A change of Gear

Not just clocks and watches… Clerkenwell’s rich design past even boasts cars and motorbikes. Carl Gardner explores the history of Chater Lea.

When I moved into our apartment block at 74-84 Banner Street five years ago, I was intrigued by the sign carved into the stone above the front door: “Chater Lea 1911.” So I looked into it. While much of this part of Clerkenwell was given over to the manufacture of clocks and watches at that time, Chater Lea, I discovered, was one of the UK’s foremost makers of bicycles, motorbikes and cars during the first half of the 20th century. The company was based in the area for nearly 40 years.

Founded by William Chater-Lea in 1890, Chater- Lea (it later dropped the hyphen) first produced bicycle components for other manufacturers from premises at 116-120 Golden Lane. Soon after starting its own range of bicycles, it added small motors to them and from here made a successful move into motorcycles in 1903.

Among the well-known models was a 545cc bike which was adopted by the fledgling Automobile Association for its patrol men, due to its suitability for use with a sidecar. A total of 1,200 combination bikes (as bikes with sidecars were known) were shipped over the years, two-thirds of them to the AA – and many of these survive today.

Other models had some racing success at the famous Brooklands track and at the Isle of Man TT races, and in 1924, a 350cc bike ridden by Dougal Marchant became the first motorbike of that engine size to break the 100mph barrier.

By the time the company moved into its Banner Street factory in 1911, it had diversified into car production. Curiously, several archives refer to a “nine-storey building”, not the current five storeys. I couldn’t find any explanation for this… But nine storeys would have been a very tall building for Clerkenwell back then.

The first car was the Carette, in 1907, a two-seater with a 6 horsepower air-cooled V-twin engine with a chain drive to one of the rear wheels. Only a few seem to have been made. A later model, from 1913, had more success. It was 10 horsepower, water cooled and had a three-speed gearbox. It cost £350 and a few hundred were made.

The company stopped producing cars in 1922 but carried on with motorbikes until 1936. In between the two, William Chater-Lea died, in 1927, the year before the company moved out of Banner Street to a much larger plant in Welwyn Garden City. After William’s death, it changed its name to Chater Lea Ltd and was run by his two sons, John and Bernard. It kept going until 1986, manufacturing parts for the de Havilland Mosquito aircraft during World War II and then specialising in high-end cranks and hub-sets for bicycles.

Luckily for me, the Banner Street factory was, interestingly, one of the few in the area to emerge from the Blitz unscathed. All the buildings at the eastern and western ends of the street were damaged beyond repair, as was the building behind it. A V2 rocket scored a direct hit on part of the Peabody Estate, only 200 metres away in Whitecross Street.

Carl Gardner runs activity holidays in Sicily.