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.
S.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.
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
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.
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?
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.
Posted in Research
Tagged Africa, bicycle, British museum, cycling, gender, history, Kali Mata Ki Jai, kanga, power, Tanzania, textiles, women
There’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.
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!
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.
Announcing The New Wheelwomen Page
Wheelwomen is a micro-project featuring short profiles of women who made cycling history. While many of these individuals appear in the broader body of cycling and women’s history, they deserve attention in their own right. Not only were they pioneering lady cyclists, but many were accomplished in other aspects of their lives as well, such as politics, education, professional careers, art & literature, and the family.
This page will toast our cycling sisters past and present and put their experiences a-wheel in context. New entries will be listed alphabetically.
Watch for features on activist Frances Willard, racer Tessie Reynolds, society cyclist The Countess of Warwick, champion Beryl Burton and more here. First up will be Sarah Grand, novelist and popularizer of the term ‘new woman,’ who embodied modern womanhood in her career, life, and on her bike in turn of the century Britain.
Explore Women on Wheels
Use the Wheelwomen tab on the toolbar to navigate to the page. Once there, click the portrait of a wheelwoman of interest to find out more. Regular updates will follow.
Know an inspiring wheelwoman?
Contributions and suggestions are welcome! Please get in touch through the comment section or email sheila DOT hanlon AT gmail DOT com.
Posted in Research
Tagged Beryl Burton, bicycle, countess of warwick, Daisy, Frances Evelyn Daisy Greville, Frances Willard, history, pankhurst, sarah grand, tessie reynolds, women, women on wheels