Women take a giant leap forward in the world of sport

J Dargie CF Murphy granny murphy on bike lady cycling
J Dargie CF Murphy granny murphy on bike lady cycling

NO matter what you think about the London Olympics, loving every minute or just longing for them to end, they have resulted in Morpeth’s own Olympic Games getting their just recognition.

Martin Polley’s excellent book and the exhibition in the Town Hall have done them justice – so let’s forget them for now and look at a neglected aspect of sport in Morpeth, the involvement of women.

Were they involved in any sports or even physical exercise in Victorian and Edwardian Morpeth?

In early Victorian times there were few opportunities for working class people to take part in sport except for fair days, hirings and pub games like quoits.

Most people had too little time or money to get involved and there were few public facilities that allowed games like tennis.

However, changes were afoot. First, the railways allowed cheaper, faster transport so more people could go to sporting events, then the economy improved and working people began to demand better conditions – more pay, shorter working days and half-day holidays.

Half-day closing and Saturday afternoons off were a great stimulus.

New developments like bicycles, roller skates and ping pong increased the scope for participation in sport.

There are many records of women taking part in sports, even in distant centuries. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a keen golfer; Elizabeth Wilkinson was a prize fighter in 1722; Alicia Meynell became the first woman jockey in 1804, beating a male rider; 1811 saw the first women’s golf championship (Musselburgh); and in 1877 the first women’s hockey club was formed in Surrey. Clearly, women were making progress, but it was slow and very few took part.

Generally, middle class Victorian ladies were regarded by men as being too delicate to take part in robust exercise and they were warned that exercise like riding horses could injure them.

The voluminous dresses didn’t help. In contrast, most working class women did tough manual jobs and had families to look after so they hadn’t the time, energy or opportunity to take part.

A cutting about one of the earliest recorded cricket matches in Morpeth illustrates a typical view of women; they were decoration, not players.

However, by mid-century signs of revolt were present, even among working class women because they went on strike to get higher pay and shorter working hours.

The suffrage movement, which first appeared in Morpeth in the 1870s, played its part in stirring women into action. By the 1870s women were playing tennis on private lawns like the Rectory (opposite the Sun Inn). By 1893 they were even playing mixed doubles.

Taking part in sport demanded a different style of clothing and by the Edwardian period cumbersome dresses were replaced by lighter materials that allowed faster movement.

One of most surprising developments we have come across is the emergence around 1900 of mixed hockey matches. Women playing a robust physical game with men, and a woman scoring a goal! A gigantic leap forward compared with 50 years earlier.

However, the sport that liberated all working people, but especially women, was cycling. The first working bicycle was the ‘ordinary’, or ‘penny-farthing’. It was an advance on the bone shaker, but it was unstable and only popular with the ‘scorchers’ or ‘wheelmen’ who rode at great speed — up to 18mph in a race from Morpeth to North Shields. The riders frightened horses and the public so much that the police set up speed traps on Pottery Bank. Eighteen miles an hour = a 5 shillings fine.

Then the safety bicycle was invented, with two equal-sized wheels, chain drive, decent brakes and a sprung saddle. Cycling became fashionable, ladies in London attended cycling classes and had their bikes painted in daring colours, while here in Northumberland there was an explosion of cycling clubs that included mixed-sex and women-only clubs like Newcastle Ladies C.C. Adventurous individuals showed that women were not so delicate, notably Elizabeth Pennell, who wrote in The Gentlewoman in 1892: “Some people have questioned whether cycling is healthy for women: but their doubts are based on ignorance.” She went on: “the labour is nothing compared with dancing all night or of shopping all day ... I have ridden from one end of England to the other ... and from Cologne to Vienna ...”

Morpeth’s traders gained from the cycling fashion because the town was a convenient distance from Newcastle for hundreds of men and women. It became a popular weekend destination for 50 or so Tyneside clubs that booked hotels and cafes for dinner. In fact the town was so honoured by the decision of the Northern Cyclists Union to hold its annual three-day meeting in Morpeth that the Mayor and councillors turned out in force each day to welcome the clubs. The Earl Grey, next to the Town Hall, was one of the favourites.

Cycling helped liberate women over an incredibly short time. Less than ten years after the safety bike was invented there were women-only bicycle clubs visiting Morpeth. In 1896 American suffragist Susan Anthony said: “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

Much later, in 1988, Kathleen McCrone confirmed this view: “The social impact of the bicycle in the late 19th century is difficult to exaggerate. ... By enabling women to escape from chaperons and the physical bounds of home, it brought the sexes together on equal terms more completely than any other sport or pastime.”

To find out more about Sporting Morpeth visit the Morpeth Antiquarian Society exhibition in the Town Hall on June 9.

Does anyone have any information about racing cyclist Alex Hogg? We will be writing more about cycling, motorcycling and motoring so we are keen to learn about him. He lived at the New Phoenix Inn in the 1890s and had a bike shop in the Market Place. Let us know at morpethhistory@hotmail.co.uk

Our thanks, as always, to the Mackay family for help and access to the Morpeth Herald, and to Keith Creighton and Joan Dargie for photographs.