal Aquarium in 1895 captured the attention of the press. The custom built but hastily erected wooden track occupied the entire main hall of the building. It covered 11,300 feet in area and each lap equaled one tenth of a mile. (Standard 21 Nov 1895). Lloyds Weekly News for 24 Nov 1895 described the track as constructed from pine planking fastened to joists, fenced in by railings, and raised 6 feet above the inner track at the banked east and west ends. “This ‘banking up’ as it is called,” the paper explained, “though giving the track a rather strange appearance to those unaccustomed to seeing it, is absolutely essential if great speed is to be attained, and with a little practice the riders go round the ends without the slightest diminution of speed, though they have to hang over and incline their machines towards the center at the sharp angle depicted in our sketch.” Though considered a technical marvel by some, others declared the track dangerous, including the majority of the cycling press. Following the injury of two riders in a spectacular crash during the 1895 women’s six days’ race, The Queen suggested the safety standards for women’s races were irresponsibly lax, asking “Why do not the authorities inspect such tracks as these, and forbid dangerous contests? Any racing man would have condemned this track. It ought to have been at least twice as wide, the corners ought to have been of a much greater radius, with the banking carried further into the straights. The size–ten laps to the mile–is far too small.”

Trackside Play-by-Play: The Ladies’ Six Day Race in Action

The Royal Aquarium Racers, 1895Twenty racers was well over overcapacity for The Royal Aquarium track, so the lady cyclists were divided into two sections of ten riders each. The first section to start included Mdlles Nellie La Touche, Aboukaia, Solange, Marie Cannoe (or Cannoc), Henrietta Palliarde, Lucie Latrielle and Misses Clare Gamble, Rosa Blackburn, Lilian Adaire, and Benham. The second section was considered the race to watch, since it featured the French and English champions Lisette Marton and Clara Grace. Also in this section were Mdlles Fanoche Vautro, Beanny Vautro, Marcelle Vautro, Eteogella, Reillo and Misses Ellen Hutton, Monica Harwood, and Rosina Lane. The racers wore colours to distinguish themselves. French riders Solange, Latrielle and La Touché all sported black. Lisette was also in black, but stood out in her sash. Cannoe wore white and grey, Gamble rode in fawn and light blue, Blackburn chose brown and pink, Harwood wore black and gold with a white collar, and Benham wore green with a red cap. In the photograph from The Queen shown left, Harwood is the rider in the back row closest to the center behind the rider in stripes. Lisette is easy to pick out in her tri-coloured sash.

The action accelerated in time with the first riders as they set off with a burst of energy and got up to speed quickly on Day One. According to The Star, 21 Nov 1895 at “Exactly twenty minutes past two, the signal was given and the ladies started off, bending over the handles of their little safeties for the first few yards, then quickly straightening themselves they made a splendid pace amongst the enthusiastic cheers of a large crown. Trouble set in early for Miss Benham in her red cap, who touched the balustrade rounding the east curve of the track and came off her machine. Unhurt, she quickly scrambled back on her machine. At 3:00, Mdlles Palliarde and La Touch countered while rounding the east curve, forcing them both off their bikes after which, though unhurt, they left the track for some time. Others also fell, but remounted and continued the race. Miss Benham brought down several other racers after the first accident to herself, and “her style of riding was such as to cause much excitement amongst the French ladies, who shouted at her frantically when she was near them. The umpire ordered her off the track for erratic riding at the 8 mile mark. The French riders were in no position to complain about Benham’s riding, since they too contravened racing regulations by adopted an unfair riding strategy. The Star explained that “throughout the day great complaints were made against the style of riding by the French Ladies, who blocked the track in such a way that the English ladies could not pass on the outer side. To pass on the inner side is against the law of racing, and this unfairness was so marked, that it evoked storms of hisses from the spectators, and those regulating the competition gave the French ladies repeated caution on the subject.”

1895 Race at the Roya Aquarium, www.sheilahanlon.comSection two, with the French and English lady champions on its roster, started at 4:45 giving the first section a mere fifteen minutes to clear the track. Before long, Miss Lane came crashing down at the west wall and was left scrambling to get back on her bicycle. Twenty minutes into the race, Lisette and Miss Grace stood tied at 5 miles, 5 laps. Suddenly, Miss Grace fell badly forcing her off the track for most of the remainder of the race. By 5:45, only five racers remained in the race. In an unexpected turn of events, novice Harwood sprang into action and challenged Lisette in an attack. At 6:00, Lisette fell at the west end and, as The Star, 21 Nov 1895 reported, “Miss Harwood, who had been overhauling her in splendid style, spurted so well that, when Mdlle Lisette was once more on the track, Miss Harwood was three laps ahead.” Miss Grace returned to the track around this time, and was “loudly cheered” by her many fans in the audience. There was just enough time for one more accident before the race finished. At 6:30 Miss Lane crashed at the east end of the track, bruising her forehead and nose, and left the race. Harwood, shown leading the pack in the image above, finished the race in first place with 32 miles, 8 laps. Lisette was close behind in second with 32 miles, 5 laps. Crowd favourite Miss Grace completed a mere 14 miles, 7 laps leaving her out of contention for a prize. Last place went to Beany Voutro who finished a dismal 5 miles, 1 lap.

Both sections had another run to complete before the day was done. The evening heats began at 7:08 pm and in consideration of the late start were abbreviated from 2 hours to 1.5 hours. Six riders started in section one, with a seventh, La Touch, joining half an hour later. There were no spills this time, and The Star reported “the whole rode exceedingly well, the spurting causing cheers as the English riders passed their French opponents, or the contrary.” (The Star, 21 Nov 1895) The second section, which started at 9:15 pm, proved much more exciting. Miss Grace, still smarting from her injury earlier in the day, and two other racers stood out, leaving seven in the field. The Star reported “This race resolved itself into a contest between Miss Harwood and Mdlle Lisette. These two ladies led the column at the start, and kept within three yards of each other throughout the hour and a half the race lasted, both riding with grace and finish. Mdlle Lisette had thrown off her sash for the race, while Miss Harwood – much the younger rider – wore the same dress as in the first race, black and gold, with white collarette.” The fastest lap was covered by Harwood in 3 minutes, 20 seconds. Harwood remained in first place when the race ended at 10:45pm, with 56 miles, 9 laps total, a narrow 3 laps lead ahead of Lisette and a strong advantage over Reillo who led the first section at 52 miles, 8 laps. Not a bad showing for Harwood, who was still an underdog at this early stage in her racing career.

