Happy Birthday Cycling UK — Fighting For Cyclists Since This Day In 1878

Known today as Cycling UK, the organisation is now a charity but it was founded as the Bicycle Touring Club 144 years ago today.

The Bicycle Touring Club (BTC) was founded at the North of England Meet of high-wheel riders held on the Stray at Harrogate, Yorkshire, on August 5, 1878. The club was the idea of three young blades: Stanley Cotterell, an English medical student studying in Edinburgh, S. H. Ineson of the Bradford Bicycle Club and T. H. Holding of Banbury in Oxfordshire.


Because tricyclists joined the club, it was renamed in 1882 as the Cyclists’ Touring Club, or CTC.

The aims of the CTC were to “encourage and facilitate touring in all parts of the world. To protect its members against unprovoked assaults. To provide riding or touring companions.”

Ten years after its first meet the CTC’s membership reached 20,000, making it the largest athletic club in the world. And its members were influential.

“It not only includes in its roll many of the nobility and gentry in all parts of the land,” stated an 1889 profile of the club in a book published by the Earl of Albemarle, “it is supported by some of the highest dignitaries of the church, by members of the legal, medical, military, and naval professions, and indeed by amateur riders … who produce credentials showing that they belong to a respectable station in life.”


Good Roads

These early cyclists—many of them moneyed and influential—lobbied for better road surfaces on which to carry on their sport, recreation and transport. In October 1886, along with the forerunner to today’s British Cycling, the CTC formed the Roads Improvement Association, a lobbying body later taken over by motorists (many of whom had first been cyclists).

“This association has formed with the view of generally taking up the question of roads in the whole of the kingdom,” wrote the new organisation’s secretary in January the following year:

“The bad state of some roads … is a disgrace to the authorities, and although the ratepayer is heavily taxed, the money expended is of little use through the employment of untrained men and their want of knowledge of the best and most economical system of repair. To the removal of this state of things the Roads Improvement Association will devote its best energies, undertaking … prosecutions at law as a last resort when all other efforts have failed.”


Cannily, the Roads Improvement Association didn’t advertise itself as a bicycle organisation but it was clear who would benefit most from improved roads, a point made in the Earl of Albemarle’s Badminton Library’s 1887 book on cycling:

“The man who is dragged through ruts and over stones by the labour of his horse is not quite so keen in his appreciation of a bad road as the man who feels its effects in an aching spine and twisted muscles. So cycling roadsters, after a considerable amount of preliminary growling, have girded up their loins for action.”

The action consisted of pamphleting— the RIA built up a body of technical literature in order to emphasise the “scientific” methods of creating and improving roads. These books and pamphlets were sent in their hundreds of thousands to newspapers, highway surveyors and members of highway boards “showing them that by the adoption of a system such as is sketched out in the pamphlet, far better roads can be obtained at an expenditure of much less money than is at present spent upon the majority of our Highways.”


The first patrons of the RIA were aristocrats interested in cycling. Lord Thring was the First Parliamentary Counsel from 1869 to 1901, an innovator in the framing of legislation. Viscount Curzon was a Conservative politician who served as Treasurer of the Household between 1896 and 1900. The Duke of Fife was the Lord Lieutenant of Elginshire from 1872 to 1902 and married into the British Royal Family. The Earl of Albemarle was Under-Secretary of State for War between 1878 and 1880 and co-wrote the Badminton Library book on cycling. Earl Russell, the elder brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell (another keen cyclist), was the largest individual donor to the RIA in its pre-motoring days.

The RIA had some early successes. In its annual report for 1891 it was said that “various Roads in the Parishes of Greenwich, Lee, and Lewisham, Berkshire and West Riding of Yorkshire, have been repaired and improved through the efforts of the Association … A Yorkshire correspondent writes as follows:- “The branch roads over the hills in the West Riding have been put into superb condition and are a treat to ride on.”

Magna Charter of Cyclists

As well as lobbying for better roads, the CTC fought for the right of cyclists to use roads in the first place. When they first took to the streets in the late 1860s, the users of bicycles feared they had no legal status, or legal right to be on either roads or sidewalks. To attain such rights was the avowed aim of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. On its foundation on this day 144 years ago it set out to “secure a fair and equitable administration of Justice as regards the right of bicyclists to the public roads. To watch the course of any legislative proposals in Parliament or elsewhere affecting the interests of the bicycling public, and to make such representations on the subject as the occasion may demand.”


Ironically, the right for cyclists to ride on roads was won by the CTC just a year after it was founded following a case that involved a pedestrian knocked down by a cyclist who had been “riding furiously.”

The cyclist–a Mr. Taylor–had descended Muswell Hill in London when he narrowly missed an old lady, and most certainly bowled over an old man. His defence team argued that as a cycle wasn’t defined as a carriage, in a law passed 45 years previously, before bicycles existed, there was no case to answer. The plea was disregarded, and Taylor was fined.

But the 1879 case was appealed, and two judges ruled that cycles were henceforth to be considered carriages under the law. This was bad for Taylor, but good for cyclists in general. It meant that cycles, for the first time, had a legally defined status as “carriages,” and cyclists would be able to pass and repass, albeit not furiously, over the highways of Britain.


