Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Scandalous Female Cyclist of the 1890s

Outdated sexual mores impede the development of humankind in multiple ways. In a previous blog I have already dealt with all the rules and regulations preventing males and females from sharing a swim. These rules were only dispensed with on the opening of King’s Beach in the early 1900s. Unbelievably female cyclists were frowned upon for cycling, let alone for being accompanied by men. Unlike their swimming counterparts, these restrictions were normative rather than rules and regulations based.

This is the story of a female who defied those norms.

Main picture: The Brown family cycling at the Van Staadens River

Prior to lady cyclists
The first bicycles could not have been easy or comfortable to ride. Even though the Penny-farthing was regarded as a “road bike”, in reality, roads in that era were akin to dust tracks. Imagine Girdlestone and Hallack cycling from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, but the road was so atrocious that for more than 50% of their journey they had to carry their bikes or push them. But they survived. Even during the heyday of cycling in the 1890s, bikes still had solid tyres, fixed cogs and spoon brakes which were quite useless and don’t forget the shocking roads. Despite all these impediments, the male cyclists thought that cycling was pure bliss.  

A man in period dress in Indiana rides a Penny-Farthing, a two-wheeler popular in the late 1800s

A brave new world
It was into this “dystopian” world, that females deemed it to be their right to cycle as well, much to the disgust, consternation and annoyance of their “sisters”. It is a Mr. Storey who “lifted the veil” on those shocking days when Mrs. Browne had to mount a male bicycle; their being no female version at that point as none had yet been invented. According to Mr. Storey, she first administered a severe shock to her whale-boned sisters when she mounted a tandem with a Mr. Browne, her husband. Fellow cyclists nicknamed them “Daisy Bells.”

It was when Mrs. Browne adopted a single cycle that the ire and consternation of the female population of the town was invoked. Indignant letters to the editor undoubtedly soon followed. As a Mr Reeves, a keen cyclist in those days remarked, “When Mrs Browne cycles up the street, the women hastily pull down the blinds and gasp, ‘Surely the world is going mad. Something terrible is bound to happen.”  Even though Mrs. Browne was modestly attired in a skirt “reaching to her ankles”, nevertheless her venture was considered so scandalous that blinds were pulled down to spare themselves this horrid sight.

St John Stella Londt Retirement Centre is situated in Sunridge-Park

But Mrs. Browne persevered and persisted and in the passage of time she was accompanied on her trips by her three pretty daughters also on bicycles. Finally, victory was hers. Silly prejudice had been overcome.

Even braver
Eventually instead of merely doing the suburban route, the women attempted something more challenging; a club cycle to Hunter’s Retreat which in those days, when the town only stretched to Salisbury Avenue abutting Grey Junior School, was way out in the country. Perhaps it could have been Alick Humphries, an inimitable and urbane Irishman, the proprietor of the “Gate Hotel” [Fairview Hotel in Newton Park] which was the magnet. One female recalled: “What a host! I still recall the spreads we used to sit down to. The rafters rang to our songs and Alick’s laugh drowned all other sounds.”

Members of the P.E. Amateur Bicycle Club-formed in 1881-later amalagamated with Amateur Athletic Club-taken in front of the Pearson çonservatory, St. Georges Park

Bob Grundy and his wife would attend the club ride even when it went as far afield as Jeffrey’s Bay and Humansdorp. Bob was admired as he had lost one arm but this did not deter him. As an iron hook had been inserted in its place, he managed to hold his handle-bar with it even on the worst roads.  

Mrs Lockhead, Mrs Browne’s daughter, remembers
The Browne family were keen cyclists and were attracted to cycling, especially “endurance” trips, over weekends. Even though she was not yet a teenager, she would accompany her parents even on their overnight trips. She recalls that the first building along the Cape Road after Salisbury Avenue, was Fairview Hotel located where St. Heugh’s church now stands. It was a low building with a wooden verandah and the cyclists would halt there for liquid refreshment. Mrs. Lockhead’s particular tipple was lemonade accompanied by a biscuit. The next building on the road was the toll house kept by Mr. and Mrs Payne where drivers were required to pay a small fee. Cyclists however were exempted from this impost. For many using the toll, they would regard themselves as having being mulcted, an old English word with a negative connotation such as extort, such was the disdain for the payment of the toll. Nothing changes as tolls are still regarded as anathema to many. This toll house was located near the turnoff to the Stella Londt Home. After that, the next landmark was the Hunter’s Retreat Hotel.    

Weekend excursions
The Browne family, with three children in tow, would sometimes travel further afield and ventured as far as Humansdorp. By nightfall on the first day, they would have reached a point about ten miles from their objective where they camped by the roadside in a small tent.  On the way back they camped again but on the banks of the Kabeljauw River near a large square double-storeyed house which, now deserted, stands beside the railway at that point.

“Gates Hotel”
The registered name of this establishment was the Fairview Hotel which had been granted a liquor licence in 1861. In 1873 it seems to have belonged to or run by Reid. In 1874, Johanes Gates applied for a licence but in the following year Gates fell foul of the law for not providing quoits and skittles facilities. Colloquially many hotels were known by the name of the operator or proprietor and not by its official name. which is probably what happened in this case. In 1902 the Hotel was closed because of the Boer War Martial Law. In July of that year, it was burnt down but never rebuilt.

Mrs Lockheed Remembers by Mrs Lockheed (Looking Back, Volume VII, No. 2, June 1967)

Leave a Comment.