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Dickinson Cycles of Liverpool

We are indebted to Jim Leach from Shropshire for this history of cycle builder Harold Myles Dickinson and his brother John, who over three decades established a high reputation for quality frame construction. Offering a 'made to order' service, a scouting customer was once provided with a frame with 'fleur de lys' lugwork. The following editorial, together with photos, first appeared in the excellent bi-monthly magazine of the Veteran-Cycle Club http://www.v-cc.org.uk/.   For the purpose of this feature we have used additional photos.

Harold practised what he preached. He was not only a highly skilled engineer, he was also an enthusiastic CTC clubman and youth hosteller. A-wheel with his family, Wales was his second home. The lanes we love were those loved by Harold also.

Jim Leach writes:-

When I submitted for publication the photographs of a frame carrying the name H. M. Dickinson (N&V 321), I had high hopes that somewhere there was a member who had knowledge of the product. Those hopes were fulfilled and the quantity of information I received was far more than I dreamed possible, as you can read below.

Harold Miles Dickinson launched the Liverpool business of H. M. Dickinson Cycles during 1934 in a small shop at 112 Eden Street, 29 years after he was born in the city. Like so many others, it was probably a love of the pastime that encouraged him to enter the trade, his experience as a cyclist being considerable. Both he and his wife Doris were Life Members of the CTC and active riders who rode with the local Section each Sunday. Harold’s daughter, Valerie Thomson, recollects her father saying he had been helped by a supplier, probably a wholesaler, supplying him with (she thinks) stock worth £4, enough to cover an initial period.

Bike transfer reading 'Dickinson 184 Tunnel Road, Liverpool

The interest in cycling linked to Harold’s engineering expertise undoubtedly attracted club cyclists who could discuss their requirements or problems with someone who had a personal appreciation of the subject. The volume of trade soon forced a move to a larger shop on the west side of Tunnel Road, although even this was quite compact when compared with competitors nearby. Thanks to an old diary still held by Valerie we know the exact date of this move. There is an entry on 27th February 1935 'took shop', then on 5th March 'opened shop at 11 am'. For a time it seems Eden Street was retained, possibly for storage or maybe initially as a fall back situation.

A club rider, Chris Edwards, who rode past it every morning in the 1950s remembers it as “almost like someone’s front room, not much space for more than for a couple of people at a time, small when compared with Fothergill’s large corner shop just up the road”. Also in the immediate area was Bill Twiddle, who traded as Lancaster Special, but the Dickinson reputation drew support and resulted in a profitable business.

Harold had served as an apprentice at the ship’s engineers Dunlop and Bell, one of the major engineering employers on Merseyside. But the depression that swept Britain from the early 1920s hit hard and he had to turn elsewhere to earn a living. That included a number of basic unskilled jobs, but he continued to attend night school classes to hone skills that were going to help him in the future.

But it was not only Harold that could sort things out: Doris was in charge of the shop and her daughter, Valerie, remembers that included repairing punctures, while her father concentrated on the workshop situated over the back of the premises. As in Eden Street, the family home was part of the same property. Attention to both the customer and to technical detail resulted in appointment as CTC Official Repairer soon after opening at 184 Tunnel Road.

Harold in the left foreground with the Liverpool CTC Family section - Cynwyd Youth Hostel Easter 1954

Already famous for the quality of the wheels he built, at an unknown date Harold began to build lightweight frames. It is certain that frames were produced before WWII, a stock book dated January 1943 lists tools and materials used for that purpose and which would have been virtually impossible to buy by a ‘new builder’ after 1940. Regrettably no records have been found that give detail of type or quantity built.

Frame production was carried out in a variety of places within the confines of the property. As Valerie says; “Originally, work was done in the attic at Tunnel Road, this was during the war years - I can remember standing on a chest and seeing the city centre, which was about 1½ miles away, in flames. I still have the chest! After the war dad worked in the air-raid shelter in the back yard, which was a smaller edition of the street shelters. I have no recollection of it being built, but when that happened I suppose I was only about two. He had the brazing hearth and, later on, welding equipment in there”.

During the war years the shop continued to serve cyclists' needs, and Harold and Doris were still there. He was not conscripted into the armed forces, age and having the responsibility of one's own business put men of this category well down the list, but he had to contribute to the war effort. His skills meant that he was well employed at Harrison's, the local ‘silk factory’ where parachutes were being produced, and he was on the engineering maintenance staff. Like many others he was working long hours, trying to do justice to two jobs!

