Pearson Cycles 1860 - our story so far.
Pearson Cycles has been recognised by Guinness Book of Records as the oldest bike shop in the world.
We'd like to share with you some of the history of the shop that we've been able to uncover, as well as a few of the more interesting photos that we've found. By clicking on the timeline above, you can explore different stages of the shop's history and see just how Pearson Cycles evolved into the shop that it is today.
Below is a picture of Harry Pearson in 1906 at the back of the shop with two of his assistants. In his hands is a Pearson 'Endeavour', the first custom made bike that Pearsons manufactured and sold, a tradition still continued today in our range of Pearson bikes.
Born in 1831, Thomas Pearson was the son of a Street Cobham farmer named William Pearson, whose father before him, Henry Pearson, had been a wheelwright at Church Cobham. He had married Mary (n. Lee) of the same age from Weybridge after serving an apprenticeship at Shoesmith and Lee’s blacksmiths in Street Cobham, whose building remains there today as a simple shop, just adjacent to the town’s wood merchants.
In 1860, Tom Pearson moved to Sutton from Cobham and set up a blacksmiths in High Street Sutton at the very site we are in now. Sutton and its High Street had developed as a stop-off point for horse drawn trade vehicles travelling between London and south coast ports; however, its steep thoroughfare proved difficult for heavy loads. To help get these heavy loads up the steep hill, a strong horse was often hired from the stables at the Cock Hotel, so the services of a blacksmith were often called upon.
Tom Pearson, then 29, brought with him four children and continued to have a total of nine children with his wife Mary. The premises were rented from the local miller and baker, Dendy Napper; the structure of the building remains virtually unchanged since. They lived above the smithy in two rooms (now one show room), but when the older children grew up, they slept in the hayloft of the wooden stable behind the shop (now the Pro Shop). Life wasn’t always easy for the children, the boys complained of being bitten by the rats that shared their barn dormitory and water was pumped from a well at the top of the yard to supply water for the family as well as the business. Despite all this, all nine children lived to a ripe old age.
The sound of the smithy at work would have been familiar back then: the rhythmical ring of the hammer – three strokes on the anvil to one on hot iron – echoing along the high street. Tom would have felt the heat from the blazing forge fire while he pumped leather bellows, smelling the pungent smoke from the horses hooves as they were shod, as he dutifully served the community by making and repairing anything made from metal. Children, who bowled iron hoops up and down the road, brought them to Tom to mend at a ha’penny a time. Little else is known of Tom, but there is a clue that he was some sort of cyclist, judging by by the short peaked cap he wears in his only portrait.
Trade progressed in the smithy and the second youngest of the children, Harry Pearson, took over from his father. The bicycle had become an established means of transport by the late 1800s and their repair and maintenance represented a growing proportion of trade. Amongst the collection of old handmade tools that were used by this first generation, is a hot roller for repairing tyres and tubes. When Tom died in 1901, aged 70, he owned two other smithy businesses, one in George Street and the other in Chandler’s Yard. These were presumably run by other members of the family, but were sold off for £100 and £200 respectively. By this time, the cycle business was well under way - as the accounts can attest to - with the majority of value in the firm being in cycle stock. It was around this time that Harry finally made a decisive move - thank goodness- to turn his efforts entirely towards bicycles. The smithy had always repaired bicycles and as the popularity of horse drawn travel was dwindling, it proved too good an opportunity to miss.
By the start of the new century, Harry was supplying Sunbeam, Swift, Triumph and Pearson's own model, the ''Endeavour', which he manufactured himself; the name being suggested by his first customer. He used his smithy skills, gleaned from his father, to braze the frames on the old forge with hand operated bellows and these frames were then carried, by cycle, by the shop boy, namely a Master Carter, over to Croydon Works for plating and enamelling. He also repaired bassinettes and riding lessons were given at one shilling for half an hour: cycling came in with such an impact in 1890 and most adults could not ride.
In 1916, Harry purchased the shop from the existing owner, Mr. Napper, which was of a great relief to the family as they had no real lease up until then. Harry and his wife, Mary, had three children and the two boys, Arthur and Len, both followed their father into the business. Harry didn’t take a single day’s holiday for the whole of his working life; he often continued late into the evening to complete his day’s work and was at his bench only hours before his death in 1946.
