24 King Edward Avenue – home of William Lyons
Founder of Swallow Sidecars
William and Mary (Minnie) Lyons
William Lyons (Senior), born in 1871, was a musician born in Dublin, Ireland, who came over to England in the 1890s with a touring orchestra. While on tour he played in Blackpool, met and fell in love with Mary Barcroft. They married on 5 June 1894 in the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Name at Chorlton upon Medlock, outside Blackpool. William was 23 and Mary (generally known as Minnie) was 24. Minnie’s middle class father, Church of England, prosperous manufacturer, member of the local hunt, didn’t seem to have been impressed with the match and cut Minnie off without a penny.
Determined to make his own way in the world, William opened a ‘Music and Pianoforte Warehouse’ in Bank Hey Street, Blackpool, behind the Tower where he sold and repaired pianos. According to some, most of the pianos in Blackpool passed through William’s hands at some time or another. The business proved a success with Minnie running the shop which William kept on playing music.
They had two children, Carol in 1895 and then William in 1901 while living at Red Cottage in Newtown Drive, Blackpool, close to the open space that in the 1920s would be laid out formally, and opened officially on 2 October 1926, as Stanley Park, within walking distance to Bank Hey Street.
Move to 24 King Edward Avenue
By 1911 the business had prospered sufficiently for them to move to a much more substantial house in the North Shore area of town at 24 King Edward Avenue and the corner of Holmfield Road.
Young William Lyons attended Poulton-le-Fylde Grammar School where he was, in his own words, an ‘average scholar’. As the music shop was prospering William Lyons Senior could afford to send his son to private school and he moved to Arnold House, a small school in Lytham Road, Blackpool. Lyons may have lacked scholastic skills but from an early age he showed an interest in mechanical items, particularly bicycles, which he used to repair in the garage behind number 24, for other boys at the school. His real interest was in motor cycles and their engines and although he was too young to ride he knew some of the older brothers of his classmates who had motor cycles. One of those whom he knew, Arnold Breakell, went off to war in 1914 and was fortunate enough to return home. He sold Lyons his 1911 Triumph motor cycle, even though Lyons was still too young to take the bike out on a public road. So Lyons pulled it apart and rebuilt it making some improvements, later selling it at a profit. Lyons did have a natural talent for engineering of this type but the masters at Arnold House did not care for this talent and failed to encourage it.
On leaving school in July 1917 Lyons was due to become an apprentice at Vickers shipbuilding yard at Barrow-in-Furness. He had attended a special crammer course to help him with the apprenticeship examination, but his heart was not in shipbuilding and he was not keen to follow that path.
Lyons Senior came to the rescue; he knew the Managing Director of Crossley Motors in Gorton, Manchester, and asked if there was a place for his son. The result was that young Lyons took up an apprenticeship with Crossley which included studying engineering at Manchester Technical College for some of the week. Lyons wanted to get closer to the Crossley cars but as the war was still raging, production was concentrated on ambulances and lorries for the military.
Unhappy with this, he left Crossley and returned to Blackpool where he filled some of the time by helping in his father’s music shop by repairing and re-tuning some of the pianos that were sent to their workshops. He was determined to get back into the automotive world and continued to buy, do up and sell motorbikes from the garage behind number 24.
He found work with Jackson Brothers at the Metropole Garage and then Jack (John Edgar) Mallalieu offered him a sales job at his new dealership – Brown and Mallalieu which was to take over the Metropole premises when Jackson Brothers moved to Cocker Street. Here he learned more about motorcars than he had with Crossley; how they were made and how they worked. He also learned how to demonstrate a model to a prospective customer and, importantly, how to close a sale.
World War One had ended and life in Britain was slowly getting back to normal. He was much happier in these surroundings of a busy garage with sales of new cars and workshops to keep them going. He also attended the first post-war motor show in London in 1919 where he helped on the Brown and Mallalieu stand. William Lyons was just eighteen-years-old and was now as experienced with motor cars as he was with motorcycles, but when a new General Manager, Charles Hayes, was appointed to oversee the expanding business, Lyons found many of his responsibilities taken away.
He may have had the experience but his age was against him. Consequently, Lyons’s services were dispensed with and in 1920 he found himself unemployed.
Enter William Walmsley
Motor cycles were still a passion of William Lyons and he bought and sold several examples during the next few years, from Indians to Harley-Davidsons. He used to tune them for competition in local hill-climbs and rallies, which he sometimes won. However, he still did not have a proper job and his parents were getting concerned about his future, then fate took a hand. In April 1921 Thomas Walmsley retired from his coal merchant/haulage business in Stockport and moved into 23 King Edward Avenue, just across Holmfield Road, with his wife and son William.
