Cycling in Britain, 1818–2018

The bicycle wasn’t invented in Britain but it was perfected here, and the world’s biggest cycle manufacturers were once British, exporting around the globe. Think the Dutch bike is Dutch? Nope, it’s British, a roadster-type cycle of around 1911. And even though cycling is more than 200 years old it has a secure future because of its simplicity. The bicycle has the never-bettered ability to amplify human strength and extend the distance that a human can travel without the aid of a motor, or a horse.

And it was this ability – especially of the horse bettering kind – that some cycle historians theorise led to the creation of what would become the bicycle. The two-wheeler that would later morph into the bicycle was created, they say, in answer to a transport crisis brought on by a cataclysmic climatic event.

In April 1815 Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted spewing lava and ash until July of the same year. It was the biggest eruption in 1,300 years and the sky was so loaded with dust that average global temperatures dipped, and artists had a field day, painting scenes with dramatic sunsets. 1816 became known as the ‘year without a summer’.

On holiday by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy and John William Polidori were trapped in Lord Byron’s house by constant rain. Byron suggested a essay writing competition: come up with a ghost story. Mary Shelley created Frankenstein; Polidori wrote The Vampyre. Not too far away, in the German Grand Duchy of Baden, a minor aristocrat noticed that horse travel was becoming crippingly expensive: harvests had failed due to the ash cloud, and staples such as oats had soared in price. Feeding a horse with oats – like feeding a car with petrol today – was becoming too expensive. This minor aristocrat was Baron Karl Von Drais.

He wanted to find a substitute for the horse. He created what he called the Running Machine, the Laufmaschine, what the French would call the vélocipède (from Latin, vēlōx fast and pēs foot). This was made of wood and – revolutionary in many ways – had two inline wheels. It didn’t have pedals, it was propelled by the feet striking the ground. It did not replace horses; it did not become poor man’s transport. In fact, the Draisines of 1817-19 were the toys of wealthy owners. Dandies, in particular, were much taken by this machine and there was a brief burst of enthusiasm for what were also called Accelerators.

“Modern OIympics,” 1819. © Trustees of the British Museum

Denis Johnson, a coachmaker from Long Acre in Covent Garden, improved Drais’s machine and patented his version in December 1818. He called his machine a “pedestrian curricle” and, over a couple of years, made about 320 of them. On Christmas day 1818, two of Johnson’s men rode 45 miles from London to Windsor and back at a steady pace of 6mph. However, the roads of the time were generally too rough and cut-up for extended use by these early velocipedes. Some riders therefore took to the footways and were duly fined, stiffly, for their incursions into the pedestrian’s domain.

Velocipedes – or hobby horses – were also used indoors, on groomed dirt surfaces. Dandies would learn to ride their machines in schools but some never left the confines of the indoor tracks, treating the premises as gymnasiums.

Britain’s first velocipede school was founded by Johnson on the Strand in London in 1818 ( it is now a Carphone Warehouse). The craze for hobby-horse riding was short-lived, with few riders after 1820.

It took the addition of pedals and cranks by Pierre Lallement of Paris in 1863 to spur the next round of innovations. And, before the use of gears, the innovators of the late 1860s and 1870s went faster on their bicycles by making the wheels larger, creating what has become known as the high-wheeler, or penny farthing. Gears – and later, pneumatic tyres – eventually transformed a dangerous, hard-to-ride machine into a “Safety” bicycle, a machine with two equally sized wheels and a diamond frame.

John Kemp Starley is generally considered the creator of the modern bicycle. According to the editor of The Cyclist, a contemporary magazine, Starley’s Rover Safety bicycle “set the fashion to the world,” leading to a global boom in bicycle ownership.

Commenting in 1931, bicycle collector H. W. Bartleet wrote: “J.K. Starley … lived to see his Rover bicycle copied by the whole cycle trade, and a great industry was thus created.”

Starley’s Rover bikes were so called because their riders were free to rove. (Today’s name for a bicycle in Poland is rower, based on the word Rover.)

