On Yer Bike – The Story of the Holdsworth Cycling Family


Holdsworth Cycles were used by many members of the Rye Club in the pre and post War years. This is the story of the Holdsworth family of bike builders, written by one of our regular contributors, who
is himself a member of that illustrious cycling family.On yer Bike!

The Story of the Holdsworth Cycling Family

By Richard Holdsworth

The three Holdsworth brothers, my Father Percy, Uncle Ernest and Uncle Frank, were into cycles and cycling long before Norman Tebbit proclaimed, “On yer bike!”

My Dad, last of the Holdsworths to arrive on the scene, was told to go into the bank by his strict Victorian parents who had probably had enough of the erring ways of his two elders who were allowed to follow destinies which ultimately ended up with one, Ernest, setting National records at Herne Hill track and Frank establishing a manufacturing operation that created some of the finest racing cycles in the country – if not The Best.

William Frank “Sandy” was born on May 4th 1891, John Ernest “Jack” on January 4th, 1893, while my Father came into this world on September 8th, 1899. Apparently, his parents had set their heart on a girl and his sole name, Percy, was apparently designed to teach him a lesson!

From the moment the brothers could walk, they cycled! Jack especially and Sandy only very slightly less enjoying a love affair with two wheels and pedals. My father said that his brother Jack would go nowhere without his bike… even to cross the road. It was natural that the two older brothers should join the local cycling club, and the legendary Kentish Wheelers was chosen. Kentish Wheelers produced many great cyclists, of course, Jack Holdsworth being one.

Jack was the more competitive of the two older brothers and set out to make his mark on the record books – so much so that he set a 24 hour tandem paced record in 1927 only to beat it in 1928 and better it yet again the following year. The distance – 534 miles and 1500 yards is believed to be unbeaten to this day. Uncle Jack cycled home afterwards, of course!

Before then, of course, there was World War One War and – guess what – the two elder brothers ended up in the 25th Battalion, County of London Regiment, on bikes! My father’s poor eyesight saw him in an Auxiliary Flying Corps (forerunners to the RAF) stores somewhere in the country – counting bikes!

Uncle Jack was posted to Mesopotamia (now Iraq) where he contracted a bug that had cost many brave servicemen their lives; Jack was shipped home and, fortunately, lived to tell the tale. Sandy served much of his active time on the North West Frontier of India, now Pakistan.

War ended and what to do? Well, my father continued with his career in the bank while Sandy joined Legal & General Insurance. Jack followed a much more enterprising road searching several avenues which included being appointed National Organiser for the government department formed to promote cycling. When World War Two broke out, Uncle Jack was recruited by the YMCA to raise funds to purchase a fleet of mobile tea vans providing sustenance for bomber crews waiting their next turn of duty.

At another time, Jack Holdsworth gained an insight into the publishing industry as advertising manager for the magazine, Factory Equipment News, and this clearly gave him the idea of setting up his own cycling periodical and I can remember him telling the tale of how he intended to impress a prospective advertiser by cycling north, through rain and sun, only to be confronted by a sceptical, hard-nosed, businessman. “Goodness ‘oldsworth, where ‘ave you been? You look like you’ve been dragged through ‘edge backwards…”

Uncle proudly told him. “I’ve cycled all the way to see you, Sir. From South London.” The man showed him the door. “You look like a crank to me… and I don’t advertise with cranks…”

Immediately after WWTwo, Uncle Jack took the greatest leap of faith in creating, from scratch, an exhibition for industrial machinery and equipment. The idea was, of course, to capitalise on British industry’ need to re-equip after hostilities had lain waste much of its production capability. Earls Court was chosen as the venue for this speculative venture – the Factory Equipment Exhibition.

Years later when my wife and I – fresh from Australia – announced we were starting a Volkswagen camper business, he sat me down and warned of the dangers that lay ahead. “You will have to work hard…harder than you can possibly imagine…” Apparently, his engineering exhibition opened its doors at a time when British manufacturing had order books full to overflowing and the last thing it wanted was something that brought even more orders. But, with a twinkle in his eye, Uncle Jack said how a good Holdsworth would prevail and wished us well. His engineering exhibition had prevailed… and how! It was a great success and he sold out allowing him and his wife, Betty, to travel the world. Betty Holdsworth died late last year just a few days after her 100th birthday.


Long before this, of course, brother Sandy had settled down, marrying Margaret Bryars in 1923, the Bryars family being in the clothing business and as members of the Kentish Wheelers and still devoted to cycling – Margaret started to supply various cycling items to members. Gloves, shorts and plus-fours to start with and later extended to a mail order business from the home in Lennard Road, Beckenham, offering a host of items including racing shoes, saddlebags and the full kit. The mail order catalogue was entitled Aids to Happy Cycling.

Margaret was well versed in running the business; she had been a Post Office manageress during the First World War – in fact had been awarded an OBE for staying at her post serving customers even when a Zeppelin zoomed overhead dropping its bombs indiscriminately! Now the business really flourished and it was only a hop, skip and a jump into selling full cycles and in 1927 they took over the retail shop at 132 Lower Richmond Road, Putney, from the Ashlone Cycle Company. Margaret’s brother, Owen Bryars was installed as manager and Jack Campeling was kept on as the chief mechanic.

