Coventry and the National Cycle Archive

En route to the National Cycle Archive, a coach trip across the Midlands from Nottingham and a Sunday visit to the Coventry Transport Museum highlight the contrast between past and present. Coventry’s roads seem built to discourage cyclists, and brands like BSA, Rudge-Whitworth, and Humber have all but disappeared, but the museum’s rich and varied collection shows the diversity of the British bicycle industry and its links with motorcycle and car manufacturing over the first half of the twentieth century. I didn’t manage to visit the Coventry History Centre‘s Cycling Collection (open alternate Sundays only), as my short stay was devoted to an all-too-brief survey of National Cycle Archive holdings at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. 

Whereas the Raleigh of Nottingham archive gives an inside view of one large company including its advertising and sales strategies, the Warwick archive offers a much broader variety of playful material, from board games, humorous greeting cards, and guides to bicycle polo, to club newsletters and periodicals. Magazines like Cycling (founded 1891) followed the rise of cycling as a leisure activity, and the often playful tone of their articles helps portray cycle touring in particular an (increasingly respectable and controlled) form of adventure. By the early 1920s, advertisements on the covers of Cycling depict scenes such as a motorist stopped by the roadside gazing nostalgically at a bicycle propped outside an inn, or a smartly-dressed tourist stopping to ask directions from an old lady in order to have « a chance of listening to her quaint old country dialect ».

Clippings and cartoons pasted in cycling club scrapbooks (often from magazines like Punch as well as specialist cycling publications) display a few recurring themes. Targets of humour in the years before the First World War include the figures of the dandy and the « scorcher » but also, especially, female cyclists, reflecting the debates and anxieties surrounding gradually changing gender roles and dress codes. One scrapbook photograph captioned « CAMBRIDGE PROTESTS – An amusing picture, taken in the nineties at the corner of Trinity-Steet, Cambridge, during one of the many good humoured demonstrations of protest against the admission of women to membership of the University » shows the effigy of a woman in « rational dress », complete with bicycle, hung from a lamp post above a crowd of male students. A 1908 Cycling cartoon (illustrating a technical articles on « Vulcanisation of cycle tyre repairs »)  depicts a male cyclist struggling with « hairpins » not related to the shape of the road, but rather falling from the coiffures of the two female cyclists in front of him. The « sewing machine » reference in the 1895 Punch cartoon at left hints not only at a means of altering clothes (using another relatively new consumer product), but also at the prospect of, and anxiety about, female sexual gratification through contact with machines — a topic discussed in works like Ludovic O’Followell’s treatise Bicyclette et organes génitaux (1900), which concludes emphatically that « the bicycle should not be compared to the sewing-machine, as the mechanism and the results are dissimilar ».


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