Today marks #WorldBicycleDay which celebrates the humble bicycle as a form of sustainable transport. During the Second World War, bicycles played a key role on the Home Front as cars were expensive and fuel was rationed.
Our oral history collection contains many stories of bicycles. Our very first oral history interviewee Elizabeth Clark (BBP1) was pictured on VE Day 1945 on her tricycle which was decorated with V’s to celebrate victory.
Alan Cook (BBP26) from Helen’s Bay told us that his house was the local ARP station. The air raid warning was primitive and relied very much on bicycles. When his mother received a call warning of an impending raid ‘she would summon people by phone who would arrive on bicycles … circling Helen’s Bay Blowing a whistle’. Alan questioned whether this was an effective warning and recalled how the locals were often concerned about one volunteer, Hunter Tate, who ‘had a very red face and everybody was obviously worried that he would have a seizure blowing this whistle whilst riding the bike’.
Joe O’Loughlin (W&M19) lived in Belleek in Co. Fermanagh. He witnessed several plane crashes in the local area, and it became his hobby to ‘get on a bicycle and get souvenirs and bits and pieces’. A bicycle also came in handy living so close to the border. He would cycle down the old country roads and pick something up ‘Down South’ where he did not have to present his ration book. Joe recalled one specific incident when ‘Jim, my older brother, somebody gave him a couple of, two pennies or something like that you know, and he went away to a wee shop across the border and bought a packet of Rolos on his bicycle. It was only a couple hundred yards inside the border, he came back out of the Free State. A customs man stopped him and took the wee packet of Rolos off him… I thought it was a horrible thing to do on a wee kid’. Pictured is a ration book from William J O’Loughlin dated 1945-46 (NIWM.2019.2533.03).
Cycling could be hazardous, especially in the blackout. Noel Mitchel (US17) travelled by bicycle from Portglenone to Ballymena to go to the cinema. ‘Now, I was coming back on my bicycle on Christmas Eve and it was dark, just dark and I remember even in the war, if you had a bicycle you had to have a blackout on the light of the bicycle, so you didn’t have much illumination… and this fellow I met, he was on a bicycle too, he was on guard duty and it being Christmas Eve… he’d gone into the village to see his girlfriend or something… an American GI on duty on [His girlfriend’s] bicycle, they didn’t have any lights at all and he was wearing his full battle gear… we didn’t see each other and I hit him and took his front wheel off… we were both sitting in the middle of the road, he was howling and his nose was bleeding and I could feel the blood dripping off my forehead’. Luckily, a car came along, found them bruised and bleeding and brought them to the local doctor. Thankfully both Noel and the GI made a full recovery.
These extracts are just a small sample of stories about bicycles in our oral history collections. Do you have memories of air raids, smuggling, American GIs or VE day? If you would like to share your story please get in touch with our Oral History Coordinator at email@example.com or on 07588 634847.