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How two cycling organisations (and a Minister for War) created better roads for all

Aristocrats who wished to take up a sport in the 1880s purchased how-to guides penned by peers. The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes was founded in 1885 by Henry Somerset, 8th Duke of Beaufort, owner of Badminton House, a stately pile in Gloucestershire. The first book in the series – on hunting, naturally – was authored by the Duke and a number of his aristocratic friends. Two tomes on fishing followed. A horsey title was published in 1886 and, in the same year, there came two books on shooting. Books on boating and cricket didn’t appear until 1888 but had been preceded by a joint book on Athletics and Football in 1887. Prior to this, and showing how important cycling was at the time, the Badminton Library’s book on Cycling was published early in 1887.

This socialite’s guide to the new form of locomotion was written by William Coutts Keppel, Lord Bury, the later Earl of Albemarle. (Keppel’s great-great-grand-daughter is Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who could be Queen Consort of Great Britain one day). Lord Bury was one of the first presidents of the National Cyclists’ Union, a forerunner to today’s British Cycling Federation.

The National Cyclists’ Union was established in the Guildhall Tavern, London, in February 1878 as the Bicycle Union. Its purpose was to defend cyclists and to organise and regulate bicycle racing in Great Britain.

The Cyclists’ Touring Club – originally called the Bicycle Touring Club – was founded six months later, in Harrogate. It, too, seeked to protect cyclists but, as its name clearly states, was interested in touring not racing.

Cyclists were seen as interlopers by many of the road users of the time, especially carriage drivers.

Describing why cyclists formed protective organisations, Lord Bury wrote:

A number of evil-disposed persons…seemed to imagine that the bicycle had no right upon the roads [and] seized every opportunity of hampering and interfering with any cyclists they chanced to meet. One very flagrant case occurred on Saturday, August 26, 1876, when the driver of the St Albans coach lashed, with his whip, a bicyclist who was passing, whilst the guard, who had provided himself beforehand with an iron ball on the end of a rope, threw it between the spokes of the machine and dragged it and the rider to the ground. The driver was fined £2 for the assault, and also paid the rider £10 towards the damage to his machine, while the guard was fined £5. As an outcome of this case ‘a protection society for cyclists’…was discussed at some length in the contemporary press…

Lord Bury was an influential chap. A former soldier, he entered parliament in 1857, serving as Treasurer of the Household between 1859 and 1866. Between 1878 and 1880, and then 1885 and 1886, he was Under-Secretary of State for War. He wrote his cycling book the year after leaving office.

As president of the National Cyclists’ Union from 1883 – a post he held while an MP – he was well able to fulfil the obligation to “watch the course of any legislative proposals in Parliament or elsewhere affecting the interests of the bicycling public, and to make such representations on the subject as the occasion may demand,” a founding aim of the N.C.U.

Lord Bury was also able to keep tabs on another of the N.C.U’s founding aims: “To secure a fair and equitable administration of justice as regards the rights of bicyclists on the public roads.”

Lord Bury was said to be a “practical cyclist who took an active interest in the questions of the day” and secured the rights of cyclists to use public parks “with results which were in every way satisfactory.”

In partnership with the Cyclists’ Touring Club, the N.C.U. erected danger signs on hills, warning cyclists of descents to come. The two organisations also created, in 1885, the Roads Improvement Association to lobby for better roads for all.

Lord Bury takes up the story:

The question of road repair…has developed into a work of absolutely national importance. Many roadways, since the old coaches passed away, have been allowed to fall steadily into disrepair, and no effort was made to keep them in anything like a sound condition. This decay reached its maximum in the Birmingham district, and cyclists and others who had the misfortune to traverse the roads in question found them in a perfectly disgraceful state. The Birmingham local centre [i.e. the Birmingham branch of the N.C.U] therefore called a meeting of persons interested in the question, over which the Mayor of Birmingham presided, and the strange spectacle of the hitherto despised cyclist heading a motion of reform and supported by a number of horse owners and drivers, showed how wise and politic a step had been taken.

The road surveyors were at first inclined to regard the matter as a piece of impertinence on the part of the cyclists, some of them remarking that they were not called upon to make the roads good enough for that class of machine; but the result of an action brought on behalf of the Union against eight road surveyors at the Halesowen Court speedily convinced them that the cyclists were in the right, and held powers sufficient to compel them to do the work. Since then this fact has been brought home rather forcibly to the understandings of many similar officials, and the improvement in the roads in some places is very noticeable.

Mr. H. R. Reynolds, of the London and Oxford Bicycle Clubs, has gone very fully into the question of the right method of road-making, and has in an able article in the ‘Nineteenth Century’ and in letters to the public and cycling press, pointed out how little the systems of Telford and Macadam are followed, even on roads which are described as ‘Macadamised.’