TRADE CYCLES 1920-1939
Trade cycles are now a rarity and have become collectors’ items, although at one time they were produced in large numbers. Between the wars, the majority of trades-people in the High Street and its side roads employed trade cycles, complete with errand boys, to deliver orders, no matter the size. Pearsons did a big business in trade cycles, one of the largest manufacturers of which was the Hercules Cycle Co. The price of the equal wheeled version was about £5 10s, the larger carrier version with the 20” front wheel was £6 10s. The large drapery store Shinners in the high street, later becoming Allders, used four trade cycles to deliver orders, all supplied by Pearsons and maintained for 2s a week on contract. Phillip Evans, a friend of Arthur Pearson, had his first job on leaving school as an errand boy with Shinners. He was once sent to deliver four hats to a lady customer living at Reigate, a distance of 10 miles. The hats were sent on approval and upon returning to Sutton the boy was told to go back to Reigate and collect the hats as they were not to the lady’s satisfaction. So away this boy went on the heavy trade bike, collected the hats and returned travelling 40 miles in all including two ascents of Reigate Hill.
Sainsburys also had a large shop in Sutton and used around six cycles and two box tricycles for deliveries, in addition to other vehicles, including horse drawn wagons. The cycles were made by the Warwick Cycle Company and all were fitted with solid tyres, partly to stop the boy riders from claiming that they were late in delivering because of a puncture. The tyres (26” x 1 ¾” with beaded edge) were made by the Sorbo Rubber Co. at Woking in Surrey; they were very heavy, but slightly more resilient than others.
WORLD WAR 2
Arthur and Leonard Pearson
During World War 2, both Arthur and Len were exempt from military service as part of the home effort. As well as using their cycle trade skills, they regularly took the night watch for air raids. “We were almost accused of showing a white feather”, said Arthur Pearson, “but we were of more use keeping wheels turning than in the forces”. Bicycles and motor cycles were very efficient means of cheap transport for factory workers as the petrol shortage meant that cars were mainly for VIPs, while everyone else walked or cycled. With industry geared up to war production, there was often a shortage of goods in the shops, the cycle shop had to improvise in many ways as there were few spares available. There was also a long waiting list for the few precious new bicycles delivered.
The High Street shops were protected from bombing by walls of sandbags and there was even a brick air raid shelter within the shop, although Arthur maintained, “if the building had a direct hit it wouldn’t matter what you did, you’d had it”. The effect of flying bombs falling in shopping areas was terrifying as glass and goods would be sucked out into the street with the vacuum force from the blast. Pearsons became a post for the night watch, which lasted throughout the course of the war; night after night, the shop would be attended by at least two people listening out for air raids in order to warn the local community. This nightly vigil was recorded in the air raid book, entries include: ‘Gerry didn’t turn up tonight’ Aug 10 1941.
The Baby Boomers
Arthur Pearson married and had two boys, Roger and Christopher. Arthur was a great historian and was incredibly enthusiastic about vintage bicycles, collecting several Penny Farthings. Roger followed his father having completed three years national service in REME, while his brother Chris went into dairy farming. Roger was keen to bring the cycle shop up to the standard that other retail outlets had achieved in an increasingly competitive market, although he received opposition from the 'old school' values that the previous generation held. In the ‘50s and ‘60s cycles were sold alongside mopeds and motorcycles.
By the early 1980s, the shop had been modernised - now with Raleigh ‘5 Star’ status - and was capitalising on a booming business climate, especially after the introduction of mountain bikes. It also moved further into the sport of cycling with Roger’s enthusiasm for racing, in particular time trials and cyclo-cross. As an all-round sportsman, Roger had also been successful in other two-wheeled pursuits, notably motorcycle trials. He had reintroduced Pearson bikes in the form of a few handmade steel frames, which soon diversified into a number of specific models - a Gold Medal racer, a full touring bike and the Randonneur lightweight mudguard bike. The business kept up with the times by introducing a subsequently healthy mail order section to the business, which opened up wider markets and drew in customers from further afield.
Roger Pearson and his wife, Carol, had three children; eldest son Guy joined the firm in 1993 and his brother William followed a year later. Arthur Pearson passed away at the age of 90 in February 1996 and tragically Roger died little more than a month later having been diagnosed with cancer. The two brothers now represent Pearson’s fifth generation to own and run the business.
Guy and William Pearson
The second shop, Pearson Perfomance in Sheen London, was opened 152 years after our Sutton store. Some have described this as a rather 'glacial' expansion programme, we just say a well considered decision! Concentrating on the more performace element of cycling including precision cycle fitting, servicing and repairs, sports therapy and physio, all supported by our in house coffee shop.
Cycling is now bigger than it has ever been and for all the right reasons, health, convenience, the environment, sport and personal travel. It is up to the well established firms and organisations to manage this effectively and responsibly and as the official oldest cycle shop in the world, we are in a very strong position to do this. Pearson Cycle Specialists strives to maintain the reputation set by previous generations, providing the very best service and value to all our customers. Due to the rapid expansion of multiples in the cycle industry in recent years, our aim is to cater for more specialist customers, providing expert advice and help, stocking high specification cycles and equipment as well as catering for every day high street sales.
Genes Reunited produced this video about our history...