Revolution by William Manners – Book Review


A superb follow-on from “Roads were not built for cars” which set out how cyclists funded and lobbied for the surfacing of roads, Revolution by William Manners delves into the social history of cycling in the 1890s and onward, particularly in Britain, and is sub-titled “How the Bicycle Reinvented Britain“.

Tricycle riding started the early stages of the Revolution, not just because they broadened the range of people cycling, with riding a tricycle even viewed as an acceptable “feminine” activity as they could keep their legs hidden; it was also because they showed that it was possible to drive the rear wheel via a chain.

Up to 1885, several designs of “safeties” had met with little success until John Kemp Starley and his partner William Sutton produced the second version of their “Rover” safety bicycle. Soon after, in 1898, vet John Boyd Dunlop developed and patented a crude inner tube on the inside of wheels and the Revolution took further hold, as they increased the speed of cyclists by about one third and thereby extended the range of travel.

As the price of bikes fell around the turn of the century, so they became affordable to the “working man”. Where early cyclists were wealthy and paraded around parks, young clerks were soon able to get out of their urban areas and see more of the countryside.

Author William Manners makes the interesting point that this improved the gene pool as young men – and in the early days it was mainly men – could travel further, say, in one hour and so the number of potential future mates grew.

As an aside, I saw this in my own family tree. My father grew up in a hamlet with few houses and even fewer unrelated families. Riding his bike, he discovered a pretty young woman, who a few years later became his wife. In preceding generations, the vast majority of spouses were from the same or adjacent villages or towns.

Only gradually did the Revolution extend to women. Manners quotes an article in “Cycling” which commented on the new female record time for the 106 miles from Brighton to London and back, set by Tessie Reynolds in September 1983 when just sixteen:

“Every cyclist who truly loves the sport, every lady rider who has striven, in the face of many difficulties, to spread the gospel of the wheel amongst her sisters, every wheelman who has managed to retain a belief in the innate modesty and sense of becomingness of the opposite sex, will hear with real pain, not unmixed with disgust, of what it would be moderate to call a lamentable incident, that took place on the Brighton road early last Sunday.”

Many still questioned, “whether ladies can with propriety ride the bicycle”. The image of Reynolds on a diamond-framed “man’s” machine wearing knickerbocker trousers caused widespread consternation, with Cycling describing her outfit as being “of a most unnecessary masculine nature and scantiness”, which “no woman possessed of the instincts of a true lady would care to appear in public with, let alone ride through London streets”.

Men were not free of criticism, especially when “scorching”. One CTC member wrote:

“There are, I regret to say, far too many of those selfish individuals a-wheel who think the road is wholly and solely for their use, and it is such low bred cads… that we have to thank for the universal bad feeling which at present exists between the cyclist and the general public.”

Manners also describes the “shamateurism” that went on, with, for example, 17 out of 20 entrants being barred from competing because they had “engaged, taught, or assisted in bicycling or any other athletic exercise for money”, excluding anybody working as a mechanic, artisan or labourer in the bike trade. Long before the advent of Lycra, clubs made expensive cavalry style uniforms mandatory on weekly runs, as another way to differentiate themselves from the “unattached” and allowed members to affirm their wealth and class status. Their wealth also meant that they could take the lofty position of not racing for money. However, manufacturers were keen to sponsor successful amateurs and provided state-of-the-art equipment along with travel expenses. The immensely successful American cyclist Arthur Augustus “Zimmy” Zimmermann was sponsored, for example, by Raleigh, Dunlop and Brooks, who all featured him in their advertising.

It wasn’t just the military nature of the uniforms of the clubs of that era, but also the military-style discipline, with Manners quoting the handbook of the Canterbury Cycle Club

  • That in all Club runs the Captain shall lead, and no-one shall be allowed to pass him without his permission.
  • That the Captain shall have entire control during all runs, and (for the safety of the public) the power of compelling Members to slacken speed or dismount when passing horses &c.
  • The Sub-Captain in all runs shall keep to the rear and look after stragglers, but in the absence of the Captain, shall take his place, nominating his own Sub-Captain for the time being.
  • Any member desiring to fall out must report himself to the Captain or Sub-Captain.

Riding as one united body offered not only mutual support but also protection in an era when cyclists came under attack from “roughs” and it also provided young riders an opportunity to show themselves off and demonstrate their respectability and social standing. Particularly when still riding “ordinaries”, the 1878 Hampton Court meet must have been a site to behold with some 2,500 cyclists from 1600 different clubs set off on a 5 mile procession, moving off to an “advance” sounded by bugle, repeated by other marshalls along the line.

That’s what is missing on our club rides: bugle calls!

Manners also records how a song written by Harry Dacre in 1891 eventually became popular. Dacre was known for the quantity (over 700 ditties!) rather than quality of his song-writing till 1 took off though he struggled to find a singer to take it on to the stage till well-known music hall act Katie Lawrence agreed to perform “Daisy Bell” with the still famous lines

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do! 
I’m half crazy all for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle made for two.”

Cycle race organisers arranged special “Daisy” races between tandem teams of male and female cyclists and there was a brief craze for “bicycle weddings” in which the bride and groom rode to and from the ceremony on their “bicycle made for two”.

The book is well researched and written in an easy-to-read style rather than as a dry social history textbook. I can understand any keen cyclist enjoying reading Revolution by William Manners when the weather is not sufficiently tempting to get out on your bike.



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