Winged Wheel, William Oakley (1977)

An insider’s centenary history of the venerable club whose focus is committee meetings not club runs

Cyclists Touring Club 09022237101 248pp

With the CTC now well past its 130th year, its endurance seems as certain as land itself. But nothing could be further from the truth. Yet, it is entirely reliant on its members’ subscriptions; many contemporary and far more recent associations have long passed into the ether.

Founded in 1878 to encourage a novel means to transport, after a faltering start, the CTC swelled as the bicycle became a craze. Then, by the skin of its teeth it survived the twentieth century as the slings and arrows of motorised modernism reigned down upon its members. Today, by some miracle, it is bigger and stronger than ever.

This history was produced as the club passed its century. At the time of publication, Oakley had clocked up half a century on the CTC’s council and was serving as the organisation’s president. A journalist, author and broadcaster by trade, it is easy to see why he was entrusted with marking this anniversary. Being integral to the administration of the club for some many years, however, is not the best background for dispassionate historian.

Nonetheless, it is an amazing tale that he traces. The British have an unusual enthusiasm for voluntary organisations. Our trades unions are among the largest in the world and national life is peppered with venerable associations. The CTC predates most and, it is hard to think of another voluntary organisation that has enjoyed such longevity and is still doing essentially the same job that inspired its foundation.

Oakley does not provide references, although he states that much of his material comes from annual reports and other official documents. From these he holds up a mirror to the development of cycling itself and there are few more fascinating indices than the CTC’s membership over time. By 1886 the club had attracted 22,316 members. The development of the safety cycle and pneumatic tyres precipitated an explosion of interest and by 1899 there were 60,499 in membership.

The fall out was dramatic; by 1918 just 8,546 were paying their subscriptions. It was back up to 25,116 by 1927 and by 1936 was up to nearly 40,000. After a slight dip, it peaked again in 1950 at 53,574 and then, slightly surprisingly, dropped precipitously during the 1950s. It was down to 27,000 in 1959. It continued to drift downwards, bottoming out at 18,727 in 1971. To survive, the club cashed in its central London offices (in 1966) and moved to Surrey and soon afterwards, membership started to rise. By 1975 stood at 25,345.
Oakley records endless recruitment initiatives during the dog days, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the membership level is almost entirely the product of external forces rather than the gallant campaigns co-ordinated from headquarters.

The Club’s advocacy is another important facet of cycling’s history. The CTC deserves much of the credit for the clause in the 1888 Local Government Act that confirmed the bicycles’ status as ‘a carriage and subject to the laws applying to other carriages’ – thereby guaranteeing cyclists right to use the road. The CTC was also to the fore throughout the interwar period when the road network’s physical and legal form took shape. On all of this, Oakley provides a compelling overview.

Less enthralling are the post-second-world-war internal debates. Much of the 1950s appears to have been consumed with a spat about whether a ‘runs’ list should be included in the CTC Gazette. There is almost nothing about what it was like to be an ordinary member of the club and while Oakley once mentions the Victorian formality of meetings, right up to the 1960s, there is not enough of this to obtain a full flavour of proceedings.

In the past year, CTC membership has finally topped its late-Victorian peak – an extraordinary achievement. Surely now is the time to encourage the production of a proper history of the club, that sets it in its full context and puts enough flesh on the bones of its story to make it a really satisfying read?

PS Jan 11


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