Forest Gate Cycling Club, and life on the road at the end of the C19th

Saturday 19 August 2017

We have covered cycling in Forest Gate at the end of the nineteenth century on this site a number of times before. Notably, when we traced 14 cycle building workshops in the area, here; when we described, in detail, life inside one of them, here; and when we looked at some of the events taking place around cycling at the time, here.

This post, unapologetically, returns to the subject. It puts the Forest Gate cycling boom of the time into a bit of historical context and dips, briefly, into the life of the Forest Gate Cycling Club of the time.

Forest Gate Cycling Club sign - c1897
We are immensely grateful to vintage cycling enthusiast, Tim Dawson, and his excellent blog, here for the inspiration for much of this, and to the indefatigable Mark Gorman for some of the sleuthing that makes the account possible.

The second half of this article consists of extracts from the Forest Gate Weekly News (FGWN) of 1896, at the peak of the cycling boom. The editor of the paper was a cycling enthusiast and wrote a weekly column of snippets about life in the saddle locally, with some side cycling-related glances at wider social issues.

The extracts are, by turn, informative, amusing and frankly sexist (hardly surprising for the period). Some of them suggests that a number of  modern problems on the road go back rather a long time. Comments on the perils of Centre Road may seem very apposite today, given recent issues on that road.
Much of this article focuses on 1896, which is, fortuitously, the year for which we have the FGWT snippets, below. It was a boom year for cycling - possibly the height of its popularity in the Victorian era.

Woodford Meet 1903 (Photo: Harry Gulliver)
The pneumatic tyre was invented in 1888, but wasn’t widely available until the early 90’s. It was a few years before the tyres became reliable, easy to fit and repair ( see FGWT snippet 14 August, below). Forest Gate had its role to play here, too.  John Allen, another cycling enthusiast follower of this website, some while ago wrote to say, that at a later date:
One particular well-respected and still sought-after parts manufacturer was 'The Constrictor Tyre Company' that was housed in Nursery Lane, off Upton Lane, approx behind the Odeon Cinema, which, of course fronted on Romford Road.
With the widening popularity of pneumatic tyres in the mid 1890's, bicycles began to be easier to ride, and popularity increased greatly. Many realised the health benefits of cycling.

A big factor in 1896 was that society circles began to ride bicycles, including the royals. Parading along Rotten Row in carriages was replaced by riding a gleaming bicycle sedately around Battersea Park. The peak year for this was 1896. 

Cycle manufacturers increased their capacity and the market was saturated as early as mid 1897. Prices had to be drastically reduced to clear stocks as cycling fell out of fashion, and many companies went over the next few years. Not long afterwards the motorcycle and motor car became the thing of fashion - not that you would guess it from the FGWN extract of 11 September 1896, below.

Forest Gate Cycling Club

Tim Dawson, a keen collector of early cycling mementoes, wrote to us a couple of months ago to say that he had picked up a most unusual sign (see below), for the Forest Gate Cycling Club. He continued:

Over 25+ years of collecting, I have never seen a cycling club sign, other than the usual CTC (Cycling Touring Club?), Clarion etc.. About as rare as rare can be, it must be a one-off, and was probably attached to the front of a pub or hotel in the area, where the club had their headquarters. It measures 32 x 24 inches.

It transpires that the club met at the Forest Glen Hotel on Dames Road - now the site of a controversial music "venue". The club itself is referred to under its previous incarnation, as the Glen Cycling Club in the extract from FGWN 19 June 1896, below.  The pub's location - at the entrance to Wanstead Flats and then Epping Common - made complete sense, as a starting point for ride outs.
The club changed its name in 1897, to the Forest Gate Cycling Club (FGCC), and appears under that name in a number of programmes for the Woodford Meet (see below) and in some press articles (also below).

The Forest Glen on Dames Road - home
 in the early 20th century to Forest Gate
 Cycling Club.  Home in the early 21st
 century to a rather dubious "music venue"
The first press cutting suggests that by 1904, the FGCC seems to have established a number of branches, but all farther out into the (then) countryside than Forest Gate. This may have been for the same reason that the Essex Beagles athletics (now Newham and Essex Beagles) club moved its HQ from Mile End to Forest Gate, and then further out into Essex as housing development progressed in the 1890s-1900s.

The FGCC and the Woodford Meet

We covered the Woodford Meet- a large local meeting of cycling clubs at the end of the nineteenth century -  in a previous post, here. Tim and Mark have unearthed more fascinating details about some of the apparently strange activities and games they embraced and encouraged, as seen in the programme extracts and press cuttings below - with particular reference to the FGCC.

Woodford Meet programme June 1900
The 1912 article (from the Preston Herald) shows the club still in existence and attending the Woodford meet, but by now under a slightly different name. It is unclear what "St James" refers to - could the club have become attached to St James' church in Forest Gate or moved HQ to Walthamstow?

