Newly discovered photographs: Harrogate Cyclists’ Meet 1879 and 1880
Please note: All photographs are my copyright and are not to be reproduced without my express permission.
Photographs of cycling clubs are relatively common, although the further back in time you go, the rarer they become. It’s very rare to see an image of a very large meeting of cyclists, and unusual to find nearly all of them with their machines. The two photographs below are exceptional, and even more so because of the fact that one of them contains a specific bicycle that can be identified, and is still in existence today! The meeting they depict is a very significant one in the early history of cycling.
The Harrogate Meet was first held in 1877, and officially known as The North of England Cyclists’ Meet. It was born at a gathering of the Halifax Bicyling Club, attended by delegates from the Anfield Bicycle Club, Bradford Ixion BC, Leeds BC and the Wakefield BC. The date of the first meeting was set for August Bank Holiday 1877 in Harrogate, the thriving spa town in North Yorkshire. The Commercial Hotel was appointed as headquarters, and cyclists came from far and wide…Liverpool, Darlington, Stockton, Hull, Manchester, Edinburgh, even Cambridge! The following year, on August 5th 1878 a group of about 80 cyclists met in the Pump Room at Harrogate at the instigation of Stanley Cotterell. He had published an article in the Bicycling Times suggesting that there was a lack of a club catering for touring. At that meeting the Bicycle Touring Club was formed, later to become the Cyclists’ Touring Club (now shamefully ‘rebranded’ as Cycling UK) It seems that this meeting was definitely linked to the Harrogate Meet, since the August Bank Holiday in 1878 was on the same day.
According to memories published in a souvenir booklet of 1898, subtitled Fun and Frolic in Cycling Camps at Harrogate, the early meetings were rather lively! According to Henry Sturmey, the smoking room of the Commercial Hotel was ‘packed to suffocation’ in the evenings, and after midnight there was a battle between various clubs, and the Yorkshire Yeomanry, which involved a barricade of mattresses and pillows at the head of the stairs. The Union Jack flag hanging on a pole outside one of the rooms was removed and a cyclist was found asleep wrapped in it the morning after, whilst members of the Yeomanry found their tall boots filled with water. The Landlady was not impressed! Another story recounts that in 1880 a Scottish club brought a barrel of whisky with them to the meet, the consumption of which caused further trouble! The culprits are pictured somewhere in the photograph below….
Consequently the hotels of Harrogate were less than happy to entertain the cyclists further, so the North of England Cyclists’ Meet and Camp was formed in 1881, with the attendees lodging in tents, in a field next to Harrogate cricket ground. The fun and frolics continued, of course, but at least the hotels were no longer terrorised! It seems that the meet continued into the 1900’s.
I am indebted to local Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam who has identified where the photographs were taken. The location was in the gardens of the Spa Rooms looking directly north into the grounds of Springfield House. The little crenelated building housed one of the mineral wells discovered in 1818, which began the development of the surrounding estate. The Spa Rooms were demolished in 1939 and the land is now occupied by an exhibition centre.
When I first laid hands on these photographs, the first thing I noticed was the presence of a particularly large Ordinary (Penny Farthing or High Bicycle) in the 1880 photograph. It towers over the rest of the bicycles there:
Viewing the details of this machine through a loupe, I recognised it as a giant Ordinary made by James Starley in 1874. Two identical machines were made to demonstrate the feasability of tangent spoking (crossing spokes as in ‘modern’ bicycles) for constructing a bicycle wheel. The wheel was 78 inches in diameter, as opposed to an average sized wheel of 52 inches. I recognised it because I had seen the very bicycle in the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. It can be identified from the small pair of handlebars behind the saddle spring, which are there to aid mounting, the distinctive shape of the saddle spring, and the forward extension from the head to support the pedal drive extensions, all of which are visible above:
The brother of this machine was sent to the United States shortly after it was made, and has since disappeared. The one in the 1880 photograph is clearly the one hanging on a wall in Beaulieu.
The other 200 plus bicycles in the photographs are typical of the time, all having straight handlebars, and a number of them appearing to have nickel plated frames. The riders are dressed in their various club uniforms, presumably some of them in Bicycle Touring Club dark green suits, and almost all have gleaming badges on their hats.
This last revelation about the Starley Giant was the icing on the cake of two of the finest cycling related photographs that I have ever seen.
Souvenir of the Harrogate Meet 1898 – Veteran Cycle Club Library
Thank you also to Malcolm Neesam, the author of several of books on Harrogate, including Harrogate Great Chronicle 1332-1841