When I first moved to Newport, Essex, I was mystified as to what was making the strange sounds on Sunday morning. While the village could be beautifully still and quiet at this time, a regular swishing noise seemed to be emanating from somewhere. It didn’t take long to work out that the sound was being generated by the cyclists racing on the High Street outside, each of them with their own number marked in day-glo yellow on the backs of their racing jerseys.
We still get races taking place on the street outside our house. The long, straight-ish road, with its gentle climbs and declivities, seems perfectly suited to the sport. It was a revelation to hear that on-road racing of this kind had technically been illegal until the 1960s, though had been practised for at least half a century before then. Essex was particularly known for its cycling scene, with hundreds of clubs established, some of which remain very active. Police permission is now required before a race, or more correctly, a time trial, is held.
The occasion for this outbreak of reminiscences about the heyday of Essex cycling was a talk in our village by Dr Sheila Hanlon, an expert in women’s cycling history. Sheila traced the particular story of ‘ladies cycling clubs’, from the 1890s through to the present day. Ladies Cycling Clubs were a manifestation of the cycling craze of the 1890s, but as Sheila explained they had all sorts of other meanings too. Ultimately, they were a political movement, associated with the progressive idea (for the time) that women had independence, agency and autonomy. Sheila’s research has traced the connection between cycling and the campaign for women’s suffrage, for example, and it was timely to hear her paper in the year we mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.
Women’s cycling clubs emerged in London and in northern English cities in the early 1890s. One of the first, the Hammersmith Ladies Cycling Club had as its President the actress Ellen Terry. The Graphic teased that one of its club rules was that ‘No gentleman was to be spoken to during our runs under any pretext whatsoever’. Despite the somewhat predictable scorn they attracted from male journalists, there were soon a great many such clubs, and the Ladies Cyclists Association was formed as an umbrella representative body. The link between cycling and progressive politics was apparent in the number of political parties that established their own cycling clubs, in particular on the left (such as the Clarion socialist cycling clubs). The Countess of Warwick, of Easton Lodge, Dunmow, Essex, was a noted cyclist about whom the song ‘Daisy, Daisy’ is said to have been written. She was a friend and associate of the campaigner WT Stead, who established the Mowbray House Cycling Association.
The early cycling craze had lost some momentum by the time of the First World War, not least as motoring increased in popularity as a leisure pursuit. But cycle races were now becoming a more popular pastime, and in 1922 the Essex-based Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club was founded. The Rosslyn, typical of racing clubs at the time, made use of cycling huts that were established off the main road at Ugley, just down the road from Newport. Members would cycle out to the huts on a Saturday, often from homes in north London, spend the night in dormitories there before then devoting Sunday to race meetings. The huts were basic and lacked running water or electricity. Club members who came to the talk recalled having to pump up the Tilley lamps if they were first to arrive at the club, as well as the rules about male visitors being required to ring a bell to announce their arrival and leave by 930pm at the latest. Nonetheless, there was clearly much camaraderie between the men’s and ladies’ cycling clubs, as evidenced by the fact that so many of the women ended up marrying men from the other clubs.
|Dr Sheila Hanlon and some of the Rosslyn Ladies Cycle Club members|
Our talk was all the more interesting because a number of members of the Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club were in the audience, including PatSeeger who won numerous prizes in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Pat explained that her interest in the club was first sparked by the fact that she regularly cycled between London and Nottingham in the early years of her marriage. We were thrilled Pat and the other members of the Rosslyn (and other cycling clubs) were able to join us for Sheila’s lecture and the discussion afterwards – it made for a fascinatingly rich account of the vibrant Essex cycling scene.