Elswick and Hopper Bicycles
The romantic story of F. Hopper and Co., Ltd., and Elswick Cycles, Ltd., makers of the famous Elswick and Hopper Bicycles
by "Peter Pedlar" Cycling, Sept. 29, 1937
BARTON-UPON-HUMBER is a small township in north Lincolnshire. It is pleasantly situated amidst a quiet agricultural countryside in which time seems to stand still. But within the town itself flourishes one of the largest cycle manufacturing concerns in the country. I refer, of course, to Messrs. Elswick-Hopper, or as these two well-known names are still preserved as separate entities: – F. Hopper and Co., Ltd., and Elswick Cycles, Ltd.
Even at this time when the cycle trade is booming there are no more than seven or eight firms making more than 100,000 bicycles a year. Elswick-Hoppers are numbered with this group with an output of about 200,000.
A concern that started in a black-smith’s shop in 1880 when the graceful “Big Wheel ” was the bicycle of fashion and which developed in an out-of-the-way comer of England far from the sources of raw materials and fuel for power, must have a romantic history. Unfortunately the early story of the late Fred Hopper, who (I must correct myself) was a white smith and not a blacksmith, has been forgotten by the -present generation.
Let me remind you, however, that about half the bicycles made in this huge factory are sent abroad and that Barton is conveniently situated near the ports of Hull, Grimsby, Goole and Immingham, and some hint of the Founders commencement as an ex-porter of bicycles may be gathered. In his small shop he became noted for the hand-made machines he forged and built. Cycling, gaining in popularity throughout Europe and America, was still a novelty in many other lands. Captains of ships from the Humber, discussing the new pastime with traders at the various ports of Call, would naturally tell of the enterprise of one Fred Hopper of Barton, a white smith skilled in the art of bicycle making, and thus inquiries would be set afoot and orders would follow.
Today it is no exaggeration to say that the most important department the Elswick,-Hopper concern is the timber yard and the shops attached thereto where packing cases are made for every market in the world. I propose to deal, therefore, with this fascinating part of the firm’s activities first. That the machines themselves are of first-rate quality is evidenced by Elswick-Hopper’s long-standing reputation and their present big output. Furthermore, I saw them made myself and I can con-firm that each finished bicycle that leaves Barton-on-Humber is a real built-job; the machines are not just put together but assembled into the finished articles by skilled bicycle makers. One machine, one man, is the rule from the parts to the complete bicycle ready to be ridden away. I deliberately wrote above ” each finished bicycle that leaves Barton-on-Humber,” for I was interested to learn that about 1O.,000 Elswick and Hopper machines a year are shipped abroad in parts. And this explains the importance of the packing case and crate department..
To walk round the dispatch shed past the groups of cases large and small and the crates, both long and tall, all labeled to their destinations, is like taking a world cruise in miniature. I was told that no two countries marketing requirements are alike. Nearly whole machines with only the bars and pedals packed separately in open crates were for Switzerland, whilst shorter cases taking complete frames with one wheel in the fork ends and the other tied to the centre of the frame suited another market. For the Far East I saw what looked like a comparatively small “box ” measuring 3 ft. 6 ins. by 2 ft. 9 ins. by 3 ft., in which there were 25 complete bicycle sets less wheels! Let me tell you how this case is put together. It starts as a floorboard with four corner uprights and no sides. To a carefully designed plan a frame, bars, chain wheel, cranks, pedals, brake work, saddle, mud guards, etc., are placed in position on the floorboard inside the four uprights. Four pieces of wood each about five inches wide and the length of a side are next nailed to the corner uprights and make a tight fit round the cycle frame which, with its parts, cannot now move. Packing is added and then another frame and its elements are positioned and four more boards are nailed round it fixing it firmly. The process continues until 25 sets of bicycle parts (less wheels which are cased separately) have been secured within a box that been made as it has filled.
Next I saw some quite small cases each containing the parts of three machines. They bore names of places I may or may not have heard of at school, but had certainly forgotten: names that reminded me of the “Arabian Nights.” Why so small and unusually shaped? I asked. Because the last 500 or 600 miles of their journey will be by camel, was the surprising answer.
Wherever the bicycle is ridden on the face of this globe, Elswicks or Hoppers or both go there and at Barton there are men who know the trading regulations of every country, and carpenters and packers skilled in boxing bicycles for every market in the world.
And here is another unique feature of the Elswick-Hopper organization. The final viewing room for completed bicycles is also the dispatch department and it is the smallest shop in the whole place. There is no store or stockroom! Backed up to the open door of this viewing department, the floor of which is a few feet above the road level, is a motor truck. Immediately after examination the bicycles are wheeled straight onto this lorry which moves off so soon as a consignment is complete to the branch line station at Barton where the machines are at once handed over to the care of the railway company whilst the truck returns for another load. This vehicle and its driver do nothing else but travel backwards and forwards between the dispatch department and the station.
Each train leaving Barton for New Holland conveys the bicycles then on hand and at the latter place they are sorted according to the destination and dispatched by the different goods trains as they are made up or by passenger train if so consigned. With so many ports in the vicinity receiving goods from abroad for quick distribution and the important Grimsley fish trade near at hand, quick delivery – almost a special delivery – to all parts of the country is available to Barton’s industries.
Nearly every employee at the Elswick-Hopper works, and in the offices too, are Barton “bred and born.” Work people are seldom imported but are trained from school. The Managing Director, Mr. A. Stow, is a local man who has literally gone right through the mill to achieve his present well deserved position.
It might be thought that life and labour progressed in this little Lincoln-shire town at an old-fashioned and leisurely gait and that what the Mid-lands were putting into bicycle design yesterday, Barton would learn of the day after to-morrow. The excellent and up-to-the-minute machines this firm is turning out belie any such thought. Indeed I was told that the cycle historians have written only the story of Coventry and the Midlands generally, and not the complete history of cycle making in this country. Mr. Hopper, they say, was making a rear-driven Safety before the Starley Rover of 1885 “set the fashion to the world.” That be as it may, but this much is known, that he was electrically stoving his enameled parts in a plant of his own design and patent and with power made on the premises long before the trade generally had progressed beyond gas. And although hand brazing as well as liquid brazing is still in use at the Barton works, some of the “crude” early methods devised – for greater efficiency, good work and economy of labour and materials, have since be-come standard practice throughout the trade. And it should be emphasized that now, as then, ” fine finish ” is a characteristic of the Hopper products, a fact that is recognized everywhere that bicycle making is understood.
I have already pointed out how every machine is built and not merely put together. Even the parts sent abroad are assembled, adjusted for smooth running and examined before being dismantled for packing. In a gallery round the main assembly floor of the fitting shops, handlebars are equipped with brake work and these items go down by lift to form sets with the frames from the enameling plant and other parts. The builders, all men of middle age or older, are supplied with these complete sets and from a bin of parts an assembler builds a bicycle, filing here if necessary, adjusting there, until he passes to the inspection department the finished job ready for the road.
Careful viewing at every stage of manufacture is behind the slogan” Famous for Finish “; that each nut, screw and bolt is examined one by one after being chromium plated is an instance of this thoroughness.
I have just read a review of Barton’s industries that appeared in a periodical early in the present century. It commented: ” Although some industries are necessarily restricted to localities and definite conditions, real ability and enterprise will find an outlet in the most unlikely places.” That compliment to Elswick-Hoppers can be paid with even greater meaning today, except that Barton is no longer an unlikely place for the manufacture of bicycles; it has become a famous cycle-making centre–Fred Hopper made it so!