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Bk2: Ernest Cottingham, Nathaniel Fox, Vinnie Ellen Warren & Others. CYCLING REVOLUTION.

The Cycling Revolution


We have seen in other biographies how, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, much of the village life for the next century was set in place. Main sewerage, the Parish Council, telephones, street lighting (oil at first), organised football leagues and the bicycle.

Although there are stories of early bicycles, the first bicycle type vehicle that we really know existed was the French ‘Draisine’, or English hobby horse which was made of wood with iron shod wheels. It had no pedals but was propelled by pushing with your feet on the ground, rather like a child’s ride-on toy. The year 1819 was its heyday in England when the Regency dandies rode them round Vauxhall Gardens and the streets of London. They quickly became a menace and heavy fines were imposed for riding them on the pavements (a continuing problem). The craze was quickly over.

The next big breakthrough came in the 1860s when the velocipede or ‘boneshaker was invented. The frame was increasingly made of iron and the front wheels were driven by the use of pedals attached to the front axle. It was called the boneshaker because of its stiff frame and iron wheels, although later it did gain solid rubber tyres. It is unlikely that many ordinary people rode these expensive, cumbersome beasts although many performers tried to include this new craze in their act. Dozens of songs were written for the Music Hall and under the title. ‘The Velocipede Mania’ the Worcester Journal for Saturday 21st August 1869 had the following article:

A velocipede artist gives an epitome of his accomplishments. He states that during the performances he “draws a four-wheel cab, containing four persons, runs up an incline, leaps twelve feet into the air while on the veloce, performs with chairs, bottles &c., carries six men at one time, and within a space of eight feet.” A French illustrated paper publishes some special hints this week for the use of these new machines. Amongst them is a sketch of a funeral conducted on velocipedes. French humour is nothing unless it is either grim or nasty.

A little earlier in the year, on April 10th there was an advertisement in the General Advertiser for:


It invited, ‘Gentlemen wishing to inspect this favourite vehicle’ to do so at ‘Mr. Wilson’s Coach and Harness Manufactory in Gold Street, Northampton. In July there was an advertisement for a ‘Grand Display of Fireworks, Velocipede Races’.

Once again, its time was quite short. The problem was that with the pedals directly on the front wheel the speed that it could attain was quite limited. This was solved at first by increasing the size of the front wheel. In order to make them mountable and allow the rider to reach the pedals still mounted on the front axle, the rear wheel was similarly reduced. The ‘Ordinary’ or to use what was a derogatory name, ‘Penny Farthing’ was born. At the same time the all-metal frame was lightened. We now see the Penny Farthing s as rather sedate, elegant machines but the reality was very different. They were fast and dangerous and were mainly ridden by young men from well-off families.

We know that at least some bicycles were being ridden around Ringstead however because the Northampton Mercury report on the Baptist Sunday School Feast, on the 6th August 1881, states that:

At an early part of the day a bicycle accident befell R. Pearson, a member of the Ringstead Band, who was riding his machine and carrying his trombone. The instrument slipped between the front wheel and suddenly sent the rider over the handles. In his descent his chin came into contact with the trombone and he suffered severe cuts and bruising.

Was this a boneshaker or a penny farthing? One can only guess that it was the former. Ralph Pearson was a twenty-nine year old married shoemaker who lived in London End and one suspects that it may have been an old machine. Was it the same bicycle that his younger brother, Stephen, was caught riding without lights on 31st May 1883. Stephen was about sixteen years old and he was let off with a payment of 6s. 6d costs and the police consented to waive a conviction.

The Northampton Mercury reported on 6th June 1885 on an American, Thomas Stevens, who was on a ‘Velocipede Journey Round the World’. Thomas had started out on April 22nd 1884 and the adventure took him three years. He wrote of his journey and we see from the pictures that he was in fact riding a Columbia Standard model high-wheeler’ or a penny farthing. This confusion over names continues and there were numerous disputes, when new laws came in about bicycle lights or riding on the pavement, as to what the law was referring. We sometimes have to infer what type of bicycle was being described by the date.


My uncle, Cyril Hardwick, probably in Stanwick about 1917.

You can still see the influence of the penny farthing.