One of the surveyors who was interviewed by a Union official admitted that he had never heard of Telford or Macadam, and did not know who they were or what they had done.

In 1882, the Prospectus of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, described how the arrival of bicycles on Britain’s roads wasn’t welcomed at first but how cyclists became the agents of change, improving roads when most sections of society had allowed them to lapse into disrepair thanks to the far superior transport afforded by trains:

As an essentially conservative nation, it is hardly a matter for surprise that Englishmen should have received with suspicion, which rapidly degenerated into factious opposition, the advent of the bicycle a decade and a half ago. Anything that tends to antagonise with the cherished traditions and old-fashioned habits of the average Britisher, is, by the more unthinking sections of the community, speedily condemned, aye, even without a semblance of a fair trial; and it therefore need hardly be wondered at that a mode of progression hitherto almost unheard of, and which ran counter to all preconceived methods, should have met with disfavour almost as soon as it was introduced.

A few of [bicycling’s] persistent adherents remained steadfast in the belief of the capabilities of the new invention…With the establishment of a new pastime or sport, it was not long ere the shrewder of the people became alive to the advantages that followed in its wake, and that might, with a little ingenuity, be diverted into their channel. Foremost amongst these was the hotel proprietor in the country town, whose receipts had gradually diminished since the octopus-like feelers of the railway had penetrated into the district, and diverted the traffic which formerly brought with it a handsome competence to himself, and to the keeper of each roadside hostelry. Recognising in the tourist on foot or on horseback a legitimate subject for the extortion of ‘backsheesh,’ the same generous line for argument was extended to the touring wheelman, who, with hundreds of followers, was scouring the country in every direction in search of the novel, the grand, and the beautiful, whenever opportunity offered. Nor was this drawback the isolated bete noire of the cyclist, for the ill-concealed antipathy, culminating at times in undoubted brutality, of the remainder of the road-using community, who knew little of the capabilities, and less of the advantages, of the new method of locomotion, was a patent and glaring concomitant.

Added to these came the difficulty of obtaining reliable information of the nature of the route ahead – a route that often became treacherously unserviceable – so that, to commit a plagiarism as well as concoct a parody, ‘The rider’s lot was not a happy one.’

Cycling, as a national sport, to be indulged in by every class of the community, from the Queen upon the throne to the plodding artisan, has already taken a tenacious hold upon the sympathies of all unprejudiced people, and it is, perhaps, not too much to say that if the day has not already arrived, it is steadily and surely approaching, when, given a moderate endowment of health and strength, every soul within the confines of civilisation, where passable roads are by any means obtainable, may upon some one of the many modifications of the steel steed, in solitude or in company, participate in this health-giving means of locomotion.

The consuls of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, as the local representatives are called, are now co-operating in the production of a road-book. [As] the writers are all users of the lightest vehicles on the highways, their acquaintance with the roads is bound to be of a most intimate character. The Cyclists’ Touring Club has also co-operated actively with the [N.C.U.] in the very necessary work of erecting warning notices at the tops of dangerous hills, and also in the great effort at road reforms which the two bodies have been carrying on with such vigour.

In 1886, the CTC/NCU’s Roads Improvement Association organised the first ever Roads Conference in Britain. With patronage – and cash – from aristocrats and royals, the RIA published pamphlets on road design and how to create better road surfaces. County surveyors took this on board (some were CTC members) and started to improve local roads.

Even though it was started and paid for by cyclists, the RIA stressed from its foundation that it was lobbying for better roads to be used by all, not just cyclists.

The most influential official of the Roads Improvement Association was William Rees Jeffreys. Today he is known as an arch motorist, one of the first people to advocate for motorways, but Rees Jeffreys had started his 50 year career in the improvement of what he called “despaired and neglected roads” as a cyclist. In 1900 he was elected a member of the Council of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and was a representative on the Council of the Roads Improvement Association. He was secretary of the RIA by 1901 and argued that the organisation should reign back its pamphleteering of country surveyors and should instead focus on political lobbying: he wanted the CTC to push for a “Central Highway Authority and a State grant for highway purposes.”

Cyclists wanted better road surfaces. They lobbied for smoother surfaces and for “dustless” roads. Rees Jeffreys became an advocate for spreading tar on Britain’s roads. He wrote:

In 1902 I went to Geneva as the representative of the Cyclists’ Touring Club at the Annual Congress of the International League of Touring Associations. M. Charbonnier, Cantonal Engineers of Geneva, showed me an experiment he was making with hot tar on the road between Geneva and Lausanne.

Five years later, Rees Jeffreys and the RIA organised competitions to find tar-spreading machines. The roads of Great Britain were gradually capped with asphalt. The work started by cyclists led to solid, sealed roads from coast to coast; roads which helped motoring become first a mania and then a form of mass transport.

By the early 1900s, British motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind, motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.

A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:

The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.

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