Day One Aggregate Scores
Monica Harwood 56 miles, 9 laps
Lisette Marton 56 miles, 6 laps
Mdlle Reillo 52 miles, 8 laps
Mdlle Solange 52 miles, 7 laps
Marcelle Voutro 52 miles, 7 laps
Marie Cannoe 52 miles, 5 laps (may be an error for “Cannoc”)
Clare Gamble 51 miles, 9 laps
Rosa Blackburn 51 miles
Mdlle Eteogella 50 miles, 8 laps
Rosina Lane 49 miles, 3 laps
Lucie Latrielle 39 miles, 7 laps
Ellen Hutton 30 miles, 5 laps
Nellie La Touche 27 miles, 7 laps
Fanoche Voutro 22 miles, 9 laps
Clara Grace 14 miles, 7 laps
Miss Benham 8 miles (disqualified)
Beany Voutro unknown
Lilian Adaire unknown
Henrietta Palliarde unknown
Mdlle Aboukaia unknown

The second day of racing, Tuesday 19 November, played out much the same as the previous day leaving Harwood first, Marton second, and Marcelle Voutro third.The Daily News reported that “The best performances were those of Miss Harwood and Mdlle Lisette Marton, each of whom completed 100 miles in 6h 13m, Miss Harwood leading Lisette by a couple of yards,” adding that the “stage of this competition was productive of several exciting incidents. Some riders came again into grief, and there was something more than a suspicion that the falls of at least one of the riders (Miss Blackburn) was due to anything but an accident.” This accusation arose from suspicious behaviour during section two’s first run. The Star described the race as starting at 1:13 following a caution to the French riders. Solange went up front, setting a good pace with her fellow French riders on her tail and the two English riders at the back of the pack. “Before three miles had been covered,” the paper reported, “Miss Blackburn had ridden into third position with Miss Gamble in close attendance. When seven miles had been completed Miss Blackburn forced her way to the front, the leaders having now lapped the stragglers. A mile later Miss Blackburn fell, and lost several miles.” The umpire agreed that the fall was caused deliberately. Solange and Reillo were disqualified for the remainder of the run for fouling Blackburn. The two aggrieved English riders recovered and ended the race first and second in their section, fourth and fifth in the aggregate scores.

By Day Three, only 16 riders remained in the race. Harwood retained first place, with 190 miles, 2 laps, a slight but comfortable lead over Lisette who was one lap shy of 3 miles behind her. There was another great crash for Blackburn and Reillo, and Cannoe fell badly. Grace was now in third last place with no hope of catching up to the respectable standing expected of her as reigning English champion. On Day Four, The Daily News, 22 Nov 1895 noted that the stands were packed with spectators, while on the track, “The riding was once more interspersed with accidental spills,” in one of which left Blackburn “so severely shaken that she was away nearly half an hour.” Harwood and Lisette retained the top two places.

Day Five attracted the largest audience yet. Clearly, word was spreading that the ladies races were a attraction, no doubt something tabloid style reporting contributed to. The Daily Star named Cannoe as the star rider of the day for fighting her way to the lead of Section One and a good place overall in the aggregate scores. The story also commented that, “fouling was once more prominent on the part of the French competitors.” The main culprits were Eteogella and Marcelle, and their victim was, who lost lap on account of their aggressive riding. Grace also fell and left the track. Undoubtedly, national loyalty motivated the French riders to interfere with the best English riders to the benefit of their own champion Lisette. The last lap was an exciting one, with Harwood and Lisette locked in at a tremendous pace, covering one lap in under 20 seconds. Despite these tactics, Harwood retained in the lead with 309 miles, 4 laps while Lisette stayed in second place with 306 miles, 7 laps.

The Royal Aquarium PosterSaturday 23 November marked the conclusion of the race. It was Day Six, and The Royal Aquarium was packed. Demand for seats was so high that tickets sold for a guinea for the best view and a half-a-guinea for general admission. Lloyds Weekly News analysed the phenomenon, writing “The contest, which is the first of its kind held in England, proved of a decidedly popular character, and so large were the crowds that flocked to it each evening that the managers of the building greatly increased the price of admission to the reserved portion of the building.” A good play by play of the action, which picked up in the final laps of the race and features national strategies, comes from Western Mail, which explained “In the second lap Mrs Grace, who had but 301 miles recorded, took premier position, and it at once became apparent that her task was to pace her countrywoman.” Lisette tailed Harwood closely, “literally hanging from the wheel of her only opponent.” The report continued, “Lisette had been making efforts to take the lead, and the speed became tremendous, at one time exceeding eighteen miles an hour. Finding her exertions inoperative, Lisette called in strategy to her aid. Easing the pace for a few minutes, she bided her chance, and then, suddenly, at five minutes past ten, amidst great excitement, she suddenly shot ahead. Harwood tried all she knew to regain the forfeited position. Mdlle Lisette was 26 laps behind Harwood, and her plan was evidently to tire down the English rider. The plucky French lady desperately exerted every nerve to pick up her laps, but Miss Harwood rode wisely, keeping her strength and stamina well in hand.”

At twenty to eleven that night, Harwood was declared the winner for completing 371 miles, 21 laps. Lisette placed second at 368 miles, 5 laps. Cannoe from the first section came in third in the aggregate scores with 355 miles, 8 laps. Monetary prizes were awarded for the top places. Though the rates are not clear for the 1885 race, a subsequent six day race at The Royal Aquarium awarded £50 for first place, £30 for second, £20 for third, £5 for fourth, and four other prizes for leading riders. First prize was the equivalent of about £1200 if converted to 2015 terms, a good pay out for a week’s racing and an amount in excess of what many male cyclists could expect for similar achievements.

The Six Day Race was just the opening event of the ladies’ twelve days cycle races at The Royal Aquarium, and one of many races on the circuit at the end of 1895.The remaining days saw a variety of novel races, starting with “A Great Race” in which women packed the track all at once for one continuous race from 2:00-10:30 pm. A second six day race was held, finishing December 4th, though it did not prove as popular as the first one. Some familiar names appear in the winning line up. French racer Mdlle Cannoe won, followed by Miss Grace. Harwood also participated, but suffered a bad spill that pur her out of the running for a prize, so she paced Miss Grace instead as part of their competative strategy. A few racers from The Royal Aquarium track competed in an Five Day Race at Bingley Hall, Birmingham December 16-21st, which Grace won, earning back her good name after a poor showing in London. (This was intended to be a six day race, but was abbreviated due to a late start.) Back at The Royal Aquarium, an Eleven Day Ladies’ Cycle Race ran December 18-28th. French riders took all the top places, with Mdlle Palliarde winning with 644 miles, 3 laps and Mdlle Marcelle Vautro second at 644 miles, 2 laps. England’s Miss Field and Miss Hutton places fourth and fifth respectively. Champions Harwood, Lisette and Grace did not participate in the eleven day race, and the winners circle was different from the first six day race held at the same venue. This may suggest that racers specialized in soecific events and that the unpredictability of the track could make or break racers’ chances.

Gender Politics on The Track

Fast enough alreadyIn addition to being a new outlet for women’s cycling as sport and entertainment, another consideration that makes the races at The Royal Aquarium of historical interest is the extent to which they embodied late Victorian gender politics. Voyeurism and the male gaze were inescapable features of the spectacle of women’s cycling, whether racing or at leisure, in the late nineteenth century. The Royal Aquarium put female racers wearing form revealing costumes and breeches, performing a level of physical activity not seen among women in everyday life, and sitting astride diamond frame bicycles which in itself was still considered risqué on view for an audience of men more than willing to pay for a glimpse of them. The small velodrome track offered a more intimate perspective of the racers that road races did. Lady cyclists rode round and round in close proximity to the crowd, giving men a close and continuous view of them. Arthur Munby, a prolific diarist known for his fetishistic portrayals of women in scenarios such as wearing breeches, went to see the French lady cyclists performing at the Royal Pleasure Gardens, North Woolwich in 1869. He described the scene excitedly, writing,

“They were drest [sic] as men; in jockey caps, and satin jackets and short breeches ending above the knee, and long stockings, and mid length boots. Thus clad, they stepped unabashed into the midst, and mounting their ‘bicycles’; each girl throwing her leg over and sitting astride on the saddle. And they started, amidst cheers; pursuing one another round and round the hall, curving in and out, sometimes rising in their stirrups (so to speak) as if trotting, sometimes throwing one or both legs up whilst at full speed.” (Diary of Arthur Munby, 1869)

Though Munby approved of women in breeches, there is no doubt of the sexual innuendo in his description of scantily dressed lady cyclists riding astride, their breech-clad legs undulating up and down as they raced around the track at delirious speed. The relationship between female cyclist and male spectator at The Royal Aquarium races resembles the dynamics of parasexuality described by Peter Bailey in his article “Parasexuality and Glamour: The Victorian barmaid as cultural prototype,” which explores the male gaze and women on view in the case of the Victorian barmaid and other similar scenarios.

