F. Hopper & Co (Elswick Hopper)


 

Early picture of Hopper's workshop
An early picture inside the workshop of Hoppers Cycle works
Old Marsh Lane Hopper's Works
Old Hopper premises along Marsh Lane
Old Hopper premises on the corner of Brigg Road
Old Hopper premises on the corner of Brigg Road, built in 1905.

Fred Hopper was born in 1859, the son of a local tallow chandler and served an apprenticeship in Hull and at Marshall’s in Gainsborough. He opened a whitesmith’s shop in 1880, where he worked on a variety of machinery repairs for local businesses, including the tile and brick works He soon developed an interest in bicycles, firstly by repairing them, then by selling both Singer and Humber models and finally by making frames and complete bicycles in 1890. The 1880s had been a time of rapid development in bicycle design, when the Safety model took over from the penny-farthing in popularity. The workshop on Brigg Road expanded into adjacent buildings, but money for major development was not available. In 1896 Fred sold his business to an investment company, which retained him as manager of the renamed A.B.C. Cycle Fittings Company Ltd. This did not work out and he left within the year to set up a new factory in Butts Road at the North end of the town, called the Hull and Barton Cycle Manufacturing Company. In this business he was assisted by several prominent Hull and Barton investors, who were clearly impressed by his ambitions to become a major manufacturer. Meanwhile, the long-running “bicycle boom” came to an end and the A.B.C. Cycle Fittings Company went into liquidation. In 1898 Fred and his partners bought back the original business, which resumed trading as F. Hopper & Co. in December 1898.

            Over the following 14 years the business grew dramatically, thanks to Fred’s ingenuity as an engineer and due to the efforts of his salesmen in developing both a domestic and an export market for their products. Though far from the main manufacturing centres in the Midlands, Barton had the advantage of a cheaper work force, and easy access to the port of Hull for reaching the export markets. The company invested heavily in new technology and was using liquid brazing in 1904, and had developed and installed his own design of electric stove enamelling ovens by 1908. Hopper also saw the potential of motor cycles and was an early importer of NSU machines from Germany, subsequently basing his own Torpedo motorcycle on the NSU designs. Always planning ahead he ventured into car production on a small scale in 1907. All this expansion meant that the work force had grown to 400 in 1905 and to 800 by 1912. This involved considerable investment in factory buildings and office accommodation and the main production centre was transferred to a grass roots development called St Mary’s Works off Marsh Lane. This factory was built with the best lighting and tools available and the employees conditions were also considered with the creation of a social club that included a reading room as well as bath facilities. This was at a time when bathrooms did not exist in many homes.

            The company administrative centre had been located next to the original Brigg Road works, initially as part of Hopper’s adjacent house. After 1898, when Fred Hopper moved to a big house on High Street, the whole cottage was turned over to sales and administration. In 1905, after further expansion of the business, plans were drawn up for a prestigious new office, on the east corner of Brigg Road, adjacent to the existing packing shop and it was completed on a green field site in record time for the opening in November 1905.

            The patents, trademarks and goodwill of the bankrupt Elswick Cycle Company of Newcastle were bought in 1910 and Fred and his partners decided to manufacture and market under the separate brands of Hopper and Elswick, using different dealers to give greater market penetration. Unfortunately, all this required more capital than the Company could raise through share offers on the London market, and eventually the Banks became so concerned at the growing level of overdrafts, that they called in a Receiver in 1913. This was at the end of a year when Fred Hopper and his partners had struggled hard to attract investors for a new company called The Elswick Hopper Cycle and Motor Company Ltd, and it must have been a bitter blow. Reconstruction followed and the assets of Fred Hopper & Co. and the Elswick Cycle Company were finally absorbed by the new Company and adequate funding was put in place by the bank.

            The new company undertook several contracts for the government during the First World War and also released many of its workers to the Army and Navy, some never to return. Fred died in 1925 at the age of 66, stuck down by a chill that developed complications. He had become a major figure in Barton and was a Justice of the Peace and also Lord of the Manor. He had built up a major manufacturing business in the town, which had markets in all parts of the British Empire, in North and South America, in China and even in Japan.

