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Wheels Within Wheels

This book by Geoffrey Williamson and published by Geoffrey Bles (London) in 1966, is the story of the Starleys of Coventry, particularly James Starley. James Starley ran away from home and later settled in Coventry where he became one of the most innovative and successful builders of bicycles and tricycles. His son, William Starley, and his nephew, John Kemp Starley, also entered this industry and one of the outcomes was the Rover car company.

James Starley ran away from his parents' Sussex farm as a teenager; with the industrial revolution in full swing the quiet farm life was not for him and his head seems to have been bursting with mechanical ideas. Initially, he worked as a gardener but soon gained a reputation for mending clocks and devising useful gadgets. He married Jane Todd when in his early 20s (p28).

James' employer, John Penn, bought a then rare and expensive sewing machine for his wife which shortly broke down. James of course fixed the problem and, what is more, could see various improvements to the mechanism. Penn knew Josiah Turner, one of the partners of the makers of the machine, and in due course Starley was taken on at the London factory (p34). His talent was such that Turner and Starley started their own sewing machine company in Coventry ~1861 (p37).

Turner's nephew brought one of the new French bone-shakers to the factory in 1868 (p46) and the company soon started making cycles. At this time velocipedes (cycles) had wheels of nearly equal size, the front slightly larger, although to grow much larger in the famous penny-farthings such as Starley soon manufactured with William Hillman. Their Ariel was all-metal and had modern-style wire-spoked wheels. Tangent spokes were patented in 1874 (p55). Lever-driven and chain-driven tricycles, often in strange configurations, were also devised for ladies and for two riders. It was steering problems, while riding a tricycle tandem, caused by the unequal power input of the ageing James on one side and his more vigorous son on the other that prompted James Starley to invent the (open) differential in 1877. It is still used in some tricycles and was ready and waiting when the car needed the device.

Starley's sons continued manufacturing cycles after his death but his nephew John Kemp Starley made more of a mark in the long run. It was (John Kemp -) Starley and Sutton who devised the recognisably modern Rover safety bicycle with 36" wheels (still a standard size), chain drive, and a diamond shaped frame (no seat-tube as yet) in 1884, showing it in 1885 (p103). The penny-farthing or ordinary cycle was not a safe machine, with a "header" accident being an ever-present danger. Others had experimented with chain-driven "safety cycles" but the Rover really made its mark to the extent that "Rover" means "bike" in some countries such as Poland.

In due course, motor-driven bicycles became motor-cycles and were followed by motor cars. James Kemp Starley experimented with an electric tri-car ~1888 (p111) but the petrol-driven Rover 8 h.p. car was released in 1904, two years after his death.

Williamson's book has 160 pages including a 9-page appendix and 6-page index. There are many drawings and photographs of members of the Starley family and of early cycles. There is also a family-tree of the Starleys (p24-25). The bicycle played an important part in social change by increasing the radius in which working-class people could seek employment and recreation. Look out for this book in markets, second-hand bookshops and library book-sales.
- 4wd.sofcom.com/Books/Books.html

Go to the Rover and Book pages


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