Plucky Edwardian self-defence for cyclists: how to use the bicycle as a weapon, especially against objectionable children
Fearful of foot-pads? Scared by tramps? Need some steam-punk fighting techniques for use when riding past ne’er-do-wells? Here’s some useful Edwardian advice on “self-protection on a cycle” and “how you may best defend yourself when attacked by modern highwaymen.”
“It is a mistake to suppose that all the romance of the night roads is past and done with,” warned journalist Marcus Tindal in Pearson’s Magazine, April 1901. “Attacks by foot-pads on cyclists recall at least some of the glamour of the old stand-and-deliver times to the minds of those who read of these highway robberies every now and again in the papers.”
Tindal used bicycles as fighting props in his article, and based his self-defence tips on earlier articles in Pearson’s Magazine – a London periodical which also published a US edition – which showed how walking sticks could be employed as weapons. These earlier articles were written by Edward William Barton-Wright, an English engineer who created the English-Japanese martial art of Bartitsu (a portmanteau of his surname and ju-jitsu).
The rough and tumble in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies wasn’t a Hollywood invention. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the wildly popular detective novels (and an avid cyclist, of course), wrote that his hero was an expert in “baritsu” [sic].
According to Tindal, the roads of the time were dangerous places, especially at night: “A cyclist riding at night will usually comply with regulations, and carry a lamp. Thus he will herald his advance from afar off. He is astride a steed, moreover, from which he may be upset far more easily than if he were astride good, solid horseflesh — a stick in the spokes of his wheel, a sudden jerk to the handle-bars, or a wire stretched taut across his road — and he is thrown, inevitably.”
All is not lost, though. The cycle can be used as an effective shield.
“Consider the cyclist’s advantages,” suggests Tindal. “He comes silently, and passes swiftly, like a spirit. A moment too soon, a moment too late in attacking, and the foot-pad loses his prey. The cyclist thus has a fair chance of passing the foot-pad before the latter can act, and if he rides without a light he has more than a fair chance of passing unperceived — unless, of course, a cunning trap has been laid beforehand. Supposing, too, that it came to a fight, whether by day or by night, the cyclist has a weapon in his cycle with which he may baffle attack in more ways than are at first apparent.”
Tindal advises readers that “self-protection awheel is an art full of possibilities,” especially for those “who possesses pluck and dash. A “skilful rider… may rest content that he is able to defend himself perfectly when attacked under the majority of likely conditions.”
Good advice back then and good advice today:
“Perhaps the commonest occasion when a little knowledge of the art of self-defence a wheel would prove of greatest use is when a rider is menaced by a rough who blocks the road. A lady, say, is riding alone on a country road, when an approaching tramp suddenly assumes a hostile attitude, standing before her with legs apart and arms out-stretched, effectively barring the way. Now this is the secret for removing the tramp, and for riding past in safety. Let the lady put on a spurt, and ride, point blank, at her assailant, then swerve at the last moment. Certainly this requires nerve, but it is really simple, and marvellously effective. The tramp cannot overcome the instinct of self-protection which makes him jump to one side, when the cyclist, of course, at once swerves in the other direction.”
And perhaps Richard Ballantine was aware of Tindal’s tips on use of bicycle pumps as weapons when he wrote his famous 1970s dog-choking advice?
“Nearly every cyclist carries a weapon on his machine which, under many circumstances, he may use with great effect: a strong, long, heavy metal pump offers as convenient a weapon as one could desire. Let the rider who is threatened by a foot-pad flourish his pump in his assailant’s face, and he will be surprised how quickly and precipitously the assailant jumps back. A formidable blow could be delivered in a man’s face with a heavy pump, especially when riding at speed. If the pump is carried in spring clips attached to the top bar of the machine — or in the case of a lady’s machine to the handlebars — it is ready to hand in case of emergency, and may be detached in a moment.”
Plucky and dashing Edwardians may have been able to assail roughs with long frame pumps but, today, it might be best not to attack hoodies with micro-pumps and you most certainly should not heed Tindal’s advice on swerving into children, objectionable or otherwise:
“To deliver a blow whilst riding — say, at the head of an objectionable small boy who has been indulging in the dangerous practice of throwing a cap at your wheel, and stands in need of punishment — it is necessary to swerve suddenly as you come alongside, so that you throw the balance of your machine over towards your assailant! Leaning well over you deliver a swinging, slightly upward, and frontward, blow with your hand or your weapon. If the blow be timed well, the shock of the recoil — which, it must be understood, would otherwise be disastrous — will have no other effect than to throw your machine back into an upright position, and to cause you to regain your balance easily, when you may ride on in triumph.”
