Cycling to Suffrage on BBC Two “Inside The Factory: Bicycles”

You may have seen me pedaling across your television screen this summer! 

Ruth Goodman on a TricycleAs part of BBC Two’s “Inside the Factory: Bicycles,” Ruth Goodman and I explore the significance of cycling to women’s emancipation. Using archival materials from The Woman’s Library, LSE we look at how the bicycle became part of the votes for women campaign.

The segment is in an episode of the series where Gregg Wallace and Cherry Gregg Wallace at Brompton FactoryHealey go inside the Brompton Factory to see how these innovative machines come together. Other segments highlight issues in modern cycling culture, safety, and racing. You’ll also see other cycling historians discussing the golden age of Highwheelers and folding bikes taken into battle during the two world wars.

“Inside the Factory: Bicycles” first aired 16 August 2016. You can catch in on BBC iPlayer for a limited time.

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Bicycle Fashion Files Part Two: Tricycles and Highwheelers, 1870-1880s

High wheel painting_1887

The second instalment of the Bicycle Fashion Files examines cycling dress in the age of the tricycle and highwheeler, 1870s-80s. Part two continues on from part one, which covered the cycling fashion of the early 1800s.

Dress Constraints and Conventions in the Golden Age of the Highwheeler

Highwheel Uniform, US 1870sIn the 1870s, the machine of choice among fit, young, men of means was the Ordinary, also known as the highwheeler, or penny farthing. Enlarging the front wheel of a velocipede to increase speed resulted in the lofty machine. The masculine traditions, physical demands, danger, and dress associated with high wheeling made the pastime off-limits for most women.

The customary attire for male cyclists was a militarised jacket, tight knee-breeches, and a cap or pith helmets, as reflected in the portraits shown above left. Cycling associations were especially fond of military influenced uniforms.

The riding habit worn by the lady tricyclist leading the pack in Hy Sandham’s painting at the top of this post, for example, would have been incompatible with the highwheelers her companions ride. Conventional women’s dress, and behavioural expectations, were not compatible with highwheeling. Politely straddling the saddle and front wheel in a dress was impossible, not to mention mounting which involved launching yourself onto the machine and the likelihood of a skirt catching dangerously (perhaps fatally) in the front wheel.

Frances Bernadette JohnsonNonetheless, a handful of women defied convention and tried the machines in borrowed breeches and gymnastic costumes. Shown right is an 1870s self-portrait of American photographer Francis Bernadette Johnson in the get up of a male penny farthing enthusiasts. Little is known about Johnson or her clandestine cycling habits, but one can imagine that if she was travelling at speed down a road on a penny farthing dressed in this costume, she would have been indistinguishable from typical cyclist to most passers-by. Carleton Reid has identified several more similar cases of women riders disguised as men on his website details Roads Were Not Built For Cars.

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Bicycle Fashion Files Part One: The Early Inventions 1790-1860s

Hobby Horse Fashions, 1819

Fashion is one of the most popular topics in women’s cycling history, especially the bloomers and rationals of the 1890s and the idea of emancipation associated with them. But, women’s cycling fashion has a much longer and more diverse history than this implies. The Bicycle Fashion Files look at women’s cycling fashion across three eras, Early inventions 1790-1860s, Highwheeling and Tricycling 1870-1880s, and The Cycling Craze 1890s.

Part One: The Early Inventions, 1790s-1860s

Celeriferes and Draisienes: The Birth of Cycling Style

CelerifereCycling fashion trends evolved alongside developments in bicycle technology. Even as far back as the introduction of the celerifere in 1790s France, a running machine consisting of a wooden horse on wheels, what to wear while riding was a concern. These machines were popular with wealthy young gentlemen for park riding. For celerifere enthusiasts, the costume of choice was was a masculine military inspired jacket paired with matching breeches and cap.

In 1817, German inventor Karl von Drais introduced an improved version of the running machine, which was popularly known as the draisiene or laufmaschine. This new machine was primarily marketed to men, but as you can see from the 1818 image of a demonstration in Luxembourg Gardens shown below, women were interested in this novelty and appeared in the crowd of spectators. Continue reading

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Bicycle Face: A guide to Victorian cycling diseases“Don’t cultivate a bicycle face.” — Don’ts for women on bicycles, New York World, 1895

Medical professionals kept a watchful eye on cycling when it rose in prominence as a fashionable form of leisure for men and women in the 1890s. The health benefits and risks of cycling were a source of great debate, with doctors emerging on both sides of the issue. Pro- and anti-cycling camps presented a list of real and imagined cycling diseases and cures that reveals as much about social and gender attitudes as it does about the science and pathology behind these theories, especially in regards to the impact of women’s cycling.

The Bicycle Problem_www.sheilahanlon.comBicycling ushered in a new era of physical leisure for women. Following on earlier leisure fads for light sport including lawn tennis and croquet, this late Victorian recreation continued trends in women’s outdoor recreation, but intensified the physicality and independence associated with it. Not surprisingly, women’s participation in cycling was a contentious issue. A number of doctors made women’s cycling health one of their specialisms and published widely on the subject, including Drs Arabella Kenealy, AT Schofield, Benjamin Ward Richardson, A Shadwell, EB Turner, Henry Garrigues and WH Fenton just to name a few. The 1890s were a time when women’s cycling was both censured and encouraged, with the body serving as the battlefield for a raging debate informed by gender conventions, social politics and anxiety about the changing role of women in a modernising world. Continue reading

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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 devised in the 1890s to discourage women from cycling. The clip which addresses a number of imagined 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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Ladies Cycling Clubs: 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. Tessie’s family connections to the cycling world, her proximity to both a velodrome and a popular route for setting road records, and her determination all culminated in a remarkable accomplishment for this young cycling athlete. 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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