Thanks to Taylor v Goodwin, fought by CTC, cyclists had gained some birthrights. When it went into battle in the case, the CTC did so knowing the stakes were high, but it hoped the principle of the “right of way” for bicycles, as “carriages,” would, eventually, win through.

The highway rights that the 1879 court case appeared to confirm were ephemeral, and a great many local by-laws were put in place to restrict the new-fangled bicycle. It wasn’t until 1888, with the passing of the Local Government Act, that the “right” for cyclists, and their “carriages,” to use the highway was clarified by Parliament. 1888 was “destined to be an ever memorable [year],” cyclists said at the time.


The CTC formed a committee to oversee the progress of the Local Government bill through Parliament. It was feared that if county councils were given powers to create their own by-laws these would be used to prohibit bicycles. The CTC had political clout: it asked one of its members–who just so happened to be an MP–to lodge an amendment to the bill. Sir John Donnington “won a brilliant victory for the Club,” wrote James Lightwood, the author of a 1928 history of the CTC.

When the act – with the critical amendment – was duly passed, a writer in the Law Journal said the Local Government Act of 1888 was the “Magna Carta de Bicyclis.”

Lightwood enthused: “As a result there disappeared … every enactment which gave to Courts of Sessions, Municipal Corporations and similar bodies in England and Wales power to resist and hamper the movements of cyclists as they might think fit. The new order of things established once and for all the status of the cycle.”


Cyclists might have won the right to ride on roads thanks to this 1888 law change but another road user soon came along who would challenge that right: the motorist.


Perhaps surprisingly, the first British motorists were often ardent cyclists, and many were members of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. Sadly, many historians, even eminent ones, have ignored the role of cycling in the gestation of motoring, making the mistaken assumption that motorists of the 1890s were from a higher class than cyclists. Asa Briggs, the leading specialist in Victorian social history, wrote of bicycles that those who “bought them … came from different sections of society” to those who bought automobiles, and that “by contrast, the first motor car owners were plutocratic.”

The first motor car owners were, indeed, plutocratic–motor cars were luxury items and purchasers were de facto wealthy–but pioneer motorists were not from a different class to cyclists.

“Motorists [after 1896 were] richer and more influential than the cycling lobby,” claimed history professor Stephen Inwood. In fact, cycling lobbyists were important and influential members of the nascent motor lobby. The organiser of British motoring’s keystone event–the Emancipation Run of 1896–was Harry Lawson, a long-time cycling promoter and bicycle designer in the 1870s. Frederick Simms, an employee of Lawson’s who became known as the “Father of British motoring,” was a member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club in his youth. Simms founded the ultra-exclusive Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, later to become the Royal Automobile Club.


Another founder of this Club was Ernest Richard Shipton, secretary of the Cyclists’ Touring Club from 1883 to 1907. He was also one of the Automobile Club’s 1890s board members.

Many of the organising stalwarts of the first American automobile organisations had originally been key officials in bicycling organisations. The majority of pioneering motoring journalists–in America, France, Austria and England–started as writers for cycling magazines.

The Self-Propelled Traffic Association, one of the world’s first motoring organisations, was founded in London in 1895 by Sir David Lionel Salomons, a trustee and life-member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. In 1899, this bicycling baronet paid for his children to become life-members of the CTC, and some of them were still keen cyclists some later.


Salomons was one of the staunchest promoters of motoring in Britain and well known as such abroad. Salomons was also one of the founding members of the Automobile Club de France. Salomon’s Self-Propelled Traffic Association later merged with Britain’s Automobile Club, a prestigious gentleman’s club to begin with, not originally a road rescue organisation. It had a posh, central London clubhouse, and posh members.

Many of the founder members had been famous racing cyclists: Selwyn Edge had been a champion racing cyclist before he became a racing driver; the Hon. Charles Rolls, aristocrat, playboy, daredevil and co-founder of Rolls-Royce, received his first rush of road speed on the fastest vehicle of the day, the bicycle, and he too had been a bicycle racer, captaining the Cambridge University cycling team. In 1897, at the same time as Rolls was racing for Cambridge University, the wealthy Lionel Martin was racing for Oxford University. He later co-founded Aston Martin.


Another of the founding members of the Automobile Club was a CTC member. Food magnate Sir Alfred Bird MP—of custard powder fame—had been a very successful racing cyclist in his youth. He had been an “energetic member” of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and, before he became an MP, had been part of an 1880s CTC deputation to the Corporation of Birmingham to protest at the state of roads on behalf of cyclists, organised by the cyclists’ Roads Improvement Association. Bird didn’t give up cycling when he became a motorist. After his death (the motoring pioneer was knocked over by a motorist), his son endowed a prize fund in his father’s memory. The Sir Alfred Bird Memorial Prize was offered by the CTC to “the inventor or producer of the greatest improvement in cycle design, construction, or equipment during any year.”

Happy birthday, Cycling UK, 144 years young.


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