Bicycle mania in Cumbria in 1869

The 2019 Tour de France is coming to an end, after 23 gruelling days. The winner on the Champs Elysées on Sunday will have completed around 2,000 miles, over 21 stages, and beaten almost 200 other competitors. 

Exactly 150 years ago, the sight of a single bicycle brought people out on to Cumbrian streets in excitement, as Bicycle Mania swept the world.

Velocipedes to safety bicycles

At the start of the 19th century, early versions of bicycles consisted of two wheels held together with a central bar. Riders had to walk and run to gather speed, then raise their legs and cruise until momentum faded (source: here).

Between 1817, when Nicéphore Niépce created his first velocipede and 1880, when the first ‘safety bicycles’ became highly popular, designs were highly varied.

You can see a visual timeline of the bicycle here:

1869, the year of Bicycle mania

March 1869. Maryport Advertiser.

VELOCIPEDE RACE AT LIVERPOOL. The introduction of the velocipede into Liverpool, though only of a recent date, is rapidly developing itself. A very excited race, for a prize of a silver cup, came only the other day, the competitors being members of the Liverpool Velocipede Club. 

…The rate at which they got over the ground was astonishing.

..The distance traversed was a little over eight miles, which was covered in 44 minutes.

There was one ‘mishap’  – a contestant knock down a little boy at the start. The rider kept his seat. The unlucky child’s condition isn’t reported.

The Advertiser reported elswhere how a gymnast in New York had introduced velocipede riding as an exercise for women.

They wore ‘ordinary dresses’ without exposing ‘the nether limbs’ – but ‘none but ladies are admitted during the exercises’.

Unrelated, but interesting!

The paper also reported that while the use of petroleum as a steam fuel hadn’t proved practicable, it was given excellent results for domestic purposes. A petrol-powered vapour stove was the latest thing: the danger of explosion obviated by the use of wire gauze. 

The longest bicycle tour

The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald informed readers that the bicycle – ‘which is the classic name for two-wheel velocipede – is now more in vogue than ever on London’s streets’.

Two members of the Liverpool club rode from Liverpool to London a month later. Mr A S Pearson and Mr J M Caw carried their luggage in carpet bags, strapped on to their bikes. And claimed it was the longest bicycle tour yet made in this country.

Bicycle mania – or madness?

Someone in the Cumberland Pacquet wasn’t a fan. 

Bicycle Mania. It is impossible to say what new forms of lunacy the frantic devotees of Saint Velocipedia may take to….

“The three-wheel velocipede was bad enough, the bicycle is worse, but the one-wheeled affair – the monocycle – is about the only form of amusement where a man can indulge in the exquisitely novel sensation of running over himself.

The Herald remained impressed, reporting at the end of April 1869: ’Mr Booth, the champion at skating’ had broken the London to Brighton velocipede record by two hours.

At times, on downhill stretches, he had hit the giddy speeds of a mile in three minutes!

Mr Booth has covered the 52 miles in seven and half hours, arriving in time to have a bath, have dinner… and catch the last train back to town.

A challenge for learners

Anyone who has ever learned to ride a bicycle knows it take some time to master.

In 1869, the Advertiser looked to ‘an American correspondent’ to learn how difficult it is.

To get on is not difficult, to stay on is a labour of genius. I stayed on about three fifths of one second ; it first got me off by lying down on one side, the next time it unhorsed me by lying down on the other. Then it ran away, and threw me through a picket fence, carrying off four uprights and eight rails in the operation ; then it ran away again, and shied me off into the gutter. Next it stuck fast in a crack in the sidewalk, pitching me over its head; then It backed violently down a small hill, throwing me over its tail. The following are among the results : Two tired feet, two tired arms, triumphant faith, many sore trials, many sore muscles, plenty of ideas, a hundred unexpected and incalculable twists, three falls, and a determination and expectation to master the machine in a few more days.

J M McCaw and A S Pearson were back in the news, in Cumbrian papers, when the Liverpool Velocipede Club stage a jousting tournament, dressed in armour. On bicycles rather than horses. The day included a javelin throwing contest, also from the saddle. 

Another rider wrote a letter while cycling. And a daring youth ‘whose education on the subject of the value of human life must have been greatly neglected’ stood up on the middle when at full speed.

Bicycle mania reaches Maryport

All these reports were having an effect. For on April 30 1869, the Maryport Advertiser reported that ‘bicycle mania has at last reached us’.

Though they too were finding it isn’t as easy at it looks!

’Some of our enterprising townsment are vigorously practising, determined apparently to conquer or die in the attempt’

Help was at hand, as Messrs Lees and Graham of Carlise, manufacturers of an improved style, had arranged to send a professional down on the Sunday afternoon, to give a public exhibition.

History for 6d

ARCHIVES OF THE BICYCLE. Niepcè, Blanchard, and Masurier (1779), and others, have been credited with originating the velocipede; but none can be definitely reputed the inventor, nor can any distinct idea be formed as to the shape of the earliest vehicles… The Herald, in May 1869, treated readers to a history of the bicycle.

‘…the old dandycharger consisted of a bar with a wheel at each end… its possessor struck his feet alternately against the ground to give it motion. It wobbled pitifully till sufficient impetus was gained, and then was neither very pleasant nor very safe to ride…

Of the ‘modern velox’, with its pedals, steering wheel, and brakes:’At first sight, it appears almost miraculous that a man can preserve his balance, whilst the wheels are gyrating at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour’.

The bicycle: ‘can be used by men of small means, costs nothing to keep, and little to buy, is portable, saves time, and lengthens life’.

And for 6d, you could buy The Velocipede, its History and How to Use It (with 27 illustrations).

Bicycle mania reaches Penrith

Finally, in May 1869, Bicycle mania reached Penrith – although it seems to been a rather modest start.

The Penrith Observer said as yet, it was more an object of attration than a practical conveyance.

They weren’t sure it it would supersede horses, but did report that a foreign tutor called Mr Hereska had arrived in Penrith from Troutbeck on one of these machines.

His appearance had brought out ‘our enterprising and ingenious townsman, Mr Clark(e), on his famous Gladiateur’.

‘…for the past week, the inhabitants (of Penrith) have constantly been in danger of being run down.

‘Mr. W. Clarke, the well-known harmonium manufacturer. of this town, having procured a bicycle from Lees and Graham, engineers, Carlisle, commenced practice recently, and though in his early efforts, he had to submit to a few ignominous tumbles he has now attained great proficiency, and may been seen almost anytime flying along like a chased ostrich.

‘We understand that other velocipedes are in course of construction in Penrith, so that we may shortly expect velocipede races as much an institution of the district as horse or foot races.’

A hazardous hobby – and a bicycle race

By July, the Pacquet was warning that cycling could be dangerous. Surgeons were seeing a new range of injuries caused by bicycle accidents. But it didn’t stop the organisers of Whitehaven Athletic Sports including a bicycle race among the regular events on the cricket ground.

There were only two entrants. And a bandsman called Wilson comfortably beat a man called Statters.

Wilson’s success was due to him mounting his bicycle at the first attempt (‘a difficult operation’). He was more than halfway round before Statters could get started. Statter’s pace was then ‘superior,’ but Wilson’s head start proved unassailable.