For Part 1 of this series see – bit.ly/2Gwr9WA
The British cycling journal The Hub: An Illustrated Weekly for Wheelmen and Wheelwomen described Mrs Grace as “the pluckiest of the sex” and said she was “somewhat diminutive, possessing dark piercing eyes, in which energy and perseverance can be easily read”. Clara Grace (née Simmons) was born in 1865 in Redbourn, Hertfordshire, a small village four miles outside the city of St Albans. Clara Simmons was employed at the age of 15 as a straw basket maker in Redbourn, working alongside her older sister Katherine, while her brother George worked in a straw warehouse. Clara was the second eldest of eight children (two sons and six daughters). Her father, also named George, was employed as a coachman, while her mother Emma was a housewife. In 1885, Clara married William Grace in St Albans, eventually relocating to Commerce Road, Wood Green in North London with William where he worked as a hairdresser. Clara gave birth to her first daughter Florence in 1887, followed a year later by her only son, Stanley. Two further daughters followed in 1890 and 1891: Clarice (or Gwendoline) and Millicent. Clara would juggle her cycling career while bringing up her children at the same time, an unusual feat for a woman in 1890s Britain.
Clara said in one interview that she had taken up cycling in about 1886 but not seriously until about 1892. She joined the Wood Green Cycling Club and on 14 May and 6 August 1894, Clara participated in two half-mile amateur women’s races at fetes in Bedford, winning the first race and coming second in the following race. She also won a third amateur race in Plumstead in August 1895. Prior to this race, she may have responded to an advert in a London newspaper wanting, as The Scottish Referee described, “several smart lady cyclists” with the lure of “good wages”, joining a handful of other rising female riders for a cycle racing tour held in Hull, Scarborough, Greenock and Edinburgh in July-August 1895. Clara’s husband William was also involved in this tour, racing another male cyclist in one-mile races at the Greenock and Edinburgh events. William represented the ‘Hare Cycling Club’ (possibly fully known as the ‘Hairdressers Early Closing Athletics and Cycling Club’) in track races during 1895/1896 and he may have continued racing at least until 1900.
Clara additionally undertook endurance riding on the road, setting new British women’s records for 50, 91 and 100 miles during 1895-1896 where she was accompanied by William as a pacemaker and chaperone. It appeared, however, that these exploits were frowned upon by her cycling club. Indeed, she stated in an interview that “Some of the members objected to my racing propensities, and the consequence was that I soon relieved them of my membership. I resigned.” It seemed that Clara had to quickly develop a thick skin during her first months of racing in a hazardous sport where these pioneering female racers appeared in a public space riding at speed around a wooden track, hunched low over the handlebars, perspiring, grunting and yelping in clothing that had already garnered much debate and controversy. She later remarked in The Hub that “I am made the butt for many nasty jeers and remarks by the people, and at one time, I felt them very much.”
Clara was among the first ladies to race in London, winning 15, 20 and 50-mile scratch races at the first event held at the Royal Aquarium in November 1895. It seems that it was at some point during this event that she was crowned the ‘champion of England’. She came second overall in another six-day race at the venue in December, while also winning a four-hour race during the same event. In the same month, Clara won a five-day race overall at Bingley Hall in Birmingham, also winning 15, 25 and 100-mile scratch races, but it was an event that led her to take the organisers to High Court in July 1896 to recover costs for “services rendered”, presumably unpaid wages – she was awarded £75 plus costs by the magistrate. She eventually emerged as the overall winner of a six-day international race at the Royal Aquarium in January 1896 and participated in further races in London and Paris, before briefly regaining the British women’s endurance records for 91 and 100 miles at the end of the year.
Clara’s last major races were a few short distance events at an international cycling tournament held at the Olympia, West Kensington in February-March 1897, including a ten-mile race where she came second, as well as possibly participating in a novelty race where the riders were all dressed in fancy dress – one source details Clara dressed as “Jack the Giant Killer” from an English fairy tale. In the first two months of 1899, Clara returned for a series of novel races on stationery bicycles held at the Royal Aquarium before being due to ride in a half-mile handicap and a ten-mile race at Putney Velodrome in May. However, she did not even make the start line and quietly retired from cycle racing altogether. In 1911, long after her cycle racing career had ended, Clara was still living in Commerce Road, Wood Green but had moved houses with William, plus three of her now adult daughters, who were working in the textile and retail industry. William continued working as a hairdresser until his death in 1914, while Clara may have passed away in 1948.
Article © Mike Fishpool
For Part 3 of this series see – bit.ly