Prologue: 35 years “Before Carpenter”

Ariel Ordinaries

Henry Carpenter was born in January 1872  to William and Caroline in Islington, this was just a couple of years after James Starley had introduced his Ariel ‘Ordinary’ bicycle. Immediately, young bucks had taken to racing. In 1876 the first hour record was established by Frank Dodds at 25.4km. Only affordable to the rich, (and certainly not to the Carpenter family) these ‘high-wheelers’ had but a short period of ascendancy. Meanwhile working men and women had to live, work and love within walking distance of their homes.

In 1887 the first three places in the inaugural Catford CC hill climb were taken by new-fangled ‘Safety’ bicycles – the days of the ‘Ordinary’ were over. Two years earlier James Starley’s nephew John Kemp Starley  had  introduced a radical new design that rendered those ‘Ordinary’ cycles obsolete. The key was the way he incorporated Hans Renold’s efficient roller-link chain into his design. Now drive was delivered by a chain to a 26” geared rear wheel. Other manufacturers were trying chain drives; it was J.K.Starley who had grasped the opportunity to reduce the size of the front wheel close to that of the rear, optimising the front wheel geometry for steering and control. No longer did the rider have to straddle an oversized wheel, simultaneously pedalling it and steering it. J.K.Starley’s “Rover” was safer, lighter, faster and cheaper.

1893 Safety

As Cycling magazine said, he had “set the pattern for the world”, igniting a revolution in social mobility and competitive sports. Dunlop’s pneumatic tyre completed the package in 1888 with instant racing success. The bicycle design we are so familiar with now had arrived.

The interest in track racing as a spectator sport exploded. At the impressionable age of 16, Henry Carpenter would have seen the cycling craze sweep Britain. Tens of thousands packed newly built velodromes around the world. When a track was opened at Herne Hill in 1891 it was the eighth in London. Distance racing on the roads flourished. In the same year George Mills won the first Bordeaux-Paris race. The public appetite was stimulated.  Bikes were now affordable to working people like William Carpenter, sales of bikes surged. But track racing was hardly accessible to all. Instead, one-time paying spectators were now out enjoying the open road, many forming cycling clubs.  Ironically, attendance at track meetings slumped in the late 1890s.

The sudden appearance of large groups of cyclists on the road, especially racing men with their pacing teams, alarmed wealthy horse-owners. There were, after all, only 8,000 cars on all of Britain’s roads at the turn of the century against hundreds of thousands of bikes. Bike racing on the open roads in Britain came under real threat of being prohibited. Only F T Bidlake’s 1895 initiative to codify the secretive time-trialling discipline saved the day, and for the next 50 years ‘road racing’ in Britain developed in a very different way to the massed-start races enjoyed on the Continent. This had telling effects on British bicycle design, determined the different tactical and physical strengths needed by the athletes, and closed off all prospects of attracting commercial sponsorship to road racing.

Arthur Linton

Nonetheless 1896 saw British riders continuing their success abroad. Arthur Linton won the Bordeaux-Paris race, his brother Tom was also a successful rider in the stable managed by the infamous “Choppy” Warburton. Frederick Keeping won silver in a 12-hour track race at the first modern Olympiad in Athens, Edward Battell bronze in the 87km Athens-Marathon-Athens road race. Objections that they had to work for a living so they “could not possibly be amateurs” were overruled.

It’s hard now to imagine just how much of an impact the cycling revolution had across the world. By 1898 the hour record had reached 40.8km. 6-day races had become immensely popular in the USA, with teams of 2 introduced for the first time to overcome the disturbing sight of doped solo-riders struggling on. These ‘bicycle-jockeys’ devised the ‘Jock-strap’ to improve their creature comforts.

murphy 1899Deeds of daring-do continued to capture the public imagination. Charles “Mile a Minute” Murphy risked life and limb to win fame draughting behind a steam loco in 1899. The observers grabbed him and his bike when he slammed into the back of the decellerating train. No Health & Safety inhibitions in those days!

Major Taylor paced 1899 compSuperstars like Marshall “Major” Taylor earned the present day equivalent of $750,000 annually, many times more than the star football players. Bike manufacturers attracted the most innovative engineering talent – no surprise then that in 1903 it was two cycle engineers, the Wright brothers who built the first successful aircraft. British riders enjoyed great success, from Mills in the inaugural 1891 Bordeaux-Paris to Leon Meredith, world motor-paced champion seven times from 1904-13 and  Bill Bailey, the Chris Hoy of his day, world sprint champion in 1909-10-11-13 on a bike instantly recognisable today.

Henry Carpenter started work with a walking stick manufacturer at the very beginning of this revolution. It is most unlikely he  could have afforded a bicycle at first, but he was advancing his skills. By the 1891 census, at  19 he was recorded as a ‘Pipe Mounter’. By 1901 he had advanced to become a ‘Gold and Silver Stick Mounter’, fitting walking sticks and ceremonial canes with gold & silver handles. Howell’s walking stick-making factory in Old Street, Islington, was the largest such manufacturer in the world, employing over 450 men (see Almost certainly, Henry Carpenter was one of these. He married Miriam on Dec 21, 1901, his son Frank Henry arrived exactly 11 months later. By 1911 Henry had become a ‘Master Stick Mounter’. A picture emerges of a  stick making 2 master craftsman, dedicated to an exacting trade and steadily progressing in secure employment, raising his two young children (it seems he and Miriam had separated). Arthur Melbourne-Cooper’s 1912 film of  Howell’s factory is here:

The Great War brought this Edwardian era to a sudden close. We don’t know what work Henry Carpenter did during the War, but for sure it would not have been the decoration of walking sticks!   At 42 in 1914 he was too old to be called up, his son at 12 too young. Most likely, as a craftsman, he was drawn into the manufacture of equipment for the forces. What we do know is that after the war Henry was confronted by a personal crisis.  The demand for  elaborate walking sticks had fallen into terminal decline.  Job losses across that industry were severe. Henry Howell’s business was contracting quickly,  eventually closing in the mid-30s.

In contrast, the market for bicycles had taken off again. Big names grew rapidly with a burgeoning mass-market. Raleigh, BSA, Saxon among them. But competitive cyclists were eager for any marginal advantage. Scores of skilled artisans were drawn to this expanding industry, starting up small businesses building bespoke lightweight bicycles. No expensive machinery was needed to set up as a cycle manufacturer: just a hearth, jig and brazing skills for frame building, plus an intimate knowledge of what competitive cyclists wanted. Reynolds and Accles & Pollock supplied sets of tubes to make the frames; foundries cast lug sets; component suppliers like Chater-Lea, Leon Meredith’s Constrictor, Baylis-Wiley, Williams and Brooks standardised their fittings and screw threads. Small builders could offer customers a wide choice and respond quickly to the developing fashions of the growing market. But make no mistake, this was a highly competitive industry.

Somewhere along the way (from his war work?) Henry had acquired advanced brazing skills. His son Frank, now turning 20, is understood to have  enjoyed competitive cycling, from which he no doubt established a detailed understanding of the demands of clubmen – the ever-changing technologies, components and myriad details of bikes built for racing. It must have been an understanding that would command the respect of this specialist market. In the early 1920s Henry and young Frank had the confidence to set up business in Islington as Cycle Makers. Walking sticks became steel tubing,  handle decorations became painstakingly filed lugs. Their bikes were not basic utilitarian machines offered at modest prices. From the outset they offered only advanced lightweights pitched squarely at the demands of enthusiastic clubmen. They quickly established a reputation for meticulous workmanship, supplying bikes to elite athletes and discerning clubmen for the next 50 years.