2012 marks the 125th anniversary of Raleigh, the bike factory that created thousands of jobs for folk in Nottingham and gave us something more to cheer about than that ‘thieving get’ in green tights, Robin Hood.
But it was in Sillitoe’s novel that the Sturmey-Archer site gained iconic status as the workplace of a certain Arthur Seaton. It’s difficult to imagine what a modern day Arthur Seaton would be doing today, as Britain’s manufacturing industry has gone the way of the Sinclair C5 and taken with it a sense of community and identity that is impossible to recreate.
Into the 1960s and shortly after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning became Pan’s first paperback to see a million copies, Raleigh Industries Ltd employed more than 12,000 people and produced 4.2 million bicycles a year with 60,000 different model variations.
Over 75% of production was exported to markets in more than 144 countries. The sheer size and scale of Raleigh was mind blowing. In Nottingham alone it had 64 acres of covered factory as well as plants in Worksop (Carlton and Sun), several in Birmingham (the Phillips, Hercules and Brooks factories), and another in Trowell, not to mention several regional warehouses and many overseas factories from Ireland to South Africa.
So what went wrong? After many countries of the British Empire gained independence they started to develop their own manufacturing industry, establishing import tariffs to protect these fledgling enterprises. In East Africa, for example, a policy of “localisation” was embarked upon where Raleigh had enjoyed an 85% share of the East African Market.
As the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s and some traditional Raleigh markets fell away the loss was offset by the bike boom of the early 1970s in the USA.
Raleigh switched production to USA bikes though new designs such as the Chopper (1969) couldn’t compete with the home-grown and already established Schwinn Hi-rise.
Then, just as the USA sales bubble burst in the mid 1970s, the Nigerian market boomed following the end of their (Biafran) civil war, though failure to pay bills was a big problem. Other events were completely out of Raleigh’s hands, such as the lucrative Iranian market which closed upon the deposition of the Shah.
Raleigh had to reorganise, leading to the establishment of a components and bicycle business, with the former going under the name of Sturmey-Archer Ltd. Raleigh from then on had the mandate to import parts to make their end product competitive in world markets while Sturmey-Archer had to be competitive in their own right.
John MacNaughtan, the Sturmey-Archer Sales and Marketing Director from 1982 until its mismanaged demise in 1998, explained that within ten years, Sturmey Archer went from being 80% dependent on sales to Raleigh to 15%, with nearly 90% of Sturmey-Archer’s business being exports. The company had to shrink their business and cease production of many products like calliper brakes, roller levers, brake parts and single speed hubs.
The Raleigh motto was ‘a lifetime guarantee’ but inevitably this didn’t apply to the workforce. The Sturmey-Archer site closed at 3pm on the 28 November 2002. The last part off the production line was a 20-inch wheel for a children’s Max bike.
In the same week the director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz, died at the age of 76. Nottingham would never be the same again, neither economically nor aesthetically. Quite apart from the unmistakable presence of the factory itself in its own corner of town, it’s part of local folklore that you always knew where a Raleigh worker lived, because long before ‘Changing Rooms’ was invented, workers’ homes got the Raleigh make-over through a process of stealing tins of corporate grey and green paint from the factory.
Now it is the digital lathe that enslaves workers. The foreman of Sillitoe’s day “breathing down your neck” has been replaced by more subtle and anonymous forms of control, such as intuitive technology that stops you from logging onto Facebook and enables your employer to see straight into your inbox.
There’s no need to clock on because the MSN messenger flashing up on your screen is a more socially acceptable form of surveillance. Is it any wonder that respect is perceived to be missing in a society that no longer values trust?
Now ‘targets’ have replaced the ‘four-and-six a hundred’ piecework terms set by the rate-checker. The ‘cramp-inducing, back-breaking, knuckle-knocking’ labour has become the ‘boredom-inducing, back-bending, tip-tapping typing’ of 2012.
The sense of identity that came through work has gone because contracts are shorter and dictated by temp agencies who’ll pimp out your labour to the highest bidder then pass on a fraction of the hourly rate to you.
As for a pint after work, well, that’s not going to happen because your company has just relocated to save on rent so you’re now driving an hour to work every day – an extra cost that’s going on the second credit card.
The modern workplace is insecure, anonymous and temporary. In Sillitoe’s novel, Arthur Seaton and Robboe the foreman “tolerated and trusted each other”. But how many of us at our own digital lathes could honestly say we trust our own bosses, never mind the politicians, bankers or even our neighbours (if we’ve ever met them).
For this reason the novel no longer has the same immediate social relevance as it clearly did in 1958 and for a good decade after its first publication which is all the more reason to evaluate what society loses when large industries like Raleigh are cut out of the heart of a city.
Here’s just one example of what is missed. Pete Davis’ father died when he was a teenager. His mother, knowing her son’s passion for cycling, went to Raleigh to see if she could get him a bike for Christmas and pay it off in small instalments.
A workman told her not to worry, that her lad would still have his Christmas and that he would be round with it next week. He turned up promptly on the Friday with a wheel; the following week with a frame. Then came the spokes, seat and mudguard. Each part was carefully snuck out of the factory on a weekly basis and assembled in time for Christmas.
You can call it breaking the law, if you like. We call it community service.