Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.
April 21-1830, June 17-1881
Father of the British Bicycle
James Starley has fondly been remembered as the father of the British bicycle. However, along side the many inventions he made, like one of the first popular everyday bicycles, was his lesser know inventions such as his sewing machines.
Now before we start on his amazing adventure I have to explain that there were at least two famous Starley's, both with the initials J. There was James Starley and his nephew John K Starley. The confusion is easy to see. I guess that John Kemp Starley emphasised the K to make sure there was less confusion.
James Starley is our man and John, who did work for his uncle James in the 1870's and later helped found the Rover Car industry, is for others to tell you about. John Kemp Starley is an important man especially with his safety cycle of 1875, the first really modern bicycle so don't let me put you off researching the fine fellow.
The James Starley Queen of Hearts
James Starley has a story almost as grand as Isaac Singer. Born in April 1831 in Albourne, Sussex, England, Just down the road from me.
The son of a farmer, James Starley, as a young boy, had big dreams and a bright star to follow. People will blind you with dates and figures, let me tell you a little about the genius and character of the man.
He left home as a teenager, like Dick Whittington, to find his fortune on the streets of London. You have to remember that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and a Sussex farm was no place for a budding inventor!
Can you imagine the first few nights away from home. Away from his family and friends sleeping where he could. A young boy all alone whose only comfort was his own belief in himself and his abilities.
It turned out to be a long trip for James Starley for although he only lived 40 miles or so away from London it took him 15 years, stopping of at Lewisham and getting married along the way to Jane Todd!
He had many adventures before he finally stepped over Old Father Thames into the heart of London.
In the great city he found work with John Penn. After fixing his bosses (John Penn) sewing machine, Well actually it was John's wife's machine. John Penn introduced James Starley to the maker of the sewing machine Josiah Turner. Josiah Turner was to become his future business partner in their first sewing machine adventure in Coventry.
Josiah Turner was working at the famous sewing machine pioneer's premises of Newton Wilson.
James Starley soon found work at Newton Wilson's alongside Josiah Turner working on early sewing machines. It was this grounding in the early machines of the era that led both men to dream of starting their own business.
Eventually stifled and with his star still burning bright he made his escape to start his own company.
Around the middle of May of 1861,taking several workers from Newton’s with him, including Josiah Turner, James Starley headed north to Coventry. At Coventry he knew he could find the skilled labour he needed to make his own sewing machines.
James Starley now had a wife and the first of three children to support. For the next nine years until 1870 James Starley seemed to be juggling jobs and partnerships as he sought to make his fortune.
Coventry was a centre of highly skilled clock and watch manufacturing and suffering from a depression in manufacturing.
Now I may get a little of this mixed up as James Starley was a busy man and his path is difficult to see clearly.
James Starley was just what Coventry needed bright and forward thinking with an inventive genius. At first, while setting up his own company with Turner, he became foreman of the Coventry Sewing Machine Company.
On seeing a French bicycle in 1866 which Turner's nephew had brought back from an exhibition in Paris, Starley & Turner copied lots of it and by 1867 they were also manufacturing bicycle parts and inventing lots of bike bits as well.
But I am jumping ahead. For now James Starley is still concentrating on sewing machines.
It was also around this time that James Starley set up the European Sewing Machine Company with the help of an American investor Silas Salisbury and possibly Nahum Salamon who we shall get to later. In 1861 patents were issued for sewing machines to Silas Salisbury and James Starley for sewing machine improvements.
However things did not work out between Silas Salisbury and James Starley for in a very short space of time the company floundered and when it was resurrected in new premises at Cheylesmore, Coventry, Silas Salisbury was no longer with James Starley and his partners.
During all these shenanigans as James Starley tried to get his business off the ground the business changed names from the European Sewing Machine Company to the Coventry Sewing Machine Company and later it changed again. See why I am confused. And to make matters worse James Starley then becomes fascinated with these new fangled inventions, bicycles, well they called them velocipedes.
We need a real nurd here not just a part-time one like me. One day I hope people will take my work and carry it on dotting the I's and crossing the T's. Still for now we muddle on and come to another partner with James Starley.
What we do know is that in 1868 J K Starley had his patent application 1678 accepted for a sewing machine design.
It is possible that from 1861 up until James Starley finally had his own machine and company with Smith in 1870 that he worked double shifts working at one business while setting up another.
The sewing machines made during the first period were probably under licence using various Elias Howe, Wheeler & Wilson and Singer patents as few sewing machines could be made without infringing on their stranglehold of the Sewing Machine Industry. IN fact the Howe Express is almost identical to the patent above of J K Starley.
The machines around this period were the James Starley free-arm treadle machine called the European Sewing Machine which incorporated the Silas Salisbury and James Starley 1861 patents. They also produced the super-rare Lady Godiva Sewing Machine. Perfect, seeing as it was in Coventry that Lady Godiva stripped naked and paraded through the streets on a white charger to embarrass her husband into reducing taxes.
