I’ve just been rereading The Diary of Emily Sophia Coddington – a fascinating original cycling document from 1893-1996. First hand accounts like this are rare and special. (Often we have to make sense of historic events through secondary source material). I stumbled across this remarkable diary during a visit to the National Cycling Archives in the University of Warwick Library.
The diary is a beautifully handwritten book by a young British woman, Emily, about her cycling life round her home in Leeds. She was a new cyclist in 1893 and clearly took to cycling with enthusiasm. But what is particularly striking about the diary lies in over 50 pages of carefully drawn columns – places, date, miles, condition of road/weather and comments.
In some ways it is an 1890s version of Strava – this is a woman deeply engaged in detailed data practices of her everyday cycling life.
The diary documents how Emily cycled most days, in good as well as windy and muddy conditions. Her cycling dropped off (as it does for many of us) over the winter months, though she still managed to ride a few times a week in poor conditions. The length of her rides is significant; she regularly clocked over 100miles a week, sometimes more. At the end of each year, she tallied up her total milage, which increased in line with her experience and fitness.
In 1893 she rode 735miles.
In 1894, 1074miles.
In 1895, 1485 and a half miles.
Given Emily was a new cyclist in 1893, she was riding on a heavy machine and mostly in conventional skirts, these are pretty impressive achievements.
Most of Emily’s ‘spins’ were for the pure personal pleasure of cycling:
‘Went by myself like I generally do (the result of having a husband in the cycle trade)’ (30th April 1895).
However, rides often became social events. She might start by herself but would meet up with people or her husband Herbert, or G.H.S. She regularly rode to nearby Dynley, Harrogate Cyclists Meetings and G.H.S’s race meets, on longer organised social events as well as to the shops, dressmaker and to collect messages.
While she talks little about her velocipede, her choice of dress is mentioned a few times:
She struggles with her dress getting caught in the wheel:
‘Got about 6miles out when going down a steep hill my pedal caught in my dress-guard and tore one side of the guard completely off, and split my dress, had to sit down by the side of the roadside and mend it (the dress), then had to walk our machines 4miles to Sharedbrook, a little village, got the chain mended there, but not the dress guard that being much too complicated a job for the country village. The only thing to do was to take the train to Leicester (12miles), arrived home 1.30, took the machine all xxxx before we could get it repaired, we then made a start about 7pm….’
Possibly because of this incident she buys a new cycling costume in April 1894:
‘Oxley, Lindley Wood Reservoir, Hamely Park through Poole, Chilingham (?) and Harwood back. (26miles). Warm but rather windy, roads very good but hilly. First time in new costume (rational dress underneath, especially when the wind blew)…’ (26th April 1894)
‘Halfway to Bexhill (7miles) Beautiful evening. Went with G.H.S and Edith, a regular up-to-date rationalised lady, attracted a lot of attention, in which I had no shame whatsoever’ (1st September 1894)
However, annotations like this give the impression that she was not always wearing her Rationals:
‘…. very nearly had a spill, dress wound around the pedal, why don’t you wear rationals??’ (6th September 1894)
Nicholas Oddy has written about Emily’s diary in Rides on My Safety: the diary of Emily Sophia Coddington (National Cycle Archive MSS.328/N28). In: Cycle History. JPMPF, Birmingham, pp. 29-34. It is available here. In the article, Oddy describes the diary, maps Sophia’s various cycle rides in northern UK and attempts to identify her and her main companion G.H.S.
He argues that what is significant about the diary lies in its timing:
‘A year earlier than the beginning of fashionable lady cycling, 1893 is pioneering in female bicycling terms, and, from the description of this novice writer, not a hardened tricyclist turning to two wheels’ (2010:30).
In relation to the Rational Dress, Oddy argues that:
‘By the description here this sounds like some sort of combination of knickerbockers and skirt that would be worn so as not to cause comment off the machine. Importantly, our rider appears to prefer rational dress, not on philosophical grounds (in fact she displays distinctly Conservative leanings…. but rather practicability and fashion seem to have been the controlling reasons’ (2010:33).
He concludes by arguing that the specificity of the diary is ‘an example of the difficulty of generalising’ yet accounts like this ‘get us closer to experiencing the wider context of cycling at the time of their writing than probably any other source’ (2010:33).