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Get on Your Bike and Ride

Jane Donaldson explores the relationship between the Guardian newspaper and the early years of cycling.

Written by Jane Donaldson, Project Archivist currently working at the John Rylands.  A life-long pootler on her bike, she was brought up with tales of Beryl Burton and liquorice allsorts.

C. P. Scott on a bicycle, GDN – Uncatalogued, Box 353. Copyright Guardian News and Media

An iconic photograph in the Manchester Guardian Collection is that of Editor C P Scott riding his bike. Scott often rode from his house in Fallowfield, South Manchester to his work at the Guardian offices.  He also took leisure rides in the Lake District and was still riding well into his eighties. The following story comes from C P Scott bicycle story, from Neville Cardus’s Autobiography.

Cardus, Neville, Autobiography. London : Collins, 1961 R211764

So important was his bicycle to Scott that during the Belle Vue dinner in 1921, to commemorate 100 years of the Manchester Guardian, and 50 years of Scott as Editor, W P Crozier mentioned in his speech discussions that had taken place when deciding what gifts to present to Scott.  This was reported in the House Journal, ‘Ho. Jo.’ 

The Manchester Guardian House Journal 1921, GDN/324/8/6 . Copyright Guardian News and Media

Early Days

Early bikes had no air in the tyres making for uncomfortable ‘bone shakers’, and others, such as penny farthings, needed people to help you climb on and to stop.  The development of the Safety bike in 1885 and then pneumatic tyres developed by Dunlop in 1889 created a more comfortable and easier ride.  Bicycles enjoyed a boom and became increasingly popular.  They were purchased for fun, but also used for work, for example, delivery riders for shops who could expand their business. 

Post Office, Telegraph Girl, Chippenham workers with bikes, Album of women’s work in wartime, VPH.5.162.

In Scott’s lifetime, bicycle use allowed freedom of movement, and independence.  It became useful for reporters who could travel further distances to get their stories. A reporter for The World’s Fair, a newspaper for the Fairground and Circus communities, had a reporter who wrote under the name ‘Cyclist’. The development of clubs for social, health and sport and for fun increased, and among the Guardian clubs there was a cycling club for staff.

A weekly column was published in the Manchester Guardian on Mondays called ‘Cycling Notes’.  A selection of these were published in Road and Lane: A Handbook for Manchester Cyclists and Tourists, illustrated with a woman cycling in a full skirt. The contents page covered many rides across Greater Manchester and the surrounding areas which are still popular today and there is a beautiful ode to the bicycle and escaping from the city.

Daisy, Daisy

Cycling was seen as generally a middle-class pursuit, one for those who could afford the machines, had the time to ride and the money for clothing.  As bikes were expensive items, thefts became commonplace. The Guardian newspaper commented on this in a leading article in 1911 describing how easy it was to steal bicycles even if they were padlocked, that the bicycle helped in the thief’s escape and suggested that a bike should have something that can be removed when not being ridden by the owner so that it could not be stolen; issues that are still prevalent today.

Reports of sentences for stealing bikes seem by today’s standard rather harsh. In 1911, one thief was sentenced to prison for twelve months, another for three.  The same year, a young boy was sentenced to six strokes from a birch rod for stealing a bicycle in Blackpool.

Women and Cycling

For me, riding a bike has allowed freedom of movement. I take it for granted that I can and will ride where I like.  Bikes were our family’s main form of transport and leisure and a rite of passage as we moved from doing up hand-me-downs to getting our ‘bike for life’ when we stopped growing and doing a ride from Manchester to our Grandma’s in Chesterfield. I still cycle for work and leisure rides and exploring the local area and can’t drive. 

As more women started riding bikes, this allowed more freedom and independence from the restrictions at the time. A chaperone wasn’t needed, and women were able to take part in events, both social and political.  Women’s cycling was seen by some as inappropriate and immoral.  There were arguments that the concentration needed to riding in traffic could cause ‘Bike Face’ and saddles could affect the genital areas.  But women took up cycling in droves and social rides and sports including racing and touring became popular with both men and women.  It is argued that the popularity of bikes allowed for sharing of ideas and was integral in the fight for social justice, universal suffrage and women’s rights.


