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St Baldred’s Lady’s Cycle Club

On 8th October 1906, Edith Mary Grant-Suttie sent a postcard to comfort her 9-year-old son Archie, who was away from his home at Balgone and at boarding school in Surrey. She writes: “I had a bike with Daddy yesterday, just 9 miles, I now stand at 399, I must make it up to 400 today, if I can. I am a long way behind you still”. Edith was then 48 years old, her husband Robert 64.

To us, perhaps, the Edith Grant-Suttie revealed in these few, scant sentences cuts a rather surprising figure; a distinguished Edwardian lady tearing around the same rural roads and coastal routes treasured by today’s Lycra-clad cyclists. There is plenty of evidence, however, that she was not alone. In fact, late Victorian and Edwardian East Lothian appears to have been home to scores of female cycling enthusiasts.

Certainly, cyclists of the fair sex were well catered for in this period. Millar’s, an Edinburgh clothier located on South Bridge, took out an advertisement in the Courier in July 1898 in order to introduce their new range of women’s cycling attire including a cycling skirt from 5/11, a pair of cycling knickers from 2/6 and, astonishingly, a cycling corset.

Cycle agents throughout the area frequently advertised a full range of ‘high-class’ lady’s bicycles alongside gentleman’s models, all of which could be hired as well as purchased. Cycling lessons were also widely available and open to all. Indeed, the John Gray Centre holds a beautifully sharp and richly detailed photograph of the High Street shop-front of the Bass Rock Cycle Co. of North Berwick, taken around 1900. Alongside an array of the latest cycle models for both men and women, the widows very clearly sport the following notices: ‘Cycles on Hire’ and ‘Teaching a Speciality’.

For the more experienced female cyclist, however, there was membership of the St. Baldred’s Lady’s Cycle Club of North Berwick to consider.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly developing cycling club culture exclusive to men, with clubs in Haddington, Dunbar, North Berwick and Musselburgh all well established by 1900, there were two tentative attempts in North Berwick, firstly in the April of 1902 and again in the February of 1905, to found an equivalent for women. Thus, the St. Baldred’s Lady’s Cycle Club was born.

It would be fascinating to find out if Edith Grant-Suttie was a member, or even an office holder of the club but, unfortunately, there appear to be no surviving records. In fact, to date, we know only that it disbanded in April 1912, donating a small surplus fund to the local Bowling Bazaar.

Bass Rock Cycle & Motor Co, c1900

During the late 1890s, this craze for cycling swept the nation at a speed terrifying to many. Over a decade later, anti-cycling agitation remained as fervent as ever. Local councilmen and journalists alike were still whipping themselves up into a frenzy over a lack of effective legislation in the face of organised road races, high-speed en masse club cycling, and a trend for lighter bicycles without brakes.
However, while cyclists in general were vilified for their recklessness, the figure of the female cyclist prompted an entirely different, gender-specific response. She was singled out and subjected to a systematic campaign of mockery and discouragement.

To give just one example, as the winter of 1896 approached ‘fair cyclists’ were shamelessly patronised by one local journalist who writes: ‘the gentleman rider can mop his machine to a fair state of cleanliness without too much trouble, but the ladies – always recognising their pluckiness and good intention – cannot do this’. Assured in his assumption that ‘lady riders’, one and all, will follow his advice and give their wheels an uninterrupted rest for the long, wet, winter months, he turns his attention, instead, to commending the superior charms of home. Here, with their trusty plate powder and furniture polish in abundant supply, women are free to follow their true calling; to dedicate hour upon hour to making their ‘pretty mounts’ gleam.

Were our earliest female cyclists really such frivolous, fair-weather creatures? Edith Grant-Suttie and the unknown members of the trailblazing St. Baldred’s Lady’s Cycle Club would suggest not.

Instead it appears that a woman astride her very own ‘steel steed’, free to traverse town, village and countryside at her leisure and under her own steam, was deeply unsettling. As the old century gave way to the new, and as ideas about women’s suffrage began to gather momentum, it seems that few things were as worrisome as a woman on a bicycle.

Rachael Smith