Many manufacturers had attempted to create a Safety bicycle – safe in comparison to riding a high-wheeler, that is. Starley’s first design for a Safety was introduced in 1884, while his Starley and Sutton Co. of Meteor Works, Coventry was still making tricycles. The high wheelers of the day – later called ordinaries to distinguish them from Safeties – were not just dangerous, they were suitable mainly for tall, athletic men. Writing in 1921, industrial journalist W. F. Grew said:

“However enthusiastic one may have been about the ordinary – and I was an enthusiastic ride of it once – there is no denying that it was only possible for comparatively young and athletic men, and if it had remained the only bicycle obtainable, the pastime and the utility of cycling would never have reached its present state of popularity.”

Created by Starley and his friend William Sutton, the first Rover Safety was an indirect steering, rear wheel drive, chain driven bicycle, unlike the direct drive high-wheeler. The first Rover Safety – with a 36 inch front wheel and bridle rods not a raked front fork – was far from perfect and Starley, with the help of Sutton, modified the design, creating the second Rover in 1885, a bicycle with nearly equal sized wheels and, critically, direct steer forks. It was introduced at the Stanley Cycle Show, Britain’s main annual bicycle exhibition, held in a marquee on the Thames Embankment next to Blackfriars Bridge in London between 28th January to 3rd February, 1885. This bicycle had most of the classic hallmarks of a modern machine.

JK Starley said he wanted to “place the rider at the proper distance from the ground … to place the seat in the right position in relation to the pedals … to place the handles in such a position in relation to the seat that the rider could exert the greatest force upon the pedals with the least amount of fatigue.”

High-wheeler riders looked down on Safeties – literally and figuratively. They called them “dwarf machines”, “beetles” and “crawlers.” However, the 1885 Rover – with solid tyres still – was shown anything but a crawler when a number of them beat the time record in a 100 mile promotional race on the macadamised Great North Road between Norman Cross, near Peterborough, to one mile beyond Twyford, in Berkshire. This race was staged, by Starley and Sutton, on 25th September 1885 and helped convince people that the Safety was here to stay.  Fourteen riders raced that day, all on Rovers, some equipped as roadsters, others as racers. The first rider home took just 7 hours 5 minutes.

By 1888, the design-registered Rover has evolved to the extent it is clearly recognisable as a modern machine: it had two equally sized wheels (26-inches, the same as a modern mountain bike) and a triangular diamond-shaped frame. When shod with John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres – created in 1887, race proven in 1889 and commercially available in 1890 – the Rover Safety proved itself to be the perfect bicycle and, in essence, the main features on Starley’s 1888 machine are still used on the majority of bicycles sold and ridden today.

Starley & Sutton Co., was based in Coventry, home to the British bicycle industry thanks to his uncle, James Starley. It’s James Starley who is considered the ‘father of the British bicycle industry’ but it’s his nephew who transformed the high-wheeler bicycle into something all could ride, and which would revolutionise transport.

There was a “bicycle boom” in the 1890s, when society’s elites took to cycling (writing in 1898, a year after the bicycle boom had ended, a cycling magazine recalled: “It would be hardly too much to say that in April of 1895, one was considered eccentric for riding a bicycle, whilst by the end of June, eccentricity rested with those who did not ride,”) but the practicality of the bicycle as a mass mode of transport became most apparent at the end of the 1920s.

In 1922, just before the start of a working-class bicycle boom, British cycle maker Hercules was making seven-hundred machines a week. By the mid-1920s, a bicycle could be bought new for what the average labourer earned in two weeks – it was becoming an affordable luxury. By cutting prices even further, and advertising the fact, Hercules sold 300,000 bicycles in 1928. Five years later this had risen to three million sales per year. At the end of the 1920s, while manufacturers such as Raleigh continued to make and market bicycles for touring and leisure use, Hercules mostly made utilitarian bicycles. A Hercules bicycle was a workhorse, cheaper than its rivals, but still reliable. In 1939, Hercules made six million bicycles, making it one of the largest cycle manufacturers in the world. (Raleigh later bought the company and its brands.)

