Wondrous Wolverhampton bicycle history recalls the Golden Age of Cycling

by Raymond Parker on May 17, 2012

in Autobiography, Cycling, History, Racing, Randonneuring

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Britain’s Best Bicycle

I have boasted before of my hometown’s importance to the history of bicycle manufacturing in Britain. Wolverhampton, already a metalworking centre (my paternal great-grandfather was a locksmith), was poised to profit from the Golden Age of Cycling.

The city became the third largest source of bicycles in the UK. By 1900 the industry employed 3,000 workers and, through the boom years, was home to more than 200 manufacturers.

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Daniel Rudge

One of the most successful companies was launched by Daniel Rudge (1840–1880), landlord of the Tiger Inn on Church Street.

In 1869, the year he won the first cycle race to be held at Molineux—a track later to be eclipsed as the home of the Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club—Rudge joined with entrepreneurs Walter Phillips and George Price to produce a velocipede designed by Phillips.

The first penny farthings took shape in a shed attached to Rudge’s pub. This arrangement, which presumably allowed for a quick pint between shifts, eventually gave way to a proper workshop on Bishop Street, employing 100.

The restless racer, inspired by the need for speed, set out to improve on the designs of the day. In 1870 he began selling his racing machines, heralded as the best of their kind.

In 1878, the same year he was awarded a gold medal at the London Cycle Show, Rudge took out British Patent No 526 for a revolutionary invention: the adjustable ball bearing hub.

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Terront Touts Rudge

Around this time Rudge visited the famous French racer Charles Terront, sojourning in London. Terront was so taken with Rudge’s innovations that he bought one of the inventor’s racing bikes on the spot.

As described on the randonneuring homepage, in 1891 Terront rolled into the annals of cycling by taking first place in the inaugural 1,200 km Paris-Brest-Paris race, now held every four years as the most prestigious of all bicycle randonnées.

With Terront’s endorsement, Bicyclette Rudge found a huge market in France. Rudge himself was one of the first Brits to compete in the French racing scene.

Following Rudge’s untimely death from cancer at 39, the company he built went through several incarnations, in factories around the West Midlands.

The first sale, to George Woodcock of Coventry, included a pension for Rudge’s widow, Mary. A subsequent merger with The Tangent & Coventry Tricycle Company formed D. Rudge & Co., which emerged in 1894 as Rudge Whitworth Cycles.

In 1895, a 29 lb Rudge (Whitworth) No. 3 Road Racer could be had for £17.

The marque was later bought by Raleigh and, like my Sun racer, was retired in due course from their product line.

The fascinating film below, produced in 1945 by Signet Pictures Corporation Ltd., now housed in the British Council Film Collection, shows the manufacture of Rudge Bicycles, from design, through fabrication, to the showroom floor, in the huge Nottingham Raleigh factory.

The scenes of roads dominated by cyclists recall the days of my youth in England, lucky as I was to catch the sunset of an era when the bicycle underpinned the economy, and brought “relaxation, health and happiness” to the people of the “Black Country.”

Rick den Braber May 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Awesome!

Raymond Parker May 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Thanks, Rick. The research was an adventure.

Tom Hocking May 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm

What a great old film!
I used to know a chap who was a machinist in Ulster in the 1950s.
He hated the life and ultimately moved to Canada but sadly, has since passed on.
Were this film re-made today the players would all be Chinese, and the
engineer would be sitting at a computer. Times certainly have changed within our lifetime.
BTW– Rudge also made equally fine MOTORcycles from 1911-1946.
Their marketing slogan was “Rudge it, do not trudge it!”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudge_motorcycles

BTWW- I recently came across a semi- autobiographical novel written by H.G. Wells. It’s a tale of a youthful shop worker and his bicycle touring adventures in those halcyon days in UK before the advent of the motorcar. How different that world must have been.

Raymond Parker May 17, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Ya, the motorized Rudges came later (than Rudge the man, that is) but there were a few still pooting around when I was a kid.

The de-industrialization of England happened more than 40 years ago. North america is just getting to know what it’s like (although places like Dearborn know what it’s about).

Never mind, we can mine bitumen for China, in Chinese-owned mines. There’s a workers’ song in there somewhere.

Patrick Wright May 17, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Amazing, love the just post ww2 look with next to no chrome. I want the job as the factory test rider.

Raymond Parker May 17, 2012 at 10:59 pm

I was thinking the same thing. Love the kid. “What about the other models: boys’, racing cycles, ladies’, the ones with the baskets in front, like mother uses for shopping?” LOL! He has too posh an accent for the Midlands; must have shipped him up from the south!

Incidentally, I spent the evening wrestling a crown race that wouldn’t play with the original headset. Back to the drawing board.

Tom Hocking May 17, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Was that Roddy McDowall?? He was certainly no working class lad.
“Father, I want THAT one!”

Raymond Parker May 18, 2012 at 12:07 am

Well then, ye’ll have ta sign up at tha cowal mine, lad!

I think McDowall left the UK before the War (Don’t mention the War!).

lee kenney May 18, 2012 at 8:04 am

Those were the days, thanks for reminding me . I just received as compensation for my efforts to remain above ground a copy of “The Literary Cyclist” by James Starr. While bicycles were being built, people were writing about it. It’s a very good insight into the social history of the bicycle. The Social History of the Bicycle is another good read. PS Here in the Loops we are on the route of the proposed Kinder Morgan Bitumin line as well as the Proposed Ajax Mine.

Raymond Parker May 18, 2012 at 8:14 am

Thanks for the literary alerts, Lee. I’ll check those out, as soon as I finish the three I’ve started 🙂

These madmen in Ottawa would bulldoze the whole country if their corporate bosses ordered it. Maybe they have. “Beautiful B.C.” Harumph! I think it’s gonna get hot on the barricades.

Speaking of staying above ground, I have a doctor’s appointment in half an hour.

Ryan May 23, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Great video!

Completely off-topic, but what did you think of Wolverhampton Wanderers this year? (assuming you support football and Wolverhampton)

Raymond Parker May 23, 2012 at 7:32 pm

To tell you the truth, I have no idea what they’re doing. Was never a football fan … But, of course, support everything Wolves.

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