Preston Herald 20 June 1912 showing
 expansion or relocation of Forest Gate Cycling Club
The members of the FGCC provided some amusing sounding entertainments at the Meet. For example, in 1902, they provided a "Ping-Pong" tableau. Quite what that may have been sets the mind racing! They also appear to have participated in a concert and other entertainments opposite the Royal Forest Hotel, in Chingford.

Woodford Meet programme 1902, with
 Forest Gate Cycling Club and Ping-Pong tableau
In 1904 they provided the "Forest Gate Non-Slipping Band" - more mind boggling, here - with some members being mounted on a "Quad" (a four seat cycle), others on a "Trip" (a triplet, or three seater), playing such musical instruments as the Cyclophone, Piccalooloo and Kazoone!

Woodford Meet programme 1904 with
Forest Gate Non-Slipping Band Tableau
Tim's blog covering the FGCC  and Woodford Meet can be found here . We are most grateful to him for allowing us to share it with you.

Victorian cycling in Forest Gate, from FGWN June - September 1896

The editor of this short-lived publication was clearly a keen cyclist and wrote a weekly column of snippets on his views, on a whole range of local cycle-related activities.  Below we provide a sample of them - without comment - which appeared under the column title Hum of the Wheel, and written under the nom de plume: The Skipper.


5 June 1896
I wish the tryo would confine himself (or herself) to the side roads for practice. On the Flats road (ed: today's Centre Road) the learners are a danger to themselves and everyone else.
Never pass a lady cyclist on the near side if it can be avoided. It is a bad practice at any time, and eminently distressing for the fair sex.

Elston, Forest Gate cycle maker, catalogue 1899
 12 June 1896
The ordinary pedestrian still retains his antipathy to cyclists. We are a long-suffering race, and so long as the cyclist-hater confines himself to bad language, we pass him by in silent contempt, but really should, for his own sake, stop there. I hear a bit of a "dust-up" with some of these "road hogs" Aldborough way, in which our friends at the wheel acquitted themselves like men, and effectively silenced the foul-mouthed fraternity.
The cycling constable, or, as our American friends would say "the bike cop" must surely be a journalistic joke. We are seriously told, in a London morning daily, that "on many of the roads leading out of London, plain clothes policemen, mounted on machines, are stationed. These men give chase to any trouble-some cyclists, and are of great use in maintaining order on the public highways" It's too comic! Fancy the joy of the young scorcher at  being "taken on" by one of these heavy fliers, and then the denouement of them both being summoned in another district for road racing.

The Woodford Meet, seen through
 the eyes of FGWN in 1897
 19 June 1896
The Glen CC is one of the wheel clubs of the district, for although it has only been established about three months, it has a roll of some 63 members. Dr Collier of Manor Park is the President and Mr E Davies of The Forest Glen Hotel and Mr W Maggs of Woodgrange Road are among the vice-Presidents. ...
Glen Cycling Club, predecessor
of Forest Gate Cycling Club
(Essex Herald 18 August 1896)

A very pleasant run is taken by the Glen Cycling Club on Saturday afternoon to Keston Lakes, or as they are known locally, "The Fishponds" (ed: these are on the edge of three commons: Hayes, West Wickham and Keston).

10 July 1896
I notice with much satisfaction the increasing growth in the popularity of the tricycle. There was an age when this type of machine seemed positively doomed; and what few were in use appeared to be ridden chiefly by old gentlemen, who dared not risk a single track.
Things have somewhat changed since those days; no longer is the tricycle confined to the ranks of the aged and the feeble, but we find both the young and the old, the strong and the infirm, the robust and the dyspeptic taking to the three tracker; and little wonder, for only those who have thoroughly mattered the tricycle can really appreciate to the fullest all the delightful sensations experienced in the riding of it. Then here's to the further success of the tricycle!

One of the fancy dress tableau on show
 at Woodford Meet in 1903 (Photo: Harry Gulliver)
 17 July 1896
I had the recent report of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which states that a new form of cruelty has recently been brought to light, under the action of the Society, consisting of over-taxing the strength of dogs, when running with bicycles over long distances at high speed. Some dogs will rather die than stop when following their masters, and this has actually happened without the knowledge at the time of the owners. It has already come to the knowledge of the Society that hundreds of dogs have been lost in country places, consequent on bicycle riders out-running them on roads where no trace of the course they had taken been left.

24 July 1896
I would advise that the new riders who contemplate taking their machines with them for the summer holiday to make sure that the roads in the vicinity of their chosen resort are sufficiently good to make it worth their while doing so. This applies more especially to the fair sex, who, after having been mulcted heavily by railway company porters and cabbies, at last arrive with their beloved bike at a sea-side town only to find that the hobbly, flinty roads in the immediate neighbourhood render the pastime anything but an enjoyable one, and their trusty mount a veritable "white elephant".

