The first women’s races in London at the Royal Aquarium took place in November-December 1895, comprising a 12-day race (two consecutive six-day races). Billed as ‘England v France’, the first six-day race on 18-23 November featured 20 women (of which twelve were French and eight English), split into two divisions to reduce the number of riders for a final heat. Races were held daily apart from Sunday with the riders racing on a wooden planked, oval banked track measuring ten laps to the mile and identifiable to the spectators by the colour of their clothing, usually a frilly shirt and bloomers, although the French women wore jumpers and tights instead in later races. The final heat of this first six-day race was won by 18-year old Monica Harwood, a farmer’s daughter (originally from Buckinghamshire but living in Brentford) who had only started riding a bicycle just four months before under the tuition of Clara Grace. In addition to prize money, Miss Harwood was awarded a purse of gold, a gold diamond watch and a gold diamond bracelet for her win with similar prizes for the rest of the competitors. Newspaper reports of the time describe the race, at the height of the British Empire in the Victorian era, as encouraging patriotic fervour with an accompanying band playing ‘Rule Britannia’ during Harwood’s victory. It can be assumed that this was replaced by ‘La Marseillaise’ following the end of the second six-day race on 2-7 December 1895, which was won by France’s Mlle Cannac (also spelt Cannoe) with Clara Grace finishing second.


Arthur Walter Gamage, the owner of the Gamages Department Store in Holborn, London, similarly organised and judged novel races held at the Wood Green cycle track over the Easter weekend of April 1896. Called the ‘Gamage Professional Tournament’, over 12,000 spectated at the Easter Monday race on 6 April, which included a one-mile ladies handicap race and a two-mile international race. Top of the bill was a two-mile ‘Daisy’ scratch race featuring mixed tandem racing while a military band performed the then popular song ‘Daisy Bell’ by Harry Dacre. The final heat of the two-mile daisy race was won by France’s Mlle Reillo with a French male rider surnamed Fossier her pilot. A second Gamage race took place at Wood Green in May 1896. It included a half-mile women’s handicap with only 12 of 27 women that entered riding.

Based on the popularity of the initial six-day races, further events then followed at the Royal Aquarium and Olympia up to 1898. Other major races included a five-day race at Bingley Hall, Birmingham, a six-day race at the Drill Hall, Sheffield in December 1895, a women’s tournament at St George’s Drill Hall, Newcastle in January 1896 and an international cycling tournament at the Agricultural Hall, Islington during March-April 1896. There were also women’s races at the Fine Art, Industrial and Maritime Exhibition held at Cathays Park, Cardiff in May-October 1896. This started on 4 June with Miss White successfully attempting the ladies’ mile record. Half-mile and a quarter of a mile races then followed on 20 June 1896 on an open-air track measuring five laps to the mile and involving seven riders from Britain, France and Italy. Further exhibition races may have taken place after 20 June up to 4 July. There was additionally a 15-mile international ladies’ cycling race at Putney Velodrome on 25 May 1896, part of an athletics festival that included men’s boxing and wrestling matches, organised by the bare-knuckle boxer, coach and event organiser Billy Madden. Similar races were held at this venue in April 1897 and May 1899 with the latter including a 100-yard race between racer Rosa Blackburn on her bicycle and a professional male runner.


Five British riders additionally travelled to France in 1896 to take part in an eight-day race at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris held on 4-12 May against ten French women and Miss Italo. The riders were Clara Grace, Monica Harwood, Miss White, Rosa Blackburn and a lady named ‘Miss Rudham’, who had previously participated in the Sheffield and Newcastle races, and was the sister of a professional male cyclist. Clara Grace also raced (and was beaten by) the French rider Lisette in a 100-km race held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver on 5 March 1896. A few British riders may have additionally raced in Belgium during 1898 and also an international women’s race held at the Kurfürstendamm cycle track in Berlin in September that year.

