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By Toni Booth on

On your bike! Cycling in our photography collection

With more and more of us taking up cycling, we’ve delved into our collection to bring you a photographic history of the bicycle.

Cycling is on the up: with its minimal environmental impact and health benefits, more and more people are taking to two (or three) wheels.

So now seems like a good time to survey our photography collection to see how it can illustrate the history of cycling—as a pastime, as part of a job, for exercise or simply as a way of getting about.

The archives demonstrate the enduring appeal of heading out for a bike ride with friends. Box Hill in Surrey has been popular with cyclists for over 100 years and the 2012 Olympics cycling road race events included circuits of Box Hill. The average gradient of the hill is 5%, so it’s not so surprising that some people choose to get off and push.

A line of cyclists pushing their bikes on Box Hill in Surrey
A line of cyclists pushing their bikes on Box Hill in Surrey, 1934, James Jarché. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection
Cyclists riding penny farthings across Westminster Bridge
Cyclists riding penny farthings across Westminster Bridge, London, as part of the London to Brighton ‘Old Crocks Race’, 1938, Reuben Saidman. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

A craze for bicycling swept the UK during the 1890s and clubs were formed throughout Britain. Many women took up the hobby and it became a way in which men and women came together unchaperoned—which scandalised more conservative elements of society.

Despite this, cycling continued to be popular with women, particularly with the move away from the penny farthing design (like the ones in front above) to a more practical style which allowed women in long skirts to ride. The bicycle has been referred to as ‘the freedom machine’ as it allowed women a new sense of freedom of movement, made even easier when more practical clothing became acceptable.

Cyclists looking at maps
Cyclists looking at maps, c.1900, C J Bacon. Kodak Collection/Science Museum Group Collection
Two cyclists studying a map
Two cyclists studying a map, Surrey, 1930s, Reuben Saidman. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

The photographs also demonstrate the history of two-seater and even three-seater cycles, with tandems and ‘triplet’ bikes.

Tandem cyclists at Byland Abbey
Tandem cyclists at Byland Abbey, 1938, Marshall Bishop. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection
A triplet bike made by Claud Butler in South London
A triplet bike made by Claud Butler seen in South London, 1938, George W. Roper. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

Childhood presents many of us with our first experiences of cycling. But the stark contrast between the two photographs below, taken only 10 or so years apart, is obvious.

Four children riding a bicycle and sidecar
Four children riding a bicycle and sidecar, unknown photographer, 1930s. Kodak Collection /Science Museum Group Collection
Children playing on bicycles, wearing their gas masks
Children playing on bicycles, wearing their gas masks, c. 1940, unknown photographer. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

Such photographs serve to remind us of the importance of ‘normality’ in challenging times. Despite the threat of the Second World War, these children were still able to enjoy time on their bikes, albeit with the added precaution of gas masks.

The increasing popularity of cycling clubs led to rallies and meetings for the members, which presented an opportunity for manufacturers to advertise their products (as Raleigh are doing in the image below), but also for fun times.

Cyclists riding two unusual tall bicycles
Cyclists riding two unusual bicycles, at the 13th Wheelers Cycling Club meeting, held at Balham, London on 14 May 1939. Reuben Saidman. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

In the below image, the competitor in the tradesmen’s bicycle race had to carry half-bushel baskets as they cycled around the track.

Competitor at a charity sports day held at Herne Hill, London
Competitor at a charity sports day held at Herne Hill, London, 7 September 1938, Sayers. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

And bicycles are of course a practical item for many professionals, either for delivery people, police officers or—as below, and with the addition of a sidecar—an ice cream seller.

Ice cream seller and children
Ice cream seller and children, unknown photographer, c.1925. Kodak Collection/Science Museum Group Collection

Young Nigel presented a puzzle to the authorities in 1955 when he made a radio to fit onto his bike. If it was considered a portable set, and there was already a radio licence in his home, then no licence would be needed, but if it was part of the bike, as with a car radio, then he would need one. Unfortunately, the caption information on the back of the print does not provide us with a record of the outcome.

A bicycle fitted with a home-made radio receiver
A bicycle fitted with a home-made radio receiver, 1955, unknown photographer. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

As well as radios on bikes, the industry was clearly keen to look ahead to what its future customers might desire from their bicycles. The photograph below, from 1933, shows the ‘wireless cycle’ which came complete with a telephone—a prediction of not only what the cyclist of the future would require from her bike, but also what she may be wearing when 1940 came around.

'Cyclist of the future', 1933
Cyclist of the future, 1933, Edward Malindine. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

The business of cycle manufacturing and marketing feature in the archives, creating newsworthy stories to promote new products and raise company profiles. Hercules was a Birmingham-based company founded in 1910; by February 1939, it had produced 6 million cycles. It’s likely that the man with the baskets in the earlier image is riding a Hercules trade bike.

Final touches put to bicycles at Hercules bicycle factory, Birmingham
Final touches put to bicycles at Hercules bicycle factory, Birmingham, 1931, Harold Tomlin. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

Images in the collection also demonstrate that new designs, lightweight models and power assisted bikes all appeared earlier than you might imagine.

A recumbent cycle, below, was advertised at a cycling and camping show at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London in 1933. It was offered for sale by the company set up by Olympic cyclist Freddie Grubb, who won two silver medals in the 1912 Games. In 1914 he established F H Grubb cycle manufacturers following his retirement from racing.

Woman sitting on a horizontal bicycle
Woman sitting on a horizontal bicycle, 1933, Edward Malindine. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

The origins of motorised bicycles go back to the age of steam powered engines in the 19th century. Below is a more modern example from the 1930s; an 80cc motor has been attached to assist the usual pedal propulsion.

Motorised Bicycle in London
Motorised bicycle in London, 1938, George W. Roper. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

In 1934, the bicycle pictured below was said to be the lightest ever made, it weighed under 13lb (6kg) and could be picked up using just one finger, as demonstrated by this cyclist.

Woman holding up lightweight bicycle with one finger
New lightweight bicycle, 1934, Harold Tomlin. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

Our collection also includes images of professional cyclists, such as Reg Harris, who won two silver medals at the 1948 Olympics. In 1974 he staged a late comeback, winning a British Cycling title at the age of 54.

Reg Harris being greeted by some of the Danish cycle team while training at Herne Hill
Reg Harris being greeted by some of the Danish cycle team while training at Herne Hill, London, 1948, F Greaves. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

Reg clearly used his success to promote cycling and cycling products. Below he is riding a brand-new bike from Triumph, ‘The Pink Witch’. This included elements which the marketing people no doubt thought were perfect to appeal to young women: a makeup mirror (which you can see attached to the handle bars) and a lipstick holder. It came in shocking pink or peacock blue and was aimed at the ‘smart girl’ of the late 1950s.

Reg Harris tries the new Pink Witch cycle in Regent Street
Reg Harris tries the new Pink Witch cycle in Regent Street, 1958, A Tanner. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

And finally, because no blog post is truly complete without an animal photo, here’s the dog on a cycle pic. Wendy, here on her own custom made tricycle, was featured in the British melodrama They Were Sisters, made in 1945.

Wendy the dog on a tricycle
Wendy will ride a tricycle, front paws on handlebars, hind paws on pedals although she is not strong enough to set the bike into motion, 1945, Erich Auerbach. Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group Collection

There’s a strong connection between the history of cycling and that of photography, and you can find out more about it in our previous blog post on the surprising link between cycling and photography.

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