Cycling: The Craze of the Hour

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In the first of a series of blogs, Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – explores the books that have been the inspiration for The London Library’s  Found on The Shelves series, published with Pushkin Press to coincide with our 175th anniversary. Here she reveals the story behind four works – all written between 1877 and 1905 – that have provided the extracts for Cycling: The Craze of the Hour,  a fascinating and humourous insight into the cycling boom of the late nineteenth century.


Cycling: The Craze of the Hour. Part of our new Found on the Shelves series

Cycling: The Craze of the Hour. Part of our new Found on the Shelves series

Spencer gave a series of handy tips on mastering  this "useful form of locomotion"

Spencer gave a series of handy tips on mastering this “means of locomotion”

"The most useful feat of all": balancing the bicycle in a stationary position to enable one to read or write

“The most useful feat of all”: balancing the bicycle in a stationary position to enable one to read or write

Herschell's dire warnings from 1896 that cycling would produce "degenerative changes in our heart and in our arteries"

Herschell’s dire warnings from 1896 that cycling would produce “degenerative changes in our heart and in our arteries”

A lighthearted take on where the cycling craze is heading. Punch, July1889

A lighthearted take on where the cycling craze is heading. Punch, July 1889

The arrival of the bicycle caused quite a stir in the 19th century. There were those who fell in love with it at once and those who saw its comedic potential. There were some who eyed it with amused suspicion, particularly when women had the audacity to slip on a pair of trousers and take cycling lessons. There were even a few who tried to warn others of the health risks of over-enthusiastic pedalling. Cycling: The Craze of the Hour is a compilation of texts written from each of these perspectives.

The first in the selection is an extract from The Modern Bicycle (1877), written by Charles Spencer (active 1866-1913), an ardent devotee and tireless promoter of the new invention:

“[the bicycle] has now gone successfully through the various stages of being laughed at as a toy, and tolerated as an amusement, so I am firmly of the opinion that it will eventually become generally useful as a means of locomotion.”

Spencer began his career as a supplier of sporting equipment for gymnasia from his shop in London’s Old Street. Not much is known about him but he appears to have been a professor of gymnastics and in 1866 he began his writing career with The Modern Gymnast. However, he spotted his first iron steed and it was love at first sight. From that moment onwards all of his writing is devoted to the subject of cycling and he may even have worked on his books whilst sitting on one of his machines:

“We are now come to the last and best, or, I may say, the most useful feat of all, and this is to stop the bicycle and sit quite still upon it … sooner or later, you achieve a correct equilibrium, when you may take out your pocket-book and read or even write letters, &c., without difficulty.”

In The Modern Bicycle he claims to have had ‘the principal share’ in its first introduction and he sets out to give clear instructions for beginners, with numerous and very helpful illustrations. When he wasn’t writing about bicycles he was riding across the country and organising races for the Middlesex Bicycle Club.

No doubt Dr George Herschell (1856-1914) would have considered Spencer to be setting a very dangerous example. The Harley Street physician specialised in digestive disorders but he was part of a small group of medical men who became convinced that cycling posed a great threat to cardiovascular health. Our second extract is from his essay Cycling as a Cause of Heart Disease (1896) where he sounds a warning to all cyclists who, in his opinion, are merrily pedalling themselves to an early grave:

“We fall in love with the machine, with its easy and agreeable motion: we give as much of our time to it as we can afford: we get rid of our dyspepsia, and in its place produce chronic degenerative changes in our heart and in our arteries”.

He shares a wealth of case studies with the reader as well as his particular concerns when it comes to children and cycling:

“When we allow a child to ride long distances upon a cycle we are carrying out a physiological experiment which, although possibly of interest from a scientific standpoint, must be utterly unjustifiable.”

After such a gloomy outlook we get some much-needed light relief from the pen of Barry Pain (1864-1928). This unconventional author’s career did not follow a direct path: after making some successful contributions to Granta while studying at Cambridge he began his working life as an army coach in Guildford. It seems the military discipline was not for him after all and four years later he left for London to become a professional author. Pain was a prolific and versatile writer but he is best remembered for his humorous Eliza stories. His modern style divided his audience but he had a talent for exposing the absurdities of life. In His Last Pupil, from Humours of Cycling (1905), he gives us a special take on the pressure some felt to take on cycling during the height of the craze:

“In fact, wherever I went I was met by bicyclists who longed to make others bicycle. It was not for health, nor for fashion, nor for exercise that I finally took to the machine; it was simply from the pressure of public opinion.”

And at the end of his tale, Pain introduces us to a cycling instructor who hides a terrible secret.

Our selection concludes with a very short piece by Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927). Like many of the best humourists he was at heart a melancholy man who could see the funny side of any situation. He married his wife Georgina, who already had a daughter from a previous marriage, in 1888 and in 1897 their daughter Rowena was born. Perhaps only a man with a strong female influence in his life could have written Women and Wheels, also from Humours of Cycling (1905). It is a funny and affectionate look at how the craze of the hour is gripping women:

“The New Woman is difficult to fathom. You have to be prepared for everything. I could understand her running away from a loving husband after a few months of wedded bliss, but why to Battersea Park! It seemed an inadequate place as a refuge for a disappointed woman.”

It seems unthinkable to us today the benefits of cycling could ever have been in doubt but as Schopenhauer said “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Our book captures all three.

FURTHER READING SUGGESTIONS [London Library shelfmarks in square brackets]
If you would care to explore these works more fully, do try the full versions from which we have extracted these samples:

Spencer, Charles. The Modern Bicycle: Containing Instructions for Beginners: Choice of a Machine: Hints on Training: Road Book for England and Wales. London: F. Warne, 1877. [S. Cycling]
Herschell, George. Cycling as a Cause of Heart Disease. London: Baillière, Tindall and Cox, 1896. [S. Cycling]
Humours of Cycling. London: Chatto & Windus, 1905. [Fiction, Colls.]

If you would like to explore the works of Charles Spencer, here is a complete list of his other titles:

The Modern Gymnast: Being Practical Instructions on the Horizontal Bar, Parallel Bars, Vaulting Horse, Flying Trapeze, etc. …; With a Description of the Apparatus, and Hints on Somersault-Throwing. London: F. Warne, 1866 (reprinted in 1869)
The Bicycle: its Use and Action. London: F. Warne, 1870 – According to its author this contained the first instructions for learners ever published.
Bicycles and Tricycles, Past and Present: a Complete History of the Machines from their Infancy to the Present Time, etc. London: Griffith & Farran, 1882 or 1883.
The Cycle Directory: Containing an Alphabetical List of all Cycling Clubs & Unions, and the Touring Club. London, 1884
The Bicycle Road Book : Compiled for the Use of Bicyclists and Pedestrians : Being a Complete Guide to the Roads and Cross Roads of England, Scotland, and Wales (irregular periodical) – continued by:
The Cyclist’s Road Book : Compiled for the Use of Bicyclists, Tricyclists and Pedestrians ; a Complete Guide to the Main and Cross Roads of England, Scotland And Wales ; Giving the Best Hotels, Population of the Towns, etc. and an Index to Over Five Thousand Towns. London: H. Grube, 1890.
The Cyclist’s & Automobilist’s Road Book … A Complete Guide to the Main and Cross Roads of England, Scotland and Wales, With Numerous Notes … A List of the Best Hotels and an Index To … Towns … New and Revised Edition, With Map, etc. Londo : H. Grube, 1904.