History of cycling in Helensburgh

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CYCLING in the Helensburgh area is thought to have begun in the 1870s — and there have been several cycling clubs in the town over the years.

Local historian Alistair McIntyre, a director of Helensburgh Heritage Trust, researched the pastime, and what follows is what he has found out.

“Helensburgh has hosted an impressive number of cycling agents and cycling clubs over the years," he said.

“To an extent, this is a reflection of both the many turns and twists that have taken place in the story of the bicycle itself, and changes in society as a whole.”

The birth of the bicycle took place amid the turmoil of Revolutionary France near the end of the 18th century, when a young Parisian demonstrated a propulsion device consisting of two wheels, fixed one behind the other, joined by a frame, and surmounted by a ledge to sit on.

Forward motion was produced by pushing on the ground with alternate feet.

With the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the ensuing peace, word of the invention soon crossed the Channel.

The imposing names of ‘swiftwalker’ and ‘pedestrian curricle’ were coined, though it was the nickname ‘hobby-horse’ that won the day. Initially the toy of Regency bucks, the hobby-horse never really took off for several reasons.

Clad with wooden spokes and iron tyres, and initially with no means of steering, it was heavy and unwieldy, and groin strains and other injuries could easily be suffered.

Perhaps worst of all, it was the butt of endless jokes and cartoon sketches, and it is doubtful if many hobby-horses ever reached Helensburgh.

As with so many inventions, it was a Scotsman, Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Dumfries blacksmith, who made the big breakthrough.

In 1839, he developed the first true bicycle, in the sense of a two-wheeled velocipede that could be propelled without the need to touch the ground.

The feet of the rider pushed on treadles, linked to the rear wheel by iron connecting rods. But his invention failed to spark much interest, and MacMillan never sought a commercial outcome.

It was left to others to drive development forwards — once again the wags had their way, and various improved bicycles were cruelly, if truthfully, lumped together under the term ‘boneshakers’.

A significant breakthrough took place in 1870-71 with the introduction of the ‘high wheeler’, soon to become known as the ‘ordinary’.

This is the bicycle known today as the ‘penny-farthing’, though this term was only coined around 1890, when the machine was in its twilight years.

James Farley from Coventry emerged as an inventive genius from about 1870 onwards to the extent that he is known as the father of British cycling.

Over the next decade, he brought in repeated improvements to the high wheeler. Wire spokes set tangentially on the wheels were developed, as were solid rubber tyres, and hollow parts for the frame. Ball-bearings and pedals were already available.

Such features brought down the weight considerably, and produced a much better performance.

Farley had working under him a William Hillman and a George Singer, later to become famous in their own right as motor car manufacturers — underlining perhaps the position of the car as junior partner to the bicycle!

The penny-farthing consisted of a very large front wheel, above which sat the rider, supplemented by a relatively small wheel at the back for balance.

The large wheel, which was the driving wheel, proved capable of generating much higher speeds than previous bicycles, with a really proficient rider able to reach 20 mph on level roads.

The bigger the wheel, the more speed, the only limiting factor being the length of the rider's legs.

Other attractions included a clear view of the road and surroundings, being well removed from mud splattering, and, thanks to the large leading wheel, the ability to cope with a fair degree of roughness in the road surface.

There were a number of disadvantages. Mounting, dismounting, and the elevated seating position — the big wheel could be from 4-5 feet in diameter — could be really intimidating.

Should the rider be brought to a sudden halt by hazards such as children, animals, or loose stones, he could be thrown forwards, and even end up doing an involuntary somersault.

If the rider's foot became entangled with the spokes, the outcome was similar.

The actions of the malicious, resentful or jealous included the placing of a line of bricks across the road, or the thrusting of a stick between the spokes. A crash could easily be the result.

Another practice was to throw a cap at the rider or machine. Seemingly innocuous, this could at best irritate the rider, but at worst, it could cause a crash, especially if the cap jammed between the spokes.

On the other hand, there could be occasions when the rider himself was at fault. Showing off doubtless happened at times. One offence that came more and more before the courts was the charge of “riding furiously”.

Despite all the challenges posed by riding the high-wheeler, this was the design that came to dominate the market — and it was almost certainly the first bicycle really to make its mark in Helensburgh.

This meant that use of the bicycle was restricted to the younger, more athletic, and generally the better-off male members of society.

The earliest reference to the presence of bicycle riders in Helensburgh that has so far come to light is in an 1877 issue of the Dumbarton Herald newspaper, which reported that three members of the West of Scotland Amateur Bicycle Club visited Helensburgh.

They set off from Glasgow at 2.15pm, and arrived in the town at 5.15pm. Beginning the return journey at 6.45pm, they reached their starting point at 10pm, having clocked up 44 miles.

A much better picture can be gained from a July 1880 issue of the same newspaper.

“Bicycling has become a popular amusement in Dunbartonshire, as elsewhere,” it stated. “Unlike the machines of old, which could weigh up to a hundredweight, the modern version comes in at no more than 48 lbs.

“Wheel sizes can range between 44 to 62 inches in diameter. The ordinary rider favours a wheel diameter of 50 to 52 inches, while 55 to 60 inches are preferred by the professional. A first-rate bike costs £25, while a standard model costs £10.”