But sometimes you can’t assault would-be attackers while riding, you have to whack them with your front wheel:
“You are riding along a country road, when suddenly, you are startled by a man who springs in front of you from the hedge, and attempts to grab your machine. You have no opportunity to adopt the strategy of startling him by riding fast point blank at him, and then swerving; yet you must act on the instant if you are to protect yourself. Your best plan is this: — Spring backwards off your machine, and by pulling at the handle-bars, cause it to rear up on its back wheel…You are now face to face with your assailant, with your machine reared up perpendicularly before you. You may retain your hold of the handle-bars with both hands, or place your right hand on the saddle — in either case you have perfect control over your machine, and may run it backwards or forwards before you, to the right or to the left, as you desire. That your antagonist will jump back from sheer surprise at the moment when you make your machine rear up, goes without saving. Seizing this opportunity, you take a short sharp run forward, and hurl your machine at your assailant, letting it run on its back wheel, and so directing it as it leaves your hands that the front wheel will come heavily down on top of him. He will necessarily stagger backwards under the weight of the machine, giving you a golden opportunity to make use of your fists.”
Tindal doesn’t seem to recognise that young men springing from hedges may not be interested in fisticuffs but in the “weapon” you happen to be riding. His advice on throwing bicycles at foot-pads may, in fact, be music to the ears of said foot-pads:
“That your antagonist will jump back from sheer surprise at the moment when you make your machine rear up, goes without saving. Seizing this opportunity, you take a short sharp run forward, and hurl your machine at your assailant, letting it run on its back wheel, and so directing it as it leaves your hands that the front wheel will come heavily down on top of him. He will necessarily stagger backwards under the weight of the machine, giving you a golden opportunity to make use of your fists.”
Or, of course, the foot-pad blummin’ legs it, taking your thrown bicycle as his spoils of war.
That Tindal’s advice may have been a tongue-in-cheek parody of Barton-Wright’s articles is suggested by his next bright idea: discouraging an assailant with a water pistol:
“A simple means of defence that may be highly recommended for the use of [lady] cyclists is the water squirt. This is an ingenious little weapon sold in cycling shops, made in the shape of a pistol, but with an indiarubber handle which holds water, and which, when pressed, will squirt a shower of water for a distance of 20ft. or so. The water squirt is guaranteed to stop an attack from the most vicious dog or man — and certainly the foot-pad who attempted to approach a lady cyclist, and was met with a douche of cold water, would receive a severe shock that would probably cause him to stand back long enough to allow his prey to escape.”
But it’s more probable that Tindal wasn’t playing for laughs. His other articles for Pearson’s Magazine were serious in intent. And there’s even a hint of plagiarism. Tindal’s words in Pearson’s Magazine are eerily similar to the words in letter sent to editor of the London Bicycle Club Gazette, a year before Tindal’s article appeared. Mr. H. Graves gave advice on “how to get past a menacing tramp” and even included a cap-throwing child:
“The right method is sufficiently simple, though it requires not a little nerve. It consists in riding point blank at the aggressor, and at the last moment throwing the whole weight of the body to the right or left, as the case may be, thus making a rapid tack. Not one man in a hundred will stand up to a bicycle approaching at speed; the instinct to shrink back, especially in a person unprepared for such a manoeuvre, is irresistible, and according as he steps to the right or left, so the bicyclists swerves swiftly in the opposite direction. Another point worthy of consideration is the utilisation of the momentum of the bicycle in disabling an opponent. Most of us have at some time or other ventured a passing stroke at the head of a cap-throwing boy, and been surprised how overpowering to him is the result of a forward blow, and how ludicrously inadequate the effect of a back-hander. To bring into subjection this blind force should be difficult. Of course, the reaction from a hard blow dealt at a sturdy tramp might be disastrous to the bicyclist; but, by swerving and so throwing the balance of the machine well to the side of the person to be demolished, the recoil from the shock might be made to run concurrently with the natural recovery from the inclined position in which the blow was delivered.”
Sources: Jimmy_fatwing; Pearson’s Magazine, April 1901; bartitsu.org; sirwilliamhope.org;
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