Cycling History

Bacchus on a Bicycle: Cycling Under The Influence

"Bacchus on a Bicyle" from Punch, April 18, 1893.

“Bacchus on a Bicyle” from Punch, April 18, 1893.

Punch magazine is one of the great satirical publications and its cartoons brilliantly captured details of public and private life in Britain during its long print run. I came across this cartoon from the April 18, 1893, edition while browsing through back copies in the archives of the Library where I work. It caught my eye for two reasons. First it’s comical, and second it strikes a chord: Been there, done that! Perhaps too many times to be honest.

Currently British law states that it as an offence to ride a bicycle when the rider is sufficiently under the influence of alcohol to be incapable of having proper control of the bike. Unlike the legislation relating to drink-driving there is no specified limit to the amount of alcohol a cyclist may have in their bloodstream. This leaves the question of whether a rider is under the influence as one of judgement for the arresting officer, rather than of a quantifiable assessment of blood alcohol levels. Sometimes of course, drunkenness is so obvious that no judgement is called for, as a few stories gleaned from the press will attest.

Take, for example, the case of one William Upson, a cowman from Sicklesmere in Suffolk, England. He was summoned for being drunk in charge of a bicycle on February 18, 1928 at Little Whelnetham. In fact Upson was so drunk that Police Constable C. W. Gosling reported to the court that he had come across Upson as he was being dragged off the road by a soldier after falling off his bicycle. Even with the assistance of both the policeman and the soldier Upson proved incapable of standing on his own two feet, and, in the words of PC Gosling, “was absolutely, hopelessly drunk” and “incapable of walking as well as driving.” At the court hearing Upson was fined £1 in his absence [1].

Or, James Stewart Dunbar, a hotel worker from Walnutgrove in Perth, Scotland, who in 1950 was fined 30 shillings, or 15 days in jail, for being drunk in charge of a bicycle on South Street, Perth, where he’d been observed to swerve in front of a bus, narrowly avoiding going under the wheels [2]. And, William Bryner Laing of Simprin Farm, Airlie, Scotland, who was so drunk in March 1942 that he had to be carried home by the police. An incident that earned him the maximum fine allowable of £2 and the presiding Sherriff’s gloomy conclusion that he wished it could be more [3].

Fast forward several decades and we find Paul Rutherford of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, pleading guilty to dangerous cycling and being drunk in charge of a pedal cycle after he crashed into a police car while attempting to flee from a misguided and drunken attempt to take a shortcut through the compound of a Go Outdoors store. His own solicitor described Rutherford’s antics as being, “a complete and utter shambles”, and, ” almost like a scene from a Carry On film.” He was fined £250, ordered to pay £50 costs and a £20 victim surcharge [4].

But perhaps my favourite drunk cyclist story is that of Mr Shane Corkery of Muddiford, Devon, who had been sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for being drunk in charge of a bicycle in Ilfracombe in January 1950. Understandably Mr Corkery sought to take full advantage of his rights under law and chose to appeal the sentence. Enter his counsel, one Mr D. M. Scott, into the cut and thrust of the King’s Bench Divisional Court, intent on securing justice for his client [5].

Presumably the extent of Corkery’s drunkenness was beyond doubt as Scott did not attempt to challenge the ruling based on any evidence to the contrary. Rather, he sought to help his client by attempting to exploit a technicality of law. Namely whether a bicycle could be considered a carriage under the meaning of the Licensing Act of 1872. The relevant section of which stated:

Every person who in any highway or other public place, whether a building or not, … who is drunk while in charge on any highway or other public place of any carriage, horse, cattle, or, steam engine, … may be apprehended, and shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings, or in the discretion of the court to imprisonment with or without hard labour for any term not exceeding one month [6].

Evidently a bicycle is neither equine or bovine, nor a steam engine. Mr Scott was also clear that a bicycle was not a carriage either, and in evidence quoted the words of the popular music hall song, “Daisy Bell”:

It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat,
Of a bicycle made for two.