Again it is unlikely that many were owned in Ringstead although some might have been seen passing through. It is difficult to imagine it on the still often rutted and muddy roads. The ‘safety bicycle’ was invented in 1885. The big change was that the back wheel was driven by a chain onto a cogwheel on the back axle. Suddenly the need for a large front wheel had disappeared and with a lighter frame (although heavy by modern standards) the modern bicycle was born. Some historians say that the bicycle was not a vehicle of the working classes until the First World War. This does not appear to have been the case in Ringstead and the shoemakers and their sons and daughters seem to have taken to the bicycle in the 1890s.

This period was not a good one for the local military shoe trade and it was only the Boer War at the end of the century that alleviated the position for a time. Nevertheless the shoemakers probably had more disposable income than many working people. They were also a radical group and, in Ringstead there was a strong temperance movement. The early history of the bicycle was tied up with these other movements in a way that we might find surprising today. Working people were gaining more leisure time and the bicycle gave them a cheap access to the world that they could now reach in a day’s journey.

Probably in 1890 a bicycle club was formed in Ringstead. Certainly we know that on Saturday 3rd October 1891 the club celebrated its first annual gathering with a tea at the Axe and Compass. There was also a grand costume parade of the village and a run to Thrapston. I have not found further reports so it may be that it merged with the Raunds Cycle Club. Nevertheless it does show that a good number in the village owned a bicycle

Previously that year, on Saturday 8th August 1891 two of its members, Ernest Cottingham and Nathaniel Fox left Ringstead at 4 o’clock in the morning bound for London. They were attempting to beat the record set by a Raunds rider, W. Wheatley, who had ridden to London and back in just eighteen hours.

Ernest had been born in 1871 to John and Martha Cottingham and in 1881 he was living with them in the High Street. Next door is his young cousin Edwin Turner Cottingham, who became a master clockmaker and whose story we have already told. By 1891 Ernest’s family was living at 1 Little Lane, Shop Street but it is likely that this is a different name for the same house. He was now twenty years old and a shoemaker.

His partner in the cycle ride was Nathaniel Fox, also the son of a shoemaker. He was living with his parents, Joseph and Dinah in Leveratt’s Row in Carlow Street in the 1891 Census. He was only seventeen years old and a shoemaker too.

Just a few months after the 1891 Census the two young men had set out on their adventure. They arrived back in Ringstead at five minutes past eight in the evening. They had completed the journey in sixteen hours and five minutes. Unfortunately, the newspaper report gives no details of the journey but presumably they went straight down the A6. The journey would probably been about 145 miles in all so they had averaged about nine miles an hour.

We can only imagine the welcome they received from their club mates and other villagers when they returned. Ernest Cottingham married Sarah Daisy Braine in 1897. I wonder if the couple were teased with the popular Music Hall song of the time:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,

I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

I can’t afford a carriage,

But you’d look sweet upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two

There was much experimentation during the last quarter of the nineteenth century with bicycles, tricycles, quadricycles and tandems and even impractical designs for cycles for many riders.

Cycle racing now featured in many local feasts and athletic meetings. The Mercury reporter seems a little disgruntled from the start in having to attend the Ringstead Feast in September 1892: 

Coming late in the season in the midst of harvest, and also being just in front of the Rushden and Finedon festivals, Ringstead Feast does not fall at a good time for holiday making. Still it is always a time for many family reunions, for pleasuring in various forms, and this year’s festival, which commenced on Sunday, is no exception to the rule. Indeed there seems to be a little more life than usual during the last few years put into it. 

He later reports:

A good course was laid out for the foot-racing but for the bicycles it was awful. The sport was not very interesting and the fields were as a rule limited.

Many of the same problems that people complain about today were causing anger in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Stamford Mercury reported on 14th September 1894 that Mr R. Smith at the Wisbech Town Council meeting complained about the danger of ‘persons cycling on the footpaths of the town . . . contrary to the bye-laws’. The Mercury had reports, in 1901 of Alfred W. Worthington from Denford who was summoned for riding a bicycle on the highway at Ringstead on June 5th ‘at a quarter past eleven p.m. without having a lighted lamp attached’. In 1903 Frank York of Raunds and Thomas Pentelow of Ringstead were also summoned for riding bicycles without lights. We see that bicycles were far from uncommon on the Ringstead roads.

If we look at the local advertisements for cycles in the Wellingborough News we see that, very quickly, the cycle that we would recognize today had evolved. We see the hollow-tubed triangular frame with Dunlop’s new invention of the pneumatic tyre, and the chain driven back wheel, although still with no signs of brakes (although some models certainly did have brakes fitted).



