Policing the London to Brighton Cycle Ride:
The Mass Arrest of 1897

AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 12 JUNE 2024

Messenger boy and his trusty bicycle. Lewis Hine 1908. Library of Congress.

On 14 August 1897 — a Saturday — a strange scene unfolded in the courtroom of the County Bench in the Surrey town of Reigate. A boy of seventeen years of age stood in the dock, facing the might of the bench, while laughter from the assembled company of officials and spectators rang all around him.

The object of amusement was a rickety old bicycle, which had just been wheeled into the courtroom, at the boy’s request and with the bench’s permission, as material evidence. The machine was what in those days would have been called a ‘bone-shaker’, an uncomfortably accurate term for the earlier models, which might have boasted solid wooden wheels and iron tyres.

Who was the boy? His name was Arthur Street. Although he was in a court in Reigate, he was in fact a Londoner and hailed from Camberwell. But why was he in trouble? And why had he asked to have his bone-shaker produced as evidence? To find the answers to these questions, read on!

William Dent’s grocery shop in old Camberwell. Guy Miller 1928. Southwark Heritage.

From Lambeth to Camberwell

Arthur Robert Street was born on 21 June 1880. At the time his parents, John and Eliza Street, were living at 27 Langton Road in Lambeth. While John went out to work as a carpenter, Eliza had the care not only of Arthur but also of his three older brothers. As time went by, the four Street boys acquired another younger brother and no fewer than four younger sisters. Their parents certainly had their hands full.

In due course, and no doubt as a result of the growing number of their children, John and Eliza moved from Lambeth to Camberwell. Here they settled in a small house at 31 Warrior Road in Camberwell, which they shared with another family, and, as they had the use of only three rooms, one would guess that conditions were cramped. The boys were employed as house painters and printer’s cutters, while the girls worked as dressmakers and spent long hours toiling at sewing-machines.

Arthur was one of the cutters, and his job would have been trimming printed paper destined for some sort of publication to the required size. Do we know anything about his appearance? As it happens, we do, but only because a court reporter penned a rather unflattering description of him — ‘a wizened-faced street Arab’ — when he stood before the bench in Reigate. How unkind! One can only imagine that the reporter looked down on boys from the poorer parts of London.

A Victorian printer at work. The Illustrated Magazine of Art volume 1 number 5 1853.

The shades of night

Arthur Street’s young life is more or less a mystery, at least until the year 1897, when in August, mounting his trusty bone-shaker, he took part in a cycle ride that started at London Bridge and ended in Brighton. This was a popular route. It was a little over fifty-three miles, and passed through the South London suburbs of Tooting and Mitcham and Sutton before shooting down through the Surrey towns of Gatton and Reigate and on to Crawley and Hickstead in Sussex. Finally, the cyclists had to toil up Ditchling Beacon, the infamous long hill that has become the stuff of legend, before arriving at their final destination.

But Arthur never got beyond Reigate. Nor indeed did around eighty of his fellow cyclists, for he and they were pounced on, somewhere between Merstham and Redhill, by members of the Surrey constabulary. They were had up for cycling at excessive speeds — up to twenty miles an hour — though just how this was determined is anyone’s guess.

When the disgraced cyclists appeared before the County Bench a few weeks later, the charge they had to answer was ‘furious driving’ on a public highway. It is an awkward fact that ‘furious driving’, as defined in the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, only applied if injury had been caused, but even so the magistrates imposed fines that added up to roughly £60. This was a considerable sum, which explains the witty comment made by the Nottingham Daily Guardian in its report on the incident. ‘The shades of night were falling fast when the last cyclist settled up,’ the Guardian recorded. ‘By that time the exchequer had grown heavy.’

Racing cyclists. William Keppel & George Lacy Hillier Cycling 1887.

The scorchers

There is no shortage of stories in the newspapers of incidents of furious driving. The guilty individuals were often drivers of carts who failed to restrain their horse or pony, or, more reprehensibly, egged them on in full knowledge of the danger they posed to others. But it is not hard to understand why it was also cyclists who got into trouble. The machines they rode on — the penny farthings and the velocipedes and the bone-shakers — were mighty contraptions. Crashing at speed into a pedestrian, they would have been capable of doing a great deal of damage.

At about this time, in the 1890s, the term ‘scorching’ came into common use to describe, and indeed to denounce, the phenomenon of reckless cycling. It may sound like slang, but it was widely applied with all due solemnity to what was regarded by many as a serious public nuisance. Even elite cyclists might be accused of scorching, a case in point being that of George Lacy Hillier, who fell foul of a vigilant copper in the summer of 1897, that is to say around about the time young Arthur Street and his bone-shaker were pulled over on the road to Brighton.

