I've just read Jerome K Jerome's autobiography My Life and Times.
He comes across as a genial fellow who knew all the literary men of his age. He was born in 1859 and so lived through the age when transport changed, changed utterly.
THE WHEELS OF CHANGE
When I was a boy, a stage-coach started each morning (Sundays excepted) from an old inn off the Minories. Not the shining band-box of the coloured print, with its dancing horses, its jolly coachman, and its dandy guard, but a heavy lumbering vehicle drawn by four shambling horses, all of a different size, driven by a rheumaticy old curmudgeon, who had to be hoisted on to his seat, and his whip handed up to him afterwards. It went through Ongar and Epping, but its final destination I forget. To many of the smaller towns round London the railway had not then penetrated; and similar relics set out each morning from other ancient hostelries. Carriers' carts were common everywhere, connecting London with what are now its nearer suburbs, but which were then outlying villages. A row of them stood always in the middle of the Whitechapel Road, opposite St. Mary's church. They were covered with a hood, and had a bench for passengers along each side, and a little window at the back. For those in a hurry who could afford the price, post chaises were still to be hired, with top-hatted postillions and horses with bells that galloped over the cobbles. Respectable people—especially publicans—kept a gig; and sporting old ladies, on visits to their bankers or solicitors,[would drive themselves into the city behind their own fat ponies.
The bicycle had not yet arrived: though nearly every afternoon an odd old fellow used to ride down Mare Street, Hackney, on a tricycle he had made for himself. In wet weather, he carried an umbrella over his head with one hand, and steered with the other. He was quite a public character, and people used to wait about to see him pass. The first bicycles were nicknamed "spiders." The front wheel was anything from fifty to sixty inches in diameter and was joined to a diminutive back wheel by a curved steel bar, shaped like a note of interrogation. Their riders had to be youths of skill and courage, or woe betide them. They wore tight-fitting breeches and short jackets that ended at the waist. Your modern youngster on his grimy "jig-pig" with his padded legs, his bulging mackintosh, his skull-cap and his goggles, goes further and faster, I admit; but his slim grandfather, towering above the traffic on his flashing wheel, was a braver sight for gods and girls.
It was my nephew, Frank Shorland, who first rode a safety bicycle in London. A little chap named Lawson claimed to have invented it. He became a company promoter, and later retired to Devonshire. A cute little chap. The luck ran against him. It was he who first foresaw the coming of the motor, and organized that first joy ride from the Hotel Metropole to Brighton in 1896. Young Frank was well known as an amateur racer. He believed in the thing the moment he saw it, and agreed to ride his next race on one. He was unmercifully chaffed by the crowd. His competitors, on their tall, graceful "spiders," looked down upon him, wondering and amazed. But he won easily, and from that day "spiders" went out of fashion; till they came to be used only by real spiders for the spinning of their webs.
The coming of the "safety" made bicycling universally popular. Till then, it had been confined to the young men. I remember the bitter controversy that arose over the argument: "Should a lady ride a bicycle?" It was some while before the dropped bar was thought of, and so, in consequence, she had to ride in knickerbockers: very fetching they looked in them, too, the few who dared. But in those days a woman's leg was supposed to be a thing known only to herself and God. "Would you like it, if your sister showed her legs? Yes, or no?" was always the formula employed to silence you, did you venture a defence. Before that, it had been: "Could a real lady ride outside an omnibus?" or "Might a virtuous female ride alone in a hansom cab?" The woman question would seem to have been always with us. The landlady of an hotel on the Ripley Road, much frequented then by cyclists, went to the length of refusing to serve any rider who, on close inspection, turned out to be of the feminine gender; and the Surrey magistrates supported her. The contention was that a good woman would not—nay, could not—wear knickerbockers, "Bloomers" they were termed: that, consequently, any woman who did wear bloomers must be a bad citizeness: in legal language, a disorderly person, and an innkeeper was not bound to serve "disorderly characters." The decision turned out a blessing[Pg 89] in disguise to the cycling trade. It stirred them to invention. To a bright young mechanical genius occurred the "dropped bar." A Bishop's wife, clothed in seemly skirts, rode on a bicycle through Leamington.
Bicycling became the rage. In Battersea Park, any morning between eleven and one, all the best blood in England could be seen, solemnly peddling up and down the half-mile drive that runs between the river and the refreshment kiosk. But these were the experts—the finished article. In shady by-paths, elderly countesses, perspiring peers, still in the wobbly stage, battled bravely with the laws of equilibrium; occasionally defeated, would fling their arms round the necks of hefty young hooligans who were reaping a rich harvest as cycling instructors: "Proficiency guaranteed in twelve lessons." Cabinet Ministers, daughters of a hundred Earls might be recognized by the initiated, seated on the gravel, smiling feebly and rubbing their heads. Into quiet roads and side-streets, one ventured at the peril of one's limbs. All the world seemed to be learning bicycling: sighting an anxious pedestrian, they would be drawn, as by some irresistible magnetic influence, to avoid all other pitfalls and make straight for him. One takes it that, nowadays, the human race learns bicycling at an age when the muscles are more supple, the fear of falling less paralyzing to the nerves. Still occasionally, of an early morning, one encounters the ubiquitous small boy, pursuing an erratic course upon a wheel far and away too high for him—borrowed without permission, one assumes, from some still sleeping relative. With each revolution, his whole body rises and falls. He seems to be climbing some Sisyphian staircase. But one feels no anxiety. One knows that by some miracle he will, at the last moment, succeed in swerving round one; will shave the old lady with the newspapers by a hair's breadth; will all but run over the dog; and disappear round the corner. Providence is helpful to youth. To the middle aged it can be spiteful. The bicycle took my generation unprepared.
Jerome K Jerome took part in the Emancipation Run in 1896, when a parade of motor cars drove to Brighton – or rather broke down and didn't make it. The Run was held to celebate the passing of the the Emancipation Act, the name that motorists gave to the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, which lifted the restrictions on the use of motor vehicles on roads.