Cycling with the Pennells

American writer and cycle “touring wheel-woman” Elizabeth Robins Pennell lived in London during the late 19th Century and, with her husband, was a pioneer in the art of writing bicycle travel books.

Born into a prosperous banking family, her grandfather was a trustee of the First Pennsylvania Bank and president of the Philadelphia Bank whilst her father worked as a broker on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange but lost much of the family’s wealth following the American Civil War (1861-85).

Elizabeth Robins met her husband Joseph Pennell, an illustrator and captain of the Germantown Bicycle Club, in 1881 whilst working together on an article about Philadelphia for “The Century Magazine”. They would go on to publish 230 books together.

Following their marriage in 1884, the Pennells moved to London – Elizabeth, aged 29, Joseph, 27 – from where they would write and illustrate a large number of books about their summer travels throughout Europe by tricycle, bicycle, and on foot.

I remember my first experience in 1884, when I practised on a Coventry “Rotary” in the country round Philadelphia, and felt keenly that a woman on a cycle was still a novelty in the United States. I came to England that same summer, but the women riders whom I met on my runs through London and the Southern Counties, I could count on the fingers of one hand.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “Ladies In The Field” (1894)

During their thirty years in London they became good friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, William Morris, Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and Andrew Lang, amongst many other writers.

The first journey “ridden, written, and illustrated” by the couple was “A Canterbury Pilgrimage”, an 1885 cycling homage to Chaucer’s 14th Century collection, The Canterbury Tales.


“A Canterbury Pilgrimage” (1885)


This beautifully illustrated touring narrative of their three day 70 mile pilgrimage, from Russell Square in London to Canterbury Cathedral – made on a Coventry Rotaryhigh-wheel tandem tricycle – is one of the first cycling books ever written and displays an adorable observational humour comparable to Mark Twain.

The door was suddenly burst open, and a short man with a bald head, who wore the Cyclists’ Touring Club uniform, rushed in.

“Are you the lady and gentleman that came on a tandem?” he asked, before he was quite in the room.

We said we were.

I don’t like tandems, do you?” he continued, fiercely, as if he was daring us to differ him. He seemed to think we had come there that he might tell us his grievances; which he did, with much elaboration, while we ate our lunch.

He explained the reasons for his dislike. The principal was, that the people one met on the roads always insulted riders on a tandem. Why, he had been off his machine a dozen times that morning, fighting men who had been chaffing him!

Then, the next objection was, that he had to sit behind his wife – she had to steer, and he would not be surprised if he were seriously injured, or killed, before he got back to London.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “A Canterbury Pilgrimage” (1885)

The couple’s next cycling adventure, published two years later, in 1887, indicated their Canterbury ride had merely been the start of a much longer trip.


“An Italian Pilgrimage” (1887)


Rather confusingly – at least for European readers more knowledgeable with the local geography – “An Italian Pilgrimage” sees their ride continue not from Canterbury, but in Florence – some 950 miles away – after a “railway journey straight through from London”, which “had been unusually tiresome because of our tricycle.”

We hope readers who followed us to London from Canterbury may bear with us to the end of the Pilgrimage to Rome, of which our first journey was but the beginning.

We warn them that the second stage, from Canterbury to Florence, has been ridden and written, but not yet wrought into work.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “An Italian Pilgrimage” (1887)

A fascinating diary of a tandem tricycle ride through Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, the content of “An Italian Pilgrimage” was compiled from papers, “originally published in the Century, the Portfolio, and Outing,” allowing for its out of synch release.

By now, the couple had switched to a Humber Tandem Tricycle, built by the Nottingham blacksmith turned velocipede manufacturer, whose machines were of such high quality he was regarded as the aristocrat among bicycles.

There was a pause whilst the young Italian sipped his coffee. But presently he turned to us and said in good English, but with a marked accent:

“I beg pardon, sare, but was it not you who came to Montepulciano on a tricycle?”

“Yes,” Joseph said, rather curtly.

“Ah, I thought so!” the Italian continued, well satisfied with the answer. “I have seen it – a Humber. It is a beautiful machine. I myself do ride a bicycle, the Speecial Cloob. You know it? I do belong to the Cyclists’ Touring Cloob, and to the Speedvell Cloob. All the champions belong to that Cloob. I did propose someone for director at the last meeting; you will see my name on that account in the papers. Here is my card, but in the country around Montepulciano all call me Sandro or Sandrino. I have ridden from Florence to Montepulciano in one day. I have what you call the wheel-fever,” and he smiled apologetically and stopped, but only to take breath.

We were fellow-cyclers and that was enough. We were friends at once, though Joseph was too ill to be enthusiastic, and though our record would have disgusted the Speedvell Cloob.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “An Italian Pilgrimage” (1887)


Joseph Pennell, “An Italian Pilgrimage” (1887)

As explained in the introduction of “Our Sentimental Journey”, published a year later in 1888, “the third part of the journey, was ‘ridden, written, and wrought into a work’ before the second part was begun.”

Like their original “A Canterbury Pilgrimage”, it was another literary pilgrimage; this time on the trail of Laurence Sterne’s 1765 travel novel “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy“, an epilogue to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which was published barely days before the Irish author’s death.