In the mid-1930s, there were twelve million cyclists, and less than two million motorists. Cyclists dominated on British roads. In 1935, the Minister of Transport admitted: “It is indisputable that the number of cycles on the road is far in excess of the total of all other classes of road vehicle, public and private, passenger and goods.”

1,536 cyclists died on the roads of Britain in 1934 (today the figure is roughly 109 per year). The grim death toll led the government of the day to start the ball rolling on a Dutch-style cycle network. Up to 500 miles of wide, kerb-protected cycleways were constructed in the UK in the 1930s.

Britain’s top road engineer contacted his Dutch counterpart in February 1934 and asked how the UK could copy the shiny new cycle paths then being veined throughout the Netherlands.

Plans duly arrived – thoughtfully translated into English – and, within just two months, the Ministry of Transport had built a two-mile stretch of experimental concrete cycleway on the outskirts of London.

Cartoon in Punch, by Fougasse

Much of this cycleway was long ago lost thanks to the intermittent widening of Ealing’s Western Avenue, but the template was rolled out elsewhere, with nearly 100 further schemes built between 1935 and 1941. The Ministry of Transport paid local authorities in the 1930s to install the cycleways. The great majority were built – 9ft wide and both sides of the roads – next to the new bypasses of the era. A few were built on “arterial roads” in residential areas.

After the Second World War the priority was to build houses – “homes for heroes” – and there was no money allotted for building cycleways, so the innovative infrastructure installed for Britain’s millions of cyclists gradually fell out of use.

In the 1940s and 1950s there was little appetite to provide anything at all for cyclists despite the fact they still far outnumbered motorists. Post-war politicians and planners were deeply dismissive of “proletarian” mass cycling – instead, they were attracted to the social and economic potential of motoring. It was felt that cycling was outmoded, not suited for the motor era and most certainly not worth spending any money on.

After 1949 cycling might have been in decline but it was still a significant form of transport. “Trips by pedal cyclists and pedestrians … have not been included in most of the major urban transportation studies in America, or in this country,” complained M.A. Taylor in 1968, “and this should be borne in mind in making any comparison of results.”

Taylor studied three English towns – Gloucester, Northampton and Reading – for the Ministry of Transport’s Road Research Laboratory, and he carried out in-depth travel surveys in each. These surveys were far more detailed than national census reports, and they show how majority transport modes (cycling and walking) were overlooked in favour of a minority one (motoring). In Gloucester, Taylor and his team of researchers found that use of bicycles was about equal to use of public transit – twenty-one percent for bikes compared to twenty-two percent for buses – but the greatest transport mode was walking, which accounted for nearly thirty percent of all journeys. Fifteen percent of journeys were made by people driving (with these motorists sharing with passengers, which accounted for nearly eight percent of journeys).

The numbers in cars were dwarfed by the numbers not in cars, yet over the following decades Gloucester devoted resources to the twenty-three percent and not the seventy-two percent. In terms of numerical and social fairness this was deeply illogical, but it was not considered to be so. British planners and politicians were blinded to the actual numbers of cyclists and pedestrians at this time and urged the building of facilities for motorists.

One post-war facility for cyclists and pedestrians that was built was wildly successful. The Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnel, a wonderful piece of protected infrastructure, is a 900-ft two-tunnel tube lying 40 feet below the River Tyne between Jarrow and Wallsend, near Newcastle in the north east of England. The tunnel was opened in 1951 and, at its peak, 20,000 users – mainly shipyard workers – rode or walked through the tunnel each day.  (After lengthy renovation works it is soon to be reopened.)

Cycling had a down market “cloth cap” image in the 1950s but this changed in 1962. This was the year when Dr. Alex Moulton, the designer of the suspension on the Mini motor car, morphed into a bicycle manufacturer. He created the small-wheel Moulton with its innovative front-and-rear elastomer suspension, and it was soon billed as the “bicycle of the future.”

Along with the Mini, the Moulton became one of the design icons of the “Swinging Sixties.” It was ridden by the high-profile Lords Snowden, Rothschild, and Montagu. “At the very time that Rolls Royce moved a bit down to the masses … England’s establishment was turning a bicycle into a lordly conveyance,” wrote Newsweek at the time.

