Bicycle bombers: Two-wheeled Suffragettes and thwarting Adolf Hitler in the Second World War

·6-min read
Suffragettes - The story of the Suffragettes on two wheels and thwarting Adolf Hitler in the Second World War - ALAMY
Suffragettes - The story of the Suffragettes on two wheels and thwarting Adolf Hitler in the Second World War - ALAMY

In April 1914, a few months before the outbreak of war, two young women arrived at a seaside boarding house to begin a cycling tour of Suffolk. Their fortnight sojourn coincided with a string of arson attacks. Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier was set alight, flames destroying everything but the iron girders, while the grand finale was the torching of the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe.

The attacks bore all the hallmarks of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) — also known as the Suffragettes - including notes left in the wreckage proclaiming, ‘There can be no peace until women get the vote’.

The two ‘lady cyclists’ were WSPU members Hilda Burkitt and Florence Tunks, who were swiftly arrested and sentenced to two years and nine months, respectively.

The bicycle — as a form of resistance — was embedded in the DNA of the Suffragette movement from the very start, led by the Pankhursts. As teenagers, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst joined a local Manchester cycling club, the Clarion CC — an offshoot of the socialist newspaper. Swapping industrial Manchester for rides on country lanes ‘they were part of a growing trend of women’s cycling, though in 1897 the Clarion was one of very few UK clubs to admit women members’. When Sylvia’s father, Richard, died in 1898, Manchester CC members joined the funeral procession on their bikes.

In 1903 the Pankhursts founded the WSPU, and moved to London where Christabel and Sylvia wrote about the suffragette cause for the Clarion. Bicycles became an efficient campaign tool for the organisation, with members cycling through towns and villages to spread the word about votes for women. From 1909 the Elswick Cycle Manufacturing Company began selling bicycles in the suffragette colours, sporting a badge designed by Sylvia with the union’s motif: the ‘angel of freedom’. The suffragettes’ steed had a drop-frame to accommodate long skirts and featured elegant curved handlebars.

When campaigning turned militant, bicycles became getaway vehicles. Edith Rigby, the first woman to ride a bicycle in her hometown of Preston in the 1890s, was pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables for her brazen act. Years later, as a suffragette, she planted a bomb in the basement of the Liverpool Cotton Exchange and set fire to Lord Leverhulme’s country residence. She escaped to Ireland on a bicycle disguised as a man.

In the ‘pillar-box outrages’ of 1913, suffragettes poured flammable liquids into Royal Mail post boxes, before pedaling away from the blaze. In 1914 Olive Beamish and Elsie Duval fled on their bicycles under cover of darkness having set fire to the Surrey mansion, Trevethan. The house was empty ensuring no one would get hurt — a prerequisite for all suffragette arson attacks.

With the start of the First World War, the WSPU suspended all militant activities to focus on the war effort. The 1918 Representation of the People Act granted some women over the age of thirty the right to vote, and universal suffrage followed a decade later.

But the bicycle’s role in women resisting oppression did not end there. During the Second World War it became a useful tool for freedom fighters — ironically as Hitler wasn’t a fan. Having loathed being a bicycle messenger in the First World War, as Chancellor he introduced a raft of anti-cycling laws, issuing a ban on Jewish people owning bicycles, and confiscating bikes in Nazi occupied territories such as the Netherlands.

The young Audrey Hepburn used her bicycle to deliver resistance leaflets in her Dutch hometown of Arnhem, while the British record-breaking cyclist Evelyn Hamilton claimed she couriered messages for the resistance in Paris during the occupation.

When the Allies liberated the Netherlands in 1945, many German soldiers stole bicycles to escape back to Germany. For decades afterward the Dutch chanted, ‘Give us back our bicycles’ when their team played Germany at football.

In Nazi-occupied Paris, the writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir learned to ride on a stolen bicycle. She delighted in the sensations of weightlessness, physical freedom and independence as she spun through the city streets, ‘I only wanted to eat up the kilometres on my bicycle. It’s a new joy in life I’ve discovered’.

The story of the Suffragettes on two wheels and thwarting Adolf Hitler in the Second World War - GETTY IMAGES
The story of the Suffragettes on two wheels and thwarting Adolf Hitler in the Second World War - GETTY IMAGES

In August 1941 she took a cycling trip with Jean-Paul Sartre to the so-called ‘Free Zone’ of the South of France under the collaborationist Vichy government, crossing the border under cover of darkness — the first of several such cycle touring adventures for the two writers.

De Beauvoir was critical of Sartre’s erratic approach to cycling, accusing him of ‘pedalling so indolently’ that he would career into roadside ditches. He would claim he was too busy thinking. Both shared a love of whizzing downhill at speed, but on their return journey over the steep climbs of the Maritime Alps, de Beauvoir had an accident.

After stopping for lunch and a few glasses of wine, they had begun an exhilarating freewheel towards Grenoble. But, in an attempt to avoid oncoming cyclists, she found herself skidding and heading towards the precipice. Concussed, she was forced to swap her bicycle for the train the rest of the way. ‘I had lost a tooth,’ recalled de Beauvoir, ‘one of my eyes was closed, my face had swollen up to twice its normal size, and the skin was all scraped raw. I couldn’t get so much as a grape between my lips.’ The missing tooth made a ‘miraculous’ reappearance a few weeks later when it emerged from a boil she squeezed on her chin back in Paris.

A few months after VE day, de Beauvoir set off on a new bicycle given to her by Sartre ‘on a little journey all alone’. The horrors of war were ebbing away, and women in France were finally given the right to vote — over twenty-five years after the UK and US.

We don’t know if de Beauvoir did much cycling after that, as her literary stardom took her to the US. But it’s clear that during some very dark times, when freedom felt like a distant memory, it was a way for her to experience a sense of release and liberation. As her legs turned the pedals it may also have helped spark ideas which contributed to her writings on feminism and existentialism, which made her one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.

Revolutions: How Women Changed The World on Two Wheels, by Hannah Ross, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in hardback, audio and eBook £16.99

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