Pedalling Pioneers – SBS Exhibition

Sussex’s Cycling Stars & Suffragists

The advent of the bicycle in the late 19th century was a significant milestone in women’s history, particularly in Sussex. This revolutionary mode of transportation not only provided newfound mobility but also became a powerful symbol of women’s empowerment and liberation.

Despite societal concerns that lady cyclists would lose their feminine charms, resemble men, and neglect domestic responsibilities, the bicycle became a pivotal tool for social and political change.

From the late 19th to early 20th century, pioneering women in Sussex embraced the bicycle, defying societal norms and leaving an indelible mark on history. These women transformed themselves and society through their passion for cycling, paving the way for future generations of trailblazers.

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. It celebrates how pedal power propelled women toward greater social and political freedom, forever altering the landscape of British society.

Muriel Brassey (1872-1930)

Muriel Brassey, known as Lady De La Warr, was deeply connected to cycling from an early age. Daughter of Lady Annie Brassey and Sir Thomas Brassey, Muriel’s adventures aboard the steam yacht Sunbeam were well-documented in her mother’s books. In 1891, Muriel married Viscount Cantelupe, and the couple soon moved to Bexhill Manor House.

Image: Muriel Brassey with her daughter, Bexhill 1900 – Courtesy of Bexhill Museum

In 1896, Muriel joined the cycling craze:  “In the summer of 1896, succumbing to the popular enthusiasm for cycling, she [Lady De La Warr] bought a ‘beautiful Simpson patent lever chain cycle’, on which the De La Warr arms and her ladyship’s initials appeared in gold on the main tubing, while a neat gold watch was ingeniously fitted to the plated handlebar. The machine, on its arrival at Bexhill railway station, attracted much admiration”. (Bartley). 

Muriel’s embrace of cycling contributed significantly to its social acceptance and burgeoning popularity among women of the aristocratic class. She became a fashion icon for cycling and a symbol of the changing times.

Flora Merrifield (1859–1943)

Flora Merrifield was a prominent suffragist in Brighton who tirelessly campaigned for women’s voting rights. In 1913, she played a pivotal role in the Great Pilgrimage, leading women marching from Brighton to Hyde Park to demand suffrage.

Image courtesy of The Women’s Library at LSE

In the image above, Flora is in front of the van wearing a dark cape, holding her bicycle, marked with X. The Great Pilgrimage of 1913 was a march in Britain by suffragists campaigning non-violently for women’s suffrage, organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

“Pilgrims were urged to wear a uniform, a concept always close to Katherine Harley’s heart (the march’s instigator). It was suggested that pilgrims should wear white, grey, black, or navy blue coats and skirts or dresses. Blouses were either to match the skirt or to be white. Hats were to be simple, and only black, white, grey, or navy blue. For 3d, headquarters supplied a compulsory raffia badge, a cockle shell, the traditional symbol of pilgrimage, to be worn pinned to the hat. Also available were a red, white and green shoulder sash, a haversack, made of bright red waterproof cloth edged with green with white lettering spelling out the route travelled, and umbrellas in green or white, or red cotton covers to co-ordinate civilian umbrellas.” (Crawford, 1999)

About 100 pilgrims started from Brighton on Monday 22nd July 2013, joined by supporters from Worthing, Littlehampton & Seaford, then picking up more as they passed through towns, many on bicycles. At Burgess Hill they were joined by a contingent from Eastbourne, then on to Cuckfield where they spent the night & were joined by a mid-Sussex group.

Over the next few days they passed through Crawley, Reigate & Redhill, Purley, Croydon & Vauxhall & on Saturday arrived in Hyde Park, London. Flora helped lead campaigners on bicycles, demonstrating how cycling could be a powerful tool for social change and part of her commitment to women’s rights:

“Most women travelled on foot, though some rode horses or bicycles, and wealthy sympathisers lent cars, carriages, or pony traps for the luggage. The intention was not that each individual should cover the whole route but that the federations would do so collectively.” (Tickner, 1988).

These marches showcased bicycles as tools for social change, and the pilgrimage itself marked a significant moment in the suffrage movement, with 50,000 attendees rallying in Hyde Park. Flora’s efforts highlighted the intersection of cycling and political activism, demonstrating how bicycles could be instruments of liberation and social progress.

Mrs Hutton Moss

Mrs Hutton Moss was known for her elegant and intricate cycling performances in Brighton. Her husband owned a gymnasium in Hove, where she honed her skills. Mrs Hutton Moss’s performances caught the eye of high society, including royalty. Her exhibitions demonstrated the versatility and entertainment value of cycling, challenging traditional perceptions and elevating the status of female cyclists.

Image: Mrs Hutton Moss in Brighton Pavilion Gardens in The Cycle World Illustrated 1896. Credit The National Cycling Archive Warwick University.jpg

“On 10 April 1896 the Duke and Duchess of York, and Mr and Mrs Reuben Sassoon watched an exhibition of fancy cycle riding by ladies, which included Mrs Edward Sassoon and Mrs Hutton Moss. According to a report some exceedingly intricate and graceful figures were executed.” (The Cycle World Illustrated, 1986)

She captivated audiences in Brighton and beyond and shifted perceptions of cycling from mere leisure to a spectacle of skill and elegance, challenging traditional notions of femininity and entertainment.

Tessie Reynolds (1877-1954)

At just 16, Brighton based Tessie Reynolds made history with a record-breaking ride from Brighton to London and back in 1893.

Teresa “Tessie” Reynolds was born 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 high wheel 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.

One month later, 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. She 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.

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 man’s bike, with a cross bar and drop handlebars, unlike women those ladies were expected to ride at the time. Tessie designed and, with her sister’s help, 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.” (Bicycling News, 1893)

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 with some men calling Tessie’s record a “lamentable incident” and reacted with “pain, not unmixed with disgust.” Cycling magazine called her outfit “of a most unnecessarily masculine nature and scantiness.” (Hanlon, Record breaking Brighton cyclist, Tessie Reynolds, n.d.).

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.” (Hanlon, Tessie Reynolds: The Stormy Petrel in the Struggle for Women’s Equality in Cycle Racing and Dress, 2018)

In May 1894, Tessie Reynolds invited a group of enthusiastic cyclists to her residence, at 19 Bristol Road where they agreed to set up the Brighton and District Ladies’ Cyclist Club.  A committee was appointed & an inaugural run to Bramber, starting from the Aquarium at half-past six, the following Wednesday was agreed. 

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. The Brighton and District Ladies’ Cyclist Club continued over the next few years, with rides and dances, and was the only women’s cycling club in Sussex.  Throughout her life 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. She is an unsung hero of British sporting history and a Brighton native to be proud of. (Hanlon, Tessie Reynolds: The Stormy Petrel in the Struggle for Women’s Equality in Cycle Racing and Dress, 2018)

Her feat challenged gender norms and showcased not only women’s cycling prowess but women’s physical capabilities. An advocate for rational dress, women’s rights and convenor of an all-women cycling club, she sparked debate and national media coverage. Her achievements underscore the evolving role of women in sports and society, making her a trailblazer in both cycling and women’s rights movements.


Tessie Reynolds posing, as if riding a mans racing bike, with drop handlebars and high crossbar in 1893. She's wearing a rational outfit of a fitted jacket with leg o muffin sleeves, finishing at her thighs, short trousers or knickerbockers and black stockings. On her head a low, black hat with brim. The background has a pink bicycle saddle in a blue background with Sussex Blazing Saddles written to the right