MRS. ANDREWS: A WOMAN BEFORE HER TIME
by V.J. Andrews
Vic Andrews, a well known racing cyclist of the late 1920s and 1930s, a former London Champion, Polytechnic Club Champion and UK record holder, describes his mother’s major, but now little-remembered, achievements as one of the country’s first professional women cyclists in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Mrs Alice Andrews was, by the standards of the day, a woman before her time. In the years before the first World War, cycling for women was seen as a social activity and those women who rode were expected to do so elegantly, in long skirts and on heavy framed bicycles. Alice Andrews however was altogether different, one of a small band of pioneering women cyclists, including such names as Mrs Clara Grace, Miss Maggie Foster, Mrs Ward, Mrs Rosa Symons and Miss M Harwood who participated in women’s races or, independently of each other, attempted track and road records on men’s machines. She was in the vanguard of those who wore bloomers for cycling and her sporting activity and dress were regarded as anti-social, even outrageous, within the society of the time. On at least one occasion she was booed and jeered by a crowd that had gathered outside the hotel where she was staying overnight on one of her sponsored rides.
The active participation of women in sport was not accepted by society in the years at the turn of the century. Cycling was no exception and the achievements of women who attempted track and road records were largely ignored or ridiculed. It was a time when women were denied their basic political, economic and social rights and the campaign of the suffragette movement was still gathering pace. It was not until after the war and the dramatic social changes that were brought in its wake that organised women’s cycling came into its own, a notable example being the formation of the Rosslyn Ladies Club.
Alice Andrews was born in 1868. I don’t know how or when she started cycling. My father William was by trade a bicycle enameller and line drawer, who moved with his family to Coventry in 1895 to help establish the Triumph Cycle Company under its Directors, S Bettmann, a German and M J Schulte, a Belgian. At the turn of the century he returned to London to run his own business in Westminster Bridge Road. In later years the family owned a bicycle shop in the Walworth Road. One of the earliest stories recounted to me was that my mother and father used to ride regularly together. Since she, of course, rode a woman’s bicycle with a heavy frame she always ended up physically exhausted. It wasn’t until she swapped bikes with my father and he came back from a long ride as a physical wreck that she discovered the virtues of what was then modern technology. From that point her career took off and she always rode a man’s bike.
Family records show that she was most active from about 1895 to about 1910, by which time she was in her early forties and, quite remarkably, had given birth to eight children, raising six of them. Although she was an extremely active rider, details of only a few of her record setting rides remain, all of these being independently witnessed.
Unlike some of her contemporaries, such as Mrs Grace and Miss Harwood she was never keen on participating in women’s track racing, although she did in fact race against the French at one of the Olympia events in the mid 90s. The problem with women’s track racing was that it was never officially recognised; standards were pretty variable, from the frivolous to the serious and the they were regarded more as a form of entertainment. Instead she concentrated on establishing road and track records. I have details of three of these.
At Herne Hill in late July 1902, she went for the one hour paced record. The weekly magazine The Cyclist of 6 August 1902 reported the event in rather quaint terms.
Almost since the commencement of the season, frequenters of the Herne Hill track have noticed each evening a little woman taking her practice spins quietly, and coached by her husband. This lady is Mrs A Andrews, who in the days when indoor path racing flourished at Olympia, held her own among many fair riders who came over from la Belle France. Having done so well in her training and trials, Mrs Andrews was advised to try what she could do in the hour with tandem pacing on Monday evening of last week. Starting a few minutes before eight – which was much too late an hour for record riders, when chill atmosphere and fading light are considered – the lady cyclist was sent on her journey, paced by Bert Howard and H Lee and timed by A J Ockleford.
The report gave a detailed account of her ride, with the eleventh mile being the fastest at 2 minutes 17 seconds. Unfortunately, she touched the back wheel of her pacers with only ten seconds to go and fell, having ridden 24 miles 280 yards. The Cyclist concluded ‘…it was by no means a bad performance for a lady.’ By comparison, the men’s paced one hour record at the time was set in 1900 by H Chinn at Crystal Palace, where he covered 29 miles, 480 yards.
