On a bicycle in the streets of London, by Susan, Countess of Malmesbury in 1896. (taken from my book “A Victorian Cyclist”)
A new sport has lately been devised by the drivers of hansom cabs. It consists of chasing the lady who rides her bicycle in the streets of the metropolis. If not so athletic a pastime as polo, the pursuit on wheels of alien wheels surmounted by a petticoat which half conceals, yet half reveals the motive power within, appears to afford these ingenious persons exactly that exhilarating and entrancing sensation without which no Englishman finds life worth living, and which apparently is to the heart of the cabby what salmon-fishing, golf, shooting, the rocketing pheasant, hunting the fox, or, in fine, what war, that highest expression of sport, can be to those who are usually called ‘the leisured classes’. I am given to understand that so far the scoring is altogether on the side of the pursuer. He has bagged, we are told, many ladies whose mutilated or decapitated forms have been hurried into silent and secret graves at the instance of the great Bicycle Boom. Their relatives, we hear, have laid them to rest quietly in back gardens until such time as they can realise what shares they possess in cycling companies. But whether this be true or not – and, after all, the evening papers must live! – if the harmless necessary hansom cabman has gained a new pleasure, he has had to pay for it like a prince; for his former attached and confiding fares, instead of reposing in the comfortable recesses of his vehicles, are now – stout and thin, short and tall, old and young – all alike vigorously ankle-pedalling just on ahead of his empty and sorrowing cab, and right under the fore-feet of his horse. Small wonder, indeed, if he be jealous and sore; and, moreover, it must be admitted that this is one of the irritating habits which the cyclist, male and female, shares with certain of the other lower animals – to wit, with the dog, as everyone knows who has had the blessing of the latter’s society in the streets. The way in which he will cross a crowded thoroughfare, mildly beaming round, enjoying the morning air, deaf to remonstrance, within a hair’s breadth of a sudden and awful end, is enough to turn the best Auricomous Fluid, even, to snow. But I wander from my tale, which is not that of a dog, but of a bicycle. Having now been the quarry of the hansom cabman for nearly a year and having given him several exciting runs, I cannot help feeling that cycling in the streets would be nicer, to use a mild expression, if he did not try to kill me; although the pleasure which danger always affords to a certain class of minds would be considerably lessened. I should like to say here, as seriously as I am able, that surely it is not right to insult a woman who conforms to the law, to the rule of the road, molests no-one and dresses in accordance with the custom which decrees that she shall at once be distinguishable from those who fondly, yet not with an uneasy lurking suspicion of their true position, claim to be her masters. The English public requires a great deal of educating and as in the days of one’s youth certain dates had repeatedly to be dinned into our reluctant ears, so this many- headed grown-up child needs to have certain facts placed before him over and over again, until at last his eyes are opened and behold! He sees. Prejudice against this kind of locomotion for women has raged acutely, but is now fairly on the wane and it is only in very out-of-the-way streets that one now meets with any expressions of disapproval stronger than ‘Trilby!’ even from those frivolous and irresponsible persons who have been keeping the feast of St Lubbock, not wisely, but too well, or doing that which in France is called Fêter le Lundi. Riding on a track began to bore me as soon as I had learnt to balance, but I remained steadily practising in the modified seclusion of the Queen’s Club, where I was taught, until I could turn easily, cut figures of eight, get on and off quickly on either side and stop without charging into unwelcome obstacles. This done, burning to try my fate in traffic and yet as nervous as a hare that feels the greyhound’s breath, I launched my little cockleshell early one Sunday morning in July into the stormy oceans of Sloane Street, Knightsbridge and Park Lane, on my way to visit a sick friend who lived about four miles off, beyond Regent’s Park. The streets were really very clear, but I shall never forget my terror. I arrived in about two hours, steaming and exhausted, much more in need of assistance than the invalid I went to console. Coming home it was just as bad; I reached my house about three o’clock and went straight to bed, where I had my luncheon, in a state of demoralisation bordering on collapse. I only recount this adventure in order to encourage others who may have had the same experience as myself, but who, unlike me, may not have tried to conquer their nervousness. What cured my fear was the purchase of a little shilling book called, I believe, ‘Guide to Cycling’, wherein it is written that cycles are ‘vehicles within the meaning of the Act’. I then realised that I had an actual legal existence on the roadway, that my death by lawless violence would be avenged and that I was not, what I had hitherto felt myself to be, like the lady, hated both of gods and men who “cast the golden fruit upon the board” – I mean, my cycle on the streets – “and bred this change”. Yes, I had as good a right to my life as even my arch- enemy the hansom, or my treacherous companion the butcher’s cart. I and my machine were no longer like a masterless dog and if we were scouted from the pavement, at least we would take modestly but firmly, if need be, our proper breathing room in the road. From this moment my attitude towards