Elmswell History Group

Revolutions
As things are gradually opening up again, we trust you are getting out and about more and perhaps while the roads were so much quieter during lockdown, on your bikes. Bearing that in mind, the most famous cycling race must be the Tour de France which started back in 1903, although the first recorded bicycle race was held on 31 May 1868 in Paris with just seven riders.

This year’s somewhat larger tour is due to start on June 26. Closer to home and back in April 1914, two young women arrived at a seaside boarding house to begin a cycling tour of Suffolk. Their fortnight sojourn was rather different from the Tour de France in that it coincided with a string of arson attacks, culminating in the grand finale of the torching of Felixstowe’s Bath Hotel.

The attacks bore all the hallmarks of the Women’s Social & Political Union, aka the Suffragettes, and the two cyclists were WSPU members Hilda Burkitt and Florence Tunks who were swiftly arrested and sentenced to two years and nine months respectively. As a form of resistance, the bicycle was embedded in the DNA of the Suffragette movement from the start. As part of a growing trend of women’s cycling, the teenage Pankhurst sisters joined a Manchester cycling club, although in 1897 their club was one of very few to admit women.

In 1903 the Pankhursts founded the WSPU and moved to London where they wrote about the Suffragette cause for the socialist Clarion newspaper. Bicycles became an efficient campaign tool for the organisation, with members cycling through towns and villages to spread the word about votes for women.

From 1909 the Elswick Cycle Manufacturing Co began selling bicycles in the suffragette colours and their particular model had a dropframe to accommodate long skirts. When campaigning turned militant, bicycles became getaway vehicles on many occasions.

As the first woman to ride a bicycle in her hometown of Preston in the 1890s, Edith Rigby was pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables for her brazen act. Years later, as a suffragette, she planted a bomb in the basement of the Liverpool Cotton Exchange and set fire to Lord Leverhulme’s country residence, after which she escaped to Ireland on a bicycle, disguised as a man!

In the pillar-box outrages of 1913, Suffragettes poured flammable liquids into Royal Mail post boxes, before pedalling away from the blaze. During the Second World War, the bike became a useful tool for freedom fighters – ironically, as Hitler was not a fan. Having loathed being a bicycle messenger in the First World War, as German Chancellor he introduced a raft of anti-cycling laws.

Regardless, a young Audrey Hepburn used her bike to deliver resistance leaflets in her Dutch hometown of Arnhem, while the British record-breaking cyclist Evelyn Hamilton claimed she couriered messages for the resistance in Paris during the occupation. When the Allies liberated Holland in 1945, many German soldiers stole bicycles to escape
back to Germany; consequently, for decades afterward, the Dutch chanted “Give us back our bikes!” when their team played Germany at football.

So now, when you’re cycling along our lovely Suffolk lanes and byways this summer (remembering to don your helmet and high-vis apparel), do think of those pioneering ladies on their trusty bikes not so long ago. To find out
much more on this topic, we would thoroughly recommend the recently published book Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels by Hannah Ross.

For further information about our group please visit our website or contact our secretary, Stella Chamberlin on 01359 242601 www.elmswell-history.org.uk

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