“Monster meet” at Hampton Court (1882)

There are some kinds of birds, well known to all of us, which during a part of the year have the same humdrum family life as other birds, but which at another season are gregarious and appear in flocks. The bicyclist has in the same way his solitary and his gregarious moods. The other day we recorded a sort of jubilee of gregarious bicyclism, when 2,350 bicyclists and their steeds held a monster “meet” at Hampton Court and filed away in a five-mile procession. This large concourse is evidently entitled, as it evidently claims, to be the subject of some more than passing notice. We confess to loving the bicyclist in ones and twos better than in droves. A demonstration of 2,350 persons, whether politicians or athletes, even though the object of their meeting be only to record their numbers, is always more or less aggressive. This is emphasized in the case of bicyclists, owing to characteristics which have probably come under ‘most persons’ observation. It hardly needed, indeed, a crushing argument like the meet at Hampton Court to convince us that self propulsion on wheels is a favourite amusement. Within a radius of twenty miles around London the bicycle is almost as commonly met with as other conveyances. Even in the crowded streets of the metropolis the bicycle-rider is no stranger; while an evening walk along the Thames Embankment might suggest the paradox that that thoroughfare was built for bicycles. Twelve or fourteen years ago the only machine by which you could propel yourself was the cumbrous four-wheeled velocipede. The bicycle sprung into existence and vogue all at once. It was not so much a discovery of what mechanism could do for man as a discovery of what man was capable. It is astonishing to think that, with all the wonderful crafts and arts developed by human dexterity, no one had thought seriously, or reduced his ideas to practice, of balancing himself upon a couple of wheels with a view to rapid progression. Once introduced, the bicycle rapidly grew in lightness and handiness, until it attained its present perfection. The tricycle was for years left behind in the race for favour, as a clumsy and ignoble machine. Now it has become, in its wonderfully improved form, nearly as popular as the bicycle and obviously there are considerations which will always weigh with a large class of persons in choosing to go on three wheels instead of two.  The great deterrent to those who would otherwise learn to ride a bicycle is, that however good riders they may become, they are tolerably sure to meet with some accident or accidents at some period of their careers. Even if the bicyclist is cautious enough to avoid all steep hills which end he knows not where, a stone or a mischievous urchin may render all his skill and caution futile. The tricyclists is secure from such mischances, besides which he is not so much of a slave to his machine and can go as slowly as he likes. Add that his wife, sister or sweetheart can ride in his company and even upon the same machine, and it will be seen that the staid tricycle has advantages not to be gainsaid. But, of the two, bicycling will always have the greater charm for the young fellow of nerve. Its recommendations, whether as a healthy amusement, a means of getting over the ground quickly and seeing the country, or as a form of competitive sport, are too apparent to need enumoration. A remarkable example of the speed with which bicyclists perform long journeys was afforded on Whit-Monday in the annual road race of the London Bicycle Club. Of the twenty-four competitors who started from London for Bath fourteen completed the 100 miles within nine hours, while two took less than seven hours and a half – that is, not much over three times as long as the Great Western train, the “Flying Dutchman.” Bicyclists everywhere scour the face of the country, seeing England more thoroughly than their ancestors ever did from the top of the stage-coach. They have a literature of their own in maps, itineraries and guide books; they publish lists of acceptable hotels; they put up warnings of dangerous points of the high road. On the other hand, bicycling has adversaries of a bitter type. The popularity indicated by the Hampton Court gathering has been achieved in the face of certain dislikes and prejudices, some of them reasonable, some unreasonable. High up on the list of prejudices against bicycling are those harboured by coachmen and all connected with horseflesh. Horses may occasionally have been frightened and drivers impeded by bicyclists; but the dislike of horsey men is perhaps more instinctive than rational, being grounded upon a contempt for a of class of no apparent solidity neither fortune or equipage and not possessing that responsibility which attaches to the custody of a coach, a team of horses and a long post-horn. It is not certain, though it is probable, that all metropolitan magistrates are carriage proprietors. Such a hypothesis might explain the severity sometimes exhibited in our police courts towards bicyclists. A humorous driver may generally try to lasso a bicyclist with impunity, or, if he is punished, plenty of people look upon his offence with indulgence. But if the bicyclist, approaching swiftly in the twilight, frightens a nervous old lady, he becomes a pestilent fellow against whom the law cannot be interpreted too strictly. There are moments, certainly, when invective against bicyclists rises naturally to the lips. The braying of bugles – indispensable articles of outfit to many of these sportsmen – from dusk up to a late hour in the night prevents dwellers in a suburb from loving bicyclists as they thought. Although most of the objections to bicycle-riders are sentimental, we are not disposed to make light of them on that account. It is no trivial matter, now that bicyclists are so immensely numerous, that many of them should set at nought good taste and the proprieties generally. To see a pleasant country road or village in the neighbourhood of the metropolis invaded by a troop of cockneys, clothed somewhat like seaside bandsmen in knee-breaches, each doing his utmost, with the most painful result, to make himself seen and heard, is a hardship nonetheless real because no spectator takes physical harm thereby. Grotesqueness of outfit and loudness of manner are perhaps superficial matters enough; but they are not unnaturally prejudice homely people against the gregarious bicyclist. It is satisfactory, however, to think that the vagaries of gimcrack sportsmen have not proved a more serious detriment to one of the manliest and most healthful of outdoor recreations. And even if we were to regard the more vulgar spirits as representative of all bicycle-riders, we ought to form our estimate upon a retrospective comparison. That is to say, regard should be had not more to what bicyclists might be than to what they might have been. The same youths at whose exuberance one can now afford to laugh have found in bicycling an outlet for energies which might otherwise have been confined to vicious spheres. Bicycling, indeed, is only one among a dozen outdoor amusements which are called by their respective devotees “national” and yet which are all, in their present degrees of development at all events, a growth of the last thirty or forty years. Even a game so well established as cricket is of vastly different proportions to those which it boasted fifty years ago. As for rowing, football, athletic sports and lawn tennis, these are sports which have either been invented or attained maturity since the present generation was young. Meanwhile the old-fashioned amusements, hunting, racing and shooting, have not been crowded out of the field, though they could hardly make proportionate progress. But these sports have never been within the reach of the middle classes of the town; and one would like to know how, fifty or a hundred years ago, young men in a similar position to those who now ride bicycles, play cricket, football, lawn tennis and run at athletic meetings acquired that vigour of body, which we know, has combined with a few other qualities and a pattern constitution to make Britain what it is. The chances are that if you question an octogenarian on theses points he will tell you that he took long walks; an unsatisfactory solution truly to bicycle-riders, who now are independent of coaches or railways and career on light wheels over the whole kingdom.

(The Times (London, England), Wednesday, May 31, 1882; pg. 9; Issue 30521)

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