Historical & Project Context – SBS Exhibition

The advent of the bicycle in the late 19th century marked a profound transformation in women’s lives and society at large. In Sussex, as in many parts of the world, cycling became a pivotal activity, providing women with newfound freedoms and a platform for empowerment.

This digital exhibition explores the historical impact of bicycles from the 1890s to 1928, highlighting the role of cycling in Brighton and Hove, Bexhill, Newhaven, and Worthing during an era when pedal power was a force for women’s emancipation. Image: Lady Cyclist with Husband, Postcard, Whiting View Company, n.s., c. 1900 (Sheila Hanlon)

KP Projects CIC is a creative company that develops national and international outdoor art performances, installations & community engagment project, focused on sustainability, the environment and healthy living, with projects exploring cycling, recycling, and digital storytelling, amongst others. This exhibition sheds light on the historical impact of cycling in Sussex, showcasing how the bicycle was more than just a mode of transport; it was, and still is, a vehicle for social change.

Resistance and Challenges

The arrival of women cyclists was met with resistance from certain parts of society which felt threatened by the sight of women on bicycles. This opposition often manifested in verbal and physical abuse. ‘Some parts of society felt threatened by the sight of women cyclists…. & responded with verbal & sometimes physical abuse.’ (Jungnickel, 2018).  Female cyclists also faced the creation of pseudo-medical ailments intended to discourage them from cycling.

Sheila Hanlon, a cycling historian, outlines these ailments, which included hysteria, inflamed fallopian tubes, the risk of foetal deformity, cyclist’s hump (kyphosis bicyclstarum), and the infamous Bicycle Face. These supposed ailments reflected societal anxieties about women stepping out of their traditional roles and gaining independence.

In 1897, male students protesting a vote to grant Cambridge University’s female students full degrees hung an effigy of a lady cyclist wearing ‘rational dress’ over the market square. This image had already become synonymous with the modern woman, symbolising resistance to change and modernity.

Impact and Empowerment

Despite these challenges, women eagerly embraced cycling. Owning a bicycle became a symbol of independence for 19th-century women. Through events, personal stories, and photographs, the bicycle is depicted in this exhibition as a symbol of freedom and progress for women in Sussex.

Women’s cycling clubs of the 1890s were more than mere leisure associations; they were spaces where women collectively worked to protect their rights as cyclists and citizens. The political interests of these clubs were evident in the topics chosen for evening lectures and club newsletters, which included dress reform, refugee rights, anti-vivisection, and suffrage. It was common for these clubs to support various causes through charitable drives, often benefiting needy members of their local communities. It was company and meant women could socialise unchaperoned.

Freedom and Leisure

Riding a bicycle offered women the freedom to explore the countryside, providing a respite from the confines of urban life. By the 1920s, cycling had become firmly established as a leisure activity. An advertisement in the summer of 1925 in the Brighton Herald urged readers to ‘Cycle your way to health and happiness,’ highlighting the health and recreational benefits of cycling (The Keep archive , 1925).

Women’s magazines of the time, such as Godey’s, celebrated the bicycle as a declaration of independence for women. As one article stated, “In possession of her bicycle, the daughter of the 19th century feels that the declaration of her independence has been proclaimed. (Friend, 2018)”. This sentiment captured the essence of the transformative power of the bicycle in women’s lives.

Cycling and Society

Mrs Hutton Moss, a notable figure in Brighton’s cycling history, exemplified the empowerment of women through cycling. Photographed on her 1896 Singer bicycle, Mrs Moss put on cycling displays and was a testament to the grace and skill of women cyclists.

On 20 February 1896, the Prince of Wales, Princess Louise, and the Duke of Fife attended one of her performances. Later, on 10 April 1896, the Duke and Duchess of York, along with Mr and Mrs Reuben Sassoon, watched an exhibition of fancy cycle riding by ladies, which included Mrs Edward Sassoon and Mrs Hutton Moss. These exhibitions showcased intricate and graceful figures, highlighting the artistry and athleticism of female cyclists. Image: Mrs Hutton Moss in Brighton Pavilion Gardens in The Cycle World Illustrated 1896. Credit: The National Cycling Archive, Warwick University

So, it wasn’t all bad news for lady cyclists during the cycling craze. Many doctors reassured their patients that the pastime could be taken up without concern if practiced in moderation. Prospective lady cyclists were encouraged to consult their physician to verify that they were fit and free of any underlying conditions that might be aggravated by cycling. 

Medical professionals in favour of women’s cycling considered it harmless so long as overexertion, long rides, speed and accidents were avoided. Dr WH Fenton, a Harley Street physician, estimated that 90% of diseases afflicting Victorian women were “functional ailments, begotten of ennui and lack of opportunity of some means of working off their superfluous, muscular, nervous, and organic energy.” (Nineteenth Century, May 1896). Much later in the craze, cycling was championed as a healthy escape from the pressures of urban life and polluted factory air for working women (Hanlon, 2016).


The exhibition aims to provide a comprehensive look at the role of the bicycle in women’s lives in Sussex from the 1890s to 1928. It underscores the significance of cycling as a catalyst for social and political change, offering women independence, freedom, and a platform for empowerment.

Through a blend of historical narratives, personal stories, and visual displays, visitors online and in-person are invited to explore how the bicycle revolutionised women’s lives and contributed to the broader movement for women’s rights and social progress.

Nothing could stop the tide of change that the bicycle brought about. As women took to their bicycles, they not only embraced a new mode of transport but also heralded a new era of independence and empowerment.

This Sussex Blazing Saddles exhibition celebrates their journey and the enduring legacy of their resilience and determination in the face of societal challenges, and how this took place across Sussex.


Friend, B. (2018, March 6th). The Role of the Bicycle in the Suffragette Movement. Retrieved from We Love Cycling: https://www.welovecycling.com/wide/2018/03/26/role-bicycle-suffragette-movement/

Hanlon, S. (2016, January 4th). Bicycle Face: A guide to Victorian cycling diseases. Retrieved from Women’s Cycling: http://www.sheilahanlon.com/?p=1990

Jungnickel, K. (2018). Bikes and Bloomers. Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear . London: Goldsmiths Press.

Middleton, J. (2020). Holland Road, Hove. Retrieved from Hove in the Past: https://hovehistory.blogspot.com/2020/03/holland-road-hove.html

The Keep archive . (1925). Brighton Herald newspaper. Retrieved from The Keep archive: https://www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/GB179_NEW_33_1925