hansoms was, in the classic words of ‘Punch’, “Also schnapp ich meine finger in deinem face”. Cautious and alert, I merrily proceeded on my way, using my bicycle as a means of doing my morning shopping or other business. I found that my experience in driving an exceedingly naughty pony in a cart in town stood me here in very good stead, my eye being fairly educated to pace and distance; and soon I learnt to judge of the breadth of my handle-bars almost to an inch and of the habits and probable proceedings of the various vehicles by which I was surrounded, with nothing, apparently, but my wits and nerve between me and destruction. Drivers of hansoms have various ways of inflicting torture on a fellow-creature, one of which is suddenly and loudly to shout out ‘Hi!’ when they have ample room to pass, or when you are only occupying your lawful position in a string of vehicles. Also, they love to share your handle-bars and wheels, passing so close that if you swerve in the slightest – which, if you are possessed of nerves, you are likely to do – it must bring you to serious grief. They are also fond of cutting in just in front of you, or deliberately checking you at a crossing, well knowing that by so doing they risk your life, or, at any rate, force you to get off. I myself always ride peaceably about seven or eight miles an hour, and keep a good look-out some way ahead, as by that means you can often slip through a tight place or avoid being made into a sandwich composed of, let us say, a pedestrian who will not and an omnibus which cannot, stop. As regards the comparative demerits of omnibuses and hansoms, I am reminded of the old riddle, ‘Why have white sheep more wool than black ones?’ The answer is ‘Because there are more of ’em!’ But not only are omnibuses fewer in number, but the drivers thereof are very bons princes; and, as they are great, so are they merciful. We ladies are not the kind of game at which they fly; for, although we are told that the inside places in these conveyances are all filled by countesses and duchesses nowadays, while the outside is covered by the younger members of their families, the aristocratic votaries of the wheel are in too small a minority to occasion the companies any anxiety except as to the social ton of their venture. Many a time when I first began to ride in traffic have I meekly escorted an omnibus in a crowded thoroughfare, thankful for the shelter it afforded from the wild and skirmishing jungle round me and feeling like what I may perhaps describe as a dolphin playing round an ocean liner. Many acts of courtesy have I received at difficult crossings from hard-worked men, to whom pulling up their horses must have been a serious inconvenience. Indeed, on one occasion, I might have been killed but for the consideration of a driver. In trying to turn into Sloane Street from Knightsbridge I found myself wedged in between an omnibus and a large van, the former going down, the latter coming up, on opposite sides of that very narrow piece of road. They had both been standing and at the moment of my appearance each pulled out from the kerb in a slanting direction. I was thus fairly caught in a trap, as I had already turned the corner; but, not having time to faint or go into hysterics, I thought it best to catch the nearest omnibus horse by the bit and try to stop him. I cannot think now how I contrived to do this without a fall; but, in all the confusion of the moment, I distinctly recollect sitting on my bicycle, holding the horse’s head, and turning round to thank the driver for checking his restive team while I got away unhurt. My life was safe, it is true; but what is life if your new white gloves are ruined? Such, alas! was my melancholy condition and all because omnibus companies will not pay proper attention to the cleaning of bits. I had not the heart to reproach the driver, who, after all, like the American pianist, had done his best; but I felt like a friend of mine, who was ship-wrecked off the coast of Mull and who, when I offered him my warmest congratulations on not being drowned, replied in these words: “Yes, it was rather a nuisance. I lost a favourite paper-cutter and, what’s more, got my boots wet”. Be this as it may, I have avoided the turning from Knightsbridge into Sloane Street ever since. It is one of the most dangerous in London, not excepting the three circuses – Piccadilly, Regent or Oxford – where, at least, people are on the qui vive and are looking out for squalls from all points of the compass. To my mind the great accomplishment for the cyclist in traffic is to be able to ride steadily, without too much wavering of his front wheel, at a very slow pace, so as to avoid getting off and then with quick eye and judgment to make a dash where he sees his opportunity, never forgetting to look some distance ahead so as to avoid stoppages. In these cases, like all others, prevention is better than cure. Another word I should like to say. For riding in the streets it is most essential to have one hand free and therefore to be able to guide your bicycle with one hand; but acrobatic performances, such as riding without using either hands or feet down inclines in crowded streets, or with both feet on one side, or with your face to the hind wheel, as one man managed to do, are entirely to be discouraged. How I admired at first the graceful way in which a gentleman, very tall and well known in royal social circles, took off his hat and bowed to his acquaintance on the pavement! I even envied the more humble individual whom I saw blowing his nose with reckless violence in Piccadilly; but now it seems to me that to fall would be impossible, even if I tried and this is really the only frame of mind in which it is safe to bicycle in the streets of London.
(The Badminton Magazine, 1896)