National identity also influenced the dynamics of fandom at the ladies’s cycle races. Press and promotions for the ladies cycle races at The Royal Aquarium positioned the event as an international contest, and played up historic rivalries between countries. Head to head battles between French and English champions roused excitement in the stands. Reflecting on the political resonance of the races, Lloyds Weekly News (22 Nov 1895) acknowledged national loyalties, noting “The fact that the struggle for first was between an English and a French lady naturally enhanced the interest in the contest, and when from time to time the two leaders spurted and rode a few laps at a fast pace the excitement and cheering became so great as to drown the music of the band.”

1896 Race at The Royal Aquarium, www.sheilahanlon.comThe danger implicit in women’s track racing was another compelling feature for audience members and a news hook for the press. Nearly every report on the races mention falls, smashes, collisions, and women sent off the track. Bicycle News speculated that “probably three-fourths of the audience at The Royal Aquarium ‘ladies cycle races’ attend in the hopes of seeing what one man, the other day, termed ‘a holy smash.'” (“Interesting Bits of Information,” The Hub, 1897) While danger was part of the appeal of watching racing, it was also one of the main grounds for criticizing women’s races. Objections were raised to women’s cycle racing on the grounds that it was too risky, taxing on the health of riders, and exposed them to unnecessary hazards. Injury was a given, and death a possibility. The Queen’s described an 1895 accident that reinforced the magazine’s misgivings about racing commenting, “The wholesale smash which we feared would occur on the Aquarium track has come about. Last Saturday some half-dozen of the riders fell in a heap, including the unfortunate Miss Blackburn, who has been so unfortunate all the time. Mlle. Reilly, one of the best of the French continent was stunned, and had to be removed to the hospital.” A minor crash is shown in the inset of The Penny Illustrated image of Lisette winning an 1896 race at The Royal Aquarium shown right. In a much worse accident, English cyclist Dottie Farnsworth died due to injuries sustained in a fall while racing in New York in 1902.

Late-nineteenth century gender politics and constructs of respectable womanhood were ubiquitous, even for the most liberated lady cyclists, and their influence is readily apparent in both the practice and perception of women’s cycle racing riding. Participating in physically demanding, competitive activities was deemed unwomanly by wider society, and lady cyclists were shunned for trespassing in sport, which was considered a male preserve. The racers themselves were criticized as lacking in feminine virtue, such as one racer who was called a unsuitable for motherhood on account of her aggression on the track by a magazine. Public reception to the races was mixed. The most vocal social commentators in the press adopted a critical stance, while others approached it as harmless entertainment. The Queen observed that, “The various criticisms upon the matter have been most amusing. The cycling press has almost unanimously expressed strong disapproval, and in one or two cases the writers have been almost hysterical in their expressions of disgust. Other sections of the press, however, have taken a more reasonable and tolerant view, and see nothing worse in it than dancing and other performances by women on the stage.”

An association with women of the stage was a mixed blessing. Female actresses and performers suffered frequent questions about their character and respectability in the form of accusations of prostitution. The public consciousness of the late-Victorian era associated lady cycle racers and performers with female gymnasts and circus acts. This put them in a category somewhere on the spectrum of late Victorian prostitution in the public eye. Like gymnasts, cycle racers wore scant costumes, such as breeches, tights and bodices or short skirts that inevitably flew about in leg revealing ways, and performed with a level of physicality though unbecoming of respectable women in this time. This association with vice was compounded for female cyclists who performed at The Royal Aquarium, a place reputed to be the haunt of prostitutes and the men who availed themselves of their services.

One camp of people who supported women’s racing in principle were those associated with women’s equality, cycle clubs and dress reform–especially those with overlapping interests in all three. In her work on the history of women’s cycle racing, Clare Simpson identifies the Chelsea Rationalists as a progressive women’s cycling club that believed women had the right to race. The club held their own races and offered awards to encourage women to participate. Monica Harwood, winner of the 1895 Ladies’ Six Day Race at The Royal Aquarium, served as their captain. (Clare Simpson, Cycling and Society,) Another organisation that defended women’s racing was the MHCA, a cycling co-op founded to promote cycling for working women. The MHCA backed ladies’ cycle races on the principle that women had a right to earn a livelihood as professional racers. The organisation passed a resolution declaring that, “The MHCA, although composed solely of women who cycle for pleasure and convenience, deprecate any attempt to close the career of professional cyclist to those women who may wish to cycle for profit. The MHCA expresses no opinion as to whether or not such a career is desirable for women, but it claims for all women the right and liberty to decide this question for themselves. Therefore the MHCA appeals to the NCU to frame such rules as are necessary to secure for women all the advantages which legislation can secure for cyclists.”

Lisette, Jules Beau Photo, www.sheilahanlon.comWomen’s cycle racing had a serious sporting and income generating side, which is often overlooked. Many of the ladies who rode at The Royal Aquarium and in other races were professional athletes. They trained for races, had coaches and managers, and often worked closely with male racers who helped pace and prepare them for competition. Harwood’s first racing tutor was Clare Grace, an accomplished racer several years her senior who’s title as English champion she would eventually take. In an 1896 interview with The Hub Harwood, who by then had a male coach, described her training regime, explaining “Well, my trainer who is himself an old time ‘pro.’ and a record holder, is somewhat strict, and I need scarcely assume you that he spares no pains to render me fit and well for the track when I have a severe contest in view…I adopt rational and regular habits, and, in addition, I go daily in for four or five hours’ riding, together with considerable walking exercise, and practice with the dumb-bells.” Some riders had lucrative sponsorship deals. The Simpson Lever Chain Co sponsored Lisette in 1896. Harwood mentioned her Élysées machine and Dunlop tyres in her interview with The Hub, endorsements that were likely paid product placements. Venues hosting ladies cycle races sold tickets in the hundreds and even thousands at the height of interest, making it a good business venture. This translated to excellent exposure for advertisers who sponsored races and racers. There was money to be made by racers and their teams in the forms of prizes, which could amount to over £100 per week for racers in their prime. Lisette, for example, won £60 for first place at The Royal Aquarium in 1896. Riders were also awarded trophies, new bicycles, medals, and jewelry. Top racers like Harwood and Lisette were treated like celebrities, interviewed by magazines such as The Hub, and photographed in race portraits such as the Jules Beau image of Lisette shown right. Women’s racing was a profitable enterprise for the competitors, venues, and cycle companies involved–possibly even more so than the men’s cycle racing industry dating to the same era.

