Bloomfield Road, Blackpool
Start of the Swallow Sidecar Company
The building at 5 Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, is the first factory that the Swallow Sidecar Company occupied when the business started in 1922.
William Lyons bought a Swallow Sidecar from William Walmsley who was building them at the rate of one a week in the garage behind his parents’ home in King Edward Avenue, Blackpool, just round the corner from the Lyons house. Walmsley was not really looking to go into full production but Lyons received so many enquiries as to its origins that he thought he and Walmsley should go into partnership to build Swallow Sidecars together.
Walmsley was initially reluctant to go into business but Lyons convinced Walmsley’s father Thomas that it could be a viable proposition. Lyons Senior and Walmsley Senior met with Mr Francis, the manager at William Deacon’s Bank in Talbot Square and arranged a £1,000 overdraft facility backed by £500 from each of them. [William Deacon’s Bank was taken over by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1929.]
Lyons Senior introduced Lyons to an accountant, Mr Haworth, who in turn recommended he speak to a Mr Outhwaite who ran a small electrical business in Bloomfield Road, close to Blackpool Football Club. The two upper floors of the Bloomfield Road building were empty and Outhwaite agreed to let the space. The first floor had a pair of loading doors which opened into open space allowing loading and unloading direct into the first floor instead of having to use the steep staircase at the end of the building.
With financial backing and premises in place, the reluctant Walmsley agreed to form a partnership although Lyons had to wait until after his 21st birthday on 4 September before signing a legal contract. The two signed their Partnership Agreement on 21 November, drawn up by local solicitor’s Jessops, though it was backdated to 11 September 1922.
With some cajoling from Haworth, Outhwaite allowed the partners to start moving in and clearing up before the partnership agreement and the lease were signed. Bloomfield Road needed fitting out and before the first employees, Arnold Hollis (trimmer) and Dick Binns (pattern maker/joiner) could build sidecars, they had to build their own workbenches. The next employees were two tinsmiths, Joe Yates and Joe Greenwood, a painter Cyril Marshall and a 15 year old ‘apprentice’ Harry Gill. The employees also built a small office and Walmsley even built his own desk which Hollis covered in Rexine, the artificial leather which they used for trimming the sidecars. Gill recalled acting as errand boy taking cheques to Lyons’ father to be signed at least until 4 September when Lyons reached his 21st birthday.
The name ‘Swallow’ is not mentioned in the partnership agreement or the lease but from the very start they traded as the Swallow Sidecar Company and took their first order on 20 September.
Howarth provided initial help with administrative services before recommending Miss Dorothy Atkinson, their first female employee, who was employed to do the secretarial and accounting work.
Harry Teather, aged 14, joined as a general assistant in April 1923 after seeing an advert while working at the Blackpool Gazette and Herald. He was accepted and started work, still aged 14, at Bloomfield Road becoming the ninth employee. He started in the paint shop but as he couldn’t stand the peardrop smell he was put in charge of the stores. One of his jobs was making up special prescription “Swallow” aluminium polish for sidecar bodies, using a 5-gallon drum. The polish was sold at 1/9d (8p) a tin. Harry Teather worked for the Company for over 50 years rising to be Purchasing Director of Jaguar Cars in 1966.
Expansion Beyond Bloomfield Road
By the end of 1923 the Company was doing well and was already struggling for space at Bloomfield Road, so two other factory buildings were rented.
The premises in Back Woodfield Road were initially used for packing and despatching and then later as a service department, fitting sidecars to customers’ motorbikes. The Company also gave instruction to customers on how to ride a motorcycle with a sidecar attached after some of them had slight mishaps on leaving the premises.
The other building was on the corner of John Street and Moon Avenue and was used for storing completed sidecars while waiting to be fitted to chassis.
The second female employee Alice Fenton started working at Bloomfield Road in 1925, as an office junior alongside Miss Atkinson, and then as William Lyons’ secretary. She had been working in William Lyons Senior’s music shop and Mrs Lyons suggested she make the move. Alice was a lively, vivacious young lady who used to play the piano in the shop to attract customers. Alice and her sister Nancy lived with their parents in Hawes Side Lane not far from the Bloomfield Road works. She went on to help with sales and was eventually appointed Home Sales Director, the first female director of Jaguar Cars, and at the time the highest placed woman in the UK motor industry.
The first Swallow-bodied car was built in South Blackpool at Back Woodfield Road. Walmsley’s brother-in-law Fred Gibson sent the burnt-out remains of an Austro-Daimler to the factory. Here, Harry Gill, helped to make a new body while Arthur Whittaker rebuilt the engine and refurbished the chassis. Whittaker had joined the business as a salesman and would rise through the ranks to become Deputy-Chairman of Jaguar in 1961. Those who worked on the car were paid additional funds by Walmsley as it was not part of their day-to-day tasks. Walmsley used the rebuilt car for some time as personal transport before he sold it locally. Sadly, no photographs of this vehicle have survived, though his first wife, Emily, recalled it as being ‘A very smart-looking car, even though it was not that reliable.’
