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Cycling in Nottingham: History of Raleigh Bikes

15 January 15 words: Mark Patterson
illustrations: Christopher Paul Bradshaw

You can hardly move in Nottingham, or anywhere else for that matter, for Raleigh bikes. Not the new ones, which aren’t sold by as many bike dealers as they once were, but second-hand and restored classic machines – from rare pre-war models to the ‘all steel’ bikes of the fifties and sixties, to fold-up twenties, to Choppers, Grifters, Activators and Team Banana racers of the eighties.

While the raised visibility of these old models is partly down to making a few quid on them via t’internet, there’s been a quieter, non-commercial interest in Raleigh’s history. It is equated with the glory days of British design, mass production and the kind of society, now gone, where huge factory production and its labour forces were economically possible.

Yet perhaps the biggest factor is the sheer number of old Raleighs that are still in circulation. How many forgotten bikes badged with a heron and ‘Made in Nottingham’ are still gathering dust in garden sheds and garages? Bikes from this seemingly endless stream of ‘barn finds’ are destined to enjoy a second existence for cheap commuting, student transport or tweedy ‘heritage’ events for years to come.

Here’s some numbers: it was 125 years ago, in 1889, that a wealthy lawyer called Frank Bowden bought a controlling interest in a small Nottingham bicycle company called Woodhead, Angois & Ellis, renaming it the Raleigh Cycling Company. By 1914, 100 years ago, Raleigh could boast that it was the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world. By 1960, when Raleigh was arguably at its height, the company expected to sell 44,000 bikes per year. No wonder there are still so many around.

Today, when British bike-making is relatively small-scale, such figures are staggering but remind us of Raleigh’s importance in the history of cycling and of its impact on the physical, economic and social landscape of its home city. In one sense, that physical landscape has gone forever; the last of the big factories in Radford that once employed thousands was closed down in 2002 and demolished.

Shorn of the need to make bikes in Nottingham, Raleigh’s design and marketing people decamped to a site near Eastwood and began manufacturing bikes abroad. Yet the spaces occupied by the factories can still be traced on the ground and several buildings important to the Raleigh story can still be seen. Indeed, with a map and a bike, it’s quite possible to spend an hour or two enjoying your very own ‘Raleigh Heritage Trail.’

Here’s how. Although Radford is usually the emotional focus of the Raleigh story, your tour should really begin at Canning Circus where, at Raleigh Street and Russell Street, the Woodhead, Angois & Ellis bike factory was located, initially making three bicycles a week. By 1891, under Bowden’s control, it had expanded into three small local factories. Raleigh’s humble origins are remembered here today only by a private apartments complex called Raleigh Square which has a bike wheel design on an exterior door (although there is a recreated Raleigh Street workshop at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey).
From Canning Circus, head down Ilkeston Road to Faraday Road, where the main works entrance of Raleigh’s later factory complex was located. Raleigh purchased land here in 1896 and the first factory occupied five acres. An extension was completed by 1920 and subsequent expansions eventually took the site up to sixty acres in an area defined by Triumph Road to the west and Lenton Boulevard to the east, Ilkeston Road to the north and Cycle Road to the south.

By the early fifties, Faraday Road effectively passed through the centre of the site and was crossed by a footbridge which connected the main factory with the ten-acre site on Triumph Road. After Raleigh closed its Nottingham facilities, most of this area was purchased by the University of Nottingham and today the land is occupied by the Jubilee Campus, the Innovation Park, student flats and private housing. However, you can still follow the boundaries of the factory complex and there are several reminders of Raleigh’s former presence including the Raleigh Park student flats, with its metallic bicycle sculpture, at the junction of Ilkeston Road and Faraday Road. The sculpture is opposite the White Horse, once a popular pub with Raleigh workers.

Pedal around to Triumph Road, now dominated by futuristic buildings housing various ‘knowledge industries’ and you can see a section of stone frieze preserved from the bike factory. The frieze isn’t hard to find as it’s next to the wreck of the GlaxoSmithKline building, which burned down in September, and the silvery fluid form of the Sir Colin Campbell Building which, from a bird’s-eye view, emulates a bike chainwheel and chain.

The adjacent tower, called Aspire, is also supposed to resemble wheels and spokes, although that may be pushing it a bit. Can you still hear the ghostly chatter of those thousands of workers as they leave the factory to walk or cycle home? Of course not. But the testimonies of 56 Raleigh workers have been recorded and can be watched online in a University of Nottingham project called I Worked at Raleigh. But hang on, your tour isn’t over yet.

Cycle back up Ilkeston Road, turn right and you’ll see Raleigh’s former head offices in Lenton Boulevard. Designed by TC Howitt and opened in 1931, the two-story building still has the big Raleigh ‘R’ above the door and a row of neo-classical friezes showing cherubs working factory lathes - the kind that Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton would have been familiar with. Around the back there are large windows decorated with the Raleigh heron badge design.

Howitt’s building is now occupied by small businesses and the Marcus Garvey Ballroom. Further afield, one should also visit Sir Frank Bowden’s former home at Bestwood Lodge in Bestwood Park - now a hotel - and the Nottingham Industrial Museum at Wollaton Park which houses a collection of classic Raleighs, plus the model ridden by Beeston bike maker Thomas Humber. Humber was one of the many small bike companies taken over by Raleigh and at Bartons in Beeston they have a large Humber advertising sign on display.

Incidentally, it would have been apt to have done this tour on my lovely restored 1957 Raleigh Lenton sports, a classic ‘lightweight’ from the same year as Sputnik and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. However, I actually did the pedalling on my battered Taiwanese-made mountain bike with its reliable Shimano gears: the kind of import job that latterly helped undermine Raleigh’s sales figures and the theft of which I would have more quickly recovered from.

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