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Thursday, 17 January 2013

"With Regard to Cyclists and the General Traffic... We Can’t go on in the Present way Much Longer." Or: George R. Sims on Cycling in London in the 1890's:

2012 was a huge year for cycling in Britain, and in fact, with the London cycle hire scheme now a piece of the city furniture, cycling in the UK and the capital has never been more popular, and bicycles never more widely used.

This popularity, however, has thrown up a few problems. We are led to believe that since this boom in the popularity of two-wheeled motivation that there is a so-called war being raged between motorists and cyclists, with one camp claiming the other is a danger to their safety and vice versa. Other arguments exist claiming that London is an old city of tiny streets and alleys which are not big or wide enough to accommodate both bicycles and vehicles.

These arguments, however, are nothing new. In fact, they go back over a hundred years. Bicycles first became popular in the UK in the middle of the nineteenth century, but the humble bike as we know it can trace its roots back to the Draisienne – or ‘Dandyhorse’ of 1818. This was a wood and iron contraption which looked exactly like a bike, but had no pedals. Instead the user sat on the frame and pushed along the ground with their feet in a running or walking motion.
The Draisienne
In the 1840’s the world saw the first mechanically propelled bicycle, which was supposedly invented in Scotland, but this fact is much disputed. By the 1860’s there was a bit of a cycling mania, and indeed it was this era that saw the many forms of bicycle taking to the streets, from velocipedes with umbrellas and writing tables attached to them, to the familiar and typically Victorian Penny Farthing of the 1870’s.

With the popularity of these contraptions inevitably came naysayers who thought – just as people think today – that cyclists were a nuisance.
George R. Sims, in an interview with Cycle and Motor World magazine, gives his opinions on the problems with cyclists and cycling, and offers some ingenious and eccentric solutions:

"I won't keep you long." Said the CYCLE AND MOTOR WORLD interviewer.
"I wish you would," said Mr. Sims, "at present I have to keep myself. You must be careful as to what you make me say about cycling. I've no wish to smash up Dunlops, and puncture the whole trade, you know."
"Well, to begin with, there's the subject of cyclists and the general traffic of the streets. Then one is always hearing arguments on the questions of lights and -"
"You can't expect me to know anything about that," said Mr. Sims; the liver is my speciality, you know. With regard to cyclists and the general traffic - well, I think something will have to happen soon. We can't go on in the present way much longer. I have an idea that a system of little light bridges is the kind of thing we want in London. If they were built properly the general effect would be very pretty - something after the style of the willow pattern plate, you know. Then, when London was illuminated, it would be like fairy land, and the bridges would be of immense service, too."
Mr. Sims

"Everyone knows that you prefer driving to cycling,
Mr. Sims; don't you find cyclists rather a nuisance on the road?"
"No; they're much better than they used to be, and they're improving every day. I can't say that I like to see ladies riding through the City and hanging on to the sides of 'buses when there's a block; but then, they don't hurt me because I never drive in the City if I can possibly avoid it. There is one matter at least in which I am quite at one with the cyclists, and that is the careless way in which pedestrians use the roads. I scarcely ever go for a drive without having to pull up suddenly because someone has stepped off the pavement right under my horse's nose. The people who do that sort of thing never look where they are going or whether anything is coming along the road. It's simply ghastly the way they try to get smashed up... You were asking me about lights just now. Of course, every cart ought to carry a light, though there isn't so much danger in their not doing so as there is in a cyclist going about lampless in the dark. The ordinary brewers dray, for instance, can be heard a good distance off, and if it can't be heard it can at least be smelt. Well, I suppose the average cyclist is careful to avoid running into a brewer's dray. Still, I should like to see a light on every kind of conveyance after dark. I know that cyclists find the lighting regulations an awful nuisance sometimes: lamps get jogged out - and the usual consequences happen. Well, I have a new idea for a bicycle that shall not require a lamp at all. What about luminous paint? Paint your bicycle with luminous paint, and then the darker the night the brighter the light. And look how pretty they'd all be!"

Then we got onto the subject of cycling and journalism. Mr. Sims has a theory that no journalist, unless he be a cycling journalist, should ever think of riding a bicycle regularly.
"The ordinary working journalist hasn't time for what is called 'healthy excercise,'" said Mr. 
Sims. "I should say that cycling is more suitable for a man who writes three-volume novels, or one that turns out about two books a year and has plenty of time on his hands. The better our health is, the less we care to work our brains. All imagination is a disease, and it follows that the right way to cultivate the imagination is to make one's self as ill as possible. I have done no end of work when I have been absolutely unwell. If I took to cycling, I should probably not want to do anything else, and my body would get so well that my brain would suffer. I had a bicycle presented to me anonymously, but I don't ride it about here - only when I'm away and enjoying myself."

Cycling in Hyde Park
"Don't you think a ride in the morning helps to clear the brain?"
"Nothing of the sort. If a man wants to write, the best thing he can do is to go out and eat a heavy meal of underdone pork chops. Then, after he has smoked a clay pipe in a bad atmosphere, he ought to be able to turn out something good. The life of a literary man is more or less of a sacrifice. The great thing is to avoid the last straw."

"To come back to cycling, Mr. Sims, do you like to see dogs accompanying cyclists?"
"Certainly not in a crowded thoroughfare, and not on a country road unless the dog is physically capable of following a bicycle easily and has been trained to do so. A dog that runs with a cycle should be taught never to get in front of it. My Dalmatians are all trained to run behind my trap when I'm out - at least, they were before I had to muzzle them. I can't take them out now; they only sit down in the road and try to scratch their muzzles off. It's positively cruel to make a dog follow a bicycle in London. I know that up in the circle here (in Regent's Park), where everybody learns to ride, there is always some poor unfortunate dog who gets in the way - I hate to see it; in fact, I can't go near the place in consequence."

And then we fell to talking about all sorts of things, from bulldogs to "local colour," and Mr. Sims showed me a number of curios he possesses. Just as I was leaving, I discovered that although Mr. Sims is not a very enthusiastic cyclist, yet he has solved the great drink question. Cyclists are always wanting to know what is the best thing to drink. Mr. Sims can tell them, for his usual daily allowance of liquid refreshment is one cup of tea, drunk early in the morning.
                     - The Cycle and Motor World, January 1897

If the Mayor of London is reading this, perhaps the system of ‘little light bridges’ for cyclists is something that could be looked at today to end these so called road wars.

Perhaps not.

For more on George R. Sims, see a post I wrote on him and his poem ‘In the Workhouse, Christmas Day’ a few years ago here:


  1. Mr Sims has perhaps found the solution to the war between cyclists and motorists: let both unite to put the blame on us pedestrians!

    1. Ha! As a pedestrian I claim full responsibility!

  2. I am very happy to read this. This is the kind of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that's at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this best doc.
    cycling in kerry