There is a great deal of material on transport in the Tower, and as a keen biker, I was pleased to find Motor cycles and how to manage them.

The first petrol driven motor cycles appeared in Britain in about 1895, and they proved very popular.  Our earliest copy of the book is the 3rd edition of 1900, and the volume illustrated here is the 12th edition, published in 1908. By this time there were more than 50,000 registered machines on the road. In all, the title ran for over 60 years, the final (33rd ed.) appearing in 1960. 

The motor cycles of this period were based on the safety bicycle, and had pedals to assist on steep gradients. They were of a similar size and weight to modern electric bikes – though they were much more powerful.

A modern motor cycle (1908)


                                                       Lightweight machines such as the Motosacoche (left) could do 30 miles per hour, and the Triumph, pictured below was recorded at “over 59 mph” on the race track at Brooklands.  To me the bikes look tricky to ride –  you seem to need two pairs of hands and both feet.  Given the state of the roads, those primitive brakes, and skinny tyres, it must have been a very bumpy ride. 

 The book describes motor cycles as “the cheapest form of locomotion” – while much cheaper than a car they were not exactly cheap. New bikes cost between £25 and £50 – five times the cost of a push-bike, and as we saw in Helen’s recent post, you could buy a substantial cottage in the new Garden City of Letchworth for £150.  If you couldn’t afford to buy a new bike – there were books to help you make your own – surely a simple task for the ‘average boy’.

Under the Motor Car Act (1903) drivers needed a licence and vehicles had to be registered. Anyone over the age of fourteen could obtain a licence from their local council for 5 shillings (25p) – driving tests were not introduced until 1934. Registration of the machine cost a further 5s and you also had to pay 15s a year to the Inland Revenue “for keeping a carriage”. 

There was a national speed limit of 20 miles an hour – but as the bikes didn’t have a speedometer, and speed cameras didn’t appear for another eighty years, it proved difficult to enforce.  A Royal Commission on motor cars, reporting in 1907 raised concerns about the manner in which police speed traps were being used to raise revenue in rural areas rather than being used to protect lives in towns. During discussion of the report in the House of Lords, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu stated that they were “manifestly absurd as a protection to the public, and they are used in many counties merely as a means of extracting money from the passing traveller in a way which reminds one of the highwaymen of the middle ages”.

Motor cycle and sidecar combinations were very popular – according to the book “to have one’s passenger beside one is charming, and provided an effective silencer is fitted, conversation can be carried on”. The Millford and N.S.U. machines pictured below, which could achieve 25 mph, were probably fine in a straight line, but cornering must have been very scary.

Although today’s bikes look very different,  reading the book I was constantly reminded of my own days as a novice rider. My first bike, a Yamaha “Fizzy” moped, bought second hand for £75 in 1975, had much in common with these early machines. It too was equipped with pedals, which came in very useful during the frequent breakdowns – thank goodness there aren’t too many hills in Cambridgeshire!