Interviews and profiles of women cycle racers give us some insight into what racing meant to them on a more personal level. Harwood identified the 1895 Six day race at The Royal Aquarium as particularly memorable in an interview for The Hub conducted a year after her win. When asked what she considered her best performance, Harwood, who had been modest about her accomplishments up to that point in the interview, welled up with pride. “Her eyes scintillated with joy,” the interviewer observed, “and for a moment there was an evident struggle in her mind between her natural reserve and a pardonable inclination to give vent to what, in spite of herself, she could not but look upon as a very meritorious performance. Then she replied, smiling:–‘Oh, that was when I beat Lissette (sic), last year. I do not think any future victory will ever efface the recollection of that event from my mind.” Her 1895 victory at The Royal Aquarium brought her fame and prizes as an international cycling champion, but when the dust settled it was her personal triumph that she treasured, a reminder of the individual accomplishments and character of the remarkable women racers who took to the late Victorian cycle track.


Sport and spectacle collided on the track during the ladies’ cycle races at The Royal Aquarium. Women’s cycle races remained a popular annual event at The Royal Aquarium until 1898, after which they were only occasionally held and were largely ignored by the press. A 1901 race only attracted English riders, and though three of them were England’s greatest cycle racers–Rosa Blackburn, Monica Harwood, and Mrs Anderson–ticket sales were disappointing. Cycling sport and leisure entered a lull around the turn of the century and ladies’s six day races fell out of fashion. The Royal Aquarium continued its spiral into decline and closed to the public not long after, only to be sold off and demolished in 1903. Though the fad for women’s cycling was short-lived, the races held at The Royal Aquarium from 1895-1901 marked a brief but important episode in the development of women’s bicycle racing as both sport and spectacle in late Victorian culture.

Selected Sources

“The English Champion Lady Champion: A Chat with Miss Harwood,” The Hub, 1896.

“Interesting Bits of Information,” The Hub, 1897.

The Queen, various Nov-Dec 1895.

Arthur Munby, Diary, 21 June 1869

Newspapers dating Nov-Dec 1895, including The Times, The Star, Lloyds Weekly News, The Standard, and The Daily News.

Bailey, Peter. “Parasexuality and Glamour: The Victorian barmaid as cultural prototype,” Gender and History (June 1990) vol 2, pp 148-273.

Simpson, Clare. “Capitalising on Curiosity: Women’s Professional Cycle Racing in the Nineteenth Century,” in Dave Horton, Paul Rosen and Peter Cox ed, Cycling and Society (Ashgate, 3007) pp 47-66.

Newspaper clippings and further details about Six Day Races available at http://www.sixday.org.uk

Title Image: S Begg, artists rendition of the ladies’ races at The Royal Aquarium, 1896

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A Christmas Cycling Wish, c. 1898

Happy holidays to all of you out there on two wheels!

A Christmas Wish

May you steer a steady course and everything go well,

No obstacles your pathway cross, when you ring the belle!


Image source: Christmas Card, c. 1898 from The Lady Cyclist: A Gender History of Women’s History in 1890s London, PhD Dissertation, York University, 2009

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Over the Alps on a Bicycle by Elizabeth Robins Pennell Available for Kindle

Over the Alps on a Bicycle, www.sheilahanlon.com

Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s 1898 book Over the Alps on a Bicycle, illustrated by her husband Joseph Pennell, is now available on Kindle. This edition was “re-mastered” so to speak as an e-book by Cathy Ryan for Eltanin Publishing from the original print copy.

My introduction to the new edition, now available on Kindle, explains the significance of the book and provides a biographical sketch of the author, with details of her opinions about cycling and how her rides fit into the politics of the late nineteenth century world. There is a bonus article at the end of the book, Pennell’s 1894 essay “Cycling” from Lady Greville’s Ladies in the Field: Sketches of Sport.


Over the Alps on a Bicycle tells the story of Anglo-American couple Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s six week journey across ten of the highest passes in the Alps. Their trip was taken at a time when cycling was still a relatively new pastime for women and no other woman had attempted to ride this record setting Alpine route. As Pennell herself noted, “if the name of the first man to climb the Alps with his bicycle is disputed, I propose to immortalize the name and adventures of the first woman.”

You can read about the Pennell’s adventures by downloading Over the Alps on a Bicycle from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bicycle-illustrated-Elizabeth-Robins-Pennell-ebook/dp/B00OVNF4SA for UK readers. If you’re in the US, go to http://www.amazon.com/Bicycle-illustrated-Elizabeth-Robins-Pennell-ebook/dp/B00OVNF4SA or .ca for fellow Canadians! There is a small price of about £1.50, profits from which go to Eltanin. It’s £1.50 well spent as it’s a very nice edition and a highly readable narrative.

Over the Alps on a Bicycle would make great holiday reading, especially for those of you embarking on cycle tours of your own!


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Imperial Bicyclists: Women travel writers on wheels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century world

Pennell and Workman Portraits

Early one morning at the end of August 1884, Elizabeth Robins Pennell and her husband Joseph Pennell strapped their luggage to their tricycle and wheeled out of Russell Square before anyone else was stirring. They headed south toward London Bridge, cutting through thick fog and passing a policeman carefully testing every door on his last rounds as they made their way through the quiet streets.

Just beyond Borough, they stopped briefly at the corner where the Tabard Inn had once stood, which was made famous by Chaucer five hundred years earlier as the assembly place for his nine and twenty pilgrims travelling to Thomas Becket’s shrine. This auspicious spot was the starting point of the Pennells’ own Canterbury tale, the first of many adventures a-wheel and the start of a series of popular travel books recounting their cycling excursions throughout England and Europe.

A decade later, another couple, Fanny Bullock Workman and William Hunter Workman made a name for themselves as travel writers documenting similar but more ambitious bicycle trips to remote destinations in Europe, the Sahara and India. Who were the pioneering women cyclists and writers that made up one half of each of these couples, what motivated them to embark on these journeys, and how did their experiences differ over the decade that divided them?


This post compares two early cycle-tourism excursions taken by these remarkable women and their husbands; the Pennell’s Canterbury pilgrimage and the Workman’s tour of Iberia, and considers how they reflect their perceptions and politics relating to the world at home and abroad, especially in the case of the status of women.

Victorian women travel writers Elizabeth Robins Pennell (shown left above) and Fanny Bullock Workman (shown right above) share many characteristics in common, though their lives did not overlap in any ways that brought the two together. Both were Anglo-Americans who grew up in North America as part of affluent families but spent much of their adult lives in Britain and Europe. Pennell and Workman were born 1855 and 1859 respectively, so were of a similar age, though Pennell’s travelogues date earlier than Workman’s. Both were deeply engaged with the intellectual culture of the day, Pennell through her work as a biographer and host of literary salons, and Workman through her scientific association with groups such as the Royal Geographers Society. They also similarly identified with early feminism and the women’s suffrage movement, and struggled throughout their lives to prove that they were equal to men. Their accomplishments as cyclists, writers, and intellectuals demonstrate how they worked towards equality in their own lives, and set an example for other women through their pioneering exploits as to what they could achieve by refusing to accept the gender conventions of the day.

