The trials of the lady racing cyclist: Mlle Serpolette in South Australia 1898

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:

“Serpolette has packed up her bloomers and left these shores, unwept, unhonored, and unsung.”

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.

25 May 1898  Mdlle Serpolette, the lately imported cyclist, is described as being petite, pretty and modest, but without the stamina of a racing cycliste... Mdlle will undoubtedly draw the crowd as a novelty, but to expect that she will break records is absurd.

4 June 1898  Mdlle Serpolette is evidently making the Australian tour more as an advertiser of a certain brand of cycles and cycle dress than a racer. She looks too fragile for many, but her costumes are charming, and every brute of a man longs to put his arms around her delicate Parisian waist after being victimised by those graceful costumes and a glance from those dark eyes.

11 June 1898  Lady cycle displays or record attempts have never "caught on" at home, and we doubt they will prove any more successful in the colonies… Mlle. Serpolette … is now in Adelaide, where she gave an exhibition of riding, in a becoming divided skirt, at the Ariel race meeting last Saturday. The lady is, we believe, charming, and capable of shifting her machine to a lively tune; but with all due respect to Mademoiselle, we think the "game" unladylike. The morbid curiosity attracted to these exhibitions is one not likely to influence the pastime for its good.

25 June 1898  Mdlle Serpolette, now in Sydney, is still spoiling for the blood of an Australian lady cyclist. Paragraphed, by the way, that Madame one had a bad spill and smashed two of her delicate ribs through the carelessness of a brutal man. This paper still doubts whether Mdlle is anything out of the ordinary except for an advertiser for _______’s cycles.

29 October 1898  Serpolette has packed up her bloomers and left these shores, unwept, unhonored , and unsung.

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:

"Mdlle. Serpolette appeared in bloomers with high-legged boots, the tops of which were under the bottom of the bloomers, and she looked by no means unbecoming".

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:

"Mdlle. Serpolette received a capital reception when she appeared on a single, and covered a couple of laps, accompanied by Courtney."

In the Express and Telegraph, the unfortunate incident before Serpolette took to the track was alluded to, but the positive outcome was emphasised:

"Mdlle Serpolette intended to give an exhibition of riding on a single in a patent divided skirt, but she was refused admission to to the track by the league secretary on the ground that the league had not given the club permission for the exhibition to be included in the programme. The referees were appealed to and did not object, but the secretary apparently on the authority of the racing board was obdurate. In deference to the league's wishes the visitor took a dropped-frame roadster, on which she could scarcely do justice to herself, and rode round three or four laps amidst the cheers of the crowd."

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:

"... Mr. Gazard, though, still held his ground with regard to the diamond frame, and the finish of an unseemly argument resulted in Mdlle. riding three or four laps at a slow pace on a lady's machine in company with Mr. W. Courtney. Mdlle. tripped out over the asphalt to the inspiring strains of "The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo", but a ride on a heavy dropped-frame soon reduced all gaiety and an ominous silence prevailed."

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:

"... It was noticeable that her appearance on the track was not the signal for the applause which is characteristic of the reception with which visiting champions in all classes of sport have been received upon their début before Australian crowds. Whether this was due merely to apathy, or to a desire to express disapproval of the presence of women on the racing track is, of course, a matter of opinion. Apart, however, from that aspect of the question, there can be no doubt that Mademoiselle Serpolette possesses all the credentials of a cycling champion in Europe, and it can be readily believed that the coldness of her reception had a discouraging effect. Indeed, she confesses to having felt the indifference shown."

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:

"Mr Clark thought that the lady had been disgracefully treated in being stopped in full view of the public when she had been billed to appear. He knew that she felt it very much, for he saw her face turn scarlet."  

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.

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