A Lifetime Guarantee: The Last Day at Raleigh
The Alan Sillitoe Committee is presenting a virtual tour of Sillitoe’s Nottingham for you on The Space, focusing on five locations from the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958): Old Market Square, The White Horse, Raleigh, the River Trent and Goose Fair.
The third featured location on the trail is Raleigh, the factory where Arthur Seaton slugged his guts out over a lathe. This is of particular significance this year as Raleigh proudly celebrates its 125th anniversary of building bikes for the world. Mark Patterson, a freelance journalist and author of Roman Nottinghamshire, remembers the final day of production at the once iconic Raleigh factory on Triumph Road.
The last part to come out of Raleigh in Nottingham was a 20-inch wheel for a children’s Max bike. And its maker was one Barrie Wheat, a former Elliot Durham comprehensive school pupil.
I know this because I made a point of recording it in my notebook when the Nottingham Evening Post sent me to the Raleigh factory in Triumph Road to witness its final day on November 28, 2002.
That last wheel came off the production line at 3pm and soon many of the last 280 employees were starting the first leg of a pub crawl around Radford.
The cavernous factory was left dark and silent. The machinery and unassembled bike components were left in place, but everybody had gone and the place had that Marie Celeste feeling. Later that afternoon, many of Raleigh’s freshly redundant men and women, free to express themselves over pints and sandwiches in Radford pubs, said what they really regretted was that Raleigh’s managers had not made very much of the company’s historic last day in Nottingham.
The closure itself couldn’t have been much of a surprise to them given the company’s decline in the preceding decades. The 8,000-strong workforce employed by Raleigh in the 1970s had dwindled to the low hundreds and the factory had become an assembly plant for parts that were manufactured abroad. But what the ex-workers seemed to feel was missing from their last day was a proper sense of closure. As wheel-maker Claudette Green put it: ‘It shouldn’t have been so low-key. Raleigh has been a big part of Nottingham for 100 years. Everybody has a sister, a mam or a dad who worked there.’
There had been a buffet, some speeches by management, folks had picked up their redundancy cheques and left. But that final wheel-maker, Barrie Wheat, told me that what he couldn’t understand was: why hadn’t TV cameras been allowed in to record the historic final day of production in Nottingham?
The reason for the low-key approach was simple. Raleigh in Nottingham might have shut its doors, but the business, and the Raleigh brand, were to continue elsewhere, and senior managers did not want to create the impression that Raleigh was no more. There were still bikes to sell. The closure of the Triumph Road factory was also the final step in a complex series of events that involved corporate finance, cheaper foreign manufacturing – and allotments.
Since 1987 Raleigh had been owned by an American parent company called the Derby Cycle Corporation, based in Stamford, Connecticut. DCC was heavily in debt and, when it announced that it was selling the Triumph Road factory, Raleigh’s future in Nottingham appeared to be sealed. But hope arrived in 2001 in the shape of a management buy-out. The new direction put Raleigh in a bullish, confident mood and a new range of bikes was unveiled. I remember being invited to see them at Raleigh’s offices and being given a new electric bike to ride up and down a corridor. The future had arrived!
Nottingham City Council, meanwhile, had been trying to keep Raleigh in the city by finding a new factory site on the Blenheim Lane Allotments in Bulwell. The problem was that the move was strongly opposed by three allotment-holders, who won the right to a judicial review of the relocation on environmental grounds. With the move to Bulwell endlessly delayed, Raleigh’s owners suddenly dropped the bombshell that they would in fact be transferring production of bicycles to Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand, where costs were at least 20% lower than in Britain. There would be no new Nottingham factory for Raleigh after all, in Bulwell or anywhere else.
This was the story leading up to Barrie Wheat’s final wheel and the end of an era: further confirmation of the way that Nottingham’s and Britain’s industrial landscape had changed. For evidence, look no further than Triumph and Faraday Road, where Raleigh’s 60-acre site had been the setting for Alan Sillitoe’s descriptions of Arthur Seaton earning £14 a week amid a din of lathes, drills and ‘a multiplicity of belts and pulleys turning and twisting and slapping on heavy well-oiled wheels overhead’.
The site was sold to the University of Nottingham and is now occupied by an Innovation Park filled by sleek energy-efficient architecture and quiet, high-tech research and development jobs. One of the first new buildings to go up there was the Sir Colin Campbell Building, a space-agey metallic structure straddling Triumph Road. There’s a story that the shape of the building was supposed to reflect Raleigh’s past presence, and viewed from the sky, it was said, the building resembled two bike sprocket wheels with a chain between them. This seemed plausible. But when I later had the chance to ask the architect, Ken Shuttleworth, if the story was true, he replied: ‘Is it? I’ve never heard that before. It’s a coincidence, but it’s cool.’
As for that pub crawl. I’d like to say that I interviewed the newly redundant Raleigh workers in the nearby White Horse pub on Ilkeston Road. After all, the old place – now a takeaway – has such a prominent place in the mythology of Raleigh, Radford and Nottingham, all thanks to Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But although the ex-Raleigh men and women did visit the White Horse that afternoon, they also went to other local pubs and it was in a fairly anonymous pub lounge that they spoke to me about their feelings. People could still smoke in pubs in those days and the ex-Raleigh people, some of whom had worked there for nearly 40 years, expressed themselves with a vengeance.
Ironically enough, the team of young men who were soon to start demolishing their factory were also drinking at the pub. They were shown no ill-will. But what would the Raleigh people do with themselves now? Some were glad to have new opportunities thanks to their redundancy money. One bloke revealed he had been given a thank you mug and a cheque for £15,000. Others said they hoped to retrain as bus drivers. Some didn’t know what they would do; Raleigh was all they knew. A few were taken on by the fantasy role-playing industry of Games Workshop. But generally there was a feeling that Raleigh hadn’t treated its employees very well considering the length of their service.
Back at the factory, where some of the workers had left sarcastic messages on their old machines, I asked a senior manager about the negative comments in the pub. He stared at me blankly and said: ‘you must have been talking to the wrong people.’ Perhaps he was just lucky to have sarcastic messages rather than Seaton’s dead mouse left on the old lathes.
Use the material from Sillitoe’s Nottingham: Then and Now to take your own interactive tour of the author’s city. iPhone users can download the Sillitoe Trail App and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. Or download the Sillitoe Trail Factory Handbook, where the content is presented in the style of a 1950s cycle maintenance manual.