Hillier, who in his professional life was a stockbroker at the London Stock Exchange, was indeed a hero of the cycling world. He was national champion at all distances, and raced successfully on the Continent, taking first prize in 1885 in the Leipzig ten kilometre event, and breaking the record for that distance in the process. However, on 24 July in the fateful year 1897, he was stopped by a constable for riding his bicycle furiously near his home in Upper Norwood.

Postcard celebrating George Lacy Hillier. 1879.

It is the fools who count

The offence took place on College Road in Dulwich, and the constable reckoned that Hillier had pedalled past him at anything from twelve to fourteen miles an hour. When Hillier was brought before the Lambeth magistrate he claimed that he could not have been going more than eight or ten miles an hour. The magistrate fined him 10s. with costs, leaving him no option but to send an angry letter to the newspapers in which he insisted that he had been treated unfairly, as his version of events had only been heard as a statement put forward by his solicitor.

The cycling community was not entirely on the side of Hillier and his ilk. A fortnight after the eighty amateurs received hefty fines in the Reigate court, a champion racer by the name of Frederick Walter Chase covered a fifty mile course in just over two hours, helped by a crowd of pacers and riding a magnificent machine fitted with state-of-the-art gears and the compound crank developed by Mr Gerald Barker of Victoria Street in Westminster, which, one would have thought, would have impressed anyone.

However, the aptly named Cycling magazine begged to differ, citing the fate of the wretched Arthur Street, who was summoned and fined for a comparatively trivial offence when the elite athlete was able to hurtle along the public highways at breakneck speed. Elsewhere the Sheffield Daily Telegraph employed some interesting language to make much the same point:

In cycling, as in other things unfortunately, it is the fools who count. An actress commits an indiscretion; and forthwith we are deluged with denunciation of the stage. A clergyman misconducts himself; and the air immediately rings with tirades against hypocrisy.

Scorchers times four. George H. Van Norman c. 1898. Library of Congress.

Martyrs to the cause

The County Bench of Reigate was chaired by William John Monson, otherwise 1st Viscount Oxenbridge, and the courtroom proceedings on that Saturday in August were not without interest. A technicality that had clearly ruffled feathers was the wording of the charge. One of the defending barristers made the objection that it was too vague.  If his client, Miss Florence Ward of Islington, had endangered life by riding her bicycle, then exactly whose life had she endangered? Oxenbridge dismissed the objection: even in the absence of dead bodies the charge against Miss Ward was valid. She was fined 19s.

There was clearly a feeling among the defendants that they were martyrs to a cause. When Miss Ward was examined, the police sergeant who had hauled her over made two specific claims. The first was that she had been going between sixteen and seventeen miles an hour. The second, not unrelated to the first, was that she was so out of wind that she could not speak a word. He assumed that at the time of the offence she had been training for a race because he learnt that she subsequently broke the London to Brighton record. At this Miss Ward’s fellow martyrs raised a great cheer.

The defendants resorted to a variety of tactics. Miss Kate Harding — place of residence not known — had been riding a tandem. She gallantly blamed the misdemeanour on her escort, Mr Joseph Corderey, who had been setting the pace, hearing which Oxenbridge quipped that Cordery had been ‘running away’ with Harding and promptly fined the pair 12s. each. Another defendant, a young man of spirit, declared that he had cycled all over England without incurring the wrath of the police. ‘Then I wish you would try Scotland, Ireland, and Wales,’ retorted the quick-witted Oxenbridge, ‘and let us alone here. Perhaps you can find a place where people do not mind being killed.’

William John Monson, 1st Viscount Oxenbridge. 1860.

Arthur in court

But the star of this unlikely courtroom drama was undoubtedly young Arthur Street. His story appeared in more than one newspaper, but the preferred source has to be the South London Mail, surely, for the simple reason that the author of its regular ‘Cycling Notes’ wrote under the name Pedalphast. As we have seen, Arthur reduced the courtroom to laughter when his bone-shaker was wheeled in as evidence. Well, according to Pedalphast, a rather shadowy ‘expert from Croydon’ testified that a mere boy, riding that bicycle, could not possibly have been doing the sixteen to eighteen miles an hour he had been charged with. Even ‘a really good pedaller’ would have been pushed to do more than twelve, the expert asserted.

But the two constables who had stopped Arthur outside Reigate were not to be defeated that easily, and they claimed that he had been riding a different, and presumably a better, machine when he had whizzed past them. The magistrates were not amused, and, accusing Arthur of trying to deceive them, fined him 19s. Arthur did not have enough money to pay the fine, and was looking at a spell in jail, but was spared this when his fellow cyclists offered to organise a collection on his behalf.

Two chaps and their tandem. Charles Spencer The Modern Bicycle 1877.

