The summer of 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the first reported appearance of bicycles – or velocepedes – in Bradford. It was a phenomenon that was extensively reported in the Bradford Daily Telegraph and Bradford Observer as well as the Yorkshireman weekly review that was published in the town.
Bradford established for itself a reputation as a centre of cycling enthusiasm, benefiting from proximity to the Yorkshire Dales and other beautiful – albeit hilly – surrounding countryside. Local newspapers from the 1870s onwards attest to the popularity of the pastime with detail of weekend club runs featuring in the Friday and Saturday editions of the press. My own club, East Bradford CC was formed in 1899 when the Victorian cycling craze was at its peak and is now the longest surviving in Bradford.
Author JB Priestley (1894-1984) wrote fondly about his adventures on a bike and his excursions from Bradford and asked for his ashes to be buried at Hubberholme (about ten miles north of Kettlewell in the Dales), a place he described as a favourite escape.
The photos above are of St Michael & All Angels church at Hubberholme where Priestley’s ashes were laid and he is commemorated. I have often wondered whether his love of the place was on the basis that if you ride much further you begin to encounter some serious climbs. Could it be that Priestley found good excuse to dismount and instead enjoy the scenery of Upper Wharfedale that Hubberholme afforded him?
The first bicycles in Bradford
What is notable is how rapidly ‘velocipede mania’ became established in Bradford having originated in New York and Paris during 1868. Admittedly such mania was a national phenomenon but it was the viral spread of the craze that seems so remarkable, testament to the efficacy of communications long before the internet. On 12 January, 1869 the Bradford Observer provided an endorsement from a Paris correspondent: ‘I do not see why velocipedes which cost less than a very bad horse, and eat nothing, should not be useful.’ By the spring bicycles were fairly numerous in the town and in May, 1869 the appeal was described thus: ‘Bicycle riding, like skating, combines the pleasure of personal display with the luxury of swift motion through the air. The pursuit admits, too, of ostentation.’
A 35kg boneshaker, one of the earliest bicycle designs.
In May, 1869 there was an incident in which three policemen allegedly assaulted a rider – a billiard maker – and pulled him from his bike in Peel Park. In the subsequent court case in which the rider sought action against the policemen, the court accepted that there were no bye-laws to prevent velocipedes being ridden in the park.
A report in the Bradford Observer on 27 August, 1869 stated that ‘Bradford is evidently determined to keep pace with the times… the bicycle was faintly heard of as a Parisian mania… and lo! within twelve months it is an institution amongst us. The swelldom of Bradford does not appear to me to be very enthusiastic about the new means of progression; possibly because there is danger in it. But there is a class which has taken up the bicycle with enthusiasm. The young men, warehousemen, clerks – those who affect gymnastic and athletic exercises, and are mostly members of cricket clubs.’
The same report mentions the opening of a velocinasium on Manningham Lane. The writer asked ‘Can anything be advanced more convincing as a proof of the rapid progress of the town than this fact, that a building has been reared solely and completely for the practice of velocipede riding?…There are other velocipede schools, of smaller size, though of longer standing, in the town. With such a provision, I should think Bradford will soon be competent to turn out quite an army of velocipedists.’ The point to note is that sufficient demand existed for businesses to become established and in so doing, leisure was becoming commercialised.
The Bradford Observer of 24 September, 1869 reported a cycling contest at the Manningham Lane velocinasium for ‘fast and slow racing, and for sports and feats (the latter including tilting at the ring, vaulting, off and on the bicycle, quoit playing on bicycles, and throwing at the target).’
Bicycles were reported to be continually flitting along Manningham Lane in the cool of the evening. For cycling to be a popular pastime in Manningham at the time says as much about the affluence of the township (new bicycles cost anything between £2 and £8, when average weekly pay amounted to 25s) as the fact that Manningham Lane was one of the few flat roads in Bradford. I doubt very much that anyone would have wanted to ride a 40lb wrought iron machine down Great Horton Road.
The aforementioned velocinasium was a ‘large shed with a glazed roof and a smooth wooden floor’ and had sixteen bicycles for rent to patrons and was situated opposite Bowland Street where the now derelict night club stands. The site bears witness to changing patterns and fashion of recreation and in 1876 the building was converted to the Valley Parade (roller) skating rink with a hard maple floor and was used for this purpose until 1901 when it became the depot of The Bradford Motor Car Company Ltd selling horseless carriages – which is to say it became a garage. Skating became extremely popular among young people, considered an excellent way to meet without the interference of chaperones.