Finally they produced the Express Sewing Machine.
The James Starley/Elias/Amasa Howe Express Sewing Machine circa 1860/1870
The Coventry Sewing Machine Company
The Starley Swift & Sure or Swiftsure circa 1869/1870
The Coventry Sewing Machine Company
Before long James Starley had not only perfected his small range of sewing machines but invented so many bicycle parts that the sewing machine company at Holborn Viaduct was renamed from The Coventry Sewing Machine Company to The Coventry Machinists Co. Now the company name reflected their multi-faceted manufacturing.
While at The Coventry Machinists Co James Starley worked with another pioneer with direct links to Elias Howe, one Nahum Salamon.
Nahum Salamon was a Londoner and some say the founder of the British sewing machine industry for it was he that first shipped Howe sewing machines across from America. However this is not entirely accurate and you will need to read my bit on Elias Howe to see why.
Nahum Salamon became company director of the Coventry Machinists Company and then Chairman.
By 1859 Nahum Salamon was the patent agent for Howe sewing machines made by Amasa Howe. Did they meet years earlier on Elias and Amasa Howe's ill-fated journey to Britain to sell their new fangled invention?
Nahum Salamon was the British distributor, manager and agent for Amasa Howe sewing machines which he held until 1867. It may have been because of the success of the Howe sewing machine at the 1862 London Exhibition where the machine won gold that he decided he was onto a good thing.
In the early days of his fledging company all sales of sewing machines paid for by cheque had to have the cheque made out to Nahum Salamon personally.
Nahum Salamon had possibly helped set up the Coventry business to make and sell sewing machines under the Howe licence rather than spend the huge amount of time ordering machines from across the other side of the world. This would make sense. Also in Britain there was a preference to hand machines whereas in America they preferred treadle machines. Making his own machines he could simply do away with the Howe treadle.
Nahum Salamon eventually turned his eye to bicycles as well as sewing machines. Actually they used to call them velocipedes which sounds like a prehistoric animal. Nahum Salamon became one of the very first experts on the British sewing machine trade.
In 1863 Nahum Salamon wrote and published a book on the history of the sewing machine one of the first books on the subject. He went back as far as 1750 and wrote a somewhat glowing and biased testimonial to Elias Howe in it. Of course he would do wouldn't he. I mean, if he upset the great man, he would have upset the apple-cart and his job as well.
By 1873 the Coventry Machinist's Co were doing so well with velocipedes that they discontinued sewing machine manufacture and concentrated on bikes. Their popular European sewing machine was then being farmed out and made in Manchester.
Nahum Salamon eventually retired from Coventry business around 1881 and died in November 1900.
Now let's get back to James Starley and his mates.
William Hill and James Starley had set up Starley & Co at St Agnes Works Hales Street, Coventry. Here they continued from 1869 till 1870-3 with both bicycle and sewing machine manufacture.
It was to be his next meeting and successful business partnership that produced the most famous Starley sewing machines of all.
After his successful patent for the Starley Queen of Hearts he found another partner, William Smith.
The Smith & Starley partnership lasted until Starley's death in June of 1881(interstingly the year that Nahum Salamon retired).
However for now James is still going strong. James Starley left behind his old machines at the Coventry Machinists Company and so the Express and Swiftsure sewing machines would no longer have had his fingerprint on them. The Coventry Machinist Co discontinued making sewing machines shortly after 1870.
By 1877 they were working out of Trafalgar Works in Crow Lane, Coventry.
This allowed James Starley to incorporate sewing machines, bicycles and other inventions. Within a very short time shop windows were full of more bicycles than sewing machines.
James Starley produced the Salvo which was a variation on the Sociable a two-seater four-wheeled contraption which in turn was a descendant of the Lever Tricycle. The Salvo had the historically all-important differential gearing that was to become so famous.
The Salvo had royal connections because Queen Victoria was so impressed on seeing one that she ordered two for her family home, Osborne, on the Isle of Wight. The Salvo then became known as the Royal Salvo.
However, it was not James Starley who invented the first modern looking bicycle but his nephew John Kemp Starley. So, although I said I wasn't going to talk about John Starley I just had to add this...
John Starley had the brainwave of a chain drive geared to the rear wheel instead of the front-wheel drive of James' penny farthing.
That new bicycle first appeared, as a Rover, in 1885, 4 years after James' death. J K Starley went on to produce the Rover which became synonymous with the famous car company that recently folded (the name is currently owned by Ford). Below I have a few pictures I have taken around the country over the years.
J K Starley not to be confused with J Starley!
At the time the Rover was made, John's factory was called Sutton & Starley but after the astounding success of the Rover Safety Cycle it became the Rover Cycle Company and lasted until its closure in the 1930's.
