|demise of Raleigh article (long)||MJ|
May 10, 2002 12:56 AM
Here comes the chopper
For over 100 years Raleigh has built bicycles in Nottingham. But at the end of this year the Midlands factory will close for good and production will switch to the Far East. Matt Seaton on how the wheels came off one of Britain's best-loved companies
Friday May 10, 2002
"It's a hard job, but it was a dependable one," says John Wingfield. Now 55, he has worked in the wheel shop at the Raleigh bicycle factory ever since he left the army 25 years ago. "Most people under 40 can't hack it. But originally, this was women's work." He has a craggy but pleasant face, topped by a thick shock of grey hair. With a couple of front teeth missing, he bears a passing resemblance to the 70s footballer Joe Jordan. When Wingfield joined Raleigh, the managers still wore bowler hats. He used to do gear-shaping. You were only supposed to work six machines at a time, but on a late shift, when the foreman had gone, he found he could work a dozen at once, doubling his money in the days of piecework. He made £7 a week then. As the writer Alan Sillitoe remarked in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the kitchen-sink classic set in the Nottingham factory where he, his mother and father, and his sisters all worked at different times: "The thousands that worked there took home good wages."
Those days are gone. At the end of this year, the Raleigh factory will close for good. The last bicycle to be built in Nottingham will come off the line, and the remaining 280 people who made it will empty their lockers for the last time. With his experience as a chef in the territorial army, Wingfield is thinking of moving to the coast and opening a chip shop. I find myself wondering whether anyone has told him that the North Sea is fished out.
As with any institution of sufficient vintage in Britain, the Raleigh bicycle factory in Triumph Road, Nottingham, is rich in heritage and historical irony. Raleigh bikes have been manufactured in the city since 1887. The "heron" incorporated into the "R" emblem, which still features on the front of every Raleigh bike, was derived from a heraldic device of the firm's founder, Sir Frank Bowden. Barely a decade after its foundation, in the first great golden age of the bicycle, Raleigh employed nearly 1,000 workers and was turning out 30,000 bikes a year.
The present factory building is 50 years old almost to the day: a plaque memorialises its opening in 1952 by the Duke of Edinburgh. It was here that Albert Finney played Arthur Seaton (no relation), hero of Karel Reisz's 1960 adaptation of Sillitoe's novel. In a scene that shows Arthur Seaton working his drill, Finney stood at the very machine, Sillitoe tells me, at which he had stood as a 14-year-old school-leaver in 1942.
Less romantically, another plaque inside the works commemorates the visit in 1984 of Norman (since Lord) Tebbit to open a state-of-the-art paint shop. Could that visit, one wonders, have been inspired by his notorious admonition to jobless northerners to "get on their bikes" to find employment?
At the end, there will be no more ironies; the heritage will be just so much rubble. In 2003, the factory will be razed. The university, which now owns the land, will build. Higher education is a growth sector; manufacturing industry is not.
It is not the bitter end for Raleigh. You will still be able to buy a Raleigh bike, but it will be made entirely in Vietnam, Korea or Bangladesh. The Raleigh brand will live on, and Nottingham will still be home to a design and distribution centre. But the closure signals the end of a century-old tradition of bicycle manufacture, which, at its height, employed 8,000 people and sent bikes from the East Midlands all over the world. "I think it's a great pity," says Sillitoe today. "It's part of Nottingham's identity."
Raleigh is one of those talismanic names - like Rover cars or Tri