Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is visiting professor in ‘Worktown Studies’ at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history including a biography of Allen Clarke and his latest production Moorlands, Memories and Reflections. He also owns The Bolton Bicycling Bookshop

Bolton was at the forefront of the ‘cycling craze’ before the First World War. Each Sunday, hundreds of men and women who toiled in the mills and weaving sheds from Monday to Saturday, would head out on their bikes to Blackpool, Southport, or as far afield as the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.

Many were members of local or national cycling groups such as The Clarion which survives to this day. At a time when more people are rediscovering the joys of cycling, let’s take a look at how it developed.

The first bicycle in common use was what was called ‘the Penny Farthing’ – a daunting machine with a huge driving wheel balanced by a small rear wheel. It was invented in 1871 and was called ‘the ordinary’, though it looks anything but ordinary.

What became the standard design – initially named ‘the safety bicycle’ – emerged in the mid-1880s. At first, it was only affordable to people on a good income, and the early cycling clubs tended to be middle class - only admitting ‘gentlemen’.

Bolton Cycling Club was in existence by the late 1880s and in 1891 a group of riders who included Tom Lee, Fenton Cross and Harry Pearson made an epic journey to John o’Groats and back. Change came rapidly as the cost of the ‘safety bicycle’ came down and was affordable to better-off workers in towns like Bolton.

Allen Clarke was an early champion of cycling. Writing as Teddy Ashton, he extolled the virtues of this new mode of transport in his satirical Bolton paper The Trotter.

This Is Lancashire:

In the issue of November 25, 1892 the main story was Bill Spriggs Gets a Bicycle. Clarke established Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly in the late 1890s and helped to promote cycling through its columns. The paper’s publishing base at 54 Higher Bridge Street became an outlet for bicycle sales, with Clarke acting as agent for Tam o’Shanter cycles in Liverpool.

One of his stories, A Man’s Sake, features a young man and woman who become lovers through meeting on cycle rides around a fictionalised Bolton. The heroine, Babs, thinks nothing of cycling a hundred miles in a day and represents the ‘new’ liberated working woman.

In the novel she reflects on her mother’s disapproval of women riding a bike (‘indecent’!) but sees changes coming about: “Such unreasonable dogmatisms were all dying out with the old generation. The new generation was making men and women – husbands and wives – into chums, who rode bicycles together. As indeed they ought to!”

This Is Lancashire:

A typical example of the ‘new woman’ was Alice Foley, brought up in a working class Bolton family. She started work in a weaving shed at the age of 13. Writing of the late 1890s, she recollected in her autobiography (A Bolton Childhood):“...scrupulously hoarding my scanty pocket-money I bought a second-hand bicycle for 25 shillings. Then followed a determined struggle to ride the thing. We were on short time at the mill, so each Monday, after helping mother with the washing, I trundled the machine over cobbled streets to a stretch of macadam road...”

After numerous attempts she gets the hang of it and returns home in triumph, to be greeted by her mother saying “Well, tha’ art a seet, thee an’ that crazy thing.”

This Is Lancashire:

Alice joined the increasingly popular Clarion Cycling Club, a spin-off from Robert Blatchford’s socialist newspaper, The Clarion.

The Bolton section of the club had been formed in 1896 and it opened up new vistas for Alice and her friends: “In merry company we slogged up long hills and free-wheeled joyously down them, thrilling to the beauty and excitement of a countryside as yet unspoiled by the advent of motor transport.”

Other local groups were formed. My grandfather, Tom Molyneux, was ‘captain’ of Moses Gate Cycling Club at about the time Alice was learning to ride her new bike.

A photograph of the club, about to set off on a ‘club run’, used to adorn the old Co-operative Society store in Farnworth. The Cyclists’ Touring Club was formed as early as 1878 and Bolton had its own section.

This Is Lancashire:

The Horwich Cycling Club was formed in 1934, many of its members being employed in the Loco Works. It is still going strong. Wingates also had its own club.

A feature of the Clarion Cycling Club was the network of‘club houses established across the North of England. Members of Bolton Clarion, and other local clubs, would cycle to Ribchester, Whalley, Bucklow Hill (Cheshire) and other places where they could have lunch or, in some cases, stay overnight.

Some of the club houses featured tennis courts, reading rooms and other facilities normally out of reach to working class pockets. Remarkably, one still survives – Clarion House at Roughlee, near Burnley. It was established in 1912 and opens every Sunday (currently for take-out teas and biscuits only, which can be enjoyed on the benches outside).

The inter-war years saw a revival of the Clarion clubs, with membership of the national federation peaking at around 8,000 in 1938. The Clarion played an active part in resisting the rise of Fascism in Britain. Two of its members, Bert Ward and Tom Gosling, both of Hall i’th’Wood, died fighting Hitler in the Second World War and are commemorated by an annual club prize.

After the war the Bolton section, led by stalwarts such as Sid Clemmett and Tommy Higham, maintained its activities.

This Is Lancashire:

Brian Ferris, of Bolton, recollected of the 1940s: “My mum and dad were in the Clarion Cycling Club and told me about the long rides they went on. The Clarion was my father’s life in his teens and early 20s. His cycling stories were a joy to listen to. Such comradeship! The sing songs and get-togethers he enjoyed sound wonderful even today.”

Over the years Bolton has produced many eminent cyclists, perhaps none more so than the late Albert Winstanley, a much-loved figure on the cycling scene. Albert was born in 1916 and got his first bike at the age of 14. He never stopped cycling and his books, such as The Golden Wheels of Albert Winstanley are a joy.

The Clarion Cycling Club went into decline in the 1970s, with national membership dwindling to about a thousand. In Bolton, Denis and Wendy Pye and myself decided, in 1982, it we should re-establish the Bolton section. After a story appeared in The Bolton Evening News about our plans, Denis and Wendy met an old Clarion cyclist in Victoria Square who was attracted by their tandem.

He informed them that they’d seen the story in the Evening News and had been trying to get in touch. They were no longer riding but kept the Clarion ‘flame’ alive with annual get-togethers. A new chapter in the history of the Bolton section began, and the club is, once again, flourishing.

One consequence of Covid-19 and the ‘first lockdown’ in March has been the dramatic increase in cycling, coupled with Government funding to support cycling. Bolton is getting much-needed improvements to its cycling infrastructure, mainly funded by Transport for Greater Manchester. This will encourage more people to get on their bikes and swell the ranks of cycling organisations. Allen Clarke, who believed that the bike was possessed of spiritual qualities, would have been delighted.

Details of Paul’s new book Moorlands, Memories and Reflections, featuring cycle rides and rambles around the West Pennine Moors, is at www.lancashireloominary.co.uk