Heritage: Victorian ladies saddle up for tricycle journey through Havering

The 1884 Coventry Rotary Tricycle. Photo: PA

The 1884 Coventry Rotary Tricycle. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Prof Ged Martin follows two young women on their three-wheelers across Havering

Nowadays, we think of tricycles as children’s toys. But in the 1880s, they were popular with adults too.

The modern safety bicycle, chain-driven with two equal-sized wheels, only developed around 1885. Earlier bikes had been cumbersome to ride and difficult to steer.

The front-steering tricycle was invented in 1881: you could use the handlebars to guide the machine. A three-wheeler felt safer, and it suited ladies in long dresses.

By 1884, twenty British companies were manufacturing 120 models.

Queen Victoria bought two tricycles. (She didn’t ride them but believed in supporting British industry.)

Her prime minister, Lord Salisbury, solemnly rode his tricycle across St James’s Park for exercise, followed by a footman who pushed him uphill. He weighed eighteen stone.

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Oscar Browning was another tricycle fan. Browning was a bachelor don at Cambridge, and a famous pain in the neck.

Nicknamed “the OB”, he sped around Cambridge’s flat streets at 8 miles an hour. He even toured Europe on his tricycle.

Yet “the OB” still became enormously fat – indeed, so jokers said, obese.

He lobbied influential friends to get him a knighthood. The thought of Sir Oscar was too absurd. He was eventually awarded the OBE.

In 1884, a fashionable ladies’ magazine, The Queen, reported a tricycle expedition by two young ladies.

We don’t know their names, but they were educated and obviously well-off. They lived in smart St John’s Wood, near Lord’s cricket ground.

Their 3-wheelers gave them a freedom that was new for women.

They left home one September morning. Avoiding central London, they chose a roundabout route, through Walthamstow and Snaresbrook, joining the Romford road at Manor Park.

That’s where their problems began. “Owing to heavy traffic, the road as far as Romford is very bad.”

There was no tarmac in those days. With ladylike distaste, they complained of “inequalities of surface, and stones and dust galore”.

Poor road surfaces were tough on tricycles. Cyclists could weave past potholes, but it was harder to manoeuvre a tricycle. With three wheels, the chances of hitting a bump were high.

Solid rubber tyres gave some protection, but the Ilford to Romford stretch of today’s A118 was endured in grim silence.

“About a mile from Romford we became aware, by meeting herds of cattle, that something was going on.”

That “something” was Romford Market, a major centre for the cattle trade.

Expecting “a trying time” among the crowds, the two women resolved not to risk provoking anybody by tinkling their bells, “and rode as fast and quietly as possible”.

To their surprise, “people were much too busy to attend to us”. They survived Romford without a hitch.

Soon, “we found ourselves toiling up Hare Street Hill almost with the road to ourselves”.

This was the section of Main Road from Raphael Park to Balgores Lane. It doesn’t seem very steep today, but its long slope revealed another downside to the tricycle.

The young ladies were proud to own up-to-date models. “Our machines were both very light” – but, even so, each weighed 70 lbs (over 30 kilograms) – four times heavier than a modern bicycle, and hard work on even a slight incline. The highway levelled out around Gallows Corner.

“The road between Romford and Brentwood is very pretty; the surface is good, and in some places it is like riding in an avenue.”

Sad to say, a century of road-widening has mostly removed the stately trees of Gidea Park and Harold Wood.

They took a scenic route home to London, “determined to give the disagreeable Romford Road a wide berth.”

Around Abridge, they even hit six miles an hour!

It’s fun to think of two young ladies in their long skirts, toiling on tricycles through Romford. But, within a few years, the bicycle became king of the roadsters, and only small children rode on three wheels.