Possibly the first bicycle race to be staged in Bradford was at the Bradford Cricket Club Athletics Festival in July, 1869 over one mile which was won in 5 minutes and 31 seconds (a speed of 11mph). This performance should be compared with the world record time of three minutes and one second which was set in Wolverhampton in May, 1874. On the face of it, even allowing for the grass surface it wasn’t an impressive feat by contemporary standards. By way of comparison, the author has ridden 10 miles in under twenty minutes in time trial conditions which is a not uncommon standard among amateur club racers. Nevertheless a modern rider would have a shock forsaking carbon for iron.
Despite bicycles of that era weighing 40lbs and the generally poor quality of roads, feats were recorded in the press of riders attempting relatively long distances. The benchmark for 50 miles was eight hours; by contrast a respectable achievement on modern dual carriageways would be below two hours albeit with a bike weighing a fifth of the original.
The emergence of cycling clubs in Bradford was in parallel to that of football clubs with participants often involved in both activities. Cycling was considered another form of athleticism and participants in grass track cycle races at athletic festivals in Bradford were invariably involved with other sports rather than being dedicated cyclists alone. For instance, on 18 November, 1882 the Leeds Mercury reported how the Bradford Harriers consisted mainly of members of Manningham Bicycle Club.
Bradford was considered a hot-bed of cycling activity and the Athletic News of 17 August, 1886 reported that ‘There are few, if any, Yorkshire towns which can boast of greater cycling popularity.’ At the competitive (as opposed to recreational) level however, Bradford was considered to lag behind. Maurice Bonsor, brother of England international Fred Bonsor who played for Bradford FC, was one such Bradford racer who had been unsuccessful. Maurice had even promoted a cycling section within the local Volunteers as a military unit for scouting duties. The consensus among local enthusiasts was that until local riders had the benefit of a dedicated cycle track as a training resource, prizes would elude Bradford cyclists.
The Athletic News of 11 May, 1886 had reported that ‘In such a town of hills and slippery granite a track is much needed. It was proposed to lease a field out Frizinghall nothing has so far come of it, as owing to some legal difficulties, it is not known who is the responsible owner of the ground.’ My assumption is that this referred to the Clock House estate and the same site as that previously occupied by Bradford Zingari FC – currently the lower playing fields of Bradford Grammar School. Therefore, when it was announced that Manningham FC was relocating from Carlisle Road, the Bradford cycling fraternity pinned its hopes on being able to establish a suitable track at the new Valley Parade ground. Whilst the club agreed to incorporate a cinder track, the cyclists aspired to something more ambitious. According to the Athletic News of 25 May, 1886 ‘the cyclists want something like a Crystal Palace track laying and would prevent any running with spikes on it.’ The hope had been for a track five yards in width and four laps to the mile around the perimeter of the Valley Parade pitch. However, because Manningham FC wanted to host athletics events the desired cycling track never came about. Besides, the viability would have been questionable.
In June, 1886 a meeting of ‘wheelmen’ was held at the Alexandra Hotel (which was the headquarters of the Bradford branch of the Cycling Touring Club) to develop a cycling track in the town. Representatives included members of the Manningham, Bradford, Atalanta, Great Horton, Thornbury, Undercliffe clubs and the meeting was presided over by the Bradford FC chairman, Arthur Barrett. The hope was that something might yet come of the Frizinghall site and it was proposed to establish a limited liability company to raise funds for the development. By the beginning of September, 1886 the scheme had fallen through, attributed to difficulties determining the legal title of the land. The problem for the cyclists was the same as that facing the town’s football and cricket clubs, namely a shortage of flat sites.
Cyclists resorted to racing in local parks which led to complaints by the public. On 14 June, 1887 The Athletic News reported that a local cycle dealer had been summoned at the Bradford Police Court for ‘furiously riding through Horton Park’ and asked ‘Why will reckless cyclists endanger the privileges of a large number by little indiscretions? It may be remembered that last year the Bradford parks were threatened to be closed because of the reckless riding of a few.’ Lister Park in particular was used for racing but eventually, in 1894 the so-called ‘scorching nuisance’ resulted in the park being closed to cyclists.
The above cutting confirms that cyclists were treated with disdain by many other road users. This from 1888.
In 1890 the National Cyclists’ Union (which regulated most of the cycling clubs in Britain) had introduced a ban on cycle racing on public roads to avoid bringing the pastime into disrepute. The ban led to non- affiliated clubs organising their own events with disagreement between cyclists on the merits or otherwise that continued long into the following century. In the wake of this, tracks opened elsewhere in West Yorkshire, including at Meanwood Road, Headingley and Fartown. In Bradford cyclists had to make do with either grass tracks or the perimeter cinder tracks at either Park Avenue or Valley Parade.