A photograph taken before the start of this attempt, previously unpublished, must be one of the earliest images of a female professional cyclist attempting a record.
My mother rode two twelve hours unpaced Southern Roads records. The first was on 16 October 1904, from Coulsdon to Chichester and back, through Arundel to Redhill, completing about 182 miles in a time ten minutes short of twelve hours. This was really quite a remarkable ride, bearing in mind that in September, the previous month, the famous long distance road rider, G A Olley of the Vegetarian Cycling Club broke the men’s twelve hour unpaced Southern Road record held by J Dudley Diamond. Olley’s 208 miles was the first time a double century had been ridden on southern roads inside twelve hours. Very few women attempted twelve hours, possibly because of the sheer physical exertion required and the logistical problems involved. The only other women that I know of who rode twelve hours were the Bowe sisters, Nellie and Ada, who did some 166 miles on Northern roads and Mrs Berley, who rode 171 miles, also in Yorkshire. Even when I was racing with the Polytechnic in the 1920s and 30s, any man who rode a distance approaching 200 miles would probably have been awarded a gold medal.
In 1907, on 29 September, she rode a twelve hours Southern Roads record attempt, completing about 170 miles. It is difficult to calculate the mileage exactly since her route was unusual, starting at Crawley and cutting across country to Horsham and then down the Worthing road, turning off at Offington. From there she went to Arundel, Chichester and then to Fareham where she started her return journey. Judging by her checking sheet she must have planned to finish at Crawley, where she would have completed between 180 and 185 miles. In fact she appears to have run out of wind between Chichester and Fareham, averaging only nine to ten miles per hour, so that her original intention was not realised and she finished instead at West Grinstead.
It was a common occurrence at the time for men cyclists to establish place to place road records, the most popular being London to Coventry, London to Bath and London to Brighton and back. It was natural that the women would emulate their male counterparts and from about the mid 1890s onwards Mrs Grace, Mrs Ward and Miss Foster all attempted such records. My mother, on 30 October 1904, rode unpaced from London to Coventry, a distance of about 90 miles, in 5 hours 54 minutes. Soon after this ride, on the 6th November 1904, she did London to Brighton and back, a distance of 104 miles, in 6 hours 54 minutes. These times were in fact an improvement on those of the others, but were achieved at a later date. More interestingly, I believe that these rides were connected with the Stanley Cycling Exhibition, normally held at that time of the year, because I have an original publicity poster from the James Cycle Company (which, with The Palmer Tyre Company, sponsored her rides) proclaiming her achievements.
The weekly magazine Cycling, in a review of the exhibition, but not naming my mother (or Miss Symons, who was the other rider involved), somewhat condescendingly wrote:
‘The bicycles which were ridden by two ladies who did eminently creditable performances this season are displayed upon the stand encrusted with the original mud picked up in the course of their travel.’ (Cycling, 23 November 1904).
According to another review in the Bicycling News she rode a James path racer which was priced at £10 and described as ‘a very speedy looking machine and came out at a very low weight.’ (9 November 1904).
On all her rides she carried a ‘checking sheet’ which was signed by members of the public to authenticate each stage of the ride. These make interesting reading. In the 1904 12-hour record, her sheet at Arundel was signed, at the railway station, by a chap called Rogers who was the railway porter. Pubs featured as convenient checking points, especially the Globe Inn near Chichester and the Red Lion at Fareham.
Of course, the overall mileage achieved must have been reduced by the need to get her checking sheet witnessed at each stage. It also has to be remembered that, unlike modern day road racing, she was not watered or fed on route by a team of helpers but was very much on her own, taking her provisions with her. Moreover, although she didn’t have to face the hazards of car traffic, which was virtually non-existent, the roads were extremely poor.
