Cocker Street, Blackpool
Swallow Sidecar Company 1926 to 1928
When William Lyons and William Walmsley formed a partnership in 1922 to build Swallow Sidecars they rented factory space in a building in Bloomfield Road, Blackpool. The business was a success and they rapidly used all the available space and rented two adjacent buildings, Back Woodfield Road and John Street.
By 1926 the Company had run out of space at all three locations and were looking for larger premises so they could consolidate everything on one site. Lyons also wanted to move the business on and start coach-building car bodies and there was no space to allow this.
The partners heard of a property at 41 Cocker Street and the corner of Exchange Street, North Shore, Blackpool, which had been purpose built for coach-building with both floors designed to take heavy vehicles. It had previously been occupied by Joseph Street and then Blackpool’s Sunbeam distributors, the Jackson Brothers, and was now up for sale. The building was vast in comparison to Bloomfield Road and Joseph Street had installed a huge lift, big enough to take buses, reportedly the largest lift in the North of England, so the property was ideal.
The partners could not afford to buy it but William Walmsley’s father, who had sold his coal merchant’s business in Stockport when he retired to Blackpool in 1921 and was still looking for something suitable to invest some of the proceeds, bought the building with the objective of renting it to the Swallow Sidecar Company.
On 9 September the Partners signed a 21 year lease at £325 pa and moved from their three sites in the Bloomfield Road area to Cocker Street, over a single weekend, without losing any production. This was achieved largely due to Lyons persuading the driver of the delivery truck from Charles Hayward, the Wolverhampton firm who made the sidecar chassis, to stay in town over the weekend and both truck and driver were put to good use, plus of course using their own employees to load and unload the truck and install everything in their new home.
They laid out the building with sidecar assembly on the ground floor and constructed a paint booth in the south west corner of the building. The upper floor was kitted out with offices, an area for making new hoods and side-curtains and a small blacksmith’s shop. The move was announced in the Blackpool Gazette with an advert on 6 November 1926 with the company name now The Swallow Sidecar & Coach Building Company.
Overall 1926 was a good year for the business and the company started exporting their sidecars with the acquisition of their first overseas agent – Emil Frey of Zurich, Switzerland, who went on to become a Jaguar dealer, and remains so to this day.
Now with enough space to handle both current demand and to allow Lyons to pursue his desire to start coachbuilding cars he needed to recruit skilled staff which weren’t available locally. He had to advertise in papers in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton to attract skilled staff to move to Blackpool to work in the new coach building side of the company.
His first applicant was Cyril Holland who had worked for Lanchester and then Morris and turned out to be the perfect man to interpret Lyons’ sketches and turn them into wooden patterns and car bodies. He was joined by a few other bodymakers and by the end of 1926 they were ready to start building a body to fit an Austin Seven rolling chassis. Lyons sourced a chassis from Parkers, the Austin dealer in Bolton, but had the invoice for £114 5s (£114.25) sent to his home address at Bispham Road rather than the company. As part of this deal Lyons had agreed that Stanley Parker could have the northern dealership for Swallow bodied cars. Parker went on to become a Jaguar dealer right up until the British Leyland days.
After much work by Lyons, Holland and the new team, with panels coming from Musgrove and Green in Birmingham, they produced a very tidy Austin-Swallow two seater body – registered FR 7995.
This car, available with or without a hard top, was put into production and announced in The Autocar on 20 May 1927. It was priced at £175, which made it highly competitive with other special-bodied Austin Sevens then also on offer.
Lyons kept his promise to Parkers, in return for the chassis, and gave them the northern distributorship for Swallow-bodied cars. He also visited Brown and Mallalieu in Blackpool, for whom he had once worked, to sign them up for the new Austin Swallow.
In August 1927 they added a second rolling chassis to their product line and started bodying Morris Cowley chassis as the Morris Cowley Swallow. By the end of 1927 they were producing 1 car a day, with potential for a second, in addition to the sidecars which were still selling very well. If they were to work Saturdays and Sundays the maximum potential output from the site would be 14 cars and 100 sidecars per week.
1928 The Last Year in Blackpool
Lyons went further afield and a trip to Birmingham secured an order for 50 cars from P. J. Evans, in return for which he was given exclusive distribution rights for Swallow cars over a large area of the Midlands. (Evans too was to become a major Jaguar dealer). While these sales were vital to the small Blackpool manufacturer, Lyons knew he had to extend the sales area even further and this meant London and the South. With such a small staff, it would seem that Lyons did all the sales negotiating and dealer visiting, there appears to be no record of either William Walmsley or anyone else going out on the road to sell the new car.