The world-famous small-wheel Moulton came in a collapsible version and this inspired two entrepreneurs to create their own small-wheel machines but this time fully foldable. Aerospace engineer Harry Bickerton (above) created the Bickerton bicycle in 1971, and five years later Andrew Ritchie launched the Brompton folding bike, now recognised as a British design icon.

In the 1970s, despite the building of major new roads and, in some cases, urban motorways, British cities remained stubbornly and chronically clogged with cars. The burgeoning environmental movement started to promote cycling as one of the ways to unsnarl cities and clean the air.

And this promotion of cycling by early “eco warriors” was welcomed by the British cycle industry. The representative bodies for bicycle retailers and bicycle manufacturers jointly raised a levy on all sales which funded a PR body, the British Cycling Bureau. This had been created in 1965 in an attempt to lift flagging sales. The Bureau was a front for Planned Public Relations of London. In 1972, it launched a “National Plan for Cycling”.

The National Plan – paid for by cycle retailers and the Bicycle Association of Great Britain – was promoted to national and local government via a handbook, Before the Traffic Grinds to a Halt. A launch press release said the Bureau had sent a copy of this pamphlet to MPs and every local authority in the UK, and wanted to see Local Authorities:–

1. Create separate cycleways in towns and cities.

2. Provide safe crossing for cyclists at road junctions.

3. Extend and improve cycling facilities in recreational areas.

As part of the plan, the industry-funded Bureau approached the Friends of the Earth “suggesting that its campaign was in line with the Friends’ own objectives”. This approach was “enthusiastically received” and the organisations agreed to work on a “manual for action groups around the country with advice on how to pressurise local councils to institute a cycleway system.”

Officials from the Cyclists’ Touring Club complained in 1972 that, despite its many advantages, “cycling still gains little favour in the eyes of the highways authorities.”

A cycling-themed issue of Design in 1973 agreed with this analysis. “Bicycles have not been given the facilities they deserve and need,” editorialised the opinion-forming magazine. “For all our sakes, planners must be persuaded to provide them,” concluding that “segregated road space may be the only ultimate solution.”

Design pointed out that cycling was far from dead, the “car’s popularity is not half as overwhelming as its priority planning rating suggests; and even if it were, planners should recognise that their purpose is not solely to follow real or imagined traffic trends. The bicycle offers a golden chance to anticipate and encourage a traffic revolution: more cycling means greater freedom of movement for everyone.”

The cycle industry worked closely with Friends of the Earth. In effect, FoE became the lead British organisation lobbying for cycling infrastructure. Because it had allied itself with an environmental organisation the bicycle industry believed it was well placed during the OPEC oil crisis which started in October 1973. The crisis was caused by an embargo issued by the Arab members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries protesting against the West’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war. The price of oil sky-rocketed and motorists were asked to economize in their use of fuel. Instead, and predictably, long lines formed at filling stations. In November, British motorists were issued with ration books. In February 1974, the chairman of the Transport 2000 campaign group argued that “if the energy crisis means anything it means a complete change in transport priorities, with less emphasis on private motoring.”

The oil crisis resulted in a greater number of cycle-campaigning recruits, many of them heavily influenced by Ivan Illich, author of 1974’s Energy and Equity.

The Austrian former priest wrote that:

“Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process … Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.”

Illich believed that:

“The bicycle also uses little space. Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile … Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. [Cyclists] can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows …”

Pointedly, Illich complained that “the advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored.”

The British Cycling Bureau was determined to change that and, in 1974, ordered one-thousand copies of Energy and Equity for free distribution to MPs, local authorities, leading civil servants and the media. In 1975, Friends of the Earth fronted “All Change to Bikes”. This was a multi-agency national campaign to push for cycleways. The partners included the Cyclists’ Touring Club, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Civic Trust, and the British Cycling Federation. The aims of the campaign included the desire to “reallocate existing road space to create priority routes by local authorities for cyclists and pedestrians” and there should be a “network of priority routes linking all destinations (e.g. schools, shops, offices, factories and places of entertainment) and access to the countryside.”