Pennell, Curiosity on both sides www.sheilahanlon.comThe first of the two cycle-tourists to set out a-wheel was Elizabeth Robins Pennell. Born 21 February 1855 in Philadelphia, she was sent to a convent school at age 8 following the death of her mother. She remained at the school until age 17, though she ultimately rebelled against the life expected of a Catholic woman. Her Uncle Leland’s work as an author inspired her to take up writing. Her first book was a biography of feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft published by William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s widower, a subject choice indicative of her early commitment to women’s rights. It was through her involvement with periodicals that she met her husband to be Joseph, a Quaker who was also shaking free of family pressure to take up a respectable profession by going the route of artist. Elizabeth considered Joseph to be her intellectual equal from the start, and soon they were collaborating as writer and illustrator. By 1884, the pair was married and had landed a joint commission from The Century for a travel piece, a prospect which would inspire their first piece of cycling-literature.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell was among the first women to take up cycling when she learned to ride in the 1880s. In an article entitled “Cycling” for Lady Grevilles’ book Ladies in the Field: Sketches of Sport, a collection of essays on everything g from tiger hunting to punting published in 1894, Pennell wrote, “I remember my first experience in 1884, when I practiced on a Coventry ‘Rotary’ in the country round Philadelphia, and felt keenly that a woman on a cycle was still a novelty in the United States. I came to England that same summer, but the woman riders whom I met on my runs through London and the Southern Counties, I could count on the fingers of one hand.”  She and Joseph invested in a Humber tandem tricycle in London, which they took on their early adventures. Later, when two wheel models became standard during the craze, they switched to individual bicycles.

Pennell knew her bicycles well. Pennell noted in her piece for Ladies in the Field that after years of improvements to tricycles to make them suited for women and better machines overall, “then came the greatest invention of all, the Woman’s Safety.” She even went so far as to consider the Sparrow women’s high wheeler of the 1880s, a machine similar to the American Star with the large wheel at the back and smaller pilot wheel out front, an arrangement she appreciated but critiqued noting “the awkwardness of mounting and dismounting made it impractical. In an article directed at youth called “Cycling” to St Nicholas magazine, she extolled the virtues of cycling compared to other sports, especially as a source of fresh air and escaping from the city to the countryside, declaring it the best form of transport for sightseeing. She recognized the double standard for boys and girls, suggesting that boys take up the penny farthing, adding “If I were a boy I would ride nothing else,” but then going on to say Safety bicycles were best for girls and women, and encouraging them to practice riding, mounting, and wear sturdy grey cloth costumes for practicality and modesty.

A Canterbury Pilgrimage Title PageThe Pennell’s first trip was diarized in A Canterbury Pilgrimage. The Pennells had originally intended to ride through Italy sketching Tuscan cities following Laurence Sterne’s route from his 1765 book as part of their commission for The Century magazine. When that trip was postponed due to the cholera outbreak that swept through Europe, they settled on the trail of Chaucer’s pilgrims as an alternative route on a literary theme. The final piece was dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, as “a record of one of our short journeys on a tricycle, in gratitude for the happy hours we have spent travelling with him on his Donkey.” The couple’s literary interests were a central organizing principle behind this and their other cycling travelogues. From the Tabard Inn where we last left the couple in the introduction to this article, they Pennells continued down the Old Kent Road then on to Deptford, West Greenwich, and over the bridge at Crayford. In Kent, the narrative turned from scenery to the condition of the people, noting poor women and children at work hop picking and an increase in tramps. The Pennells spent the first night in Rochester at the CTC headquarter in the Queen’s Head. On Day Two, they covered Rochester to Chatham and on to Sittingbourne, Rainham where they settled down at an inn, pleased with themselves for having ridden so well over the course of the afternoon.

Just as the landlady laid the table and offered them a shandy-gaff, their peace was interrupted by a short balding man in a CTC uniform. Rushing through the door, he demanded “Are you the lady and gentleman that came in on the tandem?” Once they confirmed that they were indeed that couple, he went on at length about how he detested the machine, and described his own near death experience on one steered by his wife, not to mention the constant chaffing he endured from passer-byers on the road, adding “women are headless things, and easily frightened.” The sentiments shared by this balding CTC member were just the tip of the iceberg as far as negative attitudes towards women cyclists that the Pennells would encounter on later trips. Finally, leaving the bizarre encounter at the CTC headquarter behind them in Rainham, the pair reached their destination on Day Three:  Thomas Becket’s shrine.  “We stood in the holy place for which Monk and knight, Nun and Wife of Bath, had left husbands and nunnery, castle and monetary, and for which we braved the jests and jeers of London roughshod, and toiled over the hills and struggled through the sands of Kent.”

The Daily News called A Canterbury Pilgrimage “the most wonderful shilling’s worth modern literature has to offer.” The Pennells had hit upon a winning formula, one they would repeat in later books, with their combination of travel narrative, witty commentary, and evocative sketches of the landscapes they passed through.  Once the cholera epidemic had abated, they climbed on their trusty tricycle and toured Italy, an eventful trip beginning in Florence and culminated in their arrest for scorching down the Corso in Rome, as recorded in An Italian Pilgrimage. They then sold the tricycle, paid the fine, and settled in Rome for four months. In 1888, the pair published Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, again making the trip by tricycle though the pair had by then also started to ride bicycles. To Gipsyland, published in 1893, traced the couple’s journey to Eastern Europe, this time on bicycles with Elizabeth riding the Marriot and Cooper “Ladies Safety” that she purchased in 1891.

The Pennells cross St Gotthard Pass, ItalyThe Pennell’s final cycle-travelogue, Over the Alps on a Bicycle, published in 1898 for a popular audience, documented another adventure on two wheels and brought attention to Elizabeth’s record setting accomplishments as a lady cyclist. On this trip, the couple covered up to 108 miles per day, and crossed ten of the highest Alpine passes in six weeks. Edward Laroque Tinker commented in The Pennells, his 1951 biography of the couple that “This was no mean feat in those days when the female was not given to athletics and a woman on a wheel was looked upon askance. Elizabeth did not, however, originally set out with record breaking in mind, noting in her earlier contribution to Ladies in the Field noting that she was not a fan of record breaking by men or women and that while she may have broken records in the course of her rides she prized cycling for pleasure over racing, adding “the truth is, that, while every racing event is chronicled far and wide in the press, the tourist accomplishes her feats without advertisement, solely for the pleasure of travelling by bicycle.” By the time she embarked on her ride through the Alps, she had changed her opinion somewhat, noting “if the name of the first man to climb the Alps with his bicycle is disputed, I propose to immortalize the name and adventures of the first woman.”

Pennells, PerugiaOne feature of the Pennells’ narrative that stands out is their social commentary about the people and living conditions they encountered along their travels. This first becomes apparent in the description of poor women and children hop picking and the presence of much maligned tramps in Kent. In rural Italy, they wrote about the quaintness of peasant life, passing “wagon after wagon, piled with boxes and baskets, poultry and vegetables, and sleeping men and women,” priests in black robes, women doing their laundry in the stream, little girls in kerchiefs plaiting straw, a lady swineherd, and families picking chestnuts in shady groves. The status of local women and their reactions to a fellow woman on a bicycle was something Elizabeth paid particular attention to. Her descriptions of women are reminiscent of the makings of maternal feminism. Just outside Florence, a nun covered her face when the cyclist neared her on the road as though she “though is a device of the devil,” whereas a female innkeeper in Empoli who had never seen a tricycle asked an abundance of questions. In Foligno, people refused to make way for the tricycle, and “one woman in her stupidity or obstinacy walked directly in front of the machine, and when the little wheel caught in her dress, though no fault of ours, cried ‘Accident evoi!’” and seemed to wish an accident on them.  In Albergo Marzocca, the reception to cyclists was better, though “as friendly as these people were, they were stupid.”

