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H. G. Wells loved cycling, even weaving it into a novel about military aviation

H. G. Wells may not have said or written “When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race” but his cycling credentials are still strong. I’ve featured him in a number of postings and have noted that his comic novel The Wheels of Chance is a wonderfully evocative tale of the 1890s bicycle craze. It features “the famous Ripley road”; plenty of descriptions of contemporary bicycles and how even a relatively lowly draper’s clerk could now afford a dated, second-hand machine; and a great many references to the changing social mores of the day, and how women were being liberated by cycling.

But H.G. Wells, as a cyclist himself, liked to weave cycling into his other works, too. Even the prescient War in the Air, a tale written in 1907 about how aviation would be exploited by the military, has long passages featuring cycling. The book’s hero, Bert Smallways, was a cyclist who had worked in a bike shop and who had even been part of a two-man dance troupe which used a bicycle in the comic routine.

The description of the bike shop Smallways worked in – and eventually took a part share in – is comical. Here’s an edited extract.


WarintheAirMr. Bert Smallways…lived in a world of obstinate and incessant change, and in parts where its operations were unsparingly conspicuous…The motor-cars that went by northward and southward [from his home town, near London] grew more and more powerful and efficient, whizzed faster and smelt worse, there appeared great clangorous petrol trolleys delivering coal and parcels in the place of vanishing horse-vans, motor-omnibuses ousted the horse-omnibuses, even the Kentish strawberries going Londonward in the night took to machinery and clattered instead of creaking, and became affected in flavour by progress and petrol.

Bert touched the fringe of a number of trades in succession — draper’s porter, chemist’s boy, doctor’s page, junior assistant gas-fitter, envelope addresser, milk-cart assistant, golf caddie, and at last helper in a bicycle shop. Here, apparently, he found the progressive quality his nature had craved. His employer was a pirate-souled young man named Grubb, with a black-smeared face by day, and a music-hall side in the evening, who dreamt of a patent lever chain; and it seemed to Bert that he was the perfect model of a gentleman of spirit. He hired out quite the dirtiest and unsafest bicycles in the whole south of England, and conducted the subsequent discussions with astonishing verve. Bert and he settled down very well together. Bert lived in, became almost a trick rider — he could ride bicycles for miles that would have come to pieces instantly under you or me — took to washing his face after business, and spent his surplus money upon remarkable ties and collars, cigarettes, and shorthand classes…

Then presently Bert got a cyclist’s suit, cap, badge, and all; and to see him and Grubb going down to Brighton (and back)—heads down, handle-bars down, backbones curved — was a revelation in the possibilities of the Smallways blood.

The world had thrown up a new type of gentleman altogether — a gentleman of most ungentlemanly energy, a gentleman in dusty oilskins and motor goggles and a wonderful cap, a stink-making gentleman, a swift, high-class badger, who fled perpetually along high roads from the dust and stink he perpetually made.

So Bert grew up, filled with ideals of speed and enterprise, and became, so far as he became anything, a kind of bicycle engineer of the let’s-have-a-look-at-it and enamel chipping variety. Even a road-racer, geared to a hundred and twenty, failed to satisfy him, and for a time he pined in vain at twenty miles an hour along roads that were continually more dusty and more crowded with mechanical traffic. But at last his savings accumulated, and his chance came. The hire-purchase system bridged a financial gap, and one bright and memorable Sunday morning he wheeled his new possession through the shop into the road, got on to it with the advice and assistance of Grubb, and teuf-teuffed off into the haze of the traffic-tortured high road, to add himself as one more voluntary public danger to the amenities of the south of England.

The firm of Grubb & Smallways, formerly Grubb, had indeed been singularly unlucky in the last year or so. For many years the business had struggled along with a flavour of romantic insecurity in a small, dissolute-looking shop in the High Street, adorned with brilliantly coloured advertisements of cycles, a display of bells, trouser-clips, oil-cans, pump-clips, frame-cases, wallets, and other accessories, and the announcement of “Bicycles on Hire,” “Repairs,” “Free inflation,” “Petrol,” and similar attractions. They were agents for several obscure makes of bicycle — two samples constituted the stock — and occasionally they effected a sale; they also repaired punctures and did their best with any other repairing that was brought to them.

The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles — indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency.

When the hirer returned, a heated pedestrian, Grubb would ignore all verbal complaints, and examine the machine gravely.

“This ain’t ‘ad fair usage,” he used to begin.

He became a mild embodiment of the spirit of reason. “You can’t expect a bicycle to take you up in its arms and carry you,” he used to say. “You got to show intelligence. After all — it’s machinery.”

