Cycling History

Cyclists and Crime: Vignettes from the Illustrated Police News

I have a suspicion that, contrary to the popular adage, it is crime that is the oldest profession. It is certainly the case that criminals are quick to exploit new technologies, often in ways un-envisaged by their creators, while authorities are only slightly less quick to create new categories of criminal offence in an attempt to deal with unintended consequences and the impact on society. The development of the bicycle was no different as these four stories from the pages of the London Illustrated Police News will show.

Vignette 1: Mistaken Identity

Late on Saturday 16 December 1899 Police Constable Smart was making his night time rounds of Hare Street, a suburb of Romford, when he overheard two men carrying on a conversation on the garden lawn of a house. Knowing that the owner of the house was away form home and suspecting he had come upon a pair of would be burglars the conscientious Bobby waited the arrival of Police Sergeant Parrott whereupon the officers confronted the men and charged them with being on enclosed premises for the purpose of committing a felony. The pair were escorted to the police station where they were held until Monday before being remanded by local magistrate, Mr T. Bird, and held for a further twenty-four hours despite the information that the men had given proving to be correct on inquiry.

The two men, Albert James Buckle and Charles Herbert Stevens of Almeric Road, Battersea Rise, turned out to be the victims of the zeal of the arresting officers. Whilst cycling through Hare Street they had suffered the double misfortune of a twisted fork and a punctured tyre and had chosen the lawn as a suitable spot in which to carry out repairs. It was while refreshing themselves with biscuits and whiskey from a small flask that they  were spotted by Constable Smart. Fortunately for Albert and Charles the Bench dismissed the case without even calling on the solicitor for evidence as to their character and taking no account of the police suggestion that marks on the door of the house may have been made by the cyclists spanners. In conclusion the magistrate thought that they had been foolish to trespass on the lawn but did not believe that they had gone there with any intention of committing a crime.[1]

While the police could be over zealous at times national legislation required that cyclists obey the general laws of the road and any clauses that applied specifically to the use of bicycles. The Local Government Act, 1888 required that cyclists warn any other road user, whether vehicle, animal, or pedestrian, “by sounding a bell or whistle, or otherwise” when overtaking them.

Vignette 2: Infringement of the Law

 On 29 July 18 1884 Frank A. Rhodes of Pimlico, Frank Barker of Kingston, John F. Walters of Edgware Road, and Frederick Rolfe of Peckham were summonsed by the police to appear before the Kingston County Bench on charges of riding bicycles along Portsmouth Road, Long Ditton, without having bells or whistles attached to their bicycles or other means of making an audible warning of their approach.

Walters, presumably not having previous experience of arguing with the law, claimed that by making vocal warnings he had complied with the Act. Mr Y. W. Cockburn, the Chairman of the bench, gave him short shrift pointing out that the act was clear and that the words “or otherwise” were interpreted to mean similar instruments to bells or whistles, not the human voice.

Undeterred, Walters changed tack, stating that at the time of the alleged offence he had a doorkey in his pocket. Drawing the said key from his pocket he blew a shrill blast on it, the key presumably having a hollow barrel. When asked if he had produced the key to the constable at the time Walter’s was forced to concede that he had not. Nor, he confessed, was he carrying the key in his hand when riding. When the Chairman pointed out that when there was danger Walters would not be able to put his hand into his pocket to blow the key the defendant retorted that he could ride his bicycle with both hands in his pockets, adding that if all cyclists passing through Kingston blew their whistles it would be bedlam.

None of this had any effect on the Bench and Walters and the other defendants were fined 5 shillings each. Walters was probably lucky to get away so lightly as the act allowed a maximum fine of 40 shillings for the offence.[3]

Minor traffic misdemeanours are one thing but our next brief story, which is quoted here in full, deals with crime at its most abhorrent.

Vignette 3: Robbery and Attempted Murder

“A daring robbery was committed at the Vicarage of Noirterre by three men dressed as cyclists, The only occupant of the house at the time was the Curé’s niece. The men knocked her down, and after breaking open the Curé’s desk and stealing about £120 they saturated the poor girl’s clothing with petroleum and set fire to her. They then mounted their bicycles and rode off. The girl succeeded in tearing off her clothes before receiving serious injury. The robbers got clear away.”[4]

The horrific scene was portrayed in dramatic style by one of the artists working for the Illustrated Police News.

Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Made available here under the principle of fair use

Our final story shows human nature in a better light. If bicycles could be used to escape the scene of a crime they could equally be used to apprehend a fleeing criminal.

Vignette 4: Citizen Police

Shortly before eleven o’clock on Thursday 15 April 1897 Mr W. Alexander, a tailor living at 40 Newington Butts, and a lady companion were riding a tandem along Cockspur Street, London, nearly ran over a man as he stumbled into the road from a bus. The man, leaping to his feet, ran off in the direction of Spring Gardens. On hearing a cry of “Stop thief” from the steps of the bus Mr Alexander and the lady set off in pursuit chasing the man through Spring Gardens and into Northumberland Avenue where they apprehended him and gave him into the custody of the police. A few minutes previously the thief, one Henry Smith, had stolen the watch of Doctor George H. Drury whom he had been sitting next to on the bus. The watch, valued at £20 to £30, was to cost Henry six months hard labour when he appeared before Mr Lushington at Bow Street the following day.

Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Made available here under the principle of fair use


[1] Police Illustrated News, Saturday 23 September 1899, p.8.
[2] United Kingdom. Parliament. Local Government Act, 1888, § 85 1(b), p. 74.
[3] Police Illustrated News, 18 August 1894, p. 3.
[4] Police Illustrated News, 28 August 1897, p.7.
[5] Police Illustrated News, 17 April 1897, p. 3.


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This entry was posted on November 26, 2014 by in Cycling, History, United Kingdom and tagged , , , .
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