During the first boom in cycling, long skirts and volumes of fabric made women’s dress totally unsuitable for long rides.  Pantaloons, shirts, and jackets were developed for riding.  Known as ‘Rational Dress’ this was seen by some at the time as quite shocking and not appropriate wear for women, but those who rode regularly adopted the dress to ride, including Tessie Reynolds, who at age 16 in 1893, set the record for the fastest ride (men and women) from Brighton to London and back and said she would never go back to wearing a skirt after wearing bloomers.

A famous case in 1899 involving the founder of the Rational Dress Society, Lady Florence Harberton, was reported in the Manchester Guardian.  She had been refused service at an inn by the landlady and the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) supported her court case.  Although the case was against not serving women because of the dress they wore and possibly stopping women wearing something that allowed them to use the machine, she eventually lost, as the argument was that she had been offered refreshments, but in another room. The support from the club and the media interest highlighted the move towards equal rights for women.

Florence Wallace Pomeroy, Viscountess Harberton Suffragette and founder in 1881 of the Rational Dress Society.

Cycling Clubs

Women sometimes had to fight to become members of cycling clubs on equal terms as the uptake in cycling gained a huge following.  Sometimes they were able to become members as guests of their husbands, and there were clubs that would allow auxiliary women’s groups. Some gained membership but only after arguing against resistance from other members and there were some clubs that did not allow women to join at all.

The Clarion cycle club allowed women members on equal terms right from its inception.   Formed in 1894 there are still local Clarion clubs today.  The club was one of the many offered through the Clarion newspaper which was founded in Manchester in 1891 by the journalist Robert Blatchford. ‘The Clarion’ was a mix of news and more light-hearted comment, all with a socialist leaning.  The cycling club was one of the clubs which stemmed from the newspaper (other clubs included choirs and a children’s club) and allowed a group of likeminded people to meet up and enjoy all that cycling and touring had to offer.

As cycling clubs grew across industrial towns with the development of bicycle ownership many groups would travel around and would sometimes deliver leaflets and support labour MPs and councillors across the country.  This was a way to further promote causes such as universal suffrage and social reforms. Members of the Clarion club included labour leader, Kier Hardie and women of the Suffragette and Suffragist movement, including Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst.


People cycle for different reasons, commuting, pleasure and racing. The new emphasis on prioritising cycling and walking in the Highway Code will hopefully make cycling more appealing for daily rides. Lockdown and the reduction of traffic on roads gave some a taste of how it could be with some councils effectively using Government money given specifically for bike infrastructure to be used to allow shared use of bikes.

With a large percentage of car journeys being short, why would you sit in a car when you could ride just as quickly, freeing roads up for those that don’t have a choice of riding? People habitually get in cars to do the school run for example with most people living within walking or cycling distance, one argument given that it’s too dangerous as there are so many cars!

Cycling can sometimes seem elitist and expensive but if you have a working bike and wear comfortable clothing then that is all you need.

There are many groups and individuals who are breaking down barriers linked to cycling and promoting restorative justice, health benefits, climate benefits, social benefits, learning skills, reducing costs,  looking at sharing routes and infrastructure, representation and helping to remove physical barriers to cycling so cycling can be enjoyed by many people.  There are many groups both local and national supporting everyone and anyone to get into cycling such as the Tameside Women’s Cycle Group, Black Cyclists Network, CERA Cycloan  Prideout UK, Wheels for Wellbeing, Brothers on Bikes and more.

If you wish to find out more about the Guardian Archive, you can access the online version of our bicentenary exhibition ‘Manchester’s Guardian: 200 years of the Guardian newspaper’ here and find guides to the collection here.

Further reading

Irish protest

The great biycling protest of 1896  

Diversity in cycling

Black Champions in cycling

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