Sometimes the process of liquidating the consequent claims bordered on violence. It was always a very rhetorical and often a trying affair, but in these progressive times you have to make a noise to get a living. It was often hard work, but nevertheless this hiring was a fairly steady source of profit, until one day all the panes in the window and door were broken and the stock on sale in the window greatly damaged and disordered by two over-critical hirers with no sense of rhetorical irrelevance. They were big, coarse stokers from Gravesend. One was annoyed because his left pedal had come off, and the other because his tyre had become deflated, small and indeed negligible accidents, due entirely to the ungentle handling of the delicate machines entrusted to them — and they failed to see clearly how they put themselves in the wrong by this method of argument.

One quarrel makes many, and this unpleasantness led to a violent dispute between Grubb and the landlord upon the moral aspects of and legal responsibility for the consequent re-glazing. In the end Grubb and Smallways were put to the expense of a strategic nocturnal removal to another position.

The High Road from London to Brighton that ran through Bun Hill was like the British Empire or the British Constitution — a thing that had grown to its present importance. Unlike any other roads in Europe the British high roads have never been subjected to any organised attempts to grade or straighten them out, and to that no doubt their peculiar picturesqueness is to be ascribed. The old Bun Hill High Street drops at its end for perhaps eighty or a hundred feet of descent at an angle of one in five, turns at right angles to the left, runs in a curve for about thirty yards to a brick bridge over the dry ditch that had once been the Otterbourne, and then bends sharply to the right again round a dense clump of trees and goes on, a simple, straightforward, peaceful high road. There had been one or two horse-and-van and bicycle accidents in the place before the shop Bert and Grubb took was built, and, to be frank, it was the probability of others that attracted them to it.

The shop was much more modern than their former one, and had a plate-glass front. “Sooner or later,” said Bert, “we shall get a motor-car through this.”

“That’s all right,” said Grubb. “Compensation. I don’t mind when that motor-car comes along. I don’t mind even if it gives me a shock to the system.”

“And meanwhile,” said Bert, with great artfulness, “I’m going to buy myself a dog.”

He did. He bought three in succession. He surprised the people at the Dogs’ Home in Battersea by demanding a deaf retriever, and rejecting every candidate that pricked up its ears. “I want a good, deaf, slow-moving dog,” he said. “A dog that doesn’t put himself out for things.”

In the end he got three in succession, but none of them turned out well. The first strayed off into the infinite, heeding no appeals; the second was killed in the night by a fruit motor-waggon which fled before Grubb could get down; the third got itself entangled in the front wheel of a passing cyclist, who came through the plate glass, and proved to be an actor out of work and an undischarged bankrupt. He demanded compensation for some fancied injury, would hear nothing of the valuable dog he had killed or the window he had broken, obliged Grubb by sheer physical obduracy to straighten his buckled front wheel, and pestered the struggling firm with a series of inhumanly worded solicitor’s letters.

It is a poor heart that never rejoices, and Whitsuntide had an air of coming as an agreeable break in the business complications of Grubb & Smallways. Encouraged by the fact that half the hiring-stock was out from Saturday to Monday, they decided to ignore the residuum of hiring-trade on Sunday and devote that day to much-needed relaxation and refreshment — to have, in fact, an unstinted good time. It happened that they had made the acquaintance of two young ladies in employment in Clapham, Miss Flossie Bright and Miss Edna Bunthorne, and it was resolved therefore to make a cheerful little cyclist party of four into the heart of Kent, and to picnic and spend an indolent afternoon and evening among the trees and bracken between Ashford and Maidstone.

Miss Bright could ride a bicycle, and a machine was found for her, not among the hiring stock, but specially, in the sample held for sale. Miss Bunthorne, whom Bert particularly affected, could not ride, and so with some difficulty he hired a basket-work trailer from the big business of Wray’s in the Clapham Road.

To see our young men, brightly dressed and cigarettes alight, wheeling off to the rendezvous, Grubb guiding the lady’s machine beside him with one skilful hand and Bert teuf-teuffing steadily, was to realise how pluck may triumph even over insolvency.

The weather was fine, and though they were on their way southward before nine o’clock, there was already a great multitude of holiday people abroad upon the roads. There were quantities of young men and women on bicycles and motor-bicycles, and a majority of gyroscopic motor-cars running bicycle-fashion on two wheels, mingled with old-fashioned four-wheeled traffic. Bank Holiday times always bring out old stored-away vehicles and odd people; one saw tricars and electric broughams and dilapidated old racing motors with huge pneumatic tyres. Once our holiday-makers saw a horse and cart, and once a youth riding a black horse amidst the badinage of the passersby. And there were several navigable gas air-ships, not to mention balloons, in the air. It was all immensely interesting and refreshing after the dark anxieties of the shop.

