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The Comedy of Errors

The History of Sir Frank Bowden and the Raleigh Cycle Company

15 November 20 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

We take a look at the life of Sir Frank Bowden, the man responsible for creating The Raleigh Cycle Company and making Nottingham the largest producer of bicycles in the world...

The Raleigh story starts in 1885 when Richard Morris Woodhead from Sherwood and Frenchman Paul Eugene Louis Angois set up a bicycle shop on the Nottingham road from which their soon-to-be-famous bicycle would take its name. From that small Raleigh Street location they were one of fifteen bicycle manufacturers operating in the city, and surviving records from The Nottinghamshire Guardian dated 15 May 1885 show what is thought to be the very first printed advert for the Raleigh bicycle. The pair became a trio when Warren Ellis joined the company. Like Angois and Woodhead, Ellis’ background was in lace and, as well as much-needed financial backing, he brought with him the contacts and expertise to expand the workshop around the corner from Raleigh Street into the former lace works on the adjoining Russell Street. By 1888, the company was employing half a dozen men and producing three bicycles a week. Raleighs were now being sold all around the country, and it was through the window of one shop on Queen Victoria Street in London that their craftsmanship caught the eye of a man who would change the future of the bicycle industry forever. 

Frank Bowden was born in Exeter on 30 January 1848, to William Bowden, a manufacturer, and his wife, Louise. The 1861 census tells us that, at age thirteen, he was both a scholar and a visitor to the house of William Martin, a grocer’s assistant in Bristol. As a trained lawyer with an instinctive mind for business and a knack for marketing and public relations, the world was Bowden’s for the taking. Business prospects took him Eastward, and it was in Hong Kong that his first fortune was made in the stock market, aged just 24. Few specific details are known about his time there, other than the fact that, less than a decade later, his health was in tatters. The harsh Asian climate had decimated his body and he took the opportunity to travel, relocating to San Francisco where he married wealthy American heiress Amelia Frances in 1879.

But with his health continuing to flounder, he returned to England in the 1880s as an early venture capitalist looking to invest his substantial fortune into a worthy business. Visiting Harrogate to seek medical advice, Bowden was informed that he only had months to live, and instructed to take up cycling. 

At this point, the practice was less than a century old and far from the commonplace activity it is today. Machines were large and cumbersome, ranging from the awkward Penny Farthing to the bizarre two-person Coventry Rotary Quadcycle. It was while looking for a bicycle of his own that Bowden happened upon a model made by Woodhead, Angois and Ellis of Nottingham. Bowden recounts the event in his own words:

Its patent changeable gear and other special features struck me as superior to all the others I had seen, and I purchased one upon which I toured extensively through France, Italy and England during 1887 and 1888. In the autumn of the latter year, happening to pass through Nottingham, and with the idea of, if possible, getting a still more up-to-date machine, I called upon Messrs. Woodhead and Angois, the originators and makers of the Raleigh.”

Less than a decade after joining Raleigh, Frank Bowden was sitting at the head of the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world, occupying a custom-built, seven-and-a-half acre factory in Faraday Road

The visit would change everything, and Bowden soon replaced Ellis as the partnership’s principal investor. With his health much improved and his commercial interests piqued, he could see that the company had a profitable future. Shifting the marketing focus to promoting their product’s innovative features, while simultaneously increasing output, cutting overheads and tailoring bicycles to the individual tastes and preferences of the customer, Bowden set about buying out Ellis’s part in the company. He allotted himself five thousand shares worth £1 each, with Woodhead and Angois maintaining a further five thousand shares between them. Today, that would have valued the company at around £1million. 

While Raleigh had ostensibly been trading since 1885, Bowden established The Raleigh Cycle Company in 1888 – a date confirmed in the Nottinghamshire Archives, and one that was publicly promoted as the start date for the company during the rest of Bowden’s lifetime. Still privately owned and with unlimited public liability, Raleigh became the first of a series of limited liability companies bearing the name. The new set up saw Angois as director responsible for product design, Woodhead director responsible for factory management and Bowden as chairman and managing director. 

The new vision saw a need for larger premises, and Raleigh rapidly expanded to a Woodroffe’s Factory and Russell Street Mills in 1891, and signed a tenancy agreement for rooms in Butler’s factory on the other side of Russell Street one year later. Shortly after, the company also occupied Forest Road Mill. In 1896, less than a decade after joining Raleigh, Frank Bowden was sitting at the head of the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world, occupying a custom-built, seven-and-a-half acre factory in Faraday Road. At that point, The Raleigh Cycle Company was worth £200,000 – almost £27million today. 

Having travelled overseas to promote export sales, Raleigh began to flounder in Bowden’s absence. Returning to England, he retrieved Harold, his son, from university to help him reorganise the company and manage the business more closely. To Bowden, it was clear: the more directly involved with Raleigh he was, the more successful it would be. 

By the turn of the century, Bowden was in his early fifties and living in Mapperley Road with Amelia and their two sons, four daughters and two servants. The fortunes of Raleigh continued upwards until the 1907 financial crisis (known as the Banker’s Panic or the Knickerbocker Crisis) saw Bowden secure the company’s debts with his own personal fortune, taking complete ownership in the process. 

Under his leadership, Raleigh and, as a result, Nottingham was revolutionised and placed firmly in the centre of the world for bicycle production

By 1913, 1,700 workers were producing 60,000 cycles every year, and Harold Bowden was starting to take more control over the business as his father advanced in years. The outbreak of the First World War the following year saw Raleigh voluntarily offer its factories to the government for use in the manufacture of munitions. This decision saw Frank Bowden made a baronet in 1915 and, as the conflict drew to a conclusion, Raleigh was one of the largest munitions manufacturers in Britain with a workforce of five thousand men and women. 

Sir Frank Bowden died in 1921, leaving his £475,000 estate and all business interests to Harold. It’s testament to his legacy that his death didn’t mark the end of Raleigh, but rather the end of the beginning. His son Harold took the business to even greater heights than his father, moving Raleigh into the motorcycle market, and introducing a profit-sharing system for his workforce following the 1926 General Strike. He wanted his workers to be proud of working for Raleigh, and believed it was essential to afford them fair treatment. 

Raleigh survived World War Two, again using its 9,000-strong workforce to almost exclusively produce munitions, and was back to producing one million bicycles per year in 1953, despite the rise in popularity and accessibility of the car. The next fifty years were arguably more eventful than the origins of Raleigh, with Tour de France and Olympic victories, iconic bikes like the Chopper, Burner and Grifter before the lease on the Nottingham factory eventually expired in 2003. But that’s probably another article. 

The story of Raleigh neither begins nor ends with Frank Bowden. He didn’t invent the first Raleigh bicycle, nor was he born in Nottingham. But under his leadership, Raleigh and, as a result, Nottingham was revolutionised and placed firmly in the centre of the world for bicycle production. Because of his endeavours and expertise, the name ‘Raleigh’ is woven into the DNA of the city as much as lace, Boots, Players, Robin Hood or two European Cups. Even now, over half a century after Arthur Seaton complained about working class life from the confines of the factory, and seventeen years after the last Raleigh bicycle was manufactured in the UK, the name is still as synonymous with the city as anything Nottingham has produced.  

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