A Sporting Chance 4

Cycling was a popular middle class pastime for both men and women in late nineteenth-century Europe. The year 1895, when Hospital chaplain Edward O’Donoghue discussed the topic in Under the Dome, falls at the beginning of what historians have called the “golden age” of cycling. O’Donoghue emphasised the sporting and recreational elements of the pursuit noting, in the whimsical tone he often adopted, that:

We number already several cyclists in the hospital, and no doubt in time we shall form a club under the title of the Bethlem Beagles, and hold a race meeting (under high patronage) in the gentlemen’s garden. It is quite possible that under such circumstances the turf might suffer considerably, but there is no reason why any human being should be run over or even scared, while so vast an array of windows commands a full view of the racing track.

While there is no evidence that the “Bethlem Beagles” ever genuinely existed, O’Donoghue’s words remind us of the interest in exercise, occupation and amusements in the Hospital. However, the chaplain might have baulked at the idea of Olympic cycling. In his own pursuit of the sport, he emphasised education, as well as exercise (he was a keen supporter of cultural and recreational pursuits, organising regular visits for parties of patients to museums, churches and other historical buildings). He concluded that:

I hear with envy and admiration of runs to Brighton and back, to Salisbury, or to Portsmouth in a day, for these are feats of strength and endurance worthy to be praised. … But at the same time I doubt if it is possible to enjoy the beauty of the country with a head bent over the handles and with the mind solely filled with the calculations of miles and hours. And I have a word to say about this riding from start to finish without a thought or a care for what is interesting or suggestive on the road. It is neglecting your education, I always fancy.

With cycling one of Britain’s most successful Olympic sports, it is probable that few have shared O’Donoghue’s concerns with “riding from start to finish” this summer!


Wain cats
Louis Wain cats cycling, 1896: Wellcome Library, London

[1]O’Donoghue, E. “Chaplain’s Column”, Under the Dome, vol. 4, no. 41 (June 1895), pp. 83-4

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