The introduction of safety bicycles from 1885 represented a milestone for cycling activity through allowing riders to pursue more adventurous rides outdoors. It also encouraged a number of bicycle retailers to become established in Bradford and the following adverts, again from The Yorkshireman in July / August, 1887 give a flavour of the sort of machines being ridden at this time as well as the price. The cost put them out of reach of most workers for whom an average wage would be around 25 shillings. Notable is that traders offered credit terms to make them affordable and that they could be sourced through mail order.
An attraction for local club riders was attendance at summer camps that provided opportunities for competition and recreation, a good example of which was the annual Harrogate camp that attracted riders from across Yorkshire. The following relates to that of 1887.
Although there is record of a Park Avenue (Bradford) Cycling Club in 1890 it is unclear whether this was under the auspices of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club. In 1895 it was not listed among the leading clubs in the town of which most were suburban based. The Leeds CF&AC at Headingley had an active cycle section but in the absence of track facilities there was less reason for cyclists to be based at Park Avenue. Judged from the following account in the Yorkshireman in May, 1892 the club may have been more a recreational than competitive organisation: ‘the Park Avenue Cycling Club are having a strange and certainly novel sort of a competition this evening from eight to nine o’clock, at Park Avenue. The conditions, I believe, are as follows: – Competitors start at eight o’clock and ride backwards and forwards on Park Avenue for an hour, and the committee will select at random a number of miles between four and fourteen, and the man who rides the nearest to that number wins the prize. This is certainly a rum idea, and emanates, I believe, from the wonderful noddle of their hon. sec., and, as he truthfully says, it is entirely a question of luck who wins. I should think so.’
In July, 1894 there were discussions between representatives of local cycling clubs and the Athletic Committee of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club to construct a cycle track around the perimeter of the cricket field at Park Avenue. The Leeds Mercury of 13 July, 1894 reported that plans had been discussed for a track of just under a quarter of a mile around the pitch perimeter, to be constructed of either concrete or wood. It was estimated that 150 cyclists would be prepared to pay an annual subscription of 10s/6d with the intention that local clubs would hold evening events at Park Avenue. The project never progressed and it is unclear whether this was because the venture was not deemed viable or whether the Cricket Club objected. With space constraints it might not have been a practical proposition but most likely it came down to finance given that in July, 1896 it was mentioned once more as a potential project.
Cycle racing however remained a feature of the annual athletics festival, albeit staged on the grass. In April, 1895 Bradford cyclists negotiated with the Midland Railway to rent land for a track and they were offered a ten year lease for £50 per annum. The stipulation was that cyclists be given three months’ notice in the event of the land being required for railway purposes which resulted in discussions being aborted. Finally, in 1896 a track was established in Wibsey.
By the end of the 1890s there had been a mushrooming of cycling clubs in Bradford, not dissimilar to the emergence of rugby clubs across the district in the previous decade. What encouraged people to join were the opportunities for recreation and social engagement rather than competition per se (discouraged as a consequence of the NCU ban). Cycling clubs became the means by which people such as JB Priestley could explore the local countryside and get fit. A ride to Hubberholme from Priestley’s home in Heaton for instance would have clocked at least 70 miles, no mean achievement. It became a cultural phenomenon for weekend camps to be arranged at which cyclists from different clubs would congregate in the Yorkshire Dales and it was not until the 1920s that motorised traffic started to become widespread.
The first reports of motor vehicles in Bradford date from 1906 but it was not necessarily the car that was the biggest risk to early bikers. As the following from 1899 attests, cycling in Bradford could be a perilous activity if you could not control your bike on certain hills (or did not have brakes attached) and notable is that safety warnings were provided for the benefit of cyclists. The one thing that has not changed is the steepness of Moorhead Lane or other celebrated slopes in the district!
By John Dewhirst @jpdewhirst
The author is a former cycle racing time triallist and holds the East Bradford CC (est 1899) records over principal distances.
The origins of cycling in Bradford came at a time when people were seeking new forms of recreational activity. The following features written by the author and published on VINCIT provide further background about the origins of sport in Bradford in the late 1860s:
VINCIT provides an accessible go-to reference about all aspects of Bradford sport history and is neither code nor club specific. We encourage you to explore the site through the menu above.
Future articles are scheduled to feature local boxing, the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.
Contributions and feedback are welcome.