HISTORY FEATURE: From pedal power to petrol power — when cycle races were more popular than football

HISTORY FEATURE: From pedal power to petrol power — when cycle races were more popular than football

By Gareth Dennison | 09/05/2022

HISTORY FEATURE: From pedal power to petrol power — when cycle races were more popular than football


BY THE 1890s, cycling had become so popular that racing at Clifton Grove football ground attracted bigger crowds than Rotherham Town.

There were bike clubs at Holmes, Rawmarsh and Parkgate — plus the Rother Ramblers — and their fancy dress parades and other events became part of the town’s social scene.

Rotherham Cycling Club was founded in 1893.

In an address to the club the following year, president Dr FJ Baldwin claimed to be the oldest cyclist in Rotherham, having been on his bike for 26 years.

Dr Baldwin, who lived at Chatham House — now The Gate Surgery — next to the former site of the Doncaster Gate hospital, admitted to having been a “scorcher” in the past.

Scorchers would ride aggressively at high speeds in public, risking crashes with other cyclists, pedestrians and other vehicles.

The practice was a hot topic in the Advertiser’s letters section of the time.

“An Old Cyclist,” of Greasbrough, commented on reckless cycling in September 1897, saying: “Scorching is a practice that wants stopping for the sake of pedestrians in such places as Effingham St and College Street.”

He told of how he had been riding through Rotherham on a Sunday morning and jumped off for a few minutes to talk to a friend near the School of Art when two or three cyclists went past at a great speed. The writer complained that many cyclists did not take a whistle with them, which was required for safety, along with a bell.

Another letter in these pages the following year was headlined: “Discreditable conduct towards lady cyclists.”

The writer told how she had been riding through Maltby when they came across a vehicle — probably a wagonette — which would not move over, despite them ringing their bells and they were forced onto the verge.

That same year, Wellgate cyclist Jenny Collins knocked down a woman at Pool Green, leaving her shocked and with a head wound.

There was more Advertiser involvement when cyclist Fred Oakly, of Effingham Square, was involved in a collision with a boy at Maltby.

Oakly’s injuries were deemed to be potentially fatal after the incident near the Don John pub, and the paper’s report was sympathetic to him.

But the boy was Walter Fernie Greaves, who attended the Grove School near Roche Abbey — and whose father was Rotherham bank manager Walter Greaves.

Mr Greaves reacted to the Advertiser coverage, claiming the collision was not his son’s fault but the cyclist’s for riding a high-geared racing bike.

“The accident laid the young Greaves up for a year,” said local historian Peter Feek.

“Doctors had said that amputation was inevitable, however the skill and determination of Dr Broadbent, a locum, managed to save the leg.

“In his biography Afterglow, Walter Fernie Greaves tells how he went on to serve on the frontline during World War One and fought at Bullecourt and Cambrai.

“Like many who fought in that war he did not escape unscathed, but he recovered and would go on to build up one of Rotherham’s best known Insurance and Estate agencies, one still existing today.

“Fred Oakly’s injuries were not fatal, as had been rumoured, and in the 1911 census, he is referred to as a cycle manufacturer and motor repairer on Effingham Square. He also had a factory on Drummond Street.”

The new two-wheeled craze led to less entrepreneurial success for others.

Cycle manufacturer George Hague, of Boston Castle Grove, was forced into bankruptcy when his partner Charles Truelove withdrew financial support.

As the 20th century arrived, the era of horse-drawn conveyances was coming to an end, though they would co-exist for a while with the new motor vehicles.

The charabanc began to replace the wagonette and, by 1905, the Rotherham Corporation Act had facilitated a tram system that linked the town with Sheffield.

Cycling remained a popular pastime, but now on the horizon was not only the motor car but the motorcycle.

The Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) took over the New Enfield Cycle Company in 1907, and had motorbikes available on Effingham Street in Rotherham by 1912 in response to rising demand.

Meanwhile, Sidney Stringer established himself as local agent for the Humber Cycle Company.

The Motor Car Act of 1903, which covered motorbikes and cars, increased the speed limit from 14mph to 20mph until the restriction was abolished altogether in 1930.

In 1910, a Mr Redfern, of Wellgate, advertised a second-hand Lincoln Elk bike for £34 — although a more unusual sale being proposed around the time was a Nottingham Street resident hoping to trade his piano for a motorcycle!

Vehicle registration cost 5s and a penalty for “reckless driving” — a term previously applied to horses and carts — was brought in.

Among the first Rotherham residents to fall foul of this new law was Effingham Square cycle dealer Sidney Stringer.

PC Hodson testified that Stringer passed him at the bottom of High Street doing 15mph. The defendant claimed it was half that speed but the bench dismissed his pleas and he was fined 5s plus costs.

George Randerson, of Wickersley, used his motorbike to transport voters to the polls. Neither police nor magistrates were impressed and fined him 10s under the 1903 act.

Also in Wickersley, two Sheffield motorcyclists were fined 25s for failing to give warning, causing John William Johnson’s pony to shy.

Ownership of motorcycles continued to rise after the First World War — as did riders’ appearances in the courts.

Harry Thirlwall, of Monk Street, was fined 40s for not having an efficient silencer and a further 20s for not having a licence.

Fatalities became more commonplace.

Charles Redford, of Aughton, was knocked down and killed by Leonard Whyman of Brinsworth in 1920. The inquest jury exonerated Whyman.

“Motorcycling became both a recreational and spectator sport,” said Peter. “In 1924, the Rotherham Motor Cycle Club held speed trials at Thundercliffe Grange, which were hailed a great success, however S Rodgers who came off his bike and had to have a thumb amputated may have differed in that observation.

“An S Rodgers is named as chairman of the club in 1935, so maybe he continued riding despite the amputation.

“The Listerdale Scramble of 1928 saw A Sanderson win before a crowd of about 4,000, while over in Barnsley, their club were hosting ladies’ meetings at Shaw Lane.

“That motorcycling was not totally a male endeavour was also illustrated by Kitty Wright of Albert Street, who in 1924, having fallen off her bike in Westgate, was discovered not to have a licence.

“She was fined 10s. Her claim that falling off the bike was the only way to stop it was not allowed in mitigation!

“Rotherham Motor Cycle Club also had female members including the Sligo — born Minnie Grenfell, of Morthen — a well known trade motorist.

“The club also included Pat Randall and given that it had an annual award for the best woman rider, it implies more than a few female members in the club, although it is Pat, on her Norton, that receives most plaudits for her triumphs in competition.

“Often in the 1930s, as in the Yorkshire Club Championship, she was highlighted as the only female competitor... a trailblazer.”

In 1930, the government passed legislation abolishing speed limits and this was followed the next year by the publishing of the first Highway Code.

Reports in the Advertiser soon reflected the national trend of increasing court cases, injuries and deaths.

In 1933, George Williamson Parkinson was awarded £45 in damages from Ernest Ducker, of Brinsworth, whose motorbike had knocked him down.

Sydney Hewitt, a Sheffield policeman, was injured when his motorcycle collided with a car being driven by Rotherham fruiterer Arthur Stockdale.

And more sadly, George Searson (27), of St John’s Road, died when he crashed into an iron building on Meadowhall Road.

“It was clear that the removal of speed limits had been a mistake,” said Peter. “This was rectified by a new act of parliament in 1934 which established a 30mph limit in urban areas and legislated for all new drivers having to take a test before they were allowed to drive. The driving test cost 10s. The modern age had arrived.”



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