Cycling in Victorian Forest Gate

Wednesday 26 March 2014

We have covered bike manufacturing in Forest Gate at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries in the last two blogs.  This week we look, briefly, at some of the use put to the massive output of bikes at this time of cycle mania, nationally as well as locally. And it was overwhelmingly for pleasure rather than business, or travel-to-work, that the use of the bikes was put.

Cycling was one of the first widespread hobbies to emerge in late Victorian Britain, as the prospering labouring and middle classes began to enjoy organised leisure pursuits on a wide scale for the first time. It was a healthy and (after the original purchase of the bike) cheap form of social engagement.

Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins
visit East London, in disguise, 1903 (photo Harry Gulliver)

Cycle shops

Red Rose Cycles sold bicycles for the popular sport of cycling . It was the trading name of J. Elston and Sons, who had their bicycle shop at 1, Sebert Road, Forest Gate, near the junction with Woodgrange Road.

 A 12-page catalogue, dating from 1899 (cover, below), contains details of nine bicycles ranging in price from £12.12s (£12.70p) to £22.10s (£22.50p); a list of accessories; gear tables for different wheel dimensions; and a table of lighting up times for each month of the year.

Selling local bikes in Sebert Road, in 1899
This item was printed by Ward , Whiteway & Co of Woodgrange Road, the company of C.H. Ward, which we will be featuring in future editions of the blog.

Below is a photograph of another cycle shop in Forest Gate, taken from The Old Photographs series of this district. Unfortunately neither a location nor date is given for the photo, but the editors say:

"Cycling was a popular pastime for both sexes in the early years of this (twentieth) century, as it was one of the few respectable pastimes men and women could do without a chaperon. These young ladies in their specially shortened cycling skits are probably making the popular ride from Forest Gate to Epping."

Undated and unlocated bike shop in Forest Gate,
 from The Old Photographs series

Cycling clubs proliferated at this time, and organised rides from cities and suburbs, into the countryside, as a regular feature of their programmes.

A bit of social intercourse, Woodford Meet in 1890s
"a respectable pastime" not requiring a chaperon
Perhaps the largest network of cycling clubs, nationally, were the Clarion Clubs, which combined the healthy exercise of the bike, with a socialist message. These clubs predominated in the north and Midlands of England, and we have been unable to trace any existence of one on the Forest Gate/West Essex area. Any information on one would be gratefully received.

The Woodford Meet

The biggest local event in the cycling calendar, however, was undoubtedly the Woodford Meet. And given its proximity, there is no doubt there would have been a sizable Forest Gate contingent there.

Inelegant graphic from Forest Gate Weekly
News, promoting the Woodford Meet, 1898
It was an annual cycling parade held to raise money for local hospitals - Sports Aid a century plus ago!. Started in 1882 by the Essex Cycling Club, it continued (with a short break) until 1914, after which it stopped because of the First World War. It was not held again until the year 2000 when a smaller commemorative event was held.

Woodford meet - Photo Harry Gulliver(1903)
The Meet started when members of cycling clubs and unattached riders would meet at the Castle Inn (see contemporary photo of on-lookers greeting the riders c 1906)  at Woodford Green and parade through Snaresbrook, Buckhurst Hill, and Chingford.

Castle Inn, Woodford, c.1906
-welcoming the Woodford Meet
Newspapers of the time reported that its popularity had grown to such an extent that on one day over 2000 cyclists from 48 cycling clubs took part.

Nothing new about dressing up in silly clothes,
 for charity - photo Harry Gulliver (1903)
It then was dropped for 5 years before being revived in 1898, this time with the addition of it also being a fancy-dress carnival. Prizes were awarded for the best dressed team and individuals.

Hospitals dependent of charitable events for support
 - Woodford Meet 1903 (Photo: Harry Gulliver)
Meanwhile, helpers armed with collecting boxes collected money from the watching crowds which numbered in their thousands. The money was donated to local hospitals.

A local photographer, Harry Gulliver, captured the scene well, in a series of photos dated 1903. We are most grateful to him and those who have preserved the images since, for their reproduction here.

Woodford Meet, 1907

Track cycling at the Memorial Ground

The Memorial Ground in Canning Town - close to West Ham station - was the first home of West Ham Football Club, from 1900 until 1904, and had hosted its predecessor club, Thames Ironworks, for three seasons previously.

The Memorial Grounds were opened on Jubilee day 1897, to coincide with Queen Victoria's sixtieth anniversary on the throne. As well as hosting a football pitch, the stadium hosted a cycle track a running track, tennis courts and one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in England.

Cycle meet at Memorial Recreation Ground,
 1897 - when the it also hosted West Ham FC
Below we feature a photograph of a track cycling event at the Memorial Stadium in 1897 - doubtless featuring some of the bicycles produced here in Forest Gate.


  1. My Great Aunt, Florence Williams b1889 Forest Gate (probably in Odessa Rd) trained as an elementary school teacher. She was a member of the Clarion Cycling Club and met up with friends at the club house at Nazeing, nr Waltham Abbey in the Lea Valley. This particular cycling group was active 1913-1920 by which time Florence was living with her parents at Keogh Road, Forest Gate. Florence married in 1919 and with her husband moved away from the area.

  2. It was 22 miles from Forest Gate to Nazeing. Did Florence ever do that on a push bike?
    I have a couple of photos of her, one in a group, on the shoulders of a couple of young men outside the door of the Clarion, and the other on the open road, riding a small motorbike!

    1. Hi, would love to see any photos you have of her in London Clarion Cycle Club. The club is celebrating its 125th birthday in 2020 See our website

  3. I have an early Forest Gate Cycling Club enamel sign for sale. Would like it to go to a local collector.

  4. I have just posted the Woodford Meet in 1904 on FB group


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