Chronicles: Cycling Around Ventnor in 1900

In the 1890s and 1900s cycling was both popular and fashionable, perhaps because it could be enjoyed by anyone who could get on a bike, male or female, rich or poor, as described by HG Wells in Mr Polly and Somerset Maugham in Cakes and Ale (published in 1930 but set at the beginning of the century).

It was enjoyed in Ventnor as much as anywhere, although here, apparently, when a cycling couple came to a steep incline it was the gentleman’s duty to trundle a lady’s bike as well as his own up the hill.

In 1897 George Field’s shop, the High-class tailor, habit maker, hosier, hatter and outfitter in Spring Hill, was advertising Specialite: Ladies’ Cycling Costumes.  Style and Fit Guaranteed.  The photograph below shows Lucy Trueman and her sisters with their bicycles on Ventnor Esplanade.

Bicycles were manufactured in another building on Spring Hill, where the large oven in the basement was used for baking the frames after they were painted – the maker’s name was W H Upton and there were two models,  The Jumbo and The Royal Jumbo.  Further down Spring Hill there was a shop selling bicycles where the Launderette now stands. Many machines in the 1890s had no brakes, and there were countless accidents on the hills in the town; cycle repairs were carried out by Thomas Hitchman in the front room of Strelna Cottage in the upper end of Ventnor High Street.

The Undercliff Ladies Cycling Club was formed in 1896. The Secretary, Mary Robertson, was described as  one of those vigorous, red-faced, tweedy spinsters of uncertain age who were always striding around Victorian England, rain or shine, exercising themselves and their dogs.  Her cycling costume was: A tweed skirt boldly short for the period, exposing a portion of her ankles, which were encased in a pair of stoutly laced high boots with brass eyelets.  She wore a Scottish bonnet with something stuck in it – a sprig of heather or a brightly coloured feather.’  This description came from Henry Farrand Griffin, a young American living with his family at Combe Wood in Bonchurch. His memories of life in Ventnor at the turn of the century are included in the book Old Men Remember, from which these extracts are taken.

The year the Ladies Cycling Club was founded, what was described as a ‘Cycling Gymkhana’ was held in the grounds of Madeira Hall in Bonchurch, organised by the owner Major Bell who, Griffin recalled, played a first-class game of tennis [and] carried himself straight as a ramrod, like the veteran solider he was although rumour had it that he wore stays to keep his stomach under control.  The event was attended by all upper and middle class families in Bonchurch and Ventnor, but most of the people taking part, both young and old, were riding shiny new machines and very new to cycling, so the various contests were designed to suit what Griffin called the modest skill of those who had only recently learned to keep their balance on wheels.  One event was the ‘Slow Race’ where the winner was the last to cross the finish line. Henry and  his brother William were expert cyclists, able to  stand, or rather sit, stock still on a bike, and they did so, for some considerable time, to the consternation of Miss Robertson who had to declare them joint winners. Griffin says wryly: We got a generous round of applause from both losers and spectators, but Mother heard one of the latter sitting near her exclaim ‘How very American!’

Cycling Gymkhanas attended by as many as 500 people were  held in Ventnor Park, as the photographs here from 1905 and 1909 show.  Some of the elaborate costumes worn must have made cycling very difficult, particularly for those in the third photo, which is from the collection of Fay Brown, who also provides this final anecdote: One amusing event at a cycling gymkhana was ‘the Victoria Cross Race’. Grotesque human sized dummies, clothed in rags and stuffed with straw, were scattered on the lawn to represent wounded men.  Contestants were required to pick up a dummy without stopping or dismounting, then carry it to a table called ‘The Hospital’ and deposit it thereon.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society.  Sources: information from our archives including Fay Brown’s Local History indexes; photograph of the Trueman sisters from Lucy Truman’s Photograph Album. Old Men Remember is available from the Heritage Centre or through our Publications Online Shop.  Updated version of  article first published in the South Wight Chronicle in 2016.