It was a sign of the times that, with one or two exceptions, mention of her cycling achievements and records, along with those of other women cyclists, rarely appeared in the press, a source of deep disappointment to her. It was not until the end of her career, when her reputation had ben established and she was a well known cycling personality, that her name appeared regularly in the press. The sporting tabloid, Lotinga’s Weekly, of 6 September 1913 carried a picture of my mother in an exhibition race at a Milwall F C sports event with the caption, ‘Mrs Andrews, Lady Champion Cyclist of the World’.
One of the few detailed accounts of her in Cycling did not appear until 12 April 1917 when she took part in an exhibition race an an event organised by the Southern Counties Cycling Union at Herne Hill. Mrs Andrews, then aged 47, was shown racing against an unnamed competitor. This unnamed cyclist was in fact my sister May, who married H T ‘Tiny’ Johnson, who was world sprint champion in 1922 and an Olympic medallist.
The report in Cycling read: ‘A novelty was the race between Mrs Andrews, the well-known lady rider, and an unknown lady. The unknown won the first heat, a lap pursuit, her time being 473/4 seconds to Mrs Andrews 492/5 seconds, but in a level race over one lap Mrs Andrews turned the tables on her opponent, winning by a few inches after a neck and neck struggle in 544/5 seconds.’
In a subsequent letter J H Stapley, secretary of the SCCU wrote to my mother thanking her for her ‘sporting offer and services’.
He also wrote: ‘the SCCU executive were very anxious to present to you and daughters with a small token of appreciation of your help, but unfortunately, owing to the meeting turning out a financial failure entailing a loss of over £50 to the Union funds, that intention has to stand over till an opportunity arrives in the future.’
By the end of the war my mother’s competitive cycling career was over, but she continued to ride well into old age. In 1921 for instance when she was in her fifties, she took part in a Cycle Touring Club event covering 100 miles from London to Findon.
Throughout her career she showed a clear determination to break down the social barriers and prejudices, prevalent at the time, which prevented women from actively participating in sporting activities; in particular she showed that women could succeed in cycling. From a historical perspective, there can be no doubt that, along with only a few other women she was a pioneering force in women’s cycling.
V.J. ANDREWS OBITUARY, The Guardian 24 April, 2004:
As a record-holding, amateur cycling champion at the end of the 1920s, Vic Andrews, who has died aged 95, provided a link with an age when cycling and radical politics were partners. He was an activist in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), and later in the print union Natsopa, and a teenage member of the Old Vic chorus during the Lilian Baylis era.
Born in London, the youngest of seven children, Andrews was the son of a bicycle enameller and early socialist, and a pioneer feminist and semi-professional racing cyclist in the 1890s and 1900s. His future brother-in-law was the 1922 world amateur sprint champion.
After leaving school at 14, he joined the Tooting Bec cycling club, before moving on to what was then one of London’s primary cycling clubs, the Polytechnic Cycling Club, based at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). He was an amateur magician, organised plays and dances, and campaigned for the London Labour/Communist MP Sharpurji Saklatvala.
He won the Polytechnic club cycling championship, and the London area championship. Specialising in tandem racing, he became the British record holder in 1929, and competed in the tandem sprint trials for the 1932 British Olympic team. He was later recruited for the abortive 1940 Helsinki Olympic team.
His first job involved travelling around London, ordering supplies for his parents’ Walworth Road cycle shop. As a member of the London Auxiliary Fire Service, he fought the Blitz fires and confronted the devastation of the December 1944 V2 rocket attack on Woolworth’s in New Cross. Prominent as an FBU activist during the 1951 “spit and polish” strike, from 1964 until 1975 he was the Daily Mirror’s fire officer and father (shop steward) of its Natsopa chapel.
He was gregarious and a storyteller. He is survived by Win, his wife of 62 years, and their three children, John, Peter and Margaret.
· Victor Johnson Andrews, trade unionist, cyclist, born December 23 1908; died March 16 2004