Balham Cycling Club was born in 1897 at the back end of a bicycle boom. Whether a commuter or explorer; sports watcher or competitor; soldier or entertainer; manufacturer or salesman; socialite, middle or working class; man or woman; in 1897 the bike had something for everyone and everyone wanted in.
Bike makers’ production numbers and institution membership figures indicate a dramatic increase in cycling when Balham CC was formed. Data published in Henry Sturmey’s Cyclist Yearbooks shows a 172% increase in Cycling Touring Club (CTC) membership in just 3 years (16,343 in 1895 up to 44,491 in 1897.) It would hit a period peak of 60,449 in 1899. The yearbooks also reveal that 75 London clubs were in existence in 1879, rising to 173 in 1897 and 256 a year later*.
The club badges and details of some of the local cycling clubs
Between 1878 and 1900, 66 clubs were spawned from the Tooting, Clapham, Balham, Streatham, Wandsworth and Battersea, south london corridor. Headquarters were usually pubs and hotels such as The Alexandra, The Hope, Gauden and our very own club based at The Balham Hotel (now the Regent.)
Some were connected to manufacturers such as Balham Social CC and Fred Ball Cycles (HQ The Bedford Hotel) and some to institutions, most unusually St Georges Hospital CC was registered as a club in 1879. Some signaled where they came from such as Tooting BC and Clapham Park CC and some, well, we can only speculate what inspired their names – Incognito CC and Tortoise CC a couple of personal favourites.
During this period the cycling industry was a huge employer, with over 700 cycle manufacturers producing bikes with names like Excelsior, Empire, and something attached to the word Royal. Coventry was the manufacturing capital of the world. Cycle companies were being floated on the stock exchange, cycling exhibition organisers reported record numbers of visitors, exhibitors and machines for sale. Data for 1896/97 reveals 390 cycle makers based in London alone.
Between 1890 and 1918, 54 manufacturers and distributors are known to have existed within just a three-mile radius of The Balham Hotel, where BCC called home. It’s difficult to gauge exactly but approximately 30 were in business in 1897 including the previously mentioned Fred Ball, based at 52 Bedford Hill making the Crichton bicycle; Thomas Leverett & Co making the Prince just 800yds away at 10a Zennor Road and Walter Palmer & Co – maker of the East End – up the High Road at number 271. The Balham Cycle and Engineering Company, based at 1 Ramsden Road, sold the popular Humber and Swift Cycles and also made the splendidly monikered ‘Furore’. Henry Rey showed less flair for bike naming, calling his model The ‘Balham’.
It’s Clapham though that is the local bike manufacturing and distributing hotbed with around 15 companies operating around the time of Balham CC’s formation. These included Robinson Cycle Co who made the Crichton and were an army supplier, based at 29 St Johns Hill, Clapham Junction; Daneville Cycle Co, makers of the Daneville at 117 Clapham Road and John Porter based at 8 Crescent Place, Clapham Common who made a bicycle called the Clapham.
The King and King’s Jester
For another measure of cycling’s popularity during this period look no further than endorsement from royalty and the entertainment world. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) approved of cycling and often had a pootle himself, while stars of music hall and variety were quick to latch on to the latest craze to increase ticket sales. In Andrew Horrall’s book Popular culture in London c1890-1918 we learn that: “Once a craze erupted, tyros, established artistes, playwrights and songwriters would incorporate it into their work. Up to date references to the craze could then be heard in music halls, stadiums and from ballad singers”
And so it was with the bicycle. They featured in stage shows, are used for tricks in displays and are part of charity sports events. Popular strongman Eugen Sandow posed with a bike while expounding his views about riding for fitness. Advocating cycling he said “Each week the bicycler acquires an added skill and power which could not be done the week before.”
Local man Dan Leno, one of the most popular music hall and pantomime entertainers of all time, had cycling sketches and songs in his repertoire. In 1897, Cycling magazine published a cartoon of Leno as one of his characters Widow Twankey cycling in a dress. Among several films Leno made was a cinematic one shot entitled Dan Leno’s Attempt to Master the Bicycle.
For all of Leno’s judicious product placements, sources suggest that he was a genuine bike enthusiast. He was often seen out and about with the family on them. In The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius, we learn that “Sometimes Dan and Lydia [his wife] escorted their children on bicycle excursions, riding through the tree lined streets of Clapham Park to the open spaces of Clapham, Tooting and Wandsworth Common.” The Leno family owned a bicycle shop on Balham High Road in the early 1900s.
Songs about cycling were very popular. The most famous, “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) was written by Harry Dacre in 1892 (you’re singing it to yourself right now aren’t you?).
Pictured: King Edward VII on his Humber, strongman Eugen Sandow, entertainer Dan Leno with family, Harry Dacre and music sheet for Daisy Bell
Cycling as sport
If you weren’t riding a bike in 1897, there was a good chance you were watching people ride one, whether at the local track or velodrome for ‘a meet’ or vast indoor arena for a six-day race.
In the 1890s cycling paths had mushroomed into a plethora of temporary and permanent circuits on a range of surfaces including grass, cinder, wood and cement. Virtually every town in the UK had a track of some sort. Four first class velodromes were in close proximity at Catford, Herne Hill, Crystal Palace, Putney and Hyde Farm, Balham although the latter was in its last days.
Newspaper diarist Anol D Ryder, gives us an insight into the Balham cycle track declaring, “Going down by road on Saturday afternoon last to Hyde Farm, Balham, I was fortunate enough to witness a club 10-mile cycle race on the track there. Many of my readers may have forgotten that this track was intended for the venue of cycling, instead of Herne Hill, and great preparations were made and heaps of money spent to make the track a fine one (three laps to the mile). Such is fate! The Balham track has practically become a dead letter…”
Athletes needed a licence to compete either as amateurs or professionals after a licensing scheme was introduced in the mid-90s. In 1894 NCU gave out 2,682 of them. Many professionals were talented working class amateur riders who saw an opportunity to improve their position in life by turning pro and escape working class life.