A lack of lady cyclists on the continent is often cited by the Pennells as evidence that they are travelling in underdeveloped countries compared to Britain or the US, especially in regards to the status of women and condition of the family. The contrast between women at home and abroad was also a subtle reminder that Elizabeth herself was doing something daring and liberated. While waiting for a boat to take them around an Alpine lake, the Pennells met two American women on a bicycle tour, the only lady cyclists they would encounter on the entire trip until the last leg back to Calais where they were joined by a German “frau” in knickerbockers on her way to Lake Como carrying a pistol and sketchbook who Elizabeth assessed as not a serious cyclist. The Pennells consistently position themselves as superior to the people they encounter, noting their naivety, unenlightened life styles, and insults directed at cyclists as evidence of cultural inferiority, often in a tone that is less than flattering of their own Anglo-American privilege.

Workman, ClimbingThe second of our cyclists, Fanny Bullock Workman, four years’ Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s junior, was born to a wealthy Worcester Massachusetts family in 1859. Her father was a successful business man and Republican Massachusetts governor, which meant Fanny was afforded the best education money could buy, including finishing school in New York. In his 2012 book Game Faces: Five Early American Champions and the Sports they Changed, Thomas Pauly suggested her thirst for adventure was evident early in life, and that she “chafed at the constraints of her privilege.” She took up travel after graduating, living in Paris and Dresden and writing adventure stories about debutante girls running away to Europe with handsome young suitors, undoubtedly something she fantasized about doing herself.

In 1879, she returned to the US, where she met William Workman, a physician 12 years her senior who she married in 1881. William introduced Fanny to mountain climbing, which she excelled at. American alpine clubs in this era welcomed female members and the pastime fit with the new woman image that Fanny identified with. In 1889, the couple relocated to Europe due to William’s poor health, a move Fanny certainly would have endorsed. Substantial inheritances from both of their families meant that they could afford to travel and pursue alpine climbing, often with an entourage assisting them.  Their daughter Rachel, born in 1883 was soon big sister to Siegfried, born in 1889. Fanny never embraced motherhood and felt it cramped her style as a writer and adventurer. Pauly noted that after having children Fanny “aggressively pursued alternative identity, one that liberated her from the conventional responsibilities of wife and mother.” She embraced the bicycle as a way to achieve this.

Workman with bicycle www.sheilahanlon.com While the Pennell’s work was literary in its tone, richly descriptive, and illustrated with Joseph’s sketches, the Workmans’ fashioned themselves as serious contributors to scientific knowledge and used photographs to document their trips. The content of their books advanced from adventure journalism with personal anecdotes in early books to more rational scientific and cartographic studies in later works. The pair tended to write their sections separately, which they dedicated to each other. The resulting cycle-travelogues are dense with historic, scientific, and anthropological detail, such as the history and architecture of the Alhambra, analysis of glaciation in the Himalayas or vivid descriptions of the costumes worn by villagers on the Indian Plain. This writing style fits into the popular travel writing style of the day with its mix of adventure, travel narrative, and personal diarizing with an additional emphasis on cultural and scientific observations. Fanny in particular strove to have her research and writing recognized by the Royal Geographic Club and other Alpine societies, so she consciously adopted a rational and informative in voice. After years of resistance, she eventually became the second woman, after Elizabeth Bird, to address the Royal Geographical Society and the first to lecture at the Sorbonne. Fanny was highly competitive, not just men but also with her female contemporaries. When Annie Peck claimed a new altitude record in 1908 by ascending Peru’s Nevado Huarascan, therefore bettering Workman’s 1906 record set at Pinnacle Peak in the Himalayas, Fanny challenged the claim and hired a survey team at her own expense to prove Peck’s climb was less than her own, thereby retaining the record.

Workman, Algeria www.sheilahanlon.com As cycle-tourists, Fanny and William started big. Their first cycling trip, the subject of Sketches A Wheel in Modern Iberia published in 1897, was a 2,800 mile trek across Spain in 1895, a contrast with the smaller jaunt from London to Canterbury that the Pennells started out with. The same year, they travelled through North Africa as documented in Algerian Memories. Also different was their choice of machine—while the Pennell’s beginner bike was a tandem tricycle, the Workmans set out on steel frames, rubber tyred Safety bicycles, each carrying 20 pounds of luggage. One of the bicycles proved unsound, and had to be traded half way through the trip, and both were prone to punctures on the rough roads of Spain. The pair averaged 45 miles per day overall and up to 80 miles on some days. Alpine climbing and mountaineering were mixed into the trip, with the couple often leaving their bicycles behind to walk up peaks, such as those clustered with monasteries above Monserrat. Their account of the journey describes their everyday experiences, while filling in detail about the history of the places they visit, the nature of people encountered, and the geography of the landscapes they traveled through. Not all their experiences were positive. One day, a muleteer angry that the Workman’s bicycles had spooked his animals, tried to bar their way and threatened them with a mattock with a heavy handle and an iron blade. “When he came within about ten feet,” Fanny wrote, “seeing that something more than words was necessary, we drew our revolvers and covered him. He retreated, and the cyclists carried on down the road, revolvers in hand.

The Workmans’ encounters with people reveal a great deal about what it was like to be Anglo-American tourists from a privileges background travelling in foreign lands and how the Workman perceived themselves and others. The local people described in Sketches A Wheel tended to be rural peasants observed at a distance and described in naive terms, village inhabitants interacted with only fleetingly and often with an element of cultural misunderstanding on both party’s accounts, and those serving them at hotels. Observations about women are particularly interesting. One inn mistresses is described rather crudely as an oily Spanish women. The Workmans were shocked when Fanny was barred entry to Corpus Christi chapel, Valencia to see the baroque painter Francisco Ribalta’s altarpiece because her head wasn’t covered by the traditional black mantilla that most women wore, a sure sign of the low status of women in late-Victorian eyes. In stark contrast with Fanny’s own fearlessness as an explorer, Spanish women come across as terrified of anything new, but possessed of a child like curiosity. At one point in the mountains, women doing laundry scurry away and hide when they see Fanny and her machine. Near the end of their trip on a downhill slope leading to Zaragoza, a town where the people, “notably the women, stared like cattle” Fanny noted “a woman with four frightened children clinging to her skirts stood outside and watched our approach.” They bluntly remark on the “backwardness” of the people of Aragon. If the Workman’s estimation, the Spanish come across as a semi-exotic people lacking refinement, with the men occasionally brutish, women timid, and all lacking intelligence.

