Our Pioneering Women of Sussex blog has featured some incredible sports women over the last few months. Today’s blog celebrates World Bicycle Day and explores the story of Tessie Reynolds, who was only 16 when she made cycling history. Written by guest blogger and women’s cycling historan, Dr Sheila Hanlon.
The United Nations has declared 3 June World Bicycle Day, ‘acknowledging the uniqueness, longevity and versatility of the bicycle, which has been in use for two centuries, and that it is a simple, affordable, reliable, clean and environmentally fit sustainable means of transportation, fostering environmental stewardship and health.’
On 10th September 1893, at 5am, a strange scene unfolded outside Brighton Aquarium. While the sun was still rising, a young girl in knickerbockers mounted a racing bicycle and set out for London. Only sixteen years old, Tessie Reynolds was 8 hours and 38 minutes away from setting a new record for riding from Brighton to London and back again. Reynolds attracted attention not just for her racing prowess but for wearing rational dress. By publicly challenging gender conventions Tessie contributed to the wider struggle for women’s rights, freedoms and suffrage.
Teresa “Tessie” Reynolds was born in Newport on the Isle of Wight on 20th August 1877. She was the eldest of eleven siblings. By 1885 the family had moved to Kemptown, Brighton. The Reynolds were deeply connected to the cycling world. Tessie’s father Robert James Reynolds ran cycle and athletic depots on Brighton Road and Bristol Road. He was a member of the National Cycle Union, a race official, an athletics coach and secretary of a local cycle club. Tessie’s mother Charlotte (née Galton) managed the family’s boarding house, a popular cyclists’ haunt. The Reynolds children learned to cycle, fence, box and play sports of all kinds under their father’s instruction. Preston Park Velodrome, Britain’s first purpose built cycling track established in 1877, was three miles from the Reynolds’s home. The popular London to Brighton cycle route brought leisure riders and competitive cyclists right to their doorstep. This exposure to cycling gave Tessie the competitive edge she needed to become a world-class athlete.
Lady cyclists were rare when Tessie took to the road. The cycling craze of the mid to late Victorian era, when men and women took up cycling en masse as a leisure fashion, was still a few years away. Women’s racing occupied a space somewhere between sport and entertainment. There was a small, exciting and clandestine circuit of women’s highwheel and safety bicycle racing in the 1880s and 1890s. For the most part, however, women’s cycle sport was frowned upon as unhealthy, immoral and contrary to notions of femininity. Tracks that allowed women to compete risked having their credentials revoked by cycle racing unions. The question of dress stoked the debate further. Conventional skirts and dresses were not compatible with cycling sport. Professional female racers opted for gymnastic style tights, men’s racing breeches or rational dress.
The first officially recorded women’s bicycle track race in Britain took place at the Recreation Grounds, Great Yarmouth on 7th August 1893. It was a one-mile handicap featuring four female competitors. Teen sensation Tessie Reynolds, riding for the Brighton Wanderers, came in first place. She won a china tea set.
For her London-Brighton-London record attempt, Tessie rode a diamond framed Premier safety bicycle geared for speed and kitted out for racing. It was a men’s bike, not a drop frame like women were expected to ride at the time. Tessie’s sister made her a rational cycling costume consisting of knee length knickerbockers and a long jacket cinched at the waist. Black stockings, a white blouse, black riding shoes and a hat completed the ensemble. Bicycling News called the outfit “suitable and graceful.”
Three male pacemakers accompanied Tessie when she set out at 5am on the big day. She rode non-stop to Hyde Park, arriving at 9.15am. The return journey had three stoppages, Smitham Bottom, Crawley and Hickstead. At 1.38pm she crossed the finish line back at The Aquarium. Clocking in at 8 hours and 38 minutes for 120 miles, Tessie had set a new record. Her victory was bittersweet, however, since the official racing bodies refused to recognise a record set by a woman.
Tessie’s ride caused a press sensation. Most of the coverage was less than complimentary. Cycling called Tessie’s record a “lamentable incident” and reacted with “pain, not unmixed with disgust.” The magazine called her outfit “of a most unnecessarily masculine nature and scantiness.” Leading cycle racer and commentator George Lacy Hillier leapt to Tessie’s defence. In the 30th September 1893 edition of Bicycling News, he praised her athleticism and choice of sensible dress. Hillier declared her “the stormy petrel heralding the storm of revolt against the petticoat.”
Tessie’s record lasted for a year. In September 1894 Miss E Annie White of the Dover Road Club, Lewisham bettered it with a time of 7 hours, 56 minutes, 46 seconds. Little is known of Tessie’s life beyond her peak as a cycle racer. She married Montague Main and had three children, only to outlive them all. At some point she moved to Barnet, London where she worked as a traffic safety warden. One thing we do know is that Tessie continued to be a champion of rational dress and an outspoken proponent of women’s rights as cyclists and citizens.
Tessie Reynolds smashed not only a road record, but barriers limiting what women could do. Her 1893 ride from Brighton to London and back was an important landmark in women’s athletics, dress reform and suffrage. Tessie Reynolds is an unsung hero of British sporting history and a Brighton native to be proud of.
Written by Dr Sheila Hanlon