By this time the county had three cycling clubs. The Dumbarton club was formed 1879, and had 20 members. The club met twice a week, if the weather was suitable, and they cycled to some place of interest. The Vale of Leven club was started in 1880.

The Helensburgh club was started in September 1879 with five members which had risen to 18.

The president was J.W.Burns of Kilmahew, the captain George Logan, secretary David J.Nicol, and treasurer James Logan. Members rode to Cove, Dumbarton, Ardlui, Mambeg, Arrochar, Luss, and Balloch.

There was no mention of the club in the Helensburgh directory of 1883, so it had probably folded — yet there is a listing of Helensburgh Tricycle Club, which sounds much less glamorous.

It not until 1880 that a really viable tricycle became available on the market. The idea of having three wheels rather than two was certainly attractive —mounting, dismounting and keeping balance was easy.

The typical tricyclist would have been older than most cyclists, and did not need to be athletic. It received a big boost when an early purchaser was Queen Victoria.

In 1881, Her Majesty was in residence on the Isle of Wight when her attention was drawn to a tricycle which had overtaken the Queen’s coach — and it was being ridden by a young lady.

Whether or not Her Majesty was amused is not recorded, but she was certainly impressed, and immediately had two tricycles ordered.

The tricycle was something that could be used by women, and adverts were quick to portray young ladies on tricycles. Women generally did not use bicycles, particularly the high wheeler, as their long and voluminous skirts and petticoats spelled disaster.

The 1881 Helensburgh Directory lists the Tricycle Club captain as Provost John Stuart, the secretary and treasurer David Mitchell, and the committee members John Mitchell, Maxwell Hedderwick and William Lunan.

A contemporary writer said of Provost Stuart: “He may be seen of an evening in the company of a troop of friends, spinning along the Garelochside, each seated on that modern vehicle, a tricycle.”

The same directory carries an advert on behalf of the firm of Macneur and Bryden, listing various tricycles for sale, but no bicycles. Better known as a stationer and publisher, the firm ran ran a cycle warehouse as well until around 1926.

Another surprise as a pioneering cycling agent was R. & A.Urie, usually thought of as a dealer in china, glassware and stoneware.

Yet another to rasp the new marketing potential quickly was Robert Harvey, the postmaster and grocer at Cove, who by 1881 was advertising ‘Premier’ bicycles and tricycles in the local press.

When Helensburgh Post Office stepped up its Garelochside deliveries of mail to four times daily in 1888, it used tricycles to take the mail as far as Shandon, beyond which post-runners were used.

The Helensburgh Directory of 1889 makes no reference to cycling clubs, which suggests the Helensburgh and Gareloch Cycling Club of 1887 was no longer functioning, but a new Helensburgh Cycle Club was formed in 1892 and a Ladies Cycle Club around 1898. The heyday of local cycling had arrived.

With ever-increasing traffic the roads were worse than a century earlier, and wet weather meant the surfaces became a sea of mud and loose stones.

So it was that on a Saturday in early April 1892 the first club run of Helensburgh Cycle Club had the destination changed from Arrochar to Clynder, the Loch Long and Loch Lomond roads reportedly being in a very bad condition. Garelochhead was reached at 5pm, where members had tea at the hotel. Setting off again at 6pm, Clynder was soon reached.

It was decided to hold a concert at Garelochhead on the way back, and, after a most enjoyable evening at the hotel, members arrived back home at 9.30pm.

Later that month, a Saturday outing to Inverbeg was able to go ahead, where the usual ‘tea’ was held, with members being home by 10pm.

Even so, running conditions were described as ‘heavy’, because of mud on the road, coupled with a strong headwind. Further runs to Luss, Coulport and Balloch were planned.

Despite the state of the roads, club records were now also being established.

A medal was being awarded at the end of the 1892 season for the rider with the quickest time over a 12-mile course to Garelochhead — and by June this had been brought down to 48½ minutes.

In June, a 3-mile out-and-back handicap race was held on the Cardross road. Winner was H.A.Brown (off ½ minute), second was T.Bishop (5 secs), third J.Mitchell (scratch), and fourth J.MacFarlane (5 secs).

The fastest net time was 10 minutes 56 seconds. Brown, Mitchell and MacFarlane used cushion-tyred machines, while Bishop used a clincher pneumatic.

March 1894 saw the club launch its third season with a run to Kilcreggan. From a membership of 26 in 1892, there were now almost 50 members.

The new handbook was full of useful information. Included in the programme were four runs for fast members, for which the minimum pace was set at 12 mph.

The final run of the season in September was to Ardlui, but once again the going was heavy along Loch Lomondside, with very muddy roads.

The club had several members who achieved considerable distinction in racing. Especially notable were the Crosbie brothers.

In August 1895, Hugh T.Crosbie successfully took on the challenge of a 25-mile paced Scottish record at the Celtic Football Club track in Glasgow. He won in a new time of 1 hour 2 minutes and 16 seconds.

In October 1897, Hugh took on the 50 mile club road record of 2 hours 35½ minutes recently set by his brother, J.B.Crosbie.

