The story of Mlle Serpolette's visit to South Australia in 1898 and the role of Tom O'Grady and the Lewis Cycle Works in the repair of her motorcycle is relatively well known, having been retold in books on South Australian motoring by George Brooks and Stuart Nicol in the late 1970s. I'm not so familiar with the literature around bicycle history, but I have come across an article by Jim Fitzpatrick (of Bicycle and the Bush fame), published in This Australia, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1982 in which Serpolette and her Australian tour of 1898 rates a mention, and a couple of photographs.
My first encounter with a period Serpolette reference was by chance in the 29 October 1898 issue of The Critic, a weekly published in South Australia but reporting on issues Australia-wide. The comment, under the "Wheeling Matters" banner, was brief:
This comment left me somewhat bemused, but trawling back through previous editions of the paper, the writer's feelings were made abundantly clear: he had little time for female racing cyclists.
Fortunately, The Critic was out of step with the majority of the Australian press in presenting a uniformly negative view of her visit to Australia. In fact many writers went to lengths to explain the more liberal attitudes prevailing in Europe at the time, and to point out that Serpolette was sensitive to these differences by choosing to wear her "bifurcated skirt" while riding rather than her preferred bloomers. That said, at her second display at the Sydney Cricket Ground on June 25 she did give the bloomers an outing:
Reporting on her cycling demonstration on the Exhibition Oval, the South Australian press, for the most part, went out of its way to give us a positive impression of the event. The Register, a prominent daily, was succinct:
In the Express and Telegraph, the unfortunate incident before Serpolette took to the track was alluded to, but the positive outcome was emphasised:
At least there were cheers from the crowd. Or were there? The Quiz and the Lantern, a magazine-style weekly, had a somewhat different view. Having outlined much the same course of events as the Express and Telegraph, only naming Mr Gazard as the "obdurate" secretary, they went on:
Ominous silence? This seems a far cry from "a capital reception" and "cheers from the crowd". I wonder which of these comes closest to describing actual events? I lean towards the ominous silence, for a couple of reasons. First, the West Australian reported a similar response when Serpolette took to the track on her bicycle at North Fremantle Recreation Reserve:
Second, in an account of the meeting League of South Australian Wheelmen which took place on the Wednesday after the event, the views of Mr. H.W. Clark are reported:
What is clear is that there was a tense atmosphere associated with Serpolette's appearance on the bicycle, and this was felt by both the rider and the crowd. It is interesting, then, to speculate on the motives for such different descriptions of the same event. In 1898, South Australia arguably led the world in its liberal treatment of women in society: in 1895 it had become the first Australian colony to give women the vote, and the first place in the world to allow women to stand for parliament. South Australian women voted in the 1896 elections, yet two years on it was deemed inappropriate for a visiting French woman to ride a diamond frame bicycle. Could it be that South Australia would really have liked to give Mlle Serpolette a "capital reception", but in the end found that it just could not? By reporting the cheers,and ignoring the silence, perhaps the newspapers were guilty of telling the story how they would like it to have been.
Whatever the true nature of her reception by the South Australian public, Serpolette had previously experienced both enthusiastic crowds and barbed attacks. When riding at the Olympia Track in London in early 1896, she and her fellow women cyclists came under attack in the letters columns of the London press, most notably from the colourful polymath Edward-Heron Allen who describe Ladies Bicycle Races as "... a bestial and loathly display..." and proposed legislation to ban women's cycle racing. However as a group of young ladies in a supportive environment Serpolette and her friends were able to "fight fire with fire" and launch spirited replies; in response to Mr Heron-Allen proposing to promote legislation "to prevent fellows such as he writing silly letters to newspapers".
I wonder if, without the peer support of Olympia and a long way from home, Serpolette was able to so easily dismiss some of the treatment she received in Australia in 1898.