Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

31 January 2017

More--Or Mores?

If you mention English three-speed bikes, the first brand that comes to most people's minds is Raleigh.

That makes sense when you realize that not only did Raleigh make more such machines-- and make them for longer-- than any other bike maker, they  had also, by the late 1950s, acquired BSA, Sunbeam and other manufacturers of such machines.  If you aren't a three-speed enthusiast or haven't worked in a bike shop, you probably aren't aware of those brands.  Most people have seen bikes from those marqes but didn't notice because they don't know or care about such things, or because those bikes looked so much like Raleighs that they didn't notice the brands.

So it's not such a surprise that English bicycle saddles have a similar history to the bikes I've mentioned, especially when you realize that most English bikes (as well as machines from many other countries), until the 1970s, came with British leather saddles.

Now, a cyclist who isn't of a certain age can be forgiven for thinking that Brooks is the only British company to have made those iconic perches from hide stretched across rails.  Turns out, up to about the 1970s, a number of firms in Albion were making saddles similar to the ones Brooks offered.




You may have ridden one of their wares, perhaps without realizing it.  Among those saddle makers were Lycett, Wrights and one I re-discovered recently.   They all have remarkably parallel histories:  They started as makers of horse saddles or other leather goods, and they all were based--as was much of the British cycling industry--in and around Birmingham.  




(The name of that city is pronounced "burr-mean-gum" with an accent on the first syllable.  Folks in Alabama will tell you their largest city is "Burr-ming-ham", with the last syllable accented.)

Recently, I saw an old Holdsworth parked in my neighborhood.  I wish I had taken photos of it:  The frame was obviously from the 1960s or earlier, but it was kitted out with a combination of modern, mostly Japanese, components.  The bike, however, sported one item that was very distinctively of its place and time:




I rather liked the nameplate, with the Middlemore name bookended by an enlarged "M" and "E" at the beginning and end, respectively.  What puzzled me, though, is this:





So the rear plate says "Middlemore" but the side emblems read "Middlemores".  It would make more sense if the latter contained an apostrophe, as in "Middlemore's saddles".  Instead,it looks as if someone couldn't decide on the singular or plural.

The makers of that saddle can be forgiven.  The B89, which I believe was the model I saw on the Holdsworth, looks like a cross between a Brooks Professional and B17.  At least, the width seems to be somewhere between the two.  And the leather on it was as thick as I've seen on any, and appeared to be of very good quality.  Whoever's been riding that saddle seems to have taken care of it.

In doing some research, I found an entire blog devoted, not only to Middlemore(s) saddles, but to other items--some not related to bikes--made by the company.  Apparently, the firm was known as Middlemore & Lamplugh after the two firms bearing those names merged in 1896, and continued to make saddles under both names until 1920, when the firm was dissolved and one of its factories was sold.  Middlemore once again became a separate company, known as Middlemores Coventry, that continued to make bicycle saddles.

As Raleigh was acquiring many of the old British bicycle marques, a rival company, the Tube Investments Group, was buying up the bike makers Raleigh hadn't collected.  By that time, Raleigh also owned a number of component manufacturers, including Sturmey Archer---and Brooks.  In 1960, TI bought Raleigh, which meant that, in essence, they controlled the British bicycle industry.

TI would then "retire" some of the old bike and parts brands that had previously competed with Raleigh and its affiliates.  Somehow, though, Middlemore(s) managed to remain independent.  During that time, the B89 came out; later, a cutaway version (like the Brooks Swallow), the B89N, was offered.  And their tri-sprung saddle, the B3, found a following among some more leisurely cyclists.  According to one former employee, Middlemore(s) even made a saddle for Princess Margaret.

By the 1970's, however, much of their dwindling income came from rebadged saddles they made for a few bike manufacturers, including Lambert/Viscount and Moulton.  But as companies like Lambert/Viscount died out, were acquired or moved production overseas, Middlemore(s) dwindled and seems to have stopped making saddles altogether in the 1980s, although it existed on paper until 21 May 1991.

At that time, Middlemore(s) was one of the most longevous manufacturing firms of any kind in Britain or the world.  It had, in fact, existed for even longer than Brooks or Raleigh. 

Across the Channel, a number of French firms made leather saddles similar to the ones made by their counterparts in Blighty.  Some were of decidedly inferior quality, like the Adga Model 28s that came with Peugeot UO8s and other similar French bikes.  (The Adga 28, as Sheldon Brown wryly notes, probably did more than anything else to turn people off suspended leather saddles.)  Then there was Norex, a "second line" of saddles from Ideale, the best-known French maker.  

Ideale seems to have gone out of business in the mid-1980s or thereabouts.  From the next two decades or so, Brooks was just about the only brand of leather saddles available (and then only sporadically) in the US and much of the world.  A Dutch company continued to make similar products, which seemed to be of decent quality.  One possible reason why they weren't imported to America, or to most of the English-speaking world, might have been its name:  Lepper.

Note:  The images in this post came from "VeloBase".


6 comments:

  1. Steve--Berthoud only started to make saddles a few years ago.Until then, Brooks had been just about the only maker of leather saddles available in the US.

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  2. When D. Mason took over the Birmingham side of Middlemore & Lamplugh they unfortunately also became a major shareholder in the Coventry branch when it became Middlemores, so maybe they had final say on the new name and deliberately put in a grammatical error as a way of showing who's in charge? Maybe as soon as any D. Mason authority waned over the years Middlemores were able to change the rear badge to Middlemore in honour of the company origins?

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  3. Stephen--Interesting story. Someone deliberately enshrined a mistake in order to show his power? Hmm...Does that sound a bit like some of the cabinet appointments and executive orders made over the last couple of weeks?

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  4. Yes!

    No definate info on the why's of the Middlemore name from 1920, just guessing. Also wondering, if D. Mason had thought the Coventry branch would be any kind of big rival they might have turned that into D. Mason too?

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  5. Stephen--I would be interested to know the story. There doesn't seem to be a lot of information about Middlemore, though.

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