By 1897, cycle racing behind pacers was one of the most popular forms of public entertainment. Racers were highly paid celebrity stars, with hordes of fans following their lives and cycling news through the press.
On Easter Monday 1897 London Polytechnic CC professional rider Bert Harris was four miles in to a ten-mile race when he came off his bike after a wheel buckled. He struck his head on the hard surface and died two days later without recovering consciousness. Reports stated “tens of thousands” attended his funeral.
Three months later, it was Jack Stocks in the news. Riding with pacers on the Crystal Palace Track, he broke all the cycle records from 6 to 32 miles inclusive. He also broke the hour record again (cycling 32 3/4miles) and went on to win the World Motor Paced World Championship the same year.
Emancipation of women
Women’s racing, including six-dayers, was a prominent feature of the London cycling calendar. The Aquarium in Westminster played host to a number of events in ’97 that included internationals and one billed ‘men versus women’.
The bike had given a new freedom of physical activity to women and they took up recreational riding in their thousands. Cycling had become a social phenomenon, bringing men and women together for a ride in the park. Many cycling clubs were open to both genders including Balham CC.
The cycling phenomenon
Recreational and utility cycling increased hugely in most urban environments from about 1891. In an 1895 edition of Harpers Weekly we’re told: “The Bicycle was taken up as an appliance for exercise and pleasure. These it has furnished to an extent not anticipated by its most enthusiastic devotees.”
In London, and true of Balham, a large number of new professional middle classes with a disposable income had a lot more leisure time. In Popular Culture in London c 1890-1918 we’re told: “A disproportionate number of Londoners were employed in the professions, small artisanal workshops, or as white-collar clerks and office functionaries. As a consequence the growing suburbs were inhabited by an ever-increasing middle class of Pooterish functionaries.
“If not exactly affluent, the residents of these neighbourhoods had suffiecient disposable incomes to spend on leisure.”
Balham is – and still is of course! – bounded on the north by Clapham Common, on the west by Wandsworth Common, and on the east and south by Tooting Common. In 1897 it looked a lot different than just 40 years before. A small village in the 1850s confined to what was termed ‘carriage people’ and a few labourers and gardeners, huge changes stemmed from the Crystal Palace being built in 1852 and the launch of a new train line. In the 1890s the neighbourhood saw developments around Boundaries Road, Balham Park Road, The Heaver Estate and Hyde Farm Estate. The population in 1901 was 38,000 and many are from the aforementioned professional middle classes who liked a bike ride.
By the late 1890s the price of a bike had come down and was within reach of the better-off working classes. It became a cheap, practical and relatively quick method of transport for suburban commuters. Before the tram came to Balham in 1903, a bus from Balham to central London could take two hours. Cars were only a recent phenomena and had only just been allowed on public roads. They couldn’t exceed 12mph (a limit which also applied to cycles).
Working class people also had a little more leisure time. Victorian social reformers equated recreation with improvement and Londoners were benefitting from access to parks, squares and exhibition grounds. Accounts abound in the cycling press of the period of rides through South London and the Surrey, Kent and Sussex countryside.
Finally, it’s worth noting that cycling popularity came at a time when the technology improved considerably. The Ordinary (Penny Farthing) had been taken over by the Safety Cycle as the bike of choice and pneumatic tyres had also been introduced.
Post 1897 it all went in sharp decline. The cycle trade fell on hard times as latent demand had been satisfied and the more affluent turned to the motorcar. 1896/97 also marks the peak of cycling’s popularity as a spectator sport, as new records are harder to beat and new sensations harder to find.
The bike wouldn’t be as popular again until the 1920s when once again people embraced the bicycle for work and play. This was also the time Balham CC would see a resurgence and enter a golden period in its history.
Notes and further information
* The actual numbers were bigger as many cyclists were neither registered with clubs or the CTC and some clubs didn’t embrace Sturmey’s unofficial cycling census.
Worth noting that in 1897 the bicycle is also beginning to play a role in war especially for reconnaissance and communications work, with the advantage of being lighter, quieter and logistically much easier with no the need for fuel, vehicle maintenance or horse management.
From the late 1880s cycling sections were being formed and attached to volunteer regiments across South London. While none of these were in Balham, cyclists in 1897/1898 could turn to Brigade HQs in nearby Bermondsey, Camberwell, Wimbledon, Kingston and Kennington In total they had between 104 -116 volunteers signed during 1897/1898.
- The Engineer 21 January 1890 for info on the Balham Bike
- Popular Culture in London c 1890-1918 for info on sport and culture in London
- Ride! Ride! Ride! Herne Hill Velodrome and the Story of British Track Cycling
- Balham: a brief history by Graham Gower
- Organised Cycling and Politics the 1890s and 1900s in Battersea – Sean Creighton The Sports Historian, Journal of the British Society of Sports History, No. 15, May 1995
- Analysis of British Industry by AE Harrison
- The suburban homes of London 1881 by William Spencer Clark
- English Heritage Survey of London Chapter 19 South of Wandsworth Common
- Early Bicycles and the Quest for Speed: A History, 1868-1903, Andrew Ritchie
- The Cyclist Yearbook (various years) by Henry Sturmey
- Six day information from org.uk
- The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno
- 1895 edition of Harpers Weekly
- Sheila Hanlon’s unrivalled blog on The Six-dayers and Battersea Park riding in the 1890s
- Newspapers: Salisbury Times, August, 1895; The Graphic January 2, 1897
Further photos and pictures