Thursday, 30 July 2015

Aunt Emily in the 1890s

I thought you might like to see great-great-great-Aunt Emily, in 1891, very sweetly painted by her nephew Reginald.
Well, here she is. My guess is that this curious tricycle, with rear-wheel steering and chain (or geared?) drive to one (larger) wheel, was manufactured in Coventry. It could be a version of the Excelsior, from the good old firm of Bayliss, Thomas and Co.
Or maybe it was a Rudge.
The Triumph Company also produced tricycles with this kind of design.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

By Bicycle to Flawford, Nottingham - a Lost Village

It is hard to believe, in a small, tight, densely-populated country such as England, that any village could ever disappear. All residential spaces are precious and necessary, you might think. But in fact dozens of small villages have vanished over the centuries, because populations have died out or have moved to other places where prospects are brighter.

I am fascinated by the lost Nottinghamshire village of Flawford (sometimes called Flawforth). It was situated about five miles south of the City of Nottingham. In the days when I was still able to cycle - about five years ago - I had a gentle ride to the site of the lost village. Here's my 1966 Claud Butler Torino, parked in the middle of what might - in the Iron Age or in Roman times - have been a bustling settlement.
Yes. People had homes right here thousands of years ago.

During a limited amount of archaeological surveying of the area in the second half of the Twentieth Century, part of the tessellated (mosaic) floor of a Romano-British villa was discovered - just to the left of where my bicycle is standing. I guess that a great deal more might be found if a larger expanse of land were to be excavated.
Roman Mosaic Floor excavated in this very field.
In Saxon times, a small church was built here on the site of the villa. It evolved with numerous extensions and developments over five hundred years.

For centuries, this church (St. Peter’s) served four surrounding villages. But over that period the populations of those villages grew (so they built their own churches) while Flawford declined. Soon the village had no residents at all.

The church was redundant and started to degenerate into a ruin. The Bishop gave permission for it to be pulled down; and it was demolished on 12 June 1773.

Much of its stonework was carted off for the building of a bridge two miles away. Some of the materials were used to make pig sties.

In 1779, beautifully-sculpted alabaster figures of the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, and a bishop were found in this very field under floor of the former chancel. They were made in about 1350 and are now in Nottingham Castle Museum. Here's a detail from one of them.
After the destruction of the church, local people took to removing even gravestones for use in roadworks and farmyards. This practice continued right up to 1956, by which time only four were left standing.
Me on the very spot where the Roman villa once stood.
It is a strange feeling to stand in the twilight near the remaining gravestone fragments and think of the people - perhaps many thousands over the centuries - who lived here. They and their village have disappeared – almost without trace.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The MAFAC Brakes of Boyhood

The first brakes my classmates and I fitted to our bicycles were GB.

But this was followed by a craze for the French-made Mafacs. Very fine brakes they were (and still are on many surviving bicycles from decades ago).

Here (from a 1970s Mafac Catalogue), is the model I chose. Yes: they were CENTRE-pulls, and this seemed wonderful at the time:


The catalogue also gave us a detailed breakdown of the parts.

MAFAC stood for Manufacture Auvergnoise de Freins et Accessoires pour Cycle. As the name implies, the company was based in the Auvergne (which is just south of the centre of France). It was formed very shortly after the Second World War, flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, and finally went out of business in about 1984.

There were slight differences between their various designs. Famous MAFAC brakes were the 'Racer', the 'Tiger', the 'Top 63' and the 'Competition'. Their centre-pull and cantilever brakes were copied by other manufacturers. 

MAFAC were state-of-the-art in their day; but apparently they failed eventually to keep up with the designs and the pricing of the opposition.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Stephens Bicycles of Southgate, London

Here is a Stephens from 1942.

And here's how it looks after restoration.

Stephen was a small manufacturer based in Southgate, North London. When the company closed (1956) its spares and transfers were kept in boxes. So it was possible to use original transfers in the restoration.
A very satisfying project, don't you agree?

As at July 2015, at least 26 Stephens bicycles are known to exist (some of them are mentioned below), but they appear to be in the hands of just ten owners.

