London to Brighton by bike 150 years ago

George C. Maynard, Smithsonian curator, in Washington, D.C., with a Shire velocipede, patented in 1879 by John Shire, of Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Wystan Flickr CC
Photo: Wystan (Flickr CC)
London to Brighton is a route we're all too familiar with - but did you know exactly 150 years ago cyclist John Mayall was the first man to ever complete the iconic ride?

One hundred and fifty years ago this week (Sunday 17 February) John Mayall Jnr became the first man to cycle from London to Brighton, making cycling history. 

Thanks to his pioneering ancestor, Cycling UK member Alistair Cochrane and relative Mimi Reynolds, John’s now 88-year-old great-granddaughter, we’re able to tell this fascinating tale of cycling pastimes.  

John's journey from London to Brighton was on a velocipede also known as the ‘bone-shaker (called that with good reason). The fixed wheel bike with a 34-inch front wheel, which you pedalled, weighed around 60 pounds and would have been tough to handle. 

Despite previously attempting the challenge, his record was well chronicled by the national newspapers and took him 12 hours to complete – they even noted he was back in time for a hearty dinner and a night out at the opera house – pretty impressive!

To this day his legacy lives on and every year thousands of people follow his lead. The London to Brighton route has become an iconic challenge ride for cyclists to get fit, raise money for charity and marvel at the contrasting country and city skylines.

In 1869 however, riding solo, the views, the bike, the terrain not to mention the roads were quite a different experience. The attempt certainly attracted the crowds – even during his practice attempts around London, as nine years before the founding of Cycling UK in 1878, in 1869 the sighting of a bicycle was a real novelty. 

Nine years before the founding of Cycling UK in 1878, in 1869 the sighting of a bicycle was a real novelty. 

The velocipede first caught John’s eye after seeing it demonstrated by a French trader. He was thoroughly enamoured with the new travelling device. Being in the fortunate position of the having the capital, he was able to get his hands on this rare, early bicycle. 

Being the third son of famous royal photographer John Jabez Edwin Mayall, he naturally followed his father into the profession. Having a number of studios around London, it was perhaps this that drew him to the bike, as a means of getting quickly between the family's 11 studios.  

Mimi Reynolds said, “Making the history books is certainly not something to keep secret, but hasn’t been talked about much for a long time.

“Funnily enough, despite both father and son being photographers only a sketched image was used in the newspaper at the time – I suspect because it was easier to print.

“Imagine what the roads would have been like – so different from now. We're really proud to have his legacy in our family and I couldn't believe it when I worked out it had been 150 years since the event." 

Tragically, John passed away at the young age of 49 leaving behind a wife and nine children. 

As we celebrate this anniversary, we remember all the brave souls who stepped out onto the saddle to experience the bicycle for the first time. When you’re next setting off on a trip from London to Brighton think of John Mayall and how his cycling legacy brought you along this great path.