The Workmans’ subsequent cycling trips are recorded in Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Atlas to the Sahara in 1895 and Through Town and Jungle: Fourteen Thousand Miles A-Wheel Among the Temples and People of the Indian Plain (1904). Though they made a significant contribution to cycling-journalism, climbing remained Fanny’s preferred pastime and after 1898 she shifted her focus back to alpine exploration, making a remarkable eight excursions into the Himalayas over the next few years and writing about them in books such as In the Ice World of the Himalayas in 1900 and Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram: The Exploration of Nineteen Hundred Square Miles of Mountain and Glacier in 1916. Her later books were to have an even greater focus on scientific detail as she continued to seek recognition from alpine societies, as well as anthropological observations, many deeply orientalist, as she met and recorded the lives of people living on the very edge of empire.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Fanny Bullock Workman both identified with the strains of feminism characteristic of their era, but expressed their political ideals in very different ways in their writing and public personas. One thing they shared in common was their attitude to dress, a critical issue in the gender politics at the time. Though rational dress was beginning to catch on for outdoor sports in the 1890s-1910s and Workman and Pennell recognised it as a superior garment for cycling and climbing, they both chose to wear skirts rather than knickerbockers, thereby retaining an appearance associated with respectable femininity. Pennell’s work dates to the pre-organized suffrage era, when cause-specific feminist groups were strong but the campaign for the vote had not yet materialized as the dominant movement. Her writing is not overtly feminist, despite the fact she clearly challenged prevailing gender conventions through her cycling adventures. This is a stark contrast with contemporary works such as Frances Willard’s Wheel within A Wheel: How I Learned to Ride A Bicycle which positions mastering a bicycle as a step towards women’s equality, or Maria Ward’s Bicycling for Ladies which actively encouraged women to seek independence through cycling. Pennell’s work champions her accomplishments as a woman, an individual, and a wife and presents a highly readable and personal account of her travels in a style that would have appealed to a wide audience. While her feminist instincts may have inspired her pursuits, a heavy feminist polemic would not have served her purposes as a popular author and pleasure cyclist.

Workman Votes for Women www.sheilahanlon.com Workman’s dedication to feminism and the suffrage campaign, however, is readily apparent in her work, a reflection of the prominence women’s rights had risen to over the decade that divided her writing from Pennell’s. Throughout her life, Workman battled for recognition by the male-dominated climbing and scientific communities. The fact that American alpine clubs encouraged women to join, unlike their European counterparts, meant that Fanny would have been exposed to other liberated women on the mountainside in her youth. Later when the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum, she aligned herself with the WSPU. In 1912, she was photographed atop a 21,000 foot plateau in Karakoram holding an issue of “Votes For Women” magazine, a photograph she later used as one of her book covers, a bold political statement leaving no doubt about her belief in women’s rights. In her cycle-travelogues, Workman frequently commented on the oppression and deplorable treatment of women she encountered abroad, such as in the powerless group of women she met in the harem she visited in Algerian Memories. A commitment to women’s rights was part of the public identity that Workman cultivated and feminist aspirations were linked to her achievements and aspirations as a cyclist, climber, and amateur scientist.

The Pennells and Workmans’ style of cycle-travel writing fit into the genre of travel writing popularised in the late-nineteenth century West. Other cycle travel publications dating to the time included Frank Lenz’s Around the World with Bike and Camera (1892) published before the cyclist mysteriously vanished abroad and Thomas Steven’s Around the World by Bicycle Vol 1&2 (1887) about his journey by penny farthing. All presented riveting road stories that mixed personal anecdotes, descriptions of landscape, informative details about the significance of the places visited, and descriptions of people in far off lands together into highly readable books that would have been popular with armchair adventure seekers back home. What Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Fanny Bullock Workman add to the genre is an element of feminist critique, though often subtle, which speaks volumes about the changing place of daring women in modern Britain and their perspectives on the status of women in places that did not share the advancements in progress that they had benefitted from back home. In the decade that divided the Pennell and Workman’s first cycle trips, taken in 1884 and 1895 respectively, women’s rights developed into a mainstream discussion, a factor which is reflected over their writing careers such that Pennell observes inequality while avoiding a distinct feminist polemic whereas Workman openly aligned herself with the women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement.

While this post has considered a selection of the Pennell and Workman’s early cycling travelogues from trips in England and Continental Europe, there is much scope to look at how their political commentary developed in  later books, especially as they ventured further abroad to Eastern Europe, Africa and India. The observations of these self-made and self propelled Anglo-American envoys into distant lands reveal much about gender, imperial, colonial, and global politics in a changing world and provide a snapshot of places and people that would become inaccessible to tourists a few years later with the outbreak of war.


Selected Sources

Pauly, Thomas. Game Faces: Five Early American Champions and the Sports they Changed. (2012)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. “Cycling,” St Nicholas. (July 1890)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. “Cycling” in Lady Greville, Ladies in the Field: Sketches of Sport. (1894)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. A Canterbury Pilgrimage. (1884)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. An Italian Pilgrimage (1887)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. (1888)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. To Gispyland. (1893)

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. Over the Alps on a Bicycle. (1898)

Tinling, Marion. Women into the Unknown: A Sourcebook on Women Explorers and Travelers. (1989)

Tinker, Edward Laroque. The Pennells. (1951)

Workman, William and Fanny Bullock. Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Atlas to the Sahara. London: Fisher Unwin. (1895)

Workman, William and Fanny Bullock. Sketches A Wheel in Modern Iberia. (1897)

Workman, William and Fanny Bullock. Through Town and Jungle: Fourteen Thousand Miles A-Wheel Among the Temples and People of the Indian Plain. (1904)

Workman, Fanny Bullock. In the Ice World of the Himalayas. (1900)

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“Woman power” bicycle kanga from The British Museum


Powerful women on bicycles are everywhere these days–even in the stairwells of The British Museum!

The “Woman power” bicycle kanga shown above hangs in The British Museum’s North Stairs near the Africa galleries. It was printed for the Kali Mata Ki Jai (KMKJ) women’s centre in Gezaulole, Tanzania in 2005. The “woman power” kanga shows a woman on her bicycle with a cargo basket full to the brim. She smiles as she pumps the peddles, riding towards her destination with confidence and determination. Text along the lower side of the print reads “Mwanamke ni Chachu ya Maendeleo,” which translates to “woman is the yeast for development.”

The Kali Mata Ki Jai women’s centre of Gezaulole was established in 1990 by three local women who’s objective was to contribute to development and improve conditions for women in their community, a village of about 5000 people located 10 mile south of Dar es Salaam on the east coast of Tanzania. The centre’s name translates to “long live the black mother.” Before long, a group of ten women were working on projects through the collective. Kali Mata Ki Jai supports women through micro credit training, marketable crafts such as printed cotton and basketry, henna production, small scale farming of crops such as mushrooms, and cycling lessons for girls and women. A charitable foundation based in the Netherlands, KMKJ-ND, which sees cooperation among women in rural communities as a starting point for development, has worked with the centre since 2000.


The “Woman power” kanga was produced as part of an initiative aimed at promoting cycling for girls
and women, as well as acting as a business model for micro-finance projects. A kanga is a rectangular panel of printed cloth including a written statement and worn as a garment most commonly in pairs by women or occasionally singly by men. The Kiswahili word ‘kanga’ means guinea fowl, which reflects the fabric’s ornate, colourful and often spotted patterns. The fabric provides a medium for women to communicate or speak out, and political messages are often printed on kangas, such as the example shown right of an Obama kanga also from The British Museum collection.

Women at the Kali Mata Ki Jai centre designed the bicycle fabric in 2004, which was then printed at Urafiki, one of the oldest textile factories in Dar es Salaam. The project was financially backed by KMKJ-ND and the NCDO Front Office as part of the Micro Credit Fund for Rural Women in Tanzania. 4500 kangas were produced for sale in Tanzania and the Netherlands, and by 2005 they had all been sold. Two were purchased by The British Museum, one in the blue tones shown above and another in russet colours. The “Woman power” bicyle kanga went on display at The British Museum in 2013 as part of the Social Fabrics Exhibit.

