Sunday 13 December 2009

Father of the Cycle Industry

Thanks to Richard Hartree who has sent a copy of notes about the early days of the cycle industry in Coventry. The article concerns the early days of three pioneers of this - Starley, Hillman and Singer. Of interest to us are their south London origins.

James Starley came from Sussex but moved to London to become a gardener to John Penn, the eminent Greenwich 19th century engineer. Starley became very skilled with mechanical devices and was able to mend and improve a sewing machine bought for Mrs.Penn. Penn knew Josiah Turner, who had made the machine, and he was able to get Starley a job in his works. Turner and Starley moved to Coventry and started a sewing machine works there, attracting workers from the defunct watch making trade. Starley went on to perfect many devices particularly in the field of bicycles - and is described as 'one of our great inventors'.

William Hillman lived near to Starley in Lewisham and was apprenticed at the Penn works. In 1871 he too went to Coventry and entered into a partnership with Starley. Hillman left to set up his business initially with bicycles and then moving into early motor manufacturing.

George Singer, was another apprentice at Penns - and a bell ringer in Lewisham along with Hillman. He too moved to Coventry to share lodgings with Hillman. He too became pre-eminent, and very rich, in the field of bicycle manufacture and also became Mayor of Coventry.

It makes me wonder - perhaps someone should trace the lives of many more of Penn's apprentices and see how much of British manufacturing industry can be tracked back to the works on Blackheath Hill!

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