By now the company was W F Holdsworth and the first Holdsworth cycles were built, by hand, of course, to the exacting standards that the marque soon became renowned for. Initially Jack Campeling used coal-gas and fired with foot operated bellows… traditional methods preferred to production-line techniques and which gave any racing cycle carrying the name W F Holdsworth its individuality.

By April 1931 the company had four premises, Markhouse Road, Walthamstow and 5 Thesiger Road, Penge, as well as Putney and the offices at Lennard Road, Beckenham. By the mid 1930’s, cycling clothes were marketed under the brand name “Worthy” and on November 24, 1933, the company exhibited a complete range of cycles and cycling kit at the prestigious Olympia Cycling Week. Bikes were offered starting from £7.17.6d and tandems from £16.16.0d. Much later, by the mid 1970’s, it so happened that Holdsworth cycles and Holdsworth motor caravans appeared at the same venue in Olympia – the Camping and Outdoor Life Show. Holdsworth cycles on the First Floor and Holdsworth motor caravans immediately above them on the Second. A nice touch. What a great pity that Uncle Frank had died many years before and was not able to see the Holdsworth name being furthered… he would have appreciated the significance more than anyone.


By 1933 another premises was opened in London – Camden – to cover the north of the City and a provincial depot sprang up in Birmingham. Yes, Holdsworth was in top gear by now.

In 1935, production was transferred to a property at Quill Lane, Putney, a little over a mile from the Putney shop but in 1938 disaster struck when a fire demolished the premises and the entire stock. But, undeterred, Holdsworth cycles continued to expand and in 1939 further premises were taken on including a shop at Highbury near the old Arsenal football ground and a new factory at Lullington Road, Anerley, which had been a banana factory… history does not tell what had happened to the bananas!

After W. W.Two some of the best cycle fittings from other countries were imported including Campagnolo wheels, hubs and racing gears from Italy and in 1958 W F Holdsworth acquired a major competitor in the form of Claud Butler, followed by another well known name in cycling, Freddie Grubb after Freddie Grubb’s death in 1952. Another leading name in the cycling world, Roy Thame, was asked to join Holdsworth’s as manager of the Putney shop (1953) and eventually became Managing Director of W F Holdsworth. Roy was instrumental in a number of key decisions one of which was to become involved in professional road racing – the team being co-sponsored by Holdsworth and Campagnolo – and it soon became a household name in racing cycles on the domestic UK front.

By now the company had outlets in several countries, including the United States where the respected Yellow Jersey Cycle Company represented and enjoyed an excellent relationship with the factory in England and supplied many Holdsworth bikes throughout North America and the Far East.


Holdsworth cycles started from the very smallest beginnings to become one the most respected manufacturers and suppliers in the industry, proud of the product and the service. Margaret and Sandy were known by their employees as being “…straight-laced, because of their dislike of bad language and drink, but nothing was too good for those that worked with them…”

Likewise, the service they offered was exemplary and nothing too much trouble, customised bikes being one example. And when a customer requested a special shape of handlebar the maxim prevailed: “We’ll make any bend and supply within 14 days…”

For Yellow Jersey in the USA, they supplied a bike in double-quick time when one of their customers had his beloved cycle crushed by a Tokyo taxi! All part of the service!

What a pity that mass production and big manufacturers sounded the death-knell for individually built W F Holdsworth cycles. But they can still be seen around the country, proudly maintained by their loving owners. Sometimes I stop and say, “That bike was made by my Uncle…” But I have given that up now… my back is sore from being patted and my hand aches from being shaken…!

And what of the third of the three brothers, my father, Percy Holdsworth? Well, he might not have been on his bike much, but he was a good man, bundling me, my Mother and older sister off to the country two weeks before war broke out and he followed us later becoming Assistant Manager in the bank in our little village and something of a character with the locals… the Overdraft Manager, they called him and central to my evacuee book, Six Spoons of Sugar (www.holdsworthwrites.co.uk) which tells what life was like for a London Town family living in the country.

And the next generation Holdsworths? Frank and Margaret had no children…when they died they left the shops to their managers. Ernest and Betty’s son, Charles (very much alive and provider of much of this information) joined GEC in management after university and later built up a company manufacturing quality furniture. As for me? My wife, Heather, and I sold our motor caravan company in 1995… Now I write books and pen a few lines for quality magazines such as Best of British.

Industrious lot, us Holdsworths!


W F Holdsworth Cycles 132 Lower Richmond Road, Putney, London, SW15 1LN Bob Smith, Manager, 0208 788 1060 E-mail:[email protected]

Herne Hill Velodrome Burbage Road London. SE24 9H www.hernehillvelodrome.co.uk

Yellow Jersey Ltd Andrew Muzi 419 State Street Madison Wl 53703 Phone: 608 257 4737 Fax: 608 257 5161 E-mail: [email protected] http://www.yellowjersey.org/ordinfo.html

Richard Holdsworth [email protected] 07796 998 199