The Bicycle: Freedom Machine on The Forum, BBC World Service

The Bicycle: Freedom Machine

From Monday 12 October, you’ll be able to hear me and three other cycling experts discuss the importance of the bicycle in an episode of The Forum on BBC World Service.

Bridget Kendall leads the discussion with social enterprise entrepreneur Sameer Hajee a leader of pedal power projects in developing countries, cycling infrastructure planner Reetta Keisanen who has helped make Helsinki a cycling city, philosopher Professor Mike Austin a expert in thinking on and about the bicycle, and me historian Dr Sheila Hanlon on the significance of cycling for women in  Victorian and Edwardian eras.

“The Bicycle: Freedom Machine” explores the bicycle from all angles, from pedal power generated light and battery charging in African towns and as a form of transportation, to it’s more ephemeral connections to women’s emancipation and philosophy.

“The Bicycle: Freedom Machine airs on the BBC World Service at 01:06 GMT Monday 12 October, BBC World Service at 08:00 GMT Tuesday 13 October, and BBC World Service Australia 01:06 Wednesday 14 October.

BBC The Forum, Dr Sheila Hanlon

You can also listen to a short clip from the show about the faux medical theories derived to discourage women from cycling, which addresses a number of cycle-diseases including the infamous bicycle face.

Tune in to the BBC World Service to  hear the full broadcast or listen to it as a podcast on The Forum site,



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The Lady Cyclists Club: The Origins and Politics of Victorian Women’s Bicycling Associations


The wheelmen’s club, outfitted in dapper uniforms and racing en masse down a country road, is one of the enduring images of late Victorian masculine associational culture. Cycling clubs may have started out as male reserves, especially during the highwheeler age, but this status was challenged as more and more women took up the pastime in the 1890s. Most cycling clubs eventually made room for female members, though not without resistance. During the cycling craze, women’s cycling clubs such as the Lady Cyclists Association (LCA) shown above, flourished in Britain and other nations where cycling was a popular leisure fad.

Men’s Clubs, Mixed Clubs and the Growing Presence of Wheelwomen

www.sheilahanlon.com_Welford_Cigarette_CardMany of the earliest ladies cycling clubs were formed as a reaction to gender inequality in clubs run by men, but they quickly took on a character of their own. Victorian ladies cycling clubs encouraged women to ride, allowed them to take full part in club life, expanded the geography of women’s cycling through group rides, and insulated women from the hostility they faced in public as lone riders. The all-female cycling clubs of the 1890s were more than mere leisure associations–they were a space where women worked collectively to protect their rights as cyclists and citizens.

Women had long been present on the margins of cycling club culture, even as far back as the 1870s when the machine of choice for men was the highwheeler. The tricycle, which was considered safe and appropriate for women riders, allowed lady tricyclists to join occasional rides as solo riders or on tandems and sociables. Most lady tricyclists were from aristocratic families who could afford the expensive machines, and they accompanied their husbands on club rides as guests.
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The Lady Ariel Side-Saddle Ordinary, 1874

www.sheilahanlon.com_Lady Ariel, 1874


The Lady Ariel Side-Saddle Ordinary of 1874, shown above, is one of the most eccentric and innovative designs in the history of the bicycle as a gendered object.

The Ordinary, commonly known as the highwheeler or penny farthing, was first introduced in 1869 by French inventor Eugene Meyer. The design was popularised by James Starley, a leading English cycle manufacturer based in Coventry, in the 1870s. The Ariel was Starley’s signature model. The fact it was adopted as a model for a female rider was highly unusual for the time.

www.sheilahanlon.com_Bicycling, Hy Sandham, 1887Highwheelers, including The Ariel, were produced with male cyclists in mind the 1870s and 80s. This was an age when highwheeling was popular as a sport and recreation among fit, young, men of means. These lofty machines were notoriously difficult to mount, propel, and control especially down hill. They were infamous for causing “headers.” Highwheelers were prohibitively expensive, making them accessible only to men of means who could afford their purchase price, upkeep and storage, and who had the time and space to ride them. A staunchly homosocial and competitive culture developed around highwheeling. The risk and physical demands of highwheeling, coupled with it’s association with masculine leisure pursuits, plus the incompatibility of the machine with long skirts precluded the involvement of women.

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Tessie Reynolds: The Stormy Petrel in the Struggle for Women’s Equality in Cycle Racing and Dress

Tessie Reynolds, 1890

In 1893, a remarkable sixteen year old girl rode from Brighton to London and back in record time, covering the full distance in just over 8.5 hours. Her name was Tessie Reynolds, and though the news of the day had much to say about her ride and the outfit she accomplished it in, she is one of Britain’s unsung sporting heroes.

Tessie was born in Kemp Town, a working class neighbourhood in the seaside town of Brighton, in 1877. She was the oldest of eleven children. Her father RJ Reynolds was a a bicycle dealer with a shop at 25 Brighton Road. He also dabbled in a number of professions, including PE instructor for the Brighton Police, coach to a number of local athletes and a stint in the army. Tessie’s mother managed the family’s boarding house business, which undoubtedly made up a substantial part of the Reynolds’ income and gave them some financial stability.

Tessie and her siblings all learned to cycle, fence, box, and participate in sports of all kinds at the encouragement of their father. Once Tessie set her heart on competitive cycling, she may have trained at the Preston Park Velodrome three miles away from her house, a state of the art racing facility built in 1877, coincidentally the same year as her birth. The image of Tessie shown above, taken in 1890 three years before her record breaking ride, depicts her on a bicycle made by RS Lovelace, a manufacturer from Henstridge. By that time, she had already adopted rational wear and is poised as you can see, a diamond frame with an upper crossbar and downward curved handle bar. This machine is readily identifiable as a racing bike. It differed distinctly from a standard ladies’ bicycle, which in the 1890s would have been a drop frame safety with upright handle bars and an overall geometry that made the rider sit upright, Tessie’s machine, outfit, and stance are a stark contrast with the the image is “A Typical Lady Cyclist,” shown below, who wears a long riding habit and rides a drop frame as prescribed for women during the 1890s.