Wellingborough News 24th February 1899

With thanks to Wellingborough Museum Archive

 We have said that the cycling had a political and social element in its early days and this is particularly true of the fight for equality for women. The early cycles had been impossible for women to use but with the introduction of the safety cycle women too took to the roads. The radical Scottish poet, Robert Buchanan wrote in the 1892 a Bicycle Song (for Women) which has the lines:

Praise to the Luck which sent me

The magical wheel I ride,

And now I know God meant me

To match Man side by side!

Wings the good Lord has lent me,

And oh, the world is wide!

By the end of the century women in Ringstead seem to have been riding bicycles with little comment. We know this from the sad case of Vinnie Ellen Warren, who was the daughter of Joseph and Mary Ann Warren. Mary Ann Phillips had married Joseph Warren in1873. She was just eighteen and he was some fourteen years her senior, but still a young man. He died, however, just three years later and was buried in the churchyard on October 19th 1875. Vinnie Ellen had been born just a few months earlier.

Mary Ann married again to an Ironstone labourer, Albert Orpin and they lived in the Sivers Buildings off the Carlow Road near to Mary Ann’s family. They had one son, called Leonard born in 1889 and by 1891 the family were in Carlow Street with Police Constable John Puttnam lodging with them.

Vinnie, or Ellen as she seems mostly to have been called, appears to have been a bright girl. Like many Ringstead girls she became an army boot closer probably working in one of the local factories. She had also become a nurse in the Ringstead St John Ambulance Corps.

As we have seen in the stories of John Sawford and the Police Constable the Boer War came at the end of the century. A war in which disease was the greatest killer of the British troops and where some of the lessons taught by Florence Nightingale about hygiene in the Crimea had to be relearned.

Two of the Ringstead St John Ambulance Corps went to South Africa and John Sawford did not return. Although there were professional female nurses in South Africa there was reluctance by the army chiefs to send sufficient of them and, unlike the men, the St John female nurses were not used.

Along with the rest of the nation, she would have rejoiced when, in 1900, news of the Relief of Mafeking came through. On Saturday 19th May there were celebrations, bonfires and torchlight processions in towns and villages throughout Britain. On the following Monday the boot and shoe factory where Ellen worked as a machinist gave a half holiday to all its staff. She and her friends decided to hire bicycles and have some fun. Ellen was not a ‘very confident’ cyclist so she decided to have a practice and she, accompanied by her friends, went up the Raunds Road. When they reached the top Ellen started back down on her own, with the wind at her back. It seems the equivalent of learning to swim by jumping in at the deep end.

At the same time Charles Underwood was driving a dray for the Wellingborough brewery, Campbell Praed and Sons, loaded with mineral water, slowly up the hill to Raunds. He suddenly saw Ellen careering down the hill towards him and tried to pull up. Ellen was on the wrong side of the road and had lost control. She crashed into the side of the dray, cracking her head against the large brake block. It was at a point where the road narrowed and it is possible that she caught some old iron railings first.

The driver of the dray and his mate as well as Ellen’s horror-struck companions rushed to her side but she died almost immediately. They carried her to her house in Carlow Road and the doctor’s assistant came to her there. Dr Joseph Bird, himself, came from Thrapston and attended Ellen a little later but it was all too late. The Inquest was held at the Swan Inn on Tuesday 22nd May.

Her mother and stepfather are in the 1901 Census at 21 Carlow Road with their son Leonard. Albert Orpin is now a labourer in a sewerage works. Mary Ann died in 1904 aged forty-nine years, but in one of those unexpected changes that we have come to expect in these stories Albert and Leonard sailed for America . It may be that Albert’s brother had sailed to America first. They arrived in Ellis Island, New York on 18th August 1905 on board the Baltic. They settled in Alden, Hardin County, in Iowa and there both lived their lives into old age.

It is interesting to note that somewhere locally bicycles were available for hire for those who could not afford them and it may be that for most the cycling was a leisure activity rather than a general way of getting about. It is difficult to be precise but average earning would have been around £1 8s. a week so it would have been around two to three months wages to buy a new bicycle, although many would have bought them on ‘easy terms’.



Local Bicycle Makers, Lightstrung, selling bicycles from £8 10s. to £14

Wellingborough News 23rd March 1900

From Wellingborough Museum Archive



Ringstead Censuses ( ).

Ringstead Parish Registers (Northampton Record Office and ).

Northampton Mercury, General Advertiser, Worcester Journal.


Wellingborough News (Wellingborough Museum).

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