A photograph of a futuristic cyclist, taken by Edward Malindine for the Daily Herald newspaper on 29 November, 1933. This photograph was taken at a pageant held at the Dorchester Hotel, London, to celebrate the history of the Hercules Cycle Company. This is a prediction of what the well-dressed cyclist would be wearing in 1940 to ride her ‘wireless cycle’, which came complete with telephone.
HISTORY OF HERCULES CYCLE & MOTOR Co. Ltd
Britannia Works, Rocky Lane, Aston, Birmingham 6
Jack Crane came from a middle class family in Birmingham. He lost his father when he was very young but was fortunate to have a well-to-do uncle. After Jack left the Blue Coat School his uncle found him a job in a nail making factory as a clerk. Later the uncle bought Jack a small business called ‘The Petros Cycle Company.’
Jack married and eventually produced eight children, two being still born. The first, born in 1886, was named Edmund but was always referred to as Ted. The second born was Harry. Harry and Ted Crane would later become the largest manufacturers of bicycles in the world!
The boys were both educated at Handsworth Grammar School and left at age 14 to start in their father’s business assembling and selling bicycles. Around the turn of the century there was a downturn in the interest in cycling due to the advent of motor vehicles. This was not helped by there being too many bicycle manufactures. In 1906 Jack Crane was declared bankrupt and the family were forced to move to a downmarket house in Lightwoods Hill.
They were down, but not out, and they devised a scheme to sell brand new bikes at auctions all over the country. As Jack was a declared bankrupt, the cycles were bought in their mother’s name and then sold to the sons. This was extremely successful and allowed them to eventually move to a bigger house. Unfortunately their business activities were judged as being illegal, and all of the family were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud at the Birmingham Assizes in March 1911. Fortunately, a successful appeal was later heard and they avoided prison on a legal technicality.
Harry and Ted had saved £25 between them and decided to rent a derelict old house in Coventry Street to set up a cycle assembly business. Ted chose to trade under the name ‘Hercules’ because it represented strength and durability. The boys had set up a limited company (The Hercules Cycle & Motor Company Ltd) before the trial on the 9th September 1910 (limited company number 00111679). It is not known exactly why they had set up the company at this stage but it was probably on the advice of a solicitor, as they would have been expecting to receive criminal records. The official commencing date of the company has always been 1911 and indeed after the appeal finished in March 1911 they presumably started production.
Harry assembled the bicycles while Ted pedalled around Birmingham searching for parts; large parts such as frames and forks were delivered by hand carts. It is known that the brothers bought lamps from a Mr Bullock in Balsall Heath and they used Reynolds tubing frames and Dunlop tyres (although early catalogues do not show Dunlop tyres being used). The brothers both worked 16-hour days. Ted initially had problems selling the bicycles because of the conspiracy case. But when dealers found the cycles were cheaper than competitors’ offerings, and of better quality too, the business began to make rapid progress. It was this simple formula of low price and high quality that would lead the Crane brothers to world success.
The brothers started by producing 25 bicycles a week but production grew very quickly and within 6 months output was 70 units per week, so larger premises were found at a converted house with a covered yard and a very small garden in Conybere Street. The brothers called it the Britannia works. They also took on 10 workers. The advert above, displaying the Conybere Street address, is from 1911.
The company soon outgrew this site and they were having to pack bikes on the pavement. A new site was found at the former Dunlop factory in Catherine Street in Aston which could accommodate 250 workers.
By 1914 they were producing 10,000 bicycles a year. With the start of the war, on August 14th, the company were ordered to make armament shells. In 1921 the company produced just less than 20,000 cycles: Hercules Bicycles were now the cheapest cycles on the market, selling for £3 19 9d. The company used bright yellow delivery vans with the slogan on the side, proclaiming: ‘The Best that Money can Buy.’
In 1923/1924 Hercules bought the rest of the Dunlop factory and changed its main entrance to Rocky Lane. The company now occupied the complete former 13-acre Dunlop site, and the factory was renamed ‘Britannia Works.’
In 1927, bicycle production had reached the quarter of a million mark and, in 1929, Hercules took over another Dunlop factory called Manor Mills, in Nechells.
Hercules Factory, 1931
In 1931 Ted Crane was described as ‘the Henry Ford of the cycle industry’ by The Daily Herald newspaper. Indeed, Crane had read Henry Ford’s autobiography and used some of Ford’s methods to set up his factory. Crane, just like Ford, would not tolerate unions, and paid workers on piecework. Crane claimed he paid more than unionised companies, 10% above the federation rate; but if workers could not produce 15% above the federation assembly rate they were sacked. Crane was a very firm boss not always liked by his entire workforce and certainly not liked by the unions. He was, however, generally treated with a mix of admiration, fear and respect. In those days the cycle trade was seasonal and Hercules would employ an extra 1000 people in January and lay them off at the end of June. Crane also would not hesitate to reduce wages at a moments notice, if conditions dictated. The union cautioned workers to make a note of Hercules, calling them ‘a notorious firm with notorious rates of pay.’
‘To commemorate the production of the 3 millionth Hercules cycle, a world record achievement made in Great Britain, a luncheon and inspection of the cycle works took place at Birmingham today (Tues).’ The photo shows Sir Malcolm Campbell, Sir Martin Melvin (glasses) and Sir Edmund Crane (on the right behind the cycle).
The company grew very quickly in the thirties and claimed to be the largest cycle manufacturer in the world – producing their six millionth bicycle in February 1939. One third of their production was exported.
Hercules made most of their own parts, except rims, brake blocks, saddles, tyres, tubes, chains & ball bearings. By the fifties, they had three factories in Birmingham, two in Nechells and the main factory and offices in Rocky Lane, Aston, that occupied 13 acres. The additional factory was in Plume Street.
Ted Crane made an enormous contribution to the countries export drive; in fact it is widely believed that Crane pioneered exporting. In 1928 Hercules was exporting 26% of all British cycles and, by 1935, this figure had increased to nearly 40%.
Crane invented what was called ‘knockdown’ where a cycle was supplied unassembled and tightly packed, 25 at a time into a case, this was known as completely knocked down, or ‘CKD.’
Interesting differences between North and South England existed, in the North they preferred caliper brakes and in the South roller blade brakes.
Soon after WW2, Sir Edmund Crane sold the company to its main supplier, Tube Investments, for three and a quarter million pounds. TI later took over Raleigh to form Raleigh Industries.
HARRY CRANE was in Ted’s shadow, and of contrasting character. He was kind and considerate and always promoted a strong team spirit. Harry was a great technical innovator and designed a machine for drawing gold lines on bike frames and also made improvements in polishing. Harry lived close to Ted in Lapworth. Sadly Harry died prematurely after a heart attack while playing tennis with his son at Alvechurch.
FRANK SOUTHALL was a Hercules area sales representative and a well-known racing cyclist. He held the 12-hour record at one stage, riding from Marble Arch to Gateshead. Frank was responsible for the design of the first lightweight Hercules cycles in the mid 20s.
T A YAPP started as an assembler with Hercules but being ambidextrous and an excellent worker he soon rose up the ranks to become first, a foreman, then a supervisor and later the works manager. He was later put in charge of the last factory. Crane liked to promote from within. Hercules was later known for their high rates of pay but demanded high output and standards.
Eric Broherton was the general manager. Richard Clasper was in charge of accounts, and Albert Fidkin was the firm’s buyer.
Photo of Hercules Factory, 1931 with kind permission of Science & Society Picture Library, http://www.scienceandsociety.co.uk
Text is amended from http://madeinbirmingham.org/hercules.htm