Their bicycles were among the most expensive in the world, so it’s not surprising that Lea-Francis enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats and the prominent personalities of the day. In the early 1900s, authors were afforded the status today anjoyed by leading movie stars, and one of Lea-Francis company’s best-known customers was the author George Bernard Shaw. After the company started the manufacture of motorcycles in 1912, he purchased one. But, before that, he owned the 1909 Lea-Francis Men’s Cycle featured here. He was 6ft 2″ tall so its 28″ frame would have been ideal.
In his biography of Shaw, Michael Holroyd describes that… ‘For someone physically timid, Shaw’s experiments by bicycle were extraordinary. He would raise his feet to the handlebars and simply toboggan down steep places. Many of his falls, from which we would prance away shouting, “I am not hurt”, with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism.’
After four years of cycling he could claim, ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.’ However, not all of Shaw’s accidents came as a result of his own unique approach to bicycle riding. In 1895 he went on a cycling trip around Monmouthshire in Wales with Bertrand Russell and Sidney Webb. Given the former was a leading philosopher and mathematician who would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the latter an economist and co-founding member of LSE, you would not have expected bicycle riding to have posed the group too great a challenge.
However, it appears Russell remained ignorant of Conan Doyle’s advice to go, ‘without anything but thought for the ride you are taking’. Shaw describes how, ‘We three rode on our bicycles down a steep hill on our way to Tintern Abbey. Russell is rather absent-minded, and he is presently occupied with a work on non-Euclidian space. He suddenly woke up from a fit of mathematical absorption, and jumped off his machine to read a signpost.’
As it was reported in the Sheffield Independent, ‘The consequences may be imagined. G.B.S. was just behind him, and there was a ‘terrific smash’ and the great critic and Fabian was hurled, ‘five yards through space (Euclidian) and landed impartially on several parts of himself.’
Fortunately Bertrand Russell remained unhurt. Shaw demonstrated some his famed resilience by recovering and cycling home. However, this was only after, ‘Lying flat on his back on the roadway for a while, and defending himself against all proposals to poison him with brandy’. Shaw attributed his escape to his clothing and his, ‘splendid quality of bone and muscle’ resulting from a vegetarian diet.
The lesson? Renowned philosophers and Nobel Prize winners don’t make for great cycling companions.
1909 Lea-Francis Men’s Cycle
(Previously owned by George Bernard Shaw; ex Montagu Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Hants)
Pedersen 3-speed gear (No 12649)
with Concealed Roller Lever Brakes
Frame No 21673
In this era, three cross frames – the Raleigh X frame and the Centaur Featherweight and Resilient – had higher price tags than a Lea-Francis. The Lea Francis was the most expensive diamond frame bicycle in the world. Superb build quality is a given; the bonus is the fine details, each of them a Lea-Francis patented innovation.
1. Introduced in 1900, ‘Trip motion’ enabled you to step off the bicycle from the pedal without it turning.
2. A removable small nickel cup covers the top steering nut. It has LEA FRANCIS etched into it.
3. Concealed roller lever brakes were a Lea-Francis patent, subsequently offered, under license, as an option for 1910/1911 Raleighs. The brake rod is integral to the steering head, and the brake fittings are a unique design.
4. Though most cycle makers adopted full front mudguards in 1908, Lea-Francis retained the old ‘abbreviated’ version. Their concession to modernity was to fit, as an option, a mudguard extension. Curiously, it attaches to the bottom of the integral brake rod – when the brake is pulled on, the mudguard tip rises with it. (You can see a short video of this further down the page).
5. Rear lights became compulsory for bicycles, and R.H Lea’s patent Reflex Road Light was the most stylish rear cycle light available. A heavy duty version was made for motorcycles.
6. Like the Golden Sunbeam, there’s an oiler in the righthand celluloid grip
7. In addition, this particular machine features a Dursley Pedersen 3 speed gear. (The two companies had a reciprocal arrangement, as LF supplied DP with special pedals). Its accessories include a Lucas ‘No 58’ rear carrier rack, Lucas double-chime bell, Veeder milometer, and a Britton inflator pump engraved ‘Cooper Bros, Cycle Agents, Aylsham’ (which is near Norwich).
The GB Shaw machine was restored some time ago, being repainted in silver. It’s still in excellent condition all round, though the chaincase shows the usual dents more than if the paintwork had been black. The renickelling was done to a high standard. If you look closely there’s slight pitting to the front brake fittings, but the pedal cranks, wheels, handlebar with concealed roller lever brakes and other bright parts are still in very good condition.