The inference of the lyrics clearly being that a carriage and a bicycle were mutually exclusive modes of transport, and neither could be described as the other. This prompted a learned debate between Mr Scott and the King’s Bench in which they ascertained that, in 1872, bicycles were called bicycles, and not velocipedes; that they also used to be called ‘penny-farthings; that the first known bicycles had two wheels of equal size and were colloquially known as ‘hobby-horses’; and that penny-farthing riders used to always carry a bugle.

How useful this actually was to the vexed question of whether a bicycle was a carriage under the terms of the act is unclear, but after deliberation Lord Goddard, Chief Justice, pronounced that, “a bicycle is a carriage . . It is a carriage in my opinion because it carries,” and that this was true whether it was a tradesman’s bicycle, a tricycle or an ordinary passenger bicycle.

Mr Scott pointed out that that Corkery wasn’t even riding his bicycle at the time of the arrest, but pushing it, which fell on deaf ears. Corkery, the court proclaimed, had been arrested because, “he seems to have been in a condition generally described as fighting drunk,” and had then proceeded to smash up the cell in which he been placed. The appeal was dismissed with the court finding, “that Mr Corkery was lawfully arrested. A drunken man with a bicycle on a highway, whether he is riding or pushing it, is a dangerous person.”

The King’s Bench was, of course, correct in its assessment of the danger of mixing alcohol and riding. Cycling on a road can be a hazardous enough venture as it is, without throwing alcohol into the mix. For cyclists, alcohol has the unfortunate combination of decreasing co-ordination and increasing confidence. Not a great mix on two wheels. UK studies suggest that drunk cyclists are ten times more likely to be at risk of injury than sober cyclists, are less likely to wear helmets, and are statistically more likely to be severely injured or killed.

There is a debate to be had about whether drunk cycling is as bad, or less bad than drink-driving. Is there any moral difference between the two, given that injury caused by drunken cyclists is statistically far, far less than that caused by drink-drivers? Arguably there is none. Both instances result in the individual being impaired by alcohol and of there being a greater result of accident or injury to oneself or others as a result. That the chances of causing or being the victim of an accident while cycling drunk are less than when drink-driving is irrelevant.

And yet there is a simple pleasure in cycling while inebriated. I confess to doing it on a regular basis on the way back from the pub. Mostly I’m on well lit cycle paths with the occasional stretch of quiet road, and while I would definitely fail a breathalyser test my perception is that I am in control and safe. What’s more, the physical sensation of being a bit squiffy while gliding along on a bike is enjoyable. Should I do it? Perhaps not. But on the whole I’d say that cycling under the influence is a much less harmful activity than drink-driving and one that lacks both the social stigma and associated personal guilt of the latter. That said, one should always be aware of your limits as there is a difference between cycling home after a couple of drinks and attempting to do so when falling down drunk.


  1. “”Hopelessly Drunk” Cyclist,” Bury Free Press, March 3, 1928, 9.
  2. “Drunk Cyclist,” Dundee Evening Telegraph, August 30, 1950, 7.
  3. “Drunk Cyclist,” Dundee Evening Telegraph, March 31, 1942, 3.
  4. “Drunk cyclist crashes into police car as he tries to flee,” Cycling Weekly, February 23, 2015.
  5. “”Daisy, Daisy” fails to save drunk cyclist.” Dundee Evening Telegraph, July 21, 1950, 4.
  6. United Kingdom, Parliament. Licensing Act 1872, 35 & 36 VICT, Ch. 94, § 12.

2 comments on “Bacchus on a Bicycle: Cycling Under The Influence

  1. Jean
    October 17, 2015

    I’m always amazed by the level of research evident in your blog posts. You ought to consider taking your blog posts as e-content and publish it. There are such products (free) to do download and create an e-book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • aaroncripps
      October 18, 2015

      Thanks Jean. I have thought about turning some of the posts into a book, but as a gift for my biggest fan, my Mum. Personally I feel that as far as an ebook goes, my blog is intended to be both free to access and is also where I’d like people to come to read the content. That said, like many of us I feel I have a book in me, and have been thinking along those lines with a couple of ideas that I feel could lead to 200-250 pages


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This entry was posted on October 17, 2015 by in Cycling, History, People, Riders, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , .
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