The war ended and in the late 1940s there were many changes. Cycling enjoyed a boom as there was more time for leisure and men returned to Civvy Street, and that included Harold’s brother, John. This offered an opportunity for the business to expand, with John working as frame builder in premises rented from wheelwrights T .F. Jack's & Son, the new workshop was on the first floor and again Valerie’s memory completes the picture. “I now remember, it was at 11 Memphis Street about half a mile from the Tunnel Road shop and used to be a dancehall, with a lovely wooden floor and wide staircase with swing doors at the top”.

A Dickinson built bike leaning against a milestone

An HM Dickinson owned by Roy Spilsbury

That a wide range of frames was produced is illustrated by the few surviving examples that have come to light since the mention in News & Views. The one shown in photographs of Discoveries is a classic clubman's machine of the 50s, featuring finely cut lugs; another one with simpler lugs is in the collection of a V-CC member at Dundee. In addition to the above a very nice triplet is in use in North Wales. That area is also the home of Valerie Thomson (neé Dickinson) who still owns and rides the bike built for her in 1955, when she was eighteen, a present to be proud of indeed.

It is thanks to Valerie and that bike, that the frame numbering and dating can be deduced. The bike, handed over in November 1955, is 55119; the first two digits are the year of manufacture and the next two the month. Then there is a presumption that the next ’one’ is the day of completion, but more likely the quantity completed to that day in the month! The question arises about months with only one digit, or when the day of the month ran into two figures and only when more frames come to light will it be possible to get a more definitive answer.

A further bike owned is part of the stable of a member on The Wirral, but different in that it is all welded, It carries Dickinson, Tunnel Road transfers and appears to be in its original enamel. Its characteristics indicate manufacture during the late 1940s, when lugless frames became more popular, and the Sturmey A W built into the 26ʺ wheel is dated 1949. However the frame number is confusing, it is JO41. That could be a numbering system used prior to the 1950s or a special number because it is welded. It is also possible that it was built by another frame builder and later refurbished by Dickinson's: such work was carried out but special transfers were then used reading – Renovated by. Hopefully someone else will have a Dickinson frame with such numbering, or a reader will identify the code used as that of another builder.

Built in the 1950's, this Dickinson triplet has found a home near St Asaph, North Wales

It is probable that all the frames, certainly in the peak production years, were sprayed by C & G Finishers in Back Faulkener Street. In the mid 1950s Chris Edwards took a frame into Tunnel Road for refurbishment and Harold sent it to C&G for the work to be done. Roy Spilsbury has kindly supplied copies of transfers; these also helped put the history into some sort of chronological order, there being two distinctly different types of design used for both head and seat tube, changes of address giving guidance to the occupancy of premises as the business expanded.

The name of H. M. Dickinson seemed to have been virtually forgotten, until that question appeared in N&V (No 321), yet during the late 1940s and into the 50s some were apparently ridden by competitive riders of standing. Merseyside based 1950s international rider Stan Brittain was one, although he was often seen riding a Fothergill. Harold is quoted as saying that on one occasion he was shown in a Cycling photograph with a Dickinson on his shoulder.

Dickinson Cycles continued to trade in Tunnel Road until the early1960s, when Harold and Doris closed the doors and went into semi-retirement at Manley in the Delamere Forest, near Frodsham, However they kept as busy as ever, Doris serving light refreshments (renowned for her home made apple pies) and Harold, having moved all his tools and stock, carrying out light repairs in an adjacent wooden workshop. That kept them and the cycling fraternity happy, because it became an essential place for clubs from an extensive area to visit on a regular basis.

All good things come to an end; Harold died at Manley in 1987, aged 82 and Doris moved to Frodsham, later to Llangollen where she passed away in 2003, aged 94. But, purely by chance, there is an important part of the Dickinson’s life to be seen today. It is appropriate for Valerie to explain how and where. “We had a garage full of stuff to dispose of. Ron, my husband, asked David Higman in Oswestry, if he would be interested in anything, as he had a small cycle shop and did repairs. He was, and came to collect it. We joked that he could start a museum. Well he did and that was the beginning of the cycle museum in Oswestry; he did a mock up of the shop in Tunnel Road. As you will know, it has become the National Cycle Collection and has moved to Llandrindod Wells.”

I am most grateful to all those, members and non-members, who have kindly supplied me with information, especially Valerie Thomson and her husband Ron, also Roy Spilsbury who was responsible for suggesting she contact me. Others included, in alphabetical order, Gordon Blaikie, Jim Batty, Mike Daly, Chris Edwards and Vic Polanski. The information will be sent to Gordon Blaikie, as ME for cycles in the Liverpool area, and if anyone has further information they can either contact him, or me (via email) and I will send it on.

Jim Leach, 29th December 2007