31 July 1896
The gross incompetency displayed by some of our local authorities over the simplest matters makes one long for the power to regulate the salaries of these gentlemen. The Flats road, for instance, was such a purgatory for cyclists a few years ago that most men went round by Dames (or as it was then called the Leyton) Road to avoid it, and until the Wanstead Board took it over in compassion, and made up the road properly, the standard plan of pitching down granite periodically, and leaving it to work in or out as it pleased was very regularly pursued. Now, one is inclined to wish that they would dismiss the new Road Surveyor and his staff and hand us over en bloc to the Wanstead parish. Then perhaps Woodgrange Road would be attended to properly.

Advert for Clark Bros cycles, FGWN 1896, the
largest of the area's 14 cycle manufacturers, 1896
 7 August 1896
The carriage of bicycles by rail is becoming so general that before long the railway companies will be compelled to provide increased accommodation. I would suggest that a special van, with supports for cycles, be attached to all long-distance trains in the summer season as a means of overcoming the existing difficulty. Considering the way we are mulcted in fares we are surely entitled to some additional measures of safety to ordinary passengers' luggage - and milk cans.
The lady rider is more in evidence than ever, and it is interesting to notice the civilizing influence she exerts over her masculine attendants. Their handle bars go up, and their coats are buttoned and some of them are actually deluded into wearing a collar and tie. In time, maybe, the influence of the "cock and hen" parties may even regenerate for the "bounder", but that, perhaps, is too much to hope for.
Cycle built for "a lady" by Forest Gate
cycle manufacturer, Elston, c 1899

 14 August 1896
The modern cyclist is of a very effeminate, luxurious disposition. He complains of his saddle, the roads, his gear, and what not, so often that I am sometimes lost in wonder as to what this tender individual would have done in the good old days of 60lb ordinaries, with their iron seats, short cranks and "trawl" brakes. It is interesting, by the way, to recall the advent of the "Spider" as we named it, and the days of the BTC (ed: British Touring Club?) and its Lincoln green uniform. There was a Spartan-like severity about "learning to ride" then, which puts to shame the age of air tyres and riding schools.

21 August 1896
Despite all statements to the contrary, I adhere to the opinion I have before advanced, that a brake is quite unnecessary on the machine of an experienced rider. Any hill that you cannot hold a light machine on is much better walked down, as the surface is sure to be bad for the tyres. For the full roadster type, of course, a brake may well go with the mud-guards, pump, cyclometer etc, that some riders load themselves up with. 30lbs may be within a rider's control, whilst 45lbs, may, perhaps, be beyond it.

28 August 1896
Many of my readers may like to know of the foreign cycling tours which have been successfully organised of late. A week can be spent in Normandy for £5, 15 days in Brittany for 9 guineas and other parts of the Continent are catered for on a like scale. Sewell and Crowther of 41 Gracechurch Street will supply all details to anyone desiring fresh fields and pastures new.
I am glad to see that the absurd charge of "furiously riding a bicycle" brought against Miss Mildred Clark of East Ham was unsubstantiated. Perhaps the public will begin to realise that the bicycle is a vehicle in the eye of the law, and perfectly entitled to a use of the road, when a few more of these frivolous charges are dismissed.

4 September 1896
There is only one real safeguard against having your bicycle stolen, and that is to look after it. So many thefts have occurred lately that it seems necessary to remind riders that nowadays when the "man in the street" can ride, it is unsafe to let your machine go out of sight except placed under lock and key.
Vaseline, and plenty of it, is the one and only preservative from rust. It is a good plan to carry a small tin in one's satchel, and then if one is caught in a shower, the worst effects, at any rate, can be avoided.

Edmund Hussey, another of the
 contemporary Forest Gate
cycle builders, 1896
 11 September 1896
After 14 November the various auto-car, motor-car, horseless carriage companies will have no excuse for delay in showing the British public generally, and their shareholders in particular, what they can do. I doubt, myself, if they will succeed in placing upon the road a machine capable of maintaining a speed of 14 miles per hour, with credit to themselves and comfort to the public, for some considerable time to come. The specimens at work at the Crystal Palace do not favourably impress me at all.
Then we shall have to find them a new name for general use. The essays in this general direction have been rather clumsy up to the present, "auto-car" being the most euphonious, though not etymologically correct.
I am constantly being asked what I think of this or that make of American cycle. I cannot understand why riders want to go outside the large range of choice they have in the English manufacturers, who are, after all, the oldest makers and the best judges of what is most suitable for English roads and climate. It must be to that craze for "something new" which lies dormant in human breasts that the Yankee manufacturer appeals.

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