            Business continued between the wars, with some tough years during the depression of the 1930s. Fred Hopper’s son, Fred Hopper Jr. stepped into his father’s shoes as Managing Director, though he did not have the same attributes or interests as his father, leaving the day to day running of the business to the management team. Exports were still a major factor in profitability and the classic roadster remained a firm favourite, especially in Asian and African countries, where it was appreciated for its durability and ruggedness. Indeed, old Elswick and Hopper bicycles can be found still in daily use in many countries. With minimal investment in new equipment the company enjoyed a minor export boom after the Second World War, as most countries had been deprived of products for five years. However, many of the old colonial countries that had previously been importers quickly discovered they could produce their own bicycles much more cheaply. Tariffs were imposed on bicycles imported from Europe and exports from Barton slowly declined.

            New management took control in 1958 and set about halting the slump in earnings. They brought in an Italian design company to develop a new model range and formed a very successful Elswick-Hopper racing team, equipped with the Lincoln Imp racing cycle. 1958 also saw the introduction of a new range of models by the Smethwick based Coventry Eagle Company, designed by the Olympic cyclist, Ernie Clements. This was the beginning of Falcon cycles.

            Despite new models and a foray into scooter sales and the moped market through an associate company, profitability declined through the 1960s and Elswick Hopper started to diversify into other products. Like most bicycle makers at that time they found it increasingly more difficult to compete on price with imports and more and more components were bought overseas for assembly at Barton, although frames were still built in house.

            With falling production the company looked for tenants to lease some of the spare buildings and discovered that Coventry Eagle was planning to move from Smethwick. A deal was struck and for the next 10 years the two operations continued side by side as competitors, with Coventry Eagle changing its name to Falcon in 1970, specialising in racing models.

 Following an upturn in the bicycle business, but reluctant to invest in an aging factory, Elswick Hopper saw an opportunity to buy a modern assembly plant in Alveley, Shropshire. This was through the acquisition of the old established Wearwell company, which had originated in Wolverhampton in around 1872. In 1972 Falcon also decided that the Barton site was not viable long term and moved part of their production to a redundant, but modern facility in Brigg, just 10 miles south of Barton. Six years later, in 1978, Falcon was acquired by Elswick Hopper. The next few years saw a further decline in sales of Elswick Hopper bicycles and growth in the Falcon brand. The logical step was taken to build on the strength of the Falcon name and so the Falcon brand emerged as the successor to the old Hopper companies, with growth continuing through the acquisition of such well-known brands as Claud Butler and more recently, Dawes. Production eventually ceased in Barton in the mid 1980s, bringing to a close over 100 years of bicycle construction in the town.

(with thanks to Nigel Land for the above synopsis)


The old Elswick Hopper premises on Marsh lane have been reused.  Most of it is still industrial but along the side of Marsh Lane now is a line of converted flats which still have the words "F. Hopper and Company" above them.

Related story - Barton on Humber Motorcycles - written by Nigel Land.

  

Further reading : There is now a book charting the history of the Elswick Hopper company:-

Elswick-Hopper of Barton-on-Humber

Subtitled ‘The Story of a Great British Cycle Maker’ this handsome hardback book traces the complete history of the company from 1880 to the final dissolution of Elswick plc in 2000. Fred Hopper was a Barton lad who served an apprenticeship in the town, worked for a short time in Hull and Gainsborough, and set up as a whitesmith and machinist on Brigg Road in 1880. Fred was a keen cyclist from the days of penny-farthings and the business was listed in those years as a CTC approved repairer. He started making bicycles in 1890 and had established an export business in the early years of the next century.

            The book records the acquisition of the Newcastle-based Elswick Cycles in 1910, the venture into cars and motorcycles, receivership in 1913 and recovery through the Great War. The chapters are in chronological order and take the reader through the last 20 years of the 19th and the whole of the 20th century. The arrival in Barton of Coventry-Eagle/Falcon is covered in detail, and also the eventual conversion of Elswick-Hopper into a diversified company owning businesses involved in anything from agricultural services to printing. The later Falcon story is covered in a separate chapter through to 2010.

            This well illustrated book includes a chapter on the social history, based on interviews with many ex-employees, and appendices on the bicycles, motorcycles and cars. It costs 18 and actual postage cost within the UK is 4.41 due to its weight. Overseas postage is an eyewatering 17.65.

Profits from sales will go towards publishing future Barton books, some of which are in the process of being written by the Barton group of local history researchers.

 

This book is available from many outlets in the town.

 

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