NATIONAL MOTOR MUESEUM LABEL
LEA FRANCIS PATENT PARTS:
ABOVE: steering lock disengaged.
BELOW: steering lock facing forward and engaged, preventing the handlebar from turning
HOUSING to COVER the TOP STEERING NUT
CONCEALED ROLLER LEVER BRAKES
R.H LEA’S REFLEX ROAD LIGHT
Richard Henry Lea (b. 23 February 1858) had formerly worked at Singer & Co. for seven years as their works manager, while Graham Inglesby Francis was an engineer with wide commercial experience. He’d been general manager of the Auto Machinery Co., involved in the production of ball bearings. Their partnership was formed in August 1895 and they first exhibited at the 1895 Stanley Cycle Show, offering the ‘Lea’ cycle.
The clear intention from the outset was to achieve the highest standard of cycle design and production. They initially had premises at Day’s Lane, Coventry, but, shortly after, purchased works at Lower Ford Street, Coventry. A London showroom at the corner of Dover Street and 69a Piccadilly was opened as a means of advertising to the wealthy. A limited company was formed on 21 May 1896 with £20,000 capital. Directors were Lea and Francis with F. S. Matthews who was also the London manager. Matthews had formerly been general manager of the Sparkbrook Manufacturing Co. Ltd and then had been with the Premier Cycle Co. The company secretary was John Rudd, the General Manager was F. A. Griffin and the first works manager was James Stone.
A seahorse trademark was used from 1899 although one with dividers was registered on 28 August 1896. Machines at the 1896 Cycle Show were finished in black with red wheel rims, which became the standard colour for many years. There was a new disc hub for 1897 and the repair kit and oil can were included in the handlebar ends. A tyre pump spring-clip was patented as well as a gearcase with celluloid covers. An improved steering lock and foot rests were offered for 1898.
Advertisements for 1899 presented the name as ‘Lea-Francis’ for the first time. The well-known ‘trip motion’ device was introduced in 1900. This was a large pawl fitted to a brazed lug behind the bracket. It engaged with a ratchet on the left crank when the pedals were turned backwards. Its use was for dismounting as it held the pedal firm about 2 in. below the chainstay.
For 1901 a new pattern of freewheel was designed. This ran on a ball race of its own to take chain-load from the rear wheel bearings. There were four models in 1901, priced from £22 10s. to £25 10s. Weights were from 32 to 34 lbs. For 1902 the brake rods and levers were concealed within the handlebars. Prices for bicycles were reduced to £20 in 1905. A two-speed hub gear was introduced in 1906, designed by F. A. Griffin, the company manager. The high gear was direct drive and the lower gear offered a 24% reduction. A Fagan two-speed or Sturmey-Archer three-speed were also available. The Lea and Francis gear in 1908 was made into a three-speed but after a short while Sturmey Archer gears were fitted.
Although the term ‘Leaf’ was first applied in the telegraphic address for 1899 it was only used in advertisements in 1905. The London showroom was closed in 1906, having been run by Francis’ brother following the emigration of F. S. Matthews. The nominal capital of the company was icreased to £40,040 in 1906 of which £17,510 was paid up.
Marcus Nash, a retired army officer, joined the board in 1908 and invested £10,000.
R. H. Lea patented a ‘Reflex’ rear red reflector in 1908 (patents 1908/22,087 and 25,217). The Reflex Road Light Co. was formed to produce the reflector; it was later taken over by Components Ltd. The machines incorporated many refinements including an aluminium pedal with sixteen rubber studded treads (later made under licence by Brampton), rear reflector, and ivory gear lever and handlebar end plugs (all 1908), front or rear cast aluminium carriers (from 1909). Finish now was still plain black, unlined, except for the rims which were lined with red. The rims were enamelled Roman rims. The company lived up to its reputation for producing very high quality machines. Cycling magazine in 1909 described them as ‘the Apotheosis of Luxury in Cycling’. For 1910 the gear change lever was on the handlebars. Prices were £17 for a single-speed up to eighteen guineas for the three-speed. Those prices reduced to £14 18s. and sixteen guineas for 1911. A light roadster, with single gear was offered for 1911. Four machines were displayed at the Olympia Cycle Show 1912, for the 1913 season. There were ‘Tourist’ and ‘Light Roadster’ models for both sexes, all priced at sixteen guineas, with a ‘Winter’ model at £15 10s. It seems that cycle production ceased in 1914.
[Extracted from Ray Miller’s superlative book – ‘An Encyclopaedia of Cycle Manufacturers – The Early Years up to 1918’]
GBS text & photo – https://thevictoriancyclist.wordpress.com/tag/george-bernard-shaw/