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Hating cyclists has a long, long history

The Twitter account @cyclehatred offers up a daily digest of spite and spittle aimed at the goodly, wonderful creatures who gad about on a benign form of unpowered transport. Such hatred is nothing new. The first two-wheeler users were also loathed. This was mostly because ‘running machines’, briefly popular from about 1817, were ridden by preening toffs. These Regency dandies took to velocipedes like ducks to water, and they were easy meat for ruffians eager to test their rock-throwing skills, and for caricaturists.

Charles Williams (1797-1830) was one of many Regency illustrators who ridiculed dandies, including those who strutted and strode astride their wooden hobby-horses. In 1819, when Williams created the illustration below, the first pedal-propelled bicycle had yet to be invented (that was in the mid-1860s, by Pierre Michaux and/or Pierre Lallement of Paris). Whether it was the ridicule from illustrators, or the rocks from ruffians, the velocipede fad didn’t last long: it was over by 1820.

The hatred thrown the way of those on velocipedes – also known as accelerators, pedestrian curricles, hobbies and a host of other names – was virulent on both sides of the Atlantic. The Federal Republican and Baltimore Telegraph of 1819 sniffed:

“A curious two-wheeled vehicle called the Velocipede has been invented, which is propelled by Jack-asses instead of horses.”

Baron von Drais, the German inventor of the ‘running machine’, had created his contraption in 1817 as a horse-substitute because, it is now believed, the price of oats, and everything else, had soared after the planet was plunged into darkness after the volcanic eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora in 1815. 1816 was known as the Year Without a Summer. But society was not yet ready for horseless transport and those connected to the horse trade – farriers, veterinary surgeons, blacksmiths – saw velocipedes, and their riders, as direct threats to their livelihoods.

And this hatred is clearly shown in Williams’s ‘Anti-dandy Infantry Triumphant or the Velocipede Cavalry’. A veterinary surgeon called Drench has knocked a dandy from his machine and is pumping him with a liquid (pitch?); a blacksmith called Anvil is smashing the dandy’s machine, and two other dandies are legging it – literally – over the hill, lest they too are prodded with pitch forks or bitten by the mutts of the locale.

The signpost says the dandies are on the way to Coventry. This is almost certainly a reference to the idiom “being sent to Coventry”, banished.

In 1811, the meaning of the term was defined in Francis Grose’s The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

To send one to Coventry; a punishment inflicted by officers of the army on such of their brethren as are testy, or have been guilty of improper behaviour, not worthy the cognizance of a court martial. The person sent to Coventry is considered as absent; no one must speak to or answer any question he asks, except relative to duty, under penalty of being also sent to the same place. On a proper submission, the penitent is recalled, and welcomed by the mess, as just returned from a journey to Coventry.

[It’s accidentally appropriate that the artist chose this Midlands town because Coventry, of course, was, from the 1870s on, the hub of the British bicycle industry, domicile of James Starley, the “father of the bicycle industry”. In 1885, his nephew John Kemp Starley built the Rover Safety bicycle, the direct ancestor of today’s machines].

Some Regency dandies took to the countryside for long velocipede rides. But hobbyhorses, with their wooden wheels, were more usually urban runabouts, not long-distance machines. They were more suited to the smooth block pavements in towns rather than the macadamised roads of the countryside. (In 1818, Britain had 114,379 miles of highways, of which 19,275 miles were turnpike roads, many of which were well-surfaced and carried ‘fast’ stagecoach traffic: 10mph was fast).

Not that velocipedes were welcome on footways. “All cyclists ride on the pavement” has been a hate epithet since bicycling’s very beginnings (Milan banned hobby horses from the sidewalk in 1818; London and New York did the same in 1819).

Law enforcement against “cyclists” started early, too. One London newspaper reported that “the crowded state of the metropolis does not admit of this novel mode of exercise, and it has been put down by the Magistrate of police.”

When velocipede riders did venture away from towns, they could expect rough treatment. In 1819, a dandy riding on the road to Camberwell, three miles south of London – then a pastoral village not the busy place it is today – “attracted a great crowd, from the pressure of which he was, at his earnest solicitation, extracted by a passing coachman, who carried him and his ‘horse’ off on the roof.”

Williams wasn’t the only caricaturist to ridicule velocipedists of the day. The Cruikshank brothers, George and Robert, also had many digs at dandies. George, by far the more famous and successful of the two, created the classic illustration below, showing how horses and their riders might feel about a future where velocipedes became altogether too successful:

Robert, on the other hand, based his dislike of hobby horses on personal experience. He and a friend had ridden a pair of velocipedes down Highgate Hill in London, and had crashed into each other at high speed. Cruikshank’s book The Dandy’s Perambulations has gaily-dressed protagonists who are chased by geese and crash their hobbies.

William Heath also poked fun at dandies and their machines, as seen in this illustration.

And satirists, too, poured scorn on the early “cyclists”. One wrote of:

Patent pedestrian accellerators,
Floating velocipedes, perambulators,
Or hobbies, at present which so much the rage are,
That asses from Brighton they’ll banish, I wager.

Much of the hatred aimed at hobbyhorse riders was dandy-hate rather than hobbyhorse-hate. In an 1822 ditty, A S Grenville wrote:

Said Tom to Dick, ‘the other dav,
As they stood gazing on the way;—
Why, what is that-there thing,—
There? tis strange I vow ;—
It seems two wheels with wooden spring,
Darnation! see it go!
Cries Dick, that’s called Velocipede—
A creature without tail or head,
That wants nor whip nor prick,—
There’s nought to do but on and kick,
Away ’tis gone full speed!—
And will or stage or coach outrun,
In manner wonderful, indeed!
As very often it has done.
Well ! well! but what is that astride,—
There—kicking so, and tries to ride?
Wounds! how the thing does pant for breath—
Tis dying, sure, a shocking death!
What! that,—which looks—Mere, stiff as brass?
‘Tis nothing but a-Dandy Ass!

7 thoughts on “Hating cyclists has a long, long history

  1. 3rdWorldCyclinginGB / Reply November 24, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Thing is though, the attitudes of many other nations have moved on – you have just proved the UK is 200 years behind the times.

    • MarkDangerousElf / Reply November 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      So ALL progress is good, and NOTHING brought forward is worthy? A true myopia….

    • carltonreid / Reply November 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      There was hate in Germany at this time, too. In fact, earlier. Baron Von Drais attracted a lot of negative attention. Hobby horses were also used in Paris, in 1817ish, and were also ridiculed. I’ve never seen any info that hobby horses were used in the Netherlands at this time but, if they were, they would have attracted ridicule, and hate, just like everywhere else.

      While cycle hatred in modern times is especially virulent in the UK and US, it’s also present in Germany and the Netherlands. I think the hatred is especially marked in the UK because cyclists are no longer as niche as they were. Cycling was on the way out by the 1960s but, against all the odds, has survived and, in many ways, is booming, hence the hate. Many motorists now feel threatened by cyclists; they didn’t before.

  2. MarkDangerousElf / Reply November 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Much like the true faith, the fact that so many hate and despise the bicycle and its antecedents is all the incentive I need to stay with it; it is truly a good thing.

  3. cryptocyclist / Reply November 25, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Except the bicycle never replaced the horse. Bicycles can’t pull heavy carts or plows, can’t operate in the snow, or as you say, muddy countryside roads. Sounds to me like these illustrators hated rich dandies more than they hated hobby-horses.

    • carltonreid / Reply November 25, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      Oh, for sure, dandies were hated for much more than just the short-lived fad of riding hobby horses. It’s likely there weren’t that many actual machines around, the comic illustrations were exaggerations.

    • Ian Brett Cooper / Reply November 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      “Bicycles…can’t operate in the snow, or as you say, muddy countryside roads.”

      Maybe yours can’t. Mine can. For 5 winters I commuted in the snow on my bike and one time I cycled 60 miles on a mud track. Neither surface permits fast cycling, but it’s still much faster than walking.

      Regarding carts, it depends what you mean by ‘heavy’ of course, but I’ve seen bikes that have carried up to 600lbs, so I should think they’d be able to pull even more.

      Pulling plows I’ll grant you, but bikes are pretty versatile.

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