Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brief History of the Runwell Cycle Company of Birmingham

Note: There is no official history of the company, and no collection of company records, with the exception of a few scrapbooks at the University of Warwick (UK). Since the author of this article did not have access to these scrapbooks, much of this information has been gathered through Internet research. If you believe any of this information is inaccurate, or if you would like to add something, please feel free to submit corrections or contributions.

For most Britishers, the name Runwell today connotes a mental hospital and community of that name east of London. However, between 1904 and the 1960s, it was also a small bicycle manufacturing firm located in Birmingham. The Runwell Cycle Company produced bicycles of several makes to meet the high domestic and export demand for bicycles in the first half of the twentieth century. By the post-World War II period, the ascendance of major manufacturers like Raleigh, and the declining popularity of bicycling, had forced many smaller companies like Runwell out of existence.

The Runwell Cycle Company was founded by William Henry Jennings (born 1873 in Derby, England). When Jennings was twenty, he moved to Leeds, where he was listed as a “clothier’s traveler.” By 1904, he had moved to Birmingham, where he founded the Runwell Cycle Company on Lawson Street.

Jennings’s granddaughter remembers her grandfather as a kind, generous, and good-hearted man:

My earliest vivid memory of my grandfather is of my grandfather’s 60th birhday party in London before the war. Grandpa was a member of the Magic Circle and entertained all his small children (grown-ups, too!) with conjuring tricks, to their great delight. During the war, he stayed in London (14 Great Eastern Street) and I visited him there when the war ended.

In 1945 my father had settled in the country in Warwickshire and it was then that grandpa gave me and my brothers a Runwell cycle each, which gave us the much appreciated freedom of being able to roam the countryside during our teen years. Grandpa wrote to us, too, and also gave us very generous birthday presents. I always remember him as being kind and generous and I believe his staff thought this too.

The Runwell Cycle Company started small, but “through sheer hard work and business acumen,” Jennings expanded the business until he had depots and branches in most of Britain’s large towns, and an overseas depot in Java.

One of Jennings’s daughters recalls that:

Father knew all of his workforce by name and never employed anyone who belonged to a Union. There was always a happy atmosphere and we enjoyed going round the factory talking to the people and watching them tune the spokes in the wheels. He used to leave us on the a.m. train and came home twelve hours later and brought work to do on the weekends.

The Runwell company relied on the strength of its bicycle frames and the quality of their construction to sell bicycles, rather than their brand name alone. In their advertising, they advocated quality workmanship and affordability as virtues of a good bicycle. Runwell originally manufactured only bicycles, but by the late 1920s seems to have also begun manufacturing toys and sundries, and by the 1950s had also begun manufacturing parts and accessories for the auto industry. While still focused on building quality bicycles, their earlier advertising claim that, “we concentrate our energies on bicycles alone” fell by the wayside. By the 1960s, the firm was known primarily as a parts and accessories supplier, and no images or examples of advertising could be located after 1961.

The Runwell bicycle in the author’s collection features a distinctive design element of the Runwell brand that was most likely in production in the 1930s: an unusual “rigid safety frame” design that includes an extra angled support connecting the head tube and top tube. Other features of the author’s late 1920s or 1930s model are provided here for reference purposes: rod brake on front wheel, Perry single-speed coaster brake hub on rear wheel, Westwood rims front and back, bottom bracket oiler, hub oilers, 32-spoke front wheel, 40-spoke rear wheel.

I have gathered a gallery of images of Runwell bicycles and advertising here. Hopefully it will grow over time.

*All quotations from original correspondence with Julia Jennings, 28 October 2008.

5 comments:

  1. Dear Readers: this post has been in the works for some time, ever since I acquired my Runwell last summer, but I was recently contacted by the owner of another Runwell in the UK, which is what prompted me to finally get this posted. As a professional historian, I am somewhat reticent to call this a "history" because it is so partial and incomplete. It's all that I have for now, but I'm always looking for info and images for Runwell.

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  2. Thank you for this post; I enjoyed reading it and learning about the history. Thanks also for the image gallery - love the chainwheel.

    It would be great to see a ladies' loop-frame version, like the one pictured in this advert you posted. Yes, I am a sucker for the loop frames!

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  3. Dear Thom,

    Very interesting. By the way can I ask a favour? I had a reader query about a bike on my blog. Do you know anything about Bridgestone Tokyo bikes with the insignia 'Guaranteed World Finest Bicycle Precision Mechanism' with a Skylark Derailleur?
    The reader wanted a year not a decade!
    Thanks
    David
    Photo is here:
    www.cycleseoul.blogspot.com/2009/09/cycle-bags-racks-platforms-and-panniers.html

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  4. Hi David, I'm afraid I'll be of no help whatsoever, but perhaps a reader will chime in. A specific year will be hard unless there's a serial number or something else very particular to date the bike.

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