The Royal Aquarium often tried a variation in the style of racing, presumably to provide spectators with something different. In December 1896, for example, a team event was held where 12 riders were split into four teams to compete against each other. Another race in June 1897 was billed as ‘Women v Man’ with the advertisement for the event, whose writer may have hoped that the fate of women would be decided finally on the bicycle track, stating that it would be “the supremacy or downfall of woman”. The race featured two sections, one comprising four English female riders and the other featuring four male English cyclists with miles and laps ridden by each gender separately added up at the end of the final heats to provide a winner.


A possibly monotonous version of the racing, at least for the spectator, was a static race held on a stage at the London Pavilion, Westminster on 11-18 June 1898. Featuring a total of six riders during the week and with a moving painted background depicting a track or scenery, three women each night “raced” stationery bicycles on a rudimentary home trainer. A similar race utilising two stationery bicycles on stage was held at the Royal Aquarium in January-February 1899. Five riders, comprising Clara Grace, Monica Harwood, Mrs Ward, Miss Anderson and Marcelle Vautro, attempted to beat over one mile the times set by two male cyclists.

The British Film Institute (BFI) has in its archives a film, possibly the only one in existence of women’s racing during the period, that features four women in a demonstration of racing on static devices in Leeds, purported to have been released in 1902, although it may have been filmed earlier. Indeed, following the static races at the London Pavilion and the Royal Aquarium, four female cycle racers went on a tour in 1899-1901 at theatres in 15 or more towns and cities across the UK. Adverts and newspaper articles of the time name the riders as Miss Patterson (presumably Pattison), Miss Bailey, Miss Golding and Miss Leslie. This static racing featured two heats and a final plus an exhibition race by a male professional named Edward Ransley, who organised the races.


A rare film of a static race demonstration filmed in Leeds entitled “Ladies Training for Cycle Race”.
Source: BFI National Archive


No women’s six-day races took place in London in 1899-1900 but the racing returned for the last time at the Royal Aquarium on 4-29 June 1901, featuring twelve riders. Monica Harwood, the winner of the very first Royal Aquarium race, marked this final race by winning again – she was also one of the last of these racers to be reported on in the newspapers when she successfully broke the women’s one-hour record in October 1901 at Putney Velodrome, riding at over 24 mph whilst being paced by tandems. The Royal Aquarium was closed in 1902 and was demolished the following year. The Northern Whig, however, reported of a women’s ‘world championships’ race taking place in Balmoral, Northern Ireland in August 1901 as part of a cycling and pedestrian display, but stated that the small crowd was disappointed with the event. Only five women participated with a sixth pulling out due to illness.


It was a somewhat brief and short-lived period. Women’s cycle racing in Great Britain was not to have a renaissance again until the 1920s, although there continued to be reports of a few amateur races at the beginning of the 20th Century. More serious cyclists returned to endurance riding. A few women cycled even longer distances over days and even weeks. Alice Andrews – a rider who had participated in a six-day race at the Olympia in January 1896 and the Putney Velodrome races in 1899 – attempted the women’s hour record at Herne Hill in 1902, but crashed at the end, as well temporarily establishing a new record for the women’s mile. She turned her attention to 12-hour records from 1904. Maggie Foster, a Gaiety Theatre London worker by trade who also rode for the theatre’s cycling club as well as the Dover Road Club, had already repeatedly established new women’s road records during 1897-1898, often to repeat them again to better her times well into the early 1900s. In August 1898, so confident of her abilities, she challenged any female rider to race her up Reigate Hill in Surrey through an advert in Sporting Life, but the challenge was never taken up. It appears from the archives that she only participated in one women’s race, an amateur one-miler held in Newham, London in the same month where she came second. Nevertheless, Miss Foster established a new 100-mile record in August 1902 of five hours and 34 minutes and the women’s mile record at Crystal Palace two months later. In July 1903, Miss Foster additionally established a new 50-mile record of two hours and 14 minutes while being paced by a motorbike. Having already overturned Clara Grace’s London to Brighton record in July 1897 by 26 minutes and established a new record of six hours and 23 minutes the following month, she also set a new time of five hours and 33 minutes for the same route in August 1903, just 27 minutes slower than the men’s record. Women’s cycle racing in Great Britain had at this stage gone full circle, returning to its beginnings.

Article © Mike Fishpool