All Change to Bikes was bankrolled by the bicycle industry’s British Cycling Bureau. The following year the Friends of the Earth launched an “F.O.E. Cycleways Campaign” due to the “increasing interest in cycling and the ever increasing knots in our transport system.” The emphasis would be on promoting separated cycleways, said the first issue of the organisation’s Bicycles Bulletin.

In July 1977, a group of Bristol-based environmental campaigners formed Cyclebag, a cycling advocacy group. Cyclebag – an acronym for Conserve Your Calf and Leg Energy Bristol Action Group – would later transform into Sustrans. The group’s founders included civil engineer John Grimshaw (who would become CEO of Sustrans and created the National Cycle Network concept); journalist Alistair Sawday (who would go on to create a travel-guide empire and sustainable-holiday company); cinematographer David Sproxton (co-creator of the Oscar Award-winning studio Aardman Animations, maker of Wallace and Gromit); and architect George Ferguson (who, in 2012, became the first elected Mayor of Bristol).

In 1979, the campaign group – led by Grimshaw – leased a stretch of the former Midland Railway and, with volunteer labour (including Grimshaw), created a five-mile cycling and walking trail between Bath and Bitton. This was later extended to became the station-to-station Bristol to Bath trail. This was not the first rail trail in the UK – the Manifold Railway Path in the Peak district of northern England was created in the 1930s – but it was the springboard from which Sustrans, founded in 1983, pushed for the formation of the ambitious National Cycle Network.

While Sustrans campaigned for cycle routes away from roads, today’s cycle advocates repeat what their industry-funded predecessors had championed in the 1970s and that’s that protected cycleways should be created beside roads. Such thinking was put into practice the year after London’s City Hall announced in 2013 that £1 billion would be spent on creating protected Cycle Superhighways in the Capital (paint-only Cycle Superhighways had been provided by former London Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2008).

London has since seen an explosion in cycle use. For instance, during morning and evening peaks, cyclists now account for 70 percent of all traffic on Blackfriars Bridge .

The very high use of London’s protected cycleways shows that when politicians and planners fund and design for cyclists cycle use has the potential to boom.

5 Replies to “Cycling in Britain, 1818–2018”

  1. Typically, you’ve missed out the fact that “the first mechanically propelled two-wheel vehicle is believed by some to have been built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith, in 1839”.

    1. Hi Paul

      No serious cycle historian considers the MacMillan claim – or other parts of the “Scottish school” – worthy of merit.

      1. What are you talking about? “No serious cycle historian considers the M’Millan ‘claim'”? There are court records to prove that he built and rode his machine, he was fined 5/- for knocking down a child in Glasgow, forty miles from his home.

        1. It was a newspaper report, but didn’t say it was a two-wheel machine. Other claims were brought for the machine in the 1890s, but do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Herlihy’s Bicycle and other works go into great depth on why Macmillan’s claim is unproven and why Lallement/Michaux/other connected actors are highly likely to be the real “inventors” of the crank-propelled bicycle.

          The unravelling of the Macmillan claim was covered by many papers given at the International Cycle History Conference, which has been staged every year for the past 29 years, and was founded to dispel such foundation myths and to get closer to the truth.

          1. I beg to differ. McMillan’s machine was first described in “The Art and Pastime of Cycling” by Macredy and Stoney. An illustration appears in “Bicycles and Tricycles” by Archibald Sharp published in 1896, this clearly shows a two-wheeled rear driver. The crank propelled bicycle, as opposed to McMillan’s treadle driven machine, was almost certainly produced by French manufacturers in the 1860’s. McMillan’s machine was originally credited to Gavin Dalzell of Lesmahagow but the remaining example is dated to around 1846 and was almost certainly a copy of McMillan’s. The crank propelled bicycle can be ascribed to the French, but there is, in my opinion, too much evidence to discount McMillan’s claim to have produced the first “feet-up” two wheeler. The early French ‘Boneshaker’ velocipedes, with front-wheel drive, led to the beautiful but ultimately evolutionary dead-end of the ‘Ordinary’ whereas McMillan’s bicycle is a clear forerunner of the modern ‘Safety’.

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