Assisted by two tandem crews and two single riders, he covered the Loch Lomond course in 2 hours, 27 minutes and 36 seconds, which was a mere 17 seconds outwith the Scottish record set by J.R.Alexander.

A further extension of the safety bicycle, the tandem was first introduced in the late 1880s.

The famous song “A Bicycle Made for Two” dates from 1892, and hints at one of the uses — it could be ridden by a male-female pairing.

The tandem could generate a lot of power, and this was put to good use by two members of the club in 1898, when they covered the 7 miles from Glasgow Street in Helensburgh to Garelochhead in 19 minutes.

Ladies-cycle-ad-wThe safety bicycle helped play a part in female emancipation. Although a few brave ladies had taken on the rigours of the hobby-horse and the boneshaker, the high-wheeler had remained beyond their reach, if only because of female dress codes.

The introduction of the tricycle helped to a degree, but dress protocols dictated that full length dresses were still obligatory. The form of the safety bicycle suitable for women led to considerable uptake, but full length clothes were still necessary.

Males on hobby-horses had once been the butt of cartoonists earlier in the century, but women cyclists were now their target, and many illustrations appeared showing a tangle of legs, skirts, and overturned bicycles.

There was something of a landmark case towards the end of the century, when Lady Harberton was refused service at a hotel because she was wearing knickerbockers.

The matter was taken to the courts by the Cyclists Touring Club, and although a decision was made in favour of the hotel landlady, the episode was seen as a significant step on the road towards female liberation.

Even so, society was slow to accept the adoption of more suitable cycling attire for women. One of the few good things to come out of the First World War was a grudging acceptance of women wearing trousers where and when appropriate.

A Helensburgh Ladies Cycle Club was formed around 1898, and its deeds were being reported in the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times that year, when the very respectable time of 24 minutes was achieved as a club record for the 7-mile course to Garelochhead.

In 1899, the club hon president was Miss Thom of Barremman, Clynder, the president was Miss Dickson, the secretary and treasurer Miss Hay, and the committee also included Miss Neilson and Miss Stewart.

From 1901 onwards, however, local directories make no mention of either ladies or mens cycle clubs. This is surprising, given that bicycles were more abundant than ever.

Many other sporting and recreational clubs were being listed at that time, and it seems unlikely that cycling clubs would have been omitted, had they been in existence.

The boom in cycling had an unfortunate side to it, however.

By May 1894, the local paper was commenting on the almost daily accidents that were taking place on Finnart Hill, despite the warning signs erected there many years before by the Cyclists Touring Club.

There had been two accidents there the previous week. The injured riders were kindly attended by the family at Arddarroch. The mishaps invariably happened at the bend near the gate of the mansion, which simply could not be taken at speed. Cyclists would do well to descend the hill on foot.

Nine out of every ten accidents were said to involve cyclists from the Vale of Leven. By the following month, the newspaper was reporting on continuing accidents at the same spot. In a bid to address the problem, the word “Dismount” was then added to the Cyclists Touring Club dangerboard.

Despite this, accidents continued apace, many at Finnart. In 1899, a young English tourist was seriously injured at the foot of Finnart Hill, and Dr McRitchie, the Garelochhead GP, had to be called. In 1901, a Dalmuir man was thrown against the wall at the same location. Unconscious for an hour or two, he was later able to make his way home by train.

Danger-board-1885-wFinnart may have been the worst blackspot — the story goes that cyclists sometimes came flying through the window at the lodge house located at the bend — but other places also featured.

When two cyclists collided at the double bend at Inverallt, Shandon, in 1908, both were badly injured, and were attended by Dr McRitchie.

It was said to be a bad place for accidents. A couple of months later, two cyclists collided at Garelochhead, which had one or two blind corners, and again, both were badly hurt.

The First World War put a huge dampener on all sorts of recreational activities, including cycling. In May 1922, however, the local paper announced the formation of Helensburgh Cycling Club. But little information has come to light about it.

Certainly, life for the cyclist was about to become easier, in that within a year or two, most county roads would be surfaced with the new wonder material, tarmacadam.

Gone were the days of cloying mud, stones and gravel, save on minor roads. Another boon would have been the ready availability of bikes with gears.

Yet another Helensburgh Cycling Club was launched in 1954, and little is known about it either.

Helensburgh once boasted eight firms acting as cycle agents. By the 1950’s, this had been reduced to three — Davidson’s shop at West Clyde Street, Kirkland’s shop at West Princes Street, and Mercer’s shop at East Clyde Street.

While the first two were primarily hardware stores, Mercer’s shop covered sports, but with special emphasis on cycling. Their stock of bikes included Humber, Robin Hood, Hercules and Philips.

Today, happily, Helensburgh still has a dedicated cycle shop, Helensburgh Cycles in East Clyde Street, owned by the ever-helpful and knowledgeable Alex McNee. Despite the huge growth of motorised road traffic, recent years have seen a resurgence of cycling, and the machines of today are truly marvels of modern engineering.

At the top competitive level, British cycling has never been stronger. Helensburgh has produced many sporting stars over the years — is it possible that a local cycling hero may emerge in the not too distant future?