Swallow Sidecars were selling well and Lyons had identified a gap in the car market. The basic Austin and Morris cars sold for around £150 and he envisaged a slightly up-market variant that would give the owner an identifiably different car from others on the market. While Lyons had not been happy with Walmsley using company resources to rebody the Austro-Daimler, it had proved they had the skills to transition from building sidecars to car bodies and Lyons believed that was the future.
Move to Cocker Street, Blackpool
By 1926 the Company had run out of space at Bloomfield Road and the adjacent sites. William Walmsley’s father had sold his coal merchant’s business when he retired to Blackpool in 1921 and was looking for something suitable to invest some of the proceeds. He heard of a property at 41 Cocker Street and the corner of Exchange Street, North Shore, Blackpool, which had previously been occupied by Joseph Street and then Blackpool’s Sunbeam distributors, the Jackson Brothers, and was now up for sale.
The partners could not afford to buy it and it made good business sense for Walmsley Senior to buy the building and rent it to the Swallow Sidecar Company. On 9 September the partners signed a 21 year lease and moved from their three sites in the Bloomfield Road area to Cocker Street, over a single weekend, without losing any production.
The move was announced in the Blackpool Gazette with an advert on 6 November 1926 with the company name now The Swallow Sidecar and Coach Building Company.
Bloomfield Road, After Swallow Sidecars
Since Swallow left Bloomfield Road at the end of 1926 the building has had a number of uses.
During the late 1960s and 1970s it was operated for a number of years as the Central Bowling and Social Club. Sir William visited the site in 1969 driving his own 1968 XJ6 – registered PHP 42G, which is now in the care of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust.
At the end of the 1980s The Continental Bedding Shop moved into Bloomfield Road after their previous premises were burnt down by a teenager on Christmas Day 1988.
In 2011 the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust ran a Tour from Coventry to Blackpool to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Swallow Sidecar Company. The tour stopped at the Bloomfield Road site, when it was run as Blackpool’s No. 1 Working Mens Club, for a ‘fish supper’ which was served in a facsimile copy of the Blackpool Gazette. The No.1 Working Mens Club closed down in 2016 after being charged huge fees by a debt management business.
The building is a stone’s throw away from Blackpool Football Stadium and in 2020 it was taken over by Blackpool FC Supporters Club and is now run under the name of The Armfield Club, named after Jimmy Armfield. This was opened in October 2020 and underwent considerable renovations over the succeeding six months reopening in May 2021.
A blue plaque had been installed on the building about 20 years ago but has been mislaid at some point, probably during building works and the JDHT together with The Armfield Club and Blackpool Civic Trust together worked up a plan to replace it. The intention had been to install and unveil it during our Centenary Celebrations weekend in Blackpool in September 2022. Unfortunately the death of HM The Queen on Thursday 8 September meant that all Civic and Mayoral activities were cancelled during the period of mourning.
This was re-scheduled and the plaque was officially unveiled by Blackpool Deputy Mayor, Councillor Peter Hunter and Deputy Mayoress Anne-Marie Hunter on Tuesday 10 January 2023 in the company of Tony Merrygold from JDHT, Joan Humble, Chair of Blackpool Civic Trust, Andy Higgins the manager of the Armfield Club, and others.
The event was subject to typical Blackpool weather so the planned photoshoot was hastily re-arranged and our Brough Superior and Sidecar were parked in front of the steps and the relevant people assembled for the five minutes it took for the Blackpool Gazette photographer to record the event for posterity. The Sidecar was returned to the trailer and we all retired to the warmth of the Club for a tour of the building and refreshments, during which Tony Merrygold presented the Deputy Mayor with an engraved glass Trust Centenary Trophy to mark the occasion, which we are assured will take pride of place in the Mayor’s Parlour.
Sir William Lyons’ own 1968 Jaguar XJ6 was driven to Blackpool to mark the occasion and re-create the 1969 picture of it parked in front of the building.
Jimmy Armfield was born in 1935 and played football for Blackpool from 1954 to 1971, ten of these years as captain.
He played 627 league and Cup games for the club was capped forty three times and was a member of the 1966 England World Cup winning Squad.
After retiring from playing he went on to manage Bolton Wanderers and Leeds United. He was awarded the OBE in 2000, Freedom of Blackpool in 2003 and awarded CBE in 2010. Armfield died of a non-Hodgkins lymphoma related cancer on 22 January 2018 in Blackpool, at the age of 82.
Author: 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)