Bicycles in peace and war


Throughout his life Lawrence showed an empathy with machines and matters mechanical.
His interests would range from Rolls-Royce armoured cars to aircraft of the Royal Flying
Corps and Royal Air Force, from tanks to powerboats. Always he yearned for speed, whether
on a ‘push-bike’ or, in his later years, on a series of seven Brough Superior motorcycles. In his
youth bicycles were a common and indispensable feature of everyday life in Britain. The
wonder of the ordinary pedal cycle lies in its capacity for technical development and even
now, a century later, novel forms continue to appear.9 By Edwardian times mass-produced bicycles had opened up an exciting world of travel possibilities to the general public. In 1903 the first Tour de France was held, with competitors covering 2,500 km in nineteen days. Even the British Army became involved with bicycles. In the early years of the Great War whole battalions of armed cyclists would line up on parade, front wheels in alignment (Figs. 2 and 3).

Fig. 2 – Armed cyclists, Royal Sussex Regiment (1915): my father is on the right.

Fig. 3 – 2/6th. Cyclists’ battalion, Royal Sussex regiment leaves Southwold, East Anglia
(July 1st. 1915)

By 1908, the diamond frame of cold-drawn carbon-steel tubes with brazed lugs was a
proven feature of bicycle design. Saddles were of leather and the tangentially-spoked wheels
were shod with pneumatic rubber tyres from Dunlop. Brakes were rod-operated. As a boy,
Lawrence was the first at the City of Oxford High School for Boys to have a bicycle with
three gears and freewheel. When we come to the special preparation of his bicycle in 1908,
there is a tantalizing lack of detail but we read that a previous machine had drop-handlebars,
which were unusual for the time, and panniers. We know that he favoured a high top gear. By
1906, two-speed and three-speed epicyclic gears for the hub of the rear wheel (driven by
roller chain) were available from Sturmey-Archer. Their patented design was generally
preferred to the exposed derailleur type of gearing. As he and his brothers had previously
owned Morris bicycles it is generally assumed that his preferred cycle workshop was that
originally established in Oxford in the late 1890s by a young engineer named William Richard
Morris.10

  1. R. E. Smallman and R. J. Bishop, Modern Physical Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, 6th ed. (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999) 413-5. []
  2. By the late 1930’s. his industrial empire would include Morris Motors, M.G. (Morris
    Garages), Morris Commercial Cars, Riley and Wolseley Motors: he would be known to the
    British public as the philanthropist Lord Nuffield (1877-1963). []