Velocipede Riding Schools
One of Hood’s quaintest fancies is being carried out in sober earnest. The academy at which old boys were put out to board and from which one of the pupils describes how his fellows cannot play at marbles because the game necessitates stooping and their rheumatics are so bad; or how hoop is rendered impracticable by gout, or prisoners’ base by asthma, or details equally incongruous – this description is realised almost literally at the velocipede riding schools. These abound in London just now. East, west, north and south of the metropolis are lessons being given to men of all ages, with, so far as our observation extends, a decided run upon bald heads and grey hair among thre pupils. It is on record that Faraday toiled up Hampstead-Hill on one of the lubering old-fashioned velocipedes, a picture of which used invariably to illustrate the letter V in nursery alphabets. But that was when the philosopher was young and one of the marvels of the new apparatus is the fascination it seems to exercise over the old.
Down St Luke’s Hospital way and about midway between Moorgate station and that Goswell-Street which has become classical ever since the embarrassing scene which took place in it between Mr Pickwick and Mrs Bardell, is one of the best known of the velocipede schools. From ten in the morning till six at night it is very busy. A couple of broughams and several hansom cabs are waiting at the archway, leading to it out of Old-Street, at the time of our visit. Past these, and up a sort of court and we are in a large factory, with crowds of mechanicians busily at work. Velocipedes in various stages of progress are to be seen everywhere. They hang in thick rows like onions from the roof, they block up the floor, they are piled in pyramids against the walls. The majority are unfinished. Long lines of wheels unvarnished and unpainted are seasoning, while handles, seats, axel-trees and smaller wheels are being malipulated, or lie ready for use. There is as much scope for fancy about the decorations of a velocipede, as in aught else and whether one of the scores which were being made to order should be picked out with yellow or red as a relief to its dark body-colour was a subject of earnest discussion between two elderly officers during our stay. The guiding bar is one of the things upon which extravagance is expected to centre. Already we were shown a very handsome one in burnished steel and with ivory handles as an “extra,” and that “we shall have to bring them out in silver before the seasons over,” is an opinion confidently expressed. So far, we have kept to the manufactory and its approaches. The riding school is beyond. The first-named place and counting-house adjacent have been full of signs of the sudden and enormous demand which has risen for the last new hobby-horse, while the school shows us how devotedly purchasers are qualifying themselves for riding it. Here is a stout country gentleman who has come up from a distant province for the sole purpose of receiving lessons. A stalwart attendant walks with him round the room, holding him on his velocipede, by keeping an arm firmly round his waist. The sitter keeps his head down and his knees in, as if he were attempting to master a particularly vicious and unmanageable young horse. His eyes are firmly fixed on the wheels beneath him, his shoulders are up, his teeth are clenched, his hat is pressed resolutely over his eyes and his entire demeanour is that of a man who sees his work cut out for him and who means to master it. At first feet are allowed to hang uselessly down, while the attendant propels the velocipede by pushing it with his disengaged hand. The rider is directed to keep his attention to the handle, to balance himself by it, and to be careful at the turns. Round and round the vast bare chamber go the twain, the attendant walking slowly under his double task and giving out instructions rather disjointedly for lack of breadth, “Give a looser hold to the handles, sir – (puff) – don’t grip’em as if you were afraid of tumbling off – (puff, pant, puff.) I’ll take care of that. (Pant.) Just feel’em like; the lighter and gentler the better – (puff) – and whenever you feel you’re going over on one side, just turn the opposite handle and you’ll right yourself directly. (Pant, puff, puff.)” After a little time the novice is told to use his feet and he then turns the wheels slowly for himself, being still held on by the attendant-instructor. There are no fasternings for the foot – simply a rest which projects out from the axle-trees and whenever the handle is mismanaged and the centre of gravity lost, the rider comes to the ground on his feet and so stands up in a very comical way. It is as if a very tall man were on a pony so small that he could at any moment allow it to run between his legs. But there is nothing corresponding to the stirrup in any way and one of the most striking things we noted was the readiness which even the least expert of novices could place himself at ease, by freeing himself altogether of the machine. Ywo such lessons as we saw given would, we were assured, enable the gentleman before us to manage a vbelocipede for himself and from this stage to its complete mastery is a mere question of practice. Several other pupils were at work. One gentleman was taking his second lesson and confined his attention to moving his velocipede slowly, and to learning how to stop it at will. Others were practicing various methods of mounting and descending. The true thing is to jump on while it is in progress and to then push away merrily with hand and foot. The experts who had gone through their lessons and were now merely indulging in an hour’s practice, played a veriety of tricks to show their profeciency, or to extend their experience. Here was a man standing on the saddle – which is far broader and more comfortable in the seat than it appears – and balancing the velocipede by his dexterous management of the guiding-bar. There was another cutting in and out among the rest and describing various figures on the floor. Skating on a large scale, or skimming over the ground by means of wings, was what it remained one of the most; and very exhilarating and delightful the rapid motion and entire mastery seemed. Many of the gentlemen before us had rushed in from the City for an hours practice in the intervals of business – the Stock Exchange contributing a considerable contingent to the amusing and animated scene. Some private velocipedes were reared against the wall, with their owner’s card affixed and their wheels secured by chain and padlock and the owner of one of these, a grave looking gentleman with white hair, and looking like a bank director, came in for a “turn round” just as we left. There were plenty of young men too and the practice we saw, ranging, as it did, from the inexperienced novice to the skilled expert, made it clear that the use of the velocipede is easily, safely and quickly learnt. There has been no accident at any of the schools we have visited since they have opened and for a study of the manners and customs of the hour and of the extent to which the new fashion is followed, the observer might do worse than spend an hour at such an establishment as we visited in Old-Street. Later in the day we saw the two young Frenchmen who carried off the first and second prize in the velocipede races at the Crystal Palace display their skill at another velocipede school in Knightsbridge. There was all the difference here that one is accostomed to observe between professional and amateur hobby-riding. The strength and skill shown by these two gentlemen, the way in which one held on by the other’s back on the same velocipede, in which both rattled and raced to and fro the long room, and which jumping on and off at full speed was practiced, all reminded one of the circus ring. But it is the purely amateur practice that is most interesting. We were assured that a fair average of speed and ease can be obtained after three practice lessons and though we found the limited progress we made on one to be rather full of aches and pains, we have no doubt of the correctness of the statement. It seems certain that the fashion of using velocipedes will increase if riding them be really as harmless and agreeable as it appears. The fatigue being slight and the progress – though not reaching the preposterous promises of some of the advertisments – rapid, it seems reasonable to expect that this peculiar form of locomotion will increase and that it will in time be no more singular to keep a velocipede than to carry a walking-stick. Already the best makers are as busy as they can well be. – Daily News.
The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Herald, May 11, 1869; pg. 2