F. Hopper & Co (Elswick Hopper)
|An early picture inside the workshop of
Hoppers Cycle works
|Old Hopper premises along Marsh Lane
|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
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
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,
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
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
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:-
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.