Hooking and hiding

In the newspaper debate generated by the Reigate case not all the comments were critical of irresponsible cyclists. The police were subjected to considerable scorn, not only for systematically exaggerating claims of furious driving, but also for employing underhand means of catching offenders. They worked in pairs, the Daily News revealed, standing at some distance apart along the road so that if the first missed his victim he could signal to the other to flag them down. They put on plain clothes and sat by the side of the road to disguise themselves as weary wayfarers. They even stooped to hiding behind hedges in ambush.

Other police tactics were less sophisticated but more effective. Coppers were known to throw their capes at the wheel spokes of a passing bicycle, forcing the rider to stop abruptly. Even more dangerous was the practice of ‘hooking’ a cyclist off their machine with the handle of a walking stick. One recipient of this treatment swore in court that he had only been going eight miles an hour, but the copper who had ‘hooked’ him to the ground said twenty, and was believed. The wretched cyclist spent a week in bed recovering from his injuries, in recognition of which he was fined a mere 5s., although he had to pay a further 25s. in costs.

Caught speeding. The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review 1888.

Only a working lad

Arthur’s story has a curious ending. He was evidently offended at the way he had been represented in the South London Mail, and two weeks after his court case he wrote a letter to the editor:

Sir,—Seeing that you have published in your paper so much about me, the lad from Camberwell who went to Reigate on a ‘bone-shaker’, I write to inform you that all that the policeman said is false about the machine I produced in court not being the same I rode; and as for the ‘sixpenny collection’, I have not received the slightest amount. I hope that the person who received the collection will be honourable enough to forward it to my address, as the fine is not yet paid; and I am only a working lad, who was unable to go to work for six weeks owing to a very weak ankle, and was under two hospitals three weeks previous to the time I was summoned. If any further information is required, please send to my address. I have witnesses to prove that I was on the same machine that I brought into court, and can produce the same machine at any moment. Yours truly etc.

Colour lithograph of a cyclist. c. 1900. British Museum.

A boy on a bone-shaker

Whether or not he appreciated the publicity, Arthur achieved a momentary local fame, and he was mentioned again in the Mail by Black Enamel, whose ‘Cycle Jottings’ were clearly as topical as Pedalphast’s musings on the same subject. Black Enamel had been wending his way on his machine from Streatham when he encountered a crowd throwing handfuls of confetti, some of which lodged uncomfortably in his shirt collar. The cause of the excitement was a parade that was a part of the annual Croydon carnival:

I believe there were hundreds of cyclists in the procession, dressed in every conceivable costume under the sun, fire engines galore were decorated lavishly by their respective firemen, emblematical cars were there in large numbers, and every tradesman in Croydon appeared to take the most lively interest in the affair. Coloured fire shone at intervals from the house-tops, and the principal shops were illuminated by many small fairy lamps.

The parade was a spectacular affair, and Black Enamel, commenting on the great variety of costumes, recalled that

One small boy dressed as a coster amused me very much mounted on an old ‘bone-shaker’. Whether this was an interpretation of the Reigate affair I know not, but as a prototype of his Camberwell brother wheelman he was unique.

Sadly, Arthur Street’s doppelgänger did not win a prize for his costume. That honour went to a fellow dressed as Santa Claus. Other prizes for costumes were snapped up by a grasshopper, a French poodle and Mephistopheles, while the award for the best decorated bicycle went to a bizarre imitation of a Spanish toreador.

Photograph of Victorian cyclist. c. 1890.

Not a glorious war

Arthur remained a print cutter throughout his working life. Other than that, and his marriage in 1907 to Ellen Elizabeth Lewis, the daughter of a decorator, the only reliable information we have about him is his war record. Alas, he did not cover himself in glory. In April 1916, shortly after the passing of the Military Service Act, he was conscripted into the army, aged thirty-five. His regiment was the King’s (Liverpool), but at the end of the month he was transferred to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and in June he was discharged on medical grounds.

What affliction rendered our Camberwell cyclist unfit for military service? In the first place he had defective teeth, but, more significantly, he had trouble with posture. His feet were slightly flat, and he complained of severe pain in his knees, which appeared to be bent and unable to support the weight of his frame. He also suffered from colic, or so he claimed, and he told the examining medical officer that his father had been consumptive, although he himself had not a trace of the disease in him. He was consigned to field service at home as ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’ but it was strongly suspected that he was a malingerer.

We will probably never know if Arthur had talked his way out of the army or if he was genuinely unfit for active service. That aside, it is ironic that a man whose knees gave him so much trouble had once been able to cycle from London to Brighton, or at least from London to Reigate. Could it be that he had cycled too often in his youth? Could it be that his bone-shaker had finally — and painfully — lived up to its name?

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