20140720-193609.jpgProfits from the “Woman power” kanga bolstered the financial independence of the women involved in its production and their earnings represented an important contribution to their family units, thereby giving them more power and respect at home. The image of the woman cycling that decorates the kanga speaks about another type of independence and power–a powerful, independent woman cycling with determination, such as the Kali Mata Ki Jai mother cycling with her daughter shown left, as she navigates towards a better future with each turn of the wheel.

You can read more about the “Woman power” bicycle kanga on The British Museum Online Collection or the Kali Mata Ki Jai websites.


Main Image: Photographed by Sheila Hanlon at The British Museum, July 2014

“Woman power bicycle kanga,” British Museum Collection Online www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=742463&objectid=1601570

Christopher Spring, “The World in Twenty Objects: Barack Obama’s Kenyan Victory Kanga,” The British Museum Blog, http://blog.britishmuseum.org/tag/kanga

Kali Mata Ki Jai website, www.vrouwen.net/kalimata/


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Flora Drummond: The Suffragette General

www.sheilahanlon.com_flora_drummondThere’s a new addition the Wheelwomen pages, Flora Drummond.

Check out her entry by clicking thr link above to find out more about how, as a member of the WSPU organising body, Flora contributed to the WSPU cause in England and Scotland.

As usual, there’s some cycling involved!

Wheelwomen is an index of biographies of prominent lady cyclists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The page is updated regularly, so do pop by to look for new profiles.


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Suffragettes on Wheels Talk at LBK, April 28th


Suffragettes on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Edwardian Votes for Women campaign, Talk at The London Bike Kitchen, April 28th

I’ll be presenting an all cycling, all campaigning suffragettes on wheels bonanza Monday 28 April at the London Bike Kitchen.

Things kick off at 6:30 as part of LBK’s Women and Gender Variant (WAG) night. WaG is a dedicated space for women and gender-variant people to fix their own bikes, with mechanics on hand for help and advice. Read more about LBK’s WAG nights, and the exciting things they do and offer here, as well as how to join here: www.lbk.org.uk

My talk will present highlights from my research on women’s cycling and political activism in early 20th century Britain, with a focus on the suffrage era. Expect suffragettes and suffragists a-wheel on parade, campaigning in the countryside, riding across the country on pilgrimages, and even getting themselves arrested for militant arson attacks.

LBK is a great organisation, and one well worth joining and supporting!

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Mrs Fawcett’s Bicycle License: Cycling stories from the archive



Cycling history turns up in the strangest places. Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s permit to drive a bicycle in turn of the century Johannesburg, shown above, is one such curiosity from the archives.

This small paper license was one of the first ‘hits’ that I came across early in my research on women’s cycling history at The Women’s Library. It may be a minor part of the collection, a piece of ephemera tucked into a box of folders related to Fawcett’s role as a government official investigating conditions in Second Boer War concentration camps, but it’s a fascinating find that reveals a sliver of cycling history nonetheless. Mrs Fawcett’s bicycle licence is a small leaf of paper that reveals a great deal about the wider nineteenth century world that it was issued in.

Leafing through Fawcett’s handwritten notes, correspondence, photographs and early drafts of what was to be a hugely influential exposé on the human impact of war may seem like a strange way to go about researching cycling history. But, buried among the files, along with the last remaining nub of the pencil Fawcett used to jot down her field notes, sat her cycling and driving pass.

Boer_War_Camp_www.sheilahanlon.comFawcett, a well-known suffragist and president of the NUWSS, was appointed by the British government to lead a commission into the conditions faced by the families of Second Boer War soldiers in the concentration camps created to house them. The investigation corroborated Emily Hobhouse’s earlier indictment of the atrocious conditions women and children endured in these camps. For Fawcett, in addition to being a humanitarian cause, it served as a suffrage mission since she saw herself as a guardian of Uitlander civil rights.

During the trip, Fawcett was issued several regional driving permits, including the one shown above which granted permission to “ride, drive, and bicycle” in the municipality of Johannesburg. The permit dates to a time when bicycles were newcomers to the road and their legal status as vehicles was uncertain. Cyclists were often at the centre of conflict over road use and there was debate over how to apply traffic laws, licensing, road tax, and border crossing tariffs. Some municipalities introduced bicycle licenses as a means of regulating riders, while others did so as a form of taxation, which may explain the origins of Fawcett’s riding, driving and cycling pass.

The permit is also of interest for what it tells reveals about patterns of road use at the turn of the century. It reflects multi-vehicular traffic, with horse drawn carts, motor vehicles, and bicycles all sharing the road. Fawcett’s permit covered all these forms of transportation. Motorised vehicles were on the rise, but it would be decades before horse drawn vehicles were completely outmoded in South Africa or back home in Fawcett’s England.

Considering this driving permit was issued during an era when the women’s suffrage campaign was on the rise, it serves as a reminder that that women weren’t entirely exempt from legal rights and obligations, nor we’re they cut off from all avenues of political work. This is particularly poignant in the case of middle and upper class women like Fawcett and her circle who were most likely to take advantage of rights and opportunities, whether it meant running for election to their local school board or riding a bicycle.

Battersea_1895_www.sheilahanlon.comThough it is not clear if Fawcett used her bicycle in South Africa, we know that back home in England she was an avid cyclist. She was one of thousands of women who learned to ride during the 1890s cycling craze, such as the lady cyclists enjoying a run in Battersea Park shown left. In 1896, she wrote in a letter home to her mother reporting that she was learning to ride, but after three lessons was “still stupid at it.” She persisted, and eventually become a proficient cyclist.

A few years later, as the fad for cycling among middle and upper class women waned, Fawcett encouraged readers of Wheelwoman magazine to donate their unwanted bicycles to working girls clubs as a way of helping improve the lives of those “who labour in hot stuffy rooms day after day and would welcome the chance of borrowing a cycle.”

South Africa had a robust women’s cycling culture by the time Fawcett arrived. British magazine Lady Cyclist even had a regular columnist based in Johannesburg. Fawcett would not have been out place cycling in urban parts of South Africa, but the more remote regions where she visited concentration camps likely had not yet acclimatized to the sight of a women on a bicycle.

www.sheilahanlon.com_Fawcett_Hyde ParkAfter the turn of the century, bicycles played a part in the women’s suffrage campaign. The campaign tactics adopted by Fawcett’s NUWSS included bicycle parades and tours, while the WSPU used bicycles as get away vehicles in daring arson attacks and other militant actions.

When war broke out in 1914, Fawcett redirected her energy away from women’s suffrage and towards the war effort. As leader of the Active Service League, she ensured her new group’s agenda included Saturday afternoon bicycle parties and rides to local villages and hamlets.

Though we may never know the extent to which Fawcett took advantage of her “permission to ride, drive, and bicycle the municipal limits of Johannesburg,” her permit remains an interesting part of transportation history and an intriguing cycling artefact.

Have you stumbled across an item of interest to cycling history in a surprising place? Send in your story and it will be added to this post.


Sources and further reading

Main Image: Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s Bicycle Licence, The Women’s Library, LSE

Jane Howath, “Millicent Garrett Fawcett,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2010-14)

David Rubinstein, A different world for women: The life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1991)

“Wheelwomen A-H, Millicent Garrett Fawcett”, www.sheilahanlon.com (2014)

Wheelwoman magazine, 1897


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