The Safety Cycle was really the first modern Bicycle.
Time The True Test
Now, back to the sewing machines. Time The True Test was Starley's motto and put on a few of his exported machines in a central brass plaque. They are so rare that I have only ever seen one of these models.
We have skipped ahead a bit. In 1868 while James was busy earning a living making sewing machines he found a growing business repairing the boneshaker bicycles of the era.
More and more bicycles came to his business for repair and it became obvious to the inventor that he could make and supply a better bike than what was on the market.
He began building his own bicycles, namely the Penny Farthing called the Ariel and a tricycle. His novel development of differential gearing for his tricycles was a huge improvement when cornering and still used by most vehicles today!
On the 20th of September 1873 Starley had his patent granted for the fabulous Queen of Hearts sewing machine. Patent No 3090.
At his Trafalgar Works, for a short period, bicycles went hand in hand with sewing machines. This is where William Borthwick Smith & James Starley produced their amazing Queen of Hearts sewing machine one of the rarest sewing machines in the world today. Each of these hand-built machines were built to last. The company motto was, Time the True Test.
Said to be a young Princess Alexandra and her daughter on the bed of his best machine, the Queen of Hearts.
The 1870’s saw James in his prime. Inventions boomed, as did his workforce. Sewing machines took a back seat to his bicycle business.
The small range of sewing machines he had produced were as unique as the man himself. They were
The Little Europa sewing machine 1877-1884,
Europa sewing machine No 2 & 3, 1875-1884,
The Little Dorrit sewing machine, 1875-1877,
The amazing Queen of Hearts sewing machine, 1872-1878.
So few of these machines remain that they are the most sought after of all collectible machines.
Also Starley had something to do with the Godiva sewing machine, based on Lady Godiva, a Coventry legend. Her naked statue is still to be seen riding bare-back through the city shopping centre. This was in partnership with a Mr Sutton of whom I know absolutely nothing except he was possibly in partnership with James' son!
His machines were advertised as everlasting and won medals in Britain, Austria, France and elsewhere. They were reliable and light but above all beautiful to look at. The castings alone were works of art. Influenced no doubt by his connections with France and Belgium where his main bicycle markets were.
Starley had agents all over Europe. London agents were G. E. Wright of New Broad Street. In Brussels there were two agents I am aware of L.DELAYGUE & R. B Turner of 82 Rue De Midi and 11 RUE FRACART.
The machines that Turner sold had his brass badge where the Princess Alexandra motif was (in the centre). There was a retail premises in Bassinghall Street, London in 1875 and sold the first Queen of Hearts.
The Belgium machines were also marked Time the True Test on the brass badge. These machines are now so rare that I know of only two still to exist. Did I tell you that... Don't worry it is my age!
This Little Europa owned by Bonnie Petroski in America is one of the few surviving machines. The machine is marked with a centre medallion showing a woman on a horse holding a trident... Possibly Britannia or more likely Lady Godiva from Coventry.
On the arm is the lettering "The Europa with Smith & Starley Patentees, Coventry," on the faceplate. Thanks for the picture Bonnie.
Little Europa/Godiva Sewing Machine
As I have said it was James' nephew, John Starley, went on to found the Rover Car Company and even Hillman, Singer and Swallow Cars were started by associates who worked with James. He seemed to encourage inventive genius in others.
At the Coventry Transport Museum, and Gaydon Car Museum there are fine collection of Starley Bicycles, vehicles and other machines on view and a monument to him stands in Coventry City. At Gaydon there is the very last Rover car to be made!
The Coventry Transport Museum has a wealth of information on James Starley and is a great way to spend a day if you are in the area. Also it is free entry!
James Starley, although only 51, died a wealthy and respected man in the early summer of 1881. His children carried on with the bicycle and his son William, with John Kemp Starley, the Rover Car business.
His inventions are still in use today from the differential gearing, used in almost every moving vehicle, to hollow bicycle tubing and adjustable, alternating, spoked wheels.
Not bad for the little farm boy from Sussex who had a dream and followed his star.
Below you are looking at a beautiful work of art, the Starley Queen of Hearts. James Starley would be proud of his everlasting machine, it really did stand up to his motto and stood the true test of time.
Starley became famous for his inventions and fondly became known as the Father of the British Bicycle.
One of his son's continued in the bicycle business for many years after his demise in 1885 at the Meteor Works in West Orchard.
Hey, the business had nothing to do with sewing machines so now we must leave our great inventor for others to continue his story!
I leave you with one strange fact: In Poland Rover had such an important hold on the bicycle industry that today all bicycles are still called rovers!
Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work. I spend countless hours researching and writing these pages and I love to hear from people so drop me a line and let me know what you thought: email@example.com
Fancy a good read: Ena Wilf & The One-Armed Machinist
A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires
All Alex's books are now on: www.crowsbooks.com
Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom