Jumble Sale Box Reveals Hitherto Lost Details Of An Academy of Cycling Excellence.
We mentioned last week how a large, dust covered wooden box bearing the Brooks logo had been happened upon by a sharp eyed colleague rummaging through a car boot at a Nottingham jumble sale last January. It has quickly transpired that the contents of said box seem to shed light on a plethora of hitherto shrouded Brooksiana from the late 18- and early 1900s.
This bizarrely fortunate find has already yielded details for our readers about the “Brooks Tea Rooms“, a forerunner of what we nowadays know as the Cycle Culture Café. Other packets of photographs and notes contained in The Box are still being sorted through by the team at Smethwick, but we are today already in a position to furnish you with further lost milestones in the company’s rich and storied bicycling past.
Readers may be aware that we have previously unearthed all manner of unusual items in the Brooks catalogues of the late 19th century. One of these items was, of course, the Instructor’s Belt. Supposedly Useful for Riding School, it set us wondering at the time as to what use such a thing might be put.
Clarification has arrived in the shape of some notes and pictures which have been until now housed in The Box.
For it seems that John Brooks moonlighted as headmaster of the world’s first Riding School for cyclists, which he founded in Birmingham sometime around the mid-1870s.
Its first years saw evening classes take place in a small function room above the Louse and Weevil tavern near Brooks’ first workshop, and apparently covered only such rudimentary though practical topics as Horse Avoidance At High Speeds, Gun Clip Positioning and Fixing It With A Hammer.
But improving business in the Leather Saddle sector was mirrored by an improved uptake in course places, and by 1882 the School had moved to a larger permanent premises in Cock or Well Street, offering full time day classes in a variety of subjects.
And with hobby cycling on the increase, extra teaching staff were soon required at the School in order to cope with the demand for learning how to ride not just on city cobbles, but also on rural grassy surfaces.
By the mid ’90s, a team of seven “Off-Road” Instructresses were employed on a full time basis by Brooks. Their courses covered not just the practical details of riding in the countryside, but also the most efficient methods for transporting hot tea and sandwiches, and how best to serve it.
In many non-cycling respects, Brooks was far ahead of its time. Leafing through an early prospectus that was found in The Box, we have learned that parents who took courses at The Riding School often made use of BRS crèche facilities.
Otherwise unheard of in Victorian England, Brooks Crèche Invigilators had many tools at their disposal, such as chalk. Getting them to draw round things on a blackboard was just one of the “exciting and fun ways children (were) introduced to the basic concept of Two Human Powered Wheels”.
At any rate, on the streets of Birmingham it became common to see a Brooks Riding School Instructor moving at pace through traffic, roaring at his (or her) charges to keep up. A matter in which, of course, they had little choice, harnessed as they were to said Instructor by their Brooks Instructors Belts, a compulsory buy for all students upon registration.
And while clearly Accidents Will Happen, it seems that, as a rule, getting caught in a tangled mess of ropes, belts, bikes and other bloodied riders was something that tended to happen once to most BRS students, but rarely ever again.
In retrospect, many at Brooks feel it may have been intended as some bizarre Rite of Passage for scholars, akin to contemporary American College Fraternity antics, or the tradition of English Public School gauntlet running.
It seems most students questioned at the time said it had done them no harm. Many were even recorded as having said they felt they had became better people for the experience, or at the very least, better cyclists.
It wasn’t all spinning out your big gear in front of awed strangers, though. The Riding School’s compulsory Theory Modules were widely regarded as the most rigorous in the country, and earned the Brooks name an Eton-like reputation among Riding School circles.
No piece of bicycling arcana was left unexamined. From Gear Ratio folklore, via Atomic Theory and on to Advanced Puncturing (see photo above), Brooks graduates left with a thorough grounding in Bike Talk.
The qualification held by Brooks Riding School alumni was something akin to what we nowadays recognize as the Liberal Arts Degree. This of course left a variety of paths wide open to graduates, and some quickly found themselves working in the entertainment industry.
The “Velocipedes On Ice” show, for example, ran without interruption to packed audiences over 12 consecutive winters near Bradford, in the north of England. Most of its performers had taken at least six semesters of Cold Weather Cycling at the Riding School.
Others enjoyed residencies in London’s West End, with “Look Ma’am, No Freewheel!” a perennial favorite of the capital’s theatergoers.
And for those who eschewed the lure of the stage, but still wished to do something with what they had learned, there was always bike messengering. The Brooks Riding School was the only one in the country which offered certified qualifications in Route Planning, Dispatcher Conflict Resolution, and of course, the always fully booked Hanging Off The Back Of Cars.