The most recent two of these 26 to come to my attention have been:

(a) a lady's touring model from about 1944. It belonged to an 'elderly lady originally from Southgate', according to News and Views, the magazine of the Veteran-Cycle Club (June 2012 edition, page 18).
(b) this one belonging to Colin Divall, who inherited it from his father. Colin thinks it dates from about 1950, and Colin has not ridden it much on the last 35 years. It was repainted at some time and also needed forks and front wheel, but mostly it is original, with its wide-ratio Sturmey-Archer gearing.
Here is one of the other 24.
And another is a 1947 Stephens that Graham Wilson acquired. He sent me the following photos. As you will see, it has an extraordinary seat tube (presumably intended to help shorten the wheelbase).
I was also contacted both by an anonymous gentleman who said he had a Stephens tandem and also by Peter Bowen, of Dorset, England, who acquired a Stephens tandem in 2002. It had previously belonged to an elderly Dorset couple. Peter had thought it dated from the 60s or 70s but now knows it was a good deal earlier.

Peter and his daughter rode it in a time trial back in 2003. Peter sent me the following 2012 pictures of the tandem.
Peter said 'I expect it has been upgraded at some point due to 5 speed derailleur gears and Mavic wheels. .... The tandem is a mishmash of bits and pieces added over the years....I think! ....Serial number on the front shows B85. ...Has been fitted with Suntour gearing but had to replace derailleur with a Shimano.. .... Front seat stem/rear handlebar stem is stamped D.TAYLOR. Perhaps pillion rider...'. Peter would be pleased if anyone can supply further information.
On 7 June 2012, I was contacted by the 1st Aldershot Scouts Group. They had acquired this Stephens for auctioning in order to raise funds for a good cause. (Its frame number appears to be 12652.)
But who was Stephen of Stephen's Bicycles?
Thanks to the researches of Roger Bugg, I now know he was Stephen Mitchell. After leaving school at about the age of 13, he worked for the Grandex Cycle Company in Gray’s Inn Road, London and then had a portfolio of jobs, including plumbing, before (with a loan from his father) he opened his first cycle shop. This shop was in Newington Green Road, Islington. In the mid-1920s, having married a lady named Beatrice, Stephen manufactured B&S Cycles (Beatrice and Stephen). Stephen specialised in lightweight machines.

The Mitchells moved to premises in Chase Side, Southgate (North London) in 1938. Stephen personally designed and built all the Stephens machines (really they ought to be called Stephen's, not Stephens), each one virtually unique.

The range included tandems and tricycles.

Throughout his career, Stephen was also a cyclist and much involved with the local cycling club.

Stephen’s shop in Southgate was actually the converted ground floor of a large double-fronted Victorian house: toys were sold on one side of the main entrance and bicycles on the other. Mrs. Beatrice Stephens managed the toy department.
They sold other better-known brands of bicycle as well as Stephens, right up to 1956, when Stephen Mitchell retired, following a steep decline in sales.

Over about 30 years, Stephen had produced on average one bicycle every week, though considerably more at his peak in the mid-1930s.

Stephen retired to Sussex and died at the age of 71 in 1973.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Jacques Anquetil at Herne Hill

Did the great Jacques Anquetil ever race on the track at Herne Hill in South London? Surely not, you may reply. Well, I have to inform you that he did. It was on 13 June 1964; and I was privileged to be there. I took this photo on that occasion.
The other cyclist just visible in the distance is Tom Simpson. He also took part. It was Tom who persuaded his friend the great Jacques to travel to London for the afternoon of exhibition races.

I remember what a huge thrill it was for the crowd when Anquetil appeared and what a warm reception he had. And, in recollection, it seems amazing that he agreed to participate in such a minor parochial event just a few days before starting in yet another Tour de France (that he won). He might have been expected to be doing some serious training in the Alps!

I have this week kindly been contacted by Owen Gwyndaf Roberts, who was also at that Herne Hill meeting and who also took photographs – better than mine. Like me, Gwyndaf was a fan of Tom Simpson and he was able on a later occasion to get Tom to autograph his photo. Here (with watermark) is the result.
And here is Gwyndaf’s photo of Anquetil.
While I'm on the subject of Herne Hill, here's another fascinating old photograph from 1964. It shows a race of Ordinaries (Penny Farthings) on 19 September.