Towards the end of 1927 when there were about 50 employees, Lyons arranged to see Bertie Henly in London who, with his partner Frank Hough, ran the Henlys dealership. Henlys placed an order for 500 Austin Swallows at the rate of 20 a week – four times the normal current production level. Henlys agreed to order the 500 chassis from the Austin Motor Company for delivery to Blackpool Talbot Road Station (now Blackpool North Station), formally placing the order with Swallow on 18 January 1928. Three days later on 21 January, Henlys took delivery of the first of their 500 cars.
Jack Beardsley, born in Sheffield, joined the company at Cocker Street at Easter 1928 at the suggestion of his friend Bernard Hartshorn who was working as a wing fitter. Swallow were looking for a blacksmith and Beardsley’s seven years of training and experience at Peter Bromley’s small business near Blackpool made him ideal for the job. One of his first jobs was to flatten the leaves of car springs of the newly introduced Morris Cowley Swallow to make the vehicle sit lower. For the Austin Sevens, in order to increase wheel-arch clearance to accommodate the extra weight of the Swallow’s bodywork, his job was the exact opposite, to increase the bend of the rear springs. He was also responsible for making chain links for production lines and anything else in metal that any other firm might have “bought out”, in fact all component manufacture required in the production of the Austin Seven and Morris Cowley chassis, readying them to receive their Swallow bodies.
Harry Teather who had come to Cocker Street from Bloomfield Road couldn’t stand the peardrop smell of the paint – and in 1928 he moved from the paint shop to the stores in order to relieve Arthur Whittaker. His work in the stores included purchase and progress which was to set the pattern for the rest of his career. In addition to his work in the stores there was the packing and dispatch of spare parts and being responsible for the factory’s contents.
Alice Fenton had started as an office junior at Bloomfield Road and by the time the company moved to Cocker Street was now Lyons’ secretary, working whatever hours were necessary, often into the evening to complete the day’s work. The days were so busy that the only time quiet enough to take dictation was after 5:30 pm when everyone else had gone home.
She was joined in the office by Connie Dickson following an interview with William Lyons who selected her partly because of her shorthand and typing skills, but also because she was NOT wearing scent. Lyons initially offered her a wage of 5 shillings (25p) per week but he increased this to 10 shillings (50p) after she explained that half of her 5 shillings would go in fares.
Connie (who would later marry Harry Teather) recalled this encounter in an article published in The Automobile in April 1985, entitled A Swallow Summer:
I used to enjoy reading the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) in the library. One morning I saw the advertisement: “Office Junior required by the Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company”, and I set out to find the place in Cocker Street as quickly as possible.
Immediately inside the factory door on the left was the office. There was timber to desk height, then glass panelling so the staff could see who came in; and there was an “Enquiry” window. It was there that I first saw Alice Fenton, who asked me to wait. She had very striking colouring – a pink complexion with rosy cheeks and hazel eyes and (I thought) the most beautiful hair I had ever seen; parted in the centre, it waved down her cheeks into a long plait which ended in a curl stretching nearly to her waist. My hair was brown and very short, and I thought she looked very efficient and business-like in a dark dress with a small white collar.
The ground floor of the factory had a large enclosed paint-shop opposite the office. It was painted white, and I was told later that it has a special floor to make it dust-free for the painting of the Swallow car bodies. The sidecars were painted in a different part of the building upstairs. There was a big door at the back of the paint-shop where the chassis were received. There was also a very large lift, I think the largest in the north of England.
I found I was not to be in the main office with the others – Miss Atkinson who was a mature 35-year-old, the Company Secretary Mr Lee and Alice Fenton as general office girl. The small inner office where I had been interviewed was shared by Mr Lyons and Mr Walmsley. I was upstairs in the stores office, where Mr Whittaker was in charge. He had originally worked as a salesman, touring the motor-cycle agents with a Swallow Side-car, but when I started work he had been brought into the office to attend to the buying side of the business which was increasing with the advent of car body production. We also dealt with service and spares for an ever increasing volume of sidecar business. Purchase orders, invoices and advice notes all came into our sphere and this is where I found my experience of night school so very useful.