Little it seemed to matter to Mr. Bert Smallways that a newspaper placard proclaimed: GERMANY DENOUNCES THE MONROE DOCTRINE. AMBIGUOUS ATTITUDE OF JAPAN. WHAT WILL BRITAIN DO? IS IT WAR?

This sort of thing was alvays going on, and on holidays one disregarded it as a matter of course. Week-davs, in the slack time after the midday meal, then perhaps one might worry about the Empire and international politics; but not on a sunny Sunday, with a pretty girl trailing behind one, and envious cyclists trying to race you. Nor did our young people attach any great importance to the flitting suggestions of military activity they glimpsed ever and again.

Among other things they talked aeronautics, and how thev would come for a picnic together in Bert’s flying-machine before ten years were out. The world seemed full of amusing possibilities that afternoon. They wondered what their great-grandparents would have thought of aeronautics. In the evening, about seven, the party turned homeward, expecting no disaster, and it was only on the crest of the downs between Wrotham and Kingsdown that disaster came.

They had come up the hill in the twilight; Bert was anxious to get as far as possible before he lit—or attempted to light, for the issue was a doubtful one—his lamps, and they had scorched past a number of cyclists, and by a four-wheeled motor-car of the old style lamed by a deflated tyre. Some dust had penetrated Bert’s horn, and the result was a curious, amusing, wheezing sound had got into his “honk, honk.” For the sake of merriment and glory he was making this sound as much as possible, and Edna was in fits of laughter in the trailer. They made a sort of rushing cheerfulness along the road that affected their fellow travellers variously, according to their temperaments. She did notice a good lot of bluish, evil-smelling smoke coming from about the bearings between his feet, but she thought this was one of the natural concomitants of motor-traction, and troubled no more about it, until abruptly it burst into a little yellow-tipped flame.
“Bert!” she screamed.

He stood for some fatal seconds watching the petrol drip and catch, and the flame, which was now beginning to smell of enamel as well as oil, spread and grew. His chief idea was the sorrowful one that he had not sold the machine second-hand a year ago, and that he ought to have done so—a good idea in its way, but not immediately helpful. He turned upon Edna sharply. “Get a lot of wet sand,” he said. Then he wheeled the machine a little towards the side of the roadway, and laid it down and looked about for a supply of wet sand. The flames received this as a helpful attention, and made the most of it. They seemed to brighten and the twilight to deepen about them. The road was a flinty road in the chalk country, and ill-provided with sand.

Edna accosted a short, fat cyclist. “We want wet sand,” she said, and added, “our motor’s on fire.” The short, fat cyclist stared blankly for a moment, then with a helpful cry began to scrabble in the road-grit. Whereupon Bert and Edna also scrabbled in the road-grit. Other cyclists arrived, dismounted and stood about, and their flame-lit faces expressed satisfaction, interest, curiosity. “Wet sand,” said the short, fat man, scrabbling terribly—”wet sand.” One joined him. They threw hard-earned handfuls of road-grit upon the flames, which accepted them with enthusiasm.

Grubb arrived, riding hard. He was shouting something. He sprang off and threw his bicycle into the hedge. “Don’t throw water on it!” he said—”don’t throw water on it!” He displayed commanding presence of mind. He became captain of the occasion. Others were glad to repeat the things he said and imitate his actions.

“Don’t throw water on it!” they cried. Also there was no water.

“Beat it out, you fools!” he said.


After Bert is heavily involved in the book’s subject – an aerial war between nations – he returns to marry Edna and they have many children. However, the war has left England in a state of “barbaric peasantry” and Bert’s children can be entertained with tales of the “old days” when there were shops and fruit for sale within them. Teddy tells Bert’s older brother, Tom, that he’s even seen a cyclist.


“On the way near Leatherhead we saw a man riding on a bicycle.”

“My word!” said Tom, “there ain’t many of those about nowadays. Where was he going?”

“Said ‘e was going to Dorking if the High Road was good enough. But I doubt if he got there. All about Burford it was flooded. We came over the hill, uncle – -what they call the Roman Road. That’s high and safe.”

“Don’t know it,” said old Tom. “But a bicycle! You’re sure it was a bicycle? Had two wheels?”

“It was a bicycle right enough.”

“Why! I remember a time, Teddy, where there was bicycles no end, when you could stand just here–the road was as smooth as a board then–and see twenty or thirty coming and going at the same time, bicycles and moty-bicycles; moty cars, all sorts of whirly things.”

“No!” said Teddy.

“I do. They’d keep on going by all day,–‘undreds and ‘undreds.”

“But where was they all going?” asked Teddy.

“Tearin’ off to Brighton–you never seen Brighton, I expect–it’s down by the sea, used to be a moce’mazing place -a nd coming and going from


“They did.”

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