Typical-Lady-Cyclist,-Bicycling-NewsTessie’s record setting ride from Brighton to London and back landed her briefly in the national cycling press. According to Bicycling News, Tessie set out from the Brighton Aquarium at 5:00am on the morning of September 10th, 1893. She rode a Premium safety geared to 56, scaling under 80lbs. She reached Hyde Park at 9:13am without stopping en route. On the way back, she made three stoppages at Smitham Bottom, Crawley, and Hickstead. By 1:38pm, she had returned to her starting point at the Brighton Aquarium. Tessie had completed the ride in a record setting 8 hours, 38 minutes including stops, covering 120 miles at an average speed of twelve miles per hour. While impressive, Bicycling News commented that her “plucky performance on the road proved loss of surprise to those who knew her exceptional powers awheel than to the general public.” Continue reading

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Cycling to Suffrage, Manchester



Cycling to Suffrage Manchester

Cycling to Suffrage has gone on the road to Manchester.

Working in association with Team Glow, the Cycling to Suffrage: The Bicycle and Women’s Rights, 1890-1914 exhibit opens at the People’s History Museum, Manchester March 7th. The exhibit looks at the role of the bicycle in the organised suffrage campaign of the Edwardian era, as well as its earlier significance to the emancipation of women in the late Victorian era.

Cycling to Suffrage, originally shown in London at The Women’s Library, is being re-mounted as part of Team Glow “Biking Through” program celebrating women’s cycling for International Women’s Day. Read more about it in Glynis Francis’s guest blog on the PHM website. MCR Women Biking Through.

The show opens Saturday 7th March with a Cycling to Suffrage curator’s talk and screening of Half the Road , a documentary film by Kathryn Bertine that looks at women’s struggles in the world of professional cycling. There will also be opportunities to discuss of women’s cycling past, present and future over a few treats and glasses of wine.

You can add your say my contributing to the bicycle portrait project M’crWomenBike, a project collecting photographs of women across Manchester and asking them why they ride their bikes.

To book a place for the talk and film screening visit Eventbrite.

Cycling to Suffrage talk and exhibition, Sat 7 March 2015, 1.00pm – 2.00pm. Tickets are free but booking is required via Eventbrite.

Half the Road film screening, Sat 7 March 2015, 2.30pm – 4.30pm. Tickets £5, book via Eventbrite


Listen Up Cyclists!

These sound clips accompany the Cycling to Suffrage exhibit at the Manchester People’s History Museum.

Please listen to the sound clips below to hear the sounds of cycling past!

Daisy Bell
Daisy Bell, Written by Harry Dacre 1894, performed by Dali Kaur

This comic song about a bicycle built for two is believed to have been inspired by Frances Evelyn “Daisy” Greville, Countess of Warwick, Greville was a celebrated society cyclist, though she is best remembered as a mistress of Edward VII who also coincidentally cycled. Music hall singer Katie Lawrence popularized the song.


Sylvia Pankhurst Sylvia Pankhurst on cycling with her sister Christabel. Excerpt from The Suffragette Movement, 1931, read by Sheila Hanlon

The Pankhursts, especially Christabel, were avid cyclists and active members of the socialist Clarion Cycling Club. This excerpt describes the girls’ first bicycles and early outings in which Christabel emerges as the superior cyclist. The Pankhursts lived in Manchester at the time, and these memories involve the local landscape.


Helena Swanwick
Helena Swanwick recalls cycling in London and Manchester. Excerpt from I Have Been Young, 1935, read by Glynis Francis of Team Glow.

In this set of clips, we hear Helena Swanwick’s reminiscences about riding in London and Manchester. Swanwick was a pacifist who initially joined the WSPU but quickly re-aligned herself with the NUWSS. She and her husband Fred enjoyed cycling around Cheshire and Derby, and took their bicycles on holiday to France.


The Manchester Story: Help us write it

Manchester has a rich cycling history that has only begun to be uncovered. As Cycling to Suffrage documents, prominent local suffragettes, including the Pankhursts who founded the WSPU, jumped on their bicycles for political purposes. Manchester was also home to one of the first branches of the Clarion Cycling Club founded in 1894 and industrial innovators such as Andrew Muir who produced some of the UK’s earliest velocipedes. Did you know that Manchester had one of the first women’s bicycle groups, The Manchester Lady Cyclists’ Club, shown above in a newspaper photo from 1895.

Cycling to Suffrage, in association with Team Glow, is interested in developing the Manchester Cycling Story as part of local heritage and cycling history. This project celebrates the struggles of our cycling sisters of the past as we fight for equality on the road today and secure a better future for tomorrow’s cyclists.

Could you help write the Manchester cycling story? If so, please get in touch. You can contact the Cycling to Suffrage Project by emailing or through the comment box below. To contact Team Glow, email Glynis Francis or Ursula Harries,

Help us write the Manchester Cycling Story!


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Hack Attack

I’ve been hit. As you may note from my header, my site has been fallen prey to a rather unwelcome visitor.

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

Until then, please continue to read the blog and share your cycling stories–just don’t follow that bad link above. (Unless that’s the product you’re after…we don’t judge here at Cycling to Suffrage.)

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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.

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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.

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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,

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.

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