William Walmsley, who was some ten years older than Lyons and was also a motor cycle enthusiast, had built himself a sidecar to his own design in Stockport, and started making copies for sale. On arriving in Blackpool he continued to build the occasional sidecar in the garage behind number 23. Lyons saw this and got into conversation with Walmsley and introduced him to the Blackpool and Fylde Motor Club. Lyons was impressed by the sidecar and purchased an example. Whenever he stopped his Harley-Davidson and the sidecar combination he attracted interest from passers-by and enough expressed an interest in buying an example of this stylish sidecar for themselves, that he thought he and Walmsley should go into partnership to build Swallow Sidecars together.
Start of the Swallow Sidecar Company
With no proper advertising the sidecar was being ordered by people who simply saw an example in the street and Walmsley seemed content to indulge in what he regarded as a hobby and do nothing further to promote the product.
Walmsley was initially reluctant to go into business but Lyons convinced Walmsley’s father Thomas that it could be a viable proposition. In August 1922, William Lyons Senior and Thomas Walmsley put up £500 each to fund the enterprise by guaranteeing a £1,000 loan (roughly £60,000 in 2021 terms) at Williams Deacon’s Bank in Talbot Square, Blackpool.
Lyons and Walmsley found suitable premises at 5 Bloomfield Road and the partnership agreement was signed on 21 November though it was backdated to 11 September 1922. Interestingly Lyons’ address in this Agreement is given as Holmfield Road and not King Edward Avenue. The name ‘Swallow’ is not mentioned on any of the surviving documents from this time, but from the very start they traded as the Swallow Sidecar Company.
William Lyons married Greta Brown on 15 September 1924, at St Stephen-on-the-Cliffs church, Blackpool, with Lyons’ old school friend, Arnold Breakell, as best man. At the time the church was still under construction, so the wedding was conducted in the consecrated part of the church hall that was used for worship. They spent their honeymoon on a motor tour in Scotland with William Lyons driving his Talbot 10/23 tourer.
On their return from honeymoon William and Greta moved out of 24 King Edward Avenue and they initially set up home in a small flat before moving shortly afterwards to a bungalow called Westbourne in Bispham Road, Blackpool.
Swallow Moves to Coventry
Early in 1928 after receiving an order for 50 cars from P. J. Evans in Birmingham, Lyons secured an order for 500 Austin Swallows from Henlys in London. It quickly became clear that they would run out of space at Cocker Street and the order included a new four seater Swallow which they also needed to produce. In addition to this there was a shortage of skilled motor manufacturing and coachbuilding skills in Blackpool.
Lyons wanted to move to the Midlands, the heart of the growing motor industry, and initially Walmsley was not too keen but, to his credit, he could see that a move was necessary and made several journeys to Coventry and nearby areas looking for suitable premises. At one stage he thought Wolverhampton would be suitable but when the possibility of buildings in the Foleshill area of Coventry came up he was in agreement with his business partner.
William and Minnie Lyons Leave King Edward Avenue – 1937
In 1928 when Lyons moved the Swallows Sidecar business down to Coventry they left Blackpool for good. Both Lyons and Walmsley stayed initially in the Queen’s Hotel before moving to more sensibly priced lodgings in St Paul’s Road, Foleshill. In relatively short time, both partners found suitable houses in the Earlsdon district of Coventry with Walmsley again calling his house Swallowdene, the name from number 23.
William Lyons Senior and Minnie remained at number 24 until 1937 when they retired and moved from Blackpool to Parkstone in Dorset.
By 1950 Lyons Senior had suffered a severe stroke and he and Minnie moved from Parkstone to Sutton Coldfield to be near their daughter Carol who lived there with her husband Charles Atkinson.
Lyons Senior died in 1954 and the widowed Minnie moved to a bungalow on Borth, South Wales.
24 King Edward Avenue after the Lyons Family
The quite substantial, double fronted house at number 24 has now been converted into holiday flats.
Authors: François Prins and Tony Merrygold
© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust (except where stated)
Sources and Further Reading:
Blackpool Gazette Archives
Whyte, Andrew, Jaguar: The Definitive History of a Great British Car (Patrick Stephens Limited, 1990)
Porter, Philip and Skilleter, Paul, Sir William Lyons: The Official Biography (Haynes Publishing, 2001)