Revolution: How the Bicycle Invented Modern Britain

William Manners

Duckworth £18.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

REVOLUTION as a term has come to mean a moment when all changed utterly. It can, of course, also be summarised in the modern idiom as what goes round, comes around.

There is, therefore, ambiguity in William Manners’ attempts to recreate the time and customs of late 19th century Britain where cycling took its first, faltering revolutions in parks or on rough roads.

The first impression is of how manners and modes of transport may have changed but some ugliness remains impervious to improvement. This is driven home in the fascinating section on women cyclists who wore rational clothing, that is, modest blouse, knickerbockers and stockings, and faced the ire of a monstrous regiment of misogynists who hurled abuse – and on one occasion a meat hook – at them. The ingrained attitude towards any bid for freedom in mode of dress or behaviour produced outbreaks of pious absurdity amid the awful violence. Women cyclists were encouraged to wear veils. Seriously.

The endurance of human habits is also illustrated by a section on “scorchers”, those cyclists who travelled “excessively fast, bringing them into conflict” with other road users. Those reckless daredevils live on in the shape of the two-wheeled dervishes of the pedestrian precinct in Sauchiehall Street.

The modern-day chargers escape prosecution, only provoking yelps of dismay from startled shoppers. The scorchers of the end of the 19th century were pursued by police, with one constable offering a sort of verbal photofit of “a straight-haired, thin-jawed, wild-eyed idiot with his back humped like a mad tom cat’s tail who bears down the road or street with no regard for the safety of others’’.

The section on bike clubs also has contemporary resonance. These associations were formed because cyclists could face the unbridled anger of other road users, mostly those driving horse-drawn carriages. Now they gather together for safety on country roads as cars whizz past with a blare of the horn and a seeming contempt for the dangers involved in a close encounter between rider and driver. Both attitudes to the relatively exposed cyclist seem a primal reaction to what is perceived to be an invasion of reserved space.

But the main purpose of Revolution is to chart a time of the birth of the bicycle and its significance to society. It has its brilliant moments. The story of George Bernard Shaw careering into Bertrand Russell on a cycling trip deserves to be resurrected in that it illustrates the dangers of early cycling, its popularity across class and intellect and its propensity for provoking anecdote. Russell lived to philosophise another day and Shaw brushed himself down to sharpen play and apercu and the late 19th century world kept turning on rudimentary wheels and solid tyres but the collision on the road between Trelleck and Chepstow is a classic, minor example of cycling in its infancy

However, there is more of substance. Cycling was a revolutionary activity in the 1890s. It gave the upper classes something to do in the park but it afforded others opportunities that were both life-changing and life-enhancing. The latter can be best signified by the observation that the bike brought people closer to nature. The former can be summarised by its simple effect of bringing people together.

In a world where transport was crude and expensive – coaches or carters charging a heavy price – the bike became an escape route from the familiar to the unexplored world for a generation of people who believed they were destined to live and die in an area of a few square miles. There is also evidence – culled from church records – that the advent of the bike altered the gene pool. Men and women could travel from different parishes to meet, to marry, to have children.

It was thus a revolutionary object, an agent of change. Its shape was to become more practical, its tyres were to become pneumatic thanks to an enterprising Dunlop of this parish, but its essence was to remain the same.

Whether riding in the posse of the cycling club or even in tandem, side by side with partner or mate, cycling is in its soul a cry of independence. The individual is not only propelled by his or her own efforts but by a will that states that more comfortable, reliable and perhaps safer transport options may be available but are not to be preferred.

There is something special about cycling that Manners cannot quite articulate. He is an academic with an admirable rigour and an indefatigable work ethic. About 10% of the book consists of a list of notes, showing he has not shirked from any task or avoided any avenue.

He has the unerring ability to wander occasionally off track. This can be welcomed when one is invoking Shaw and Russell but is frustrating when he raises the possibility of bicycle clubs being a haven for homosexuals in a hostile world without providing evidence, indeed pointing out that all-male environments were far from being unusual.

However, the main and most jarring criticism is his sense of pace. Manners is learned, keen and besotted by the subject as befits someone who completed his studies at the University of York “specialising in late Victorian cycling”. He can, too, corral material and make a telling point. But Revolution should be daring, even reckless, a two-wheeled swoop down a precipitous hill. The Revolution of Manners is all too often pedestrian.