“Our Sentimental Journey” (1888)


“Our Sentimental Journey”, sees the couple ride through France following Sterne’s route on their trusty tandem tricycle, from Calais to Rives, accompanied by their Baedeker guide.


Jospeh Pennell, “Our Sentimental Journey” (1888)


Our great ambition when we first set out on our tricycle, three years ago, was to ride from London to Rome. We did not then know exactly why we wanted to do this, nor do we now.

In our simplicity we thought by publishing the story of our journey, we could show the world at large that the oft-regretted delights of travelling in days of coach and post-chaise, destroyed on the coming of the railroad, were once more to be had by means of tricycle or bicycle.

~Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “Our Sentimental Journey” (1888)

The book is beautifully illustrated throughout and is packed with humorous anecdotes, observations and conversations. It is simply one of the greatest cycling books ever written.


Joseph Pennell, “Our Sentimental Journey” (1888)


During that period it was very rare to see women cyclists on the Continent and Elizabeth Pennell received an often hostile reception on the road, as highlighted in her “Cycling” contribution to the 1894 female sports compendium “Ladies In The Field – Sketches of Sport”, edited by The Lady Greville.

I have never made such a sensation in my life, and, for my own comfort, I hope I may never make such another: I ride to amuse myself, not the public.

It was clear that Italian women were more behindhand than the English or Americans.

There are, nowadays, more women riders in France, probably, than in any country, but in the summer of 1885, on the road from Calais to Switzerland, by Sterne’s route, I was scarce accepted as an everyday occurrence.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “Ladies In The Field” (1894)


“Our Journey to the Hebrides” (1889)


In 1889 the couple published “Our Journey to the Hebrides”, in which they chose to ditch their trusty tricycle, instead travelling on foot.

Originally written for the “Harper’s Monthly Magazine”, it was “severely criticised for not giving second-hand descriptions, which are the stock in trade of Scotch guide-books, whether romantic or real.”

The couple were outraged by this response:

To go to a country and tell what really happened to you—to dare to say, for the information of future cyclers or travellers, that one small piece of road is bad, that on one day out of ten or fifteen it rained, that at one small hotel you were uncomfortable or turned away, is enough to make the critic declare that you have found everything in that country to be awry.

This was our fate when we attempted to describe the most enjoyable trip we ever made—our ride across France.

We have no hesitation in saying that our trip to Scotland was the most miserable.

We undertook to walk, owing to the misrepresentations of people who we do not believe ever in their lives walked half as far as we did a year ago.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “Our Journey to the Hebrides” (1889)


Joseph Pennell, “Our Journey to the Hebrides” (1889)


The Pennell’s love of cycling was apparent throughout the book, and it was obvious they were missing their three wheeled friend; the jealousy they felt towards “peddlers whom we had passed—the only people, besides ourselves, we saw tramping in Scotland—overtook and passed us” even set them fruitlessly looking for a bike shop in Inverness.

Used as we both were to cycling, the slowness and monotony of our pace was intolerable. We longed for a machine that would carry us and our knapsacks with ease over the hard, dustless road. For one mile we tried to keep each other in countenance. Joseph was the first to rebel openly. The Highlands were a fraud, he declared; the knapsack was an infernal nuisance and he was a fool to carry it. About three miles from Tarbet he sat down and refused to go any farther.

Just then, by chance, there came a drag full of young girls, and when they saw us they laughed, and passed by on the other side. And likewise a dog-cart, and the man driving, when he first saw us, waved his hand, taking us to be friends; but when he was at the place and looked at us, he also passed by on the other side. But two tricyclers, as they journeyed, came where we were; and when they saw us they had compassion on us, and came to us, and gathered up our knapsacks and set them on their machines and brought them to the inn and took care of them. And yet there are many who think cyclers nothing but cads on casters.

To tell the truth, had these two men been modern Rob Roys, we would have yielded up our knapsacks as cheerfully; nor would we have sorrowed never to see them again.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “Our Journey to the Hebrides” (1889)

In fact, most of Elizabeth Pennell’s experiences in Scotland are written from the point of view of a cyclist – “an objection sometimes made to cycling is that it is half walking; but in the Highlands you would walk less if you rode a cycle than if you travelled by coach” – and the book sits comfortably amongst their tricycle adventures.

In the first place, we had learned that for us walking on a tour of this kind, or indeed of any kind, is a mistake. Had we never cycled, perhaps we might not have felt this so keenly.

~ Elizabeth Robins Pennell, “Our Journey to the Hebrides” (1889)

Back on the bicycle, more cycling publications followed:

Abhorred by the destruction of the European cities and way of life they had grown to love, the Pennell’s returned to Philadelphia shortly after war broke out in 1914, before settling in New York in 1921.

After contracting influenza, Joseph Pennell died of pneumonia, on 23rd April 1926, aged 69. Elizabeth would die ten years later, on Valentine’s Day, 14th February 1936, a week before her 82nd birthday.

In 1886, now each on safety bicycles, they journeyed to Eastern Europe.[21] This was at a key time in the history of the bicycle, and, of course, in the history of women’s rights as well, and they were both intertwined, in the figure of the New Woman. Suffragists and social activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard recognised the transformative power of the bicycle. By the time the Pennells had gone Over the Alps on a Bicycle (1898),

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