150 years since RMS member’s boneshaking feat

Microscopist and cycling pioneer pedalled into history with gruelling journey from London to Brighton

Since it was founded in 1839, the RMS has always attracted members from interesting walks of life – often with a pioneering spirit.


One such man was the intrepid John Mayall, a Londoner who made history as the first man to cycle all the way from the capital to Brighton. A trip perhaps holding few terrors for today’s lycra-clad riders, it was undoubtedly an epic journey into the unknown atop an 1860s velocipede – justifiably dubbed the ‘boneshaker’ for the lack of shock-absorbance its wooden frame afforded the rider.


A photographer by trade, Mayall followed in the professional footsteps of his celebrated father, John Mayall Senior, who counted Queen Victoria among his clients. Immersed from an early age in the art and technology of capturing images, John Junior's interest in the fast-developing world of microscopy was a logical sideline, as was his membership of the RMS. However, it was when another invention - the bicycle - first began appearing in Britain, that his passions really caught fire.


Mayall acquired his first ‘boneshaker’ in the late 1860s, and early forays around the capital attracted plenty of attention from his fellow Londoners, for whom the sight of a man on two wheels was a serious novelty.


As his cycling ability and confidence grew, Mayall was soon looking to set himself a proper challenge, and attempted his first London to Brighton trip in early 1869. Unfortunately he made it only as far as Redhill before giving up, exhausted.


But a few weeks later, on 17 February, he tried again, along with two fellow cycling enthusiasts. They set off from Trafalgar Square, but this time, it was Mayall’s co-riders who had given up by the time they reached Redhill. Mayall battled on, reaching the seaside resort in a time of 12 hours.


The achievement was covered by a Times reporter who apparently travelled along with the riders in a cart. Upon arrival, Mayall is said to have posed briefly for photographs before rushing off for a hearty dinner and a night at the opera.


Unfortunately the limelight was brief for Mayall, as his feat was matched by another cyclist just a few weeks later, and of course, the London to Brighton challenge is now a popular fundraising event for thousands of riders.


But 150 years ago on his boneshaking velocipede, John Mayall, of the Royal Microscopical Society, was the first.


Picture: Public Domain


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