28 August 2009

Films of old London: but where's the bikes?

In the old days, central London's streets were full of bicycles, with traffic nothing like as scary as today... weren't they? Not according to the films of old London street scenes from 1896, 1903 and 1927 on London Screen Archive's YouTube channel.

In fact, what's striking is exactly how few cyclists there are, and how clogged and chaotic the streets look. Mind you, cycling doesn't look an attractive prospect in the horse-drawn era; I thought exhaust fumes were bad enough...

On Blackfriars Bridge in 1896, for example (above) - at the height of the cycling boom - there's only one cyclist to be seen.

In Old London Street Scenes from 1903, the streets look frighteningly busy, and totally cyclist-free, except for a couple of daring chaps just by Parliament Square.

The longest and most enjoyable film, despite its arf-arf intertitles, is Open Road (1927), thrillingly in colour (right). It shows some streets (going into Hyde Park, for instance) comically empty of motor vehicles compared to today.

But while there are a few more cyclists in evidence here, despite the tramlines, it's still not that many. My cyclist count is London Bridge 1; scene with copper directing traffic 1; Whitehall 2; Hyde Park Gate 1; Marble Arch 1; Petticoat Lane 0; Albert Embankment 0. (Or as TfL would have counted it had they been around then, London Bridge 435, Whitehall 924...)

Petticoat Lane was clearly too crowded to take a bike down. Evidently there was nothing to do on a Sunday in London in 1927 as a man except put on a cap and stand around looking gormless in the market with ten thousand other men while your wife cooked the roast.

Someone with a little bit of time, money and talent, which rules me out on three counts, could make a modern-day equivalent of all these scenes. It would be fascinating to compare.

Of course, some things haven't changed. Westminster had no cycle parking then either.


  1. Nice to see London's pedestrians haven't changed in 100 years - darting through the traffic wherever they choose, whether that be lorries or horse-drawn omnibuses.

    I wouldn't have cycled then either - far too much horse crap on the streets

  2. Surely the heyday of cycling in London would have been somewhat later than these films: in the 1930s and 1940s?