Despite a workforce of 50 there was no works canteen and as most of the workers lived locally it was the custom for everybody to go home for midday dinner. The works closed for an hour and the office staff had from 12:30 until 2:00 pm off. Alice and Connie often worked until 7 or 8 in the evening, sometimes going dancing in the Winter Gardens afterwards as that was the only entertainment available after work.
The Henlys’ order made life tricky for the small Blackpool works as they were unable to accommodate the chassis that arrived in batches of fifty from Austin. Lyons recalled that sometimes they were hooked together in fives or sixes and towed behind another car from the railway yard to the factory. Not an easy task and chassis were often lined-up all around the Cocker Street premises waiting their turn on the production line. Sometimes work was done on the pavement outside the factory, much to the interest and amusement of passing holidaymakers. The cars may have become a major part of the Swallow business but sidecar demand also increased – now up to 150 a week – and the production of both, as well as the need to develop a four-seater Austin-Swallow saloon for Henlys, meant that the Cocker Street factory became too small and another move was indicated.
Lyons and Walmsley discussed the matter and they came to the conclusion – Lyons more than Walmsley – that Blackpool was too far from the centre of the British car industry in the Midlands, where many of Swallow’s suppliers were based, and the most prudent plan would be to move to the Midlands. As a result, the decision was finally taken to move to the Midlands where the chassis, screen and wings were already being made and where there was a supply of skilled labour.
The story of how William Lyons found premises in the Foleshill area of Coventry is told elsewhere on this website. The first thing most employees knew of the impending move was when a notice was pinned to the wall by the clocking-in clock, asking employees who wished to move to sign below. For many of them who had moved up to Blackpool in 1926 this would be a return home. In total 32 of the 50 employees made the move to Coventry in November 1928, all of whom did so without any removal expenses, although the Company did help them find temporary digs in Coventry.
It fell to Harry Teather to co-ordinate and control the move. All the factory contents from Cocker Street, were to be transferred to the new factory off Holbrooks Lane, Foleshill, Coventry without loss of production, just as they had managed when they moved from Bloomfield Road. It was to take nearly six weeks and to avoid loss of production, fifty sets of car-parts were boxed and sent in advance. Just as the company’s own workforce had fitted out Bloomfield Road, and to some extent Cocker Street, William Lyons refused to pay external contractors £800 to clean and setup the new buildings in Foleshill and the task fell to his workforce again, with Jack Beardsley responsible for setting up the new blacksmith’s shop.
Harry Teather was the last person to leave Blackpool to move to Coventry, on 7 November 1928.
Connie Dickson didn’t initially move down to Coventry but followed a fortnight later at Alice Fenton’s insistence and they shared digs together in Holmsdale Road. After an incident one evening when passing the Holbrook Lane fish and chip shop, where they were pushed into the road, either Lyons or Walmsley usually walked them home at the end of the day’s work.
Blackpool had been home to the Swallow Company for six years and Cocker Street for just under three years.
Cocker Street after Swallow
Walmsley Senior still owned the building and he let Cocker Street to a road haulage company, Tichenor and Brown.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the building was occupied by Ismail & Company Ltd, Tea and Coffee Merchants.
Ismail Gibrail had arrived in England from British Somaliland (modern day Somalia) via Yemen, and serving in the Royal Navy aboard HMS Venus in the First World War. He served alongside Lawrence of Arabia and made his way to London after he was demobbed, ending up in Blackpool working at the Metropole Hotel before leaving to open his own café.
He then started selling wholesale to other cafés/restaurants, blending his own teas and coffees and including the Duke of Westminster among his customers.
His son Raschid Gibrail took over in the 1960s and was running the company while it occupied Cocker Street. Ismail & Co closed down in 1990.
The factory was eventually demolished in the early 2000s and replaced with a two storey accommodation block, named William Lyons House, consisting of 10 studio flats together with a four bedroom shared flat and a communal area. It was run by the Great Places Housing Association until 2014 when it closed down and the building was mothballed.
In 2020 it was bought by Blackpool Council and re-opened as a hostel for homeless people, under the management of Blackpool Coastal Housing (BCH), the local authority-owned company that looks after council housing.
In addition to carrying William Lyons’ name the black railings around the building have gold painted Swallows moulded in the metalwork.
A Green Plaque from Blackpool Heritage Trust records the Swallow history. Mounted under this is a wooden plaque dating from June 1985 which had been fixed to the original building.
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)