Laying off the watercress and tucking-in to seakale: South London cyclists in the 1870s cycling boom

The year is 1878. Balham is home to a newly formed cycling club, cycling is becoming a popular sport and leisure activity and South London is home to some of the leading riders and bicycle makers of the day.

In WS Clark’s Suburban Homes of London 1881, Balham and the surrounding area reads like the perfect home for cycling:

Balham is bounded on the north by Clapham Common on the west by Wandsworth Common and on the east and south by Tooting Common. It is thus peculiarly favoured with the possession of what is known as ‘open spaces’ … and doubtless is, one of the healthiest spots in the suburbs of South London.”

This isn’t however, the quaint village of the early 1800s. Balham has been showing signs of urbanisation since the railway station opened on the Crystal Palace line in 1856. Horses and carts ride past numerous roadhouses, country pubs and shops. The line has attracted a new middle class to the area – often-young athletic men – who take their sport such as cycling and football seriously.

It’s worth noting that Clapham Rovers are FA Cup runners-up in 1878/79. The season after they will beat Oxford University 1-0 at the Kennington Oval – the venue also used as a cycling track – to lift the trophy.

A number of handbooks of the time reveal that at least 6 cycling clubs are operating in the area:

  • Club: Wanderers HQ Riders meet at the Windmill, Clapham Common Formed 1875
  • Club: Clapham HQ Alexandra, Clapham Common Formed 1876
  • Club: Norwood HQ Norwood Institute Formed 1877
  • Club: Bolingbroke HQ Wandsworth Common Formed 1878
  • Club: Stockwell HQ Bromfield Road, Clapham Formed 1878
  • *Club: Balham CC HQ Unknown in 1878 Formed 1878
  • *Club: Tooting BC HQ Wiseton Road, Upper Tooting Formed 1878

*Balham CC and Tooting BC could be the same club

They are part of a growing movement in the capital. In King of the Road, author Andrew Ritchie reveals that, “In 1874 there were 7 clubs in London. By 1876 there were 11 and by the end of 1877 the number had doubled. The Bicycle Annual of 1878 lists 64 clubs.”

Cycling’s popularity is such that an umbrella organisation is needed to safeguard the interests of cyclists. In 1878 the Bicycle Touring Club – which changed its name to the Cyclists’ Touring Club in 1883 – is formed.

Wanderers have been riding from the Windmill on Clapham Common since 1875 and are the home club of amateur champion Herbert Liddell Cortis. Another rider based in the Clapham area is John ‘Happy Jack’ Keen. Keen participated in world professional championships at various distances between 1870 and 1880. In 1878 he’s the professional champion of England and while his record is nowhere near his best it’s still an impressive 9 wins in 16 contests. One loss is in a 5 mile race against the amateur champion Ion Keith Falconer, although the victor concedes that Keen is the fastest rider in the world (a year later Keen the amateur and Cortis the professional go head to head in a series of matches with Keen the victor).

On 18 November 1878, John Keen rides in a remarkable race at the Agricultural Hall, Islington. 12 riders embark on a 6-day cycling epic – riding 18 hours a day – for the long distance championship of the world. Keen retires on the fourth day finishing 10th.

This is a taste of the top end of cycling. The reality is that the experiences of the London club cyclist are more like those of Clapham CC members as reported in the Bicycle Journal March 27 1878:

“Eight members took part in the run to Croydon last Saturday. The roads were rather dusty, otherwise in capital condition. On the road across Mitcham Common two donkeys were revelling in the luxury of a dusty bath, but immediately decamped on hearing the notes of an unprofessional bugler…at Croydon it was decided to ride on to Warlingham…although the hotels at Warlingham are not built after the London or Parisian style, yet a substantial tea was served at one of them, ‘umble but ‘omely.”

And it is these riders who are buying machines from the likes of John Keen, the bicycle manufacturer. The 1878 Bicyclist Handbook lists 46 machines made by 30 London manufacturers including a number in South London:

  • Company The London Bicycle Co Address 17 Streatham Place, Brixton Hill Machines Fidelite, Superb, Victoria, Triumph
  • Company William Keen, Address Albert Road, South Norwood Machines Norwood, Empress, Traveller
  • Company John Keen Address Falcon Road, Clapham Junction Machines Newly launched Eclipse Roadster and Eclipse Racer
  • Company WC Coke, Address 4, Versailles Terrace, Annerley Road Machines Criterion

The 1879 Indespensible Bicyclists Handbook also lists HJ Pansey (sic actually Pausey) at Clapham Common producing the ‘University’ machine.

The Keen Brothers started out together in Surbiton and in 1871 launched a coveted high bicycle (Penny Farthing) called the ‘Spider.’ In 1875 John Keen began advertising the innovative ‘Eclipse’ and by December that year he had moved his workshops from Surbiton Hill to Falcon Road, Clapham Junction. On the 23rd September 1878 John Keen the promoter was touting a 4 mile amateur handicap at Lillie Bridge with the winner bagging an ‘Eclipse’. Keen moved back to Surbiton in 1880 probably because it was nearer to the newly established Surbiton track.

The final word on cycling in the period comes from the 1878 Indispensable Bicyclists Handbook. It has some useful guidance on diet for the club cyclist:

The following list of proper and improper articles of diet to be partaken of during training will be found of use to the novice


Beef, Lamb, Mutton, Eggs, Fowl, Gelatine, Rabbit, Fresh Fish in moderation, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Seakale, Asparagus, Beans, Bread, Oatmeal, Sago, Rice Tapioca, Milk, Wine, (Port), Mild Ale, Water


Bacon, Pork, Sausages, Tongue, Shellfish, Duck, Dried and Potted Fish and Meats in any form. Turnips, Carrots, Parsnips, Artichokes, Lettuce, Watercress, Cucumber, New Bread, Puddings, Pastry, Beer and Cider, Stout and Claret, Tea, Coffee, Cocoa, Wines generally

 So remember, lay off the watercress and tuck-in to the seakale.

Your help

Can you add to the story? Email me at or drop me a line in the comments box. I would love to hear from you. 


Andrew Ritchie’s splendid King of the Road is out of print, but can usually be found on ebay.

A number of guides and yearbooks on the Veteran Cyclist Online Library were used for club info and the paragraph on diet.

For all things John Keen the wiki page is a good starting point but for a more in-depth look at his life and times go to The VCC online library which has a fascinating article on John Keen by Les Bowerman.

The website has a blow-by-blow account of the six day race at the Agricultural Hall, Islington.

Also thanks to Roger Armstrong who knows his South London and Cycling. Check out a book he co-wrote in 2001 on the Buildings of Clapham. Insight on Balham in the period also gleaned from WS Clark’s Suburban Homes Of London 1881.

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