Swansea History - An Overview

Howard and Les Baldwin were in their early twenties when they set up Swansea Cycles and Motor Co., naming it for their home in Mosman Park, a Perth suburb nestled between the Swan River and the Indian Ocean. They started business at 9 William Street, Fremantle, with a small annex at the rear of the shop where they began making their own bicycles using components imported from England

In the first year of trading Swansea made and sold all of 70 cycles. The great Wall Street crash of 1929, followed by the disastrous Depression years actually helped Swansea Cycles, as many people found bikes a great means of cheap transport that was healthy as well By 1939 Swansea Cycles had expanded to larger factory premises in Newman Street Fremantle, with 5000 square feet of floor space, a staff of 33, and a turnover of more than 1500 cycles a year, as well as trotting spiders and children's tricycles. There were also branches at Barrack Street, Perth, Kalgoorlie and Bunbury, and agents throughout the state. 1939 saw the introduction of the top end 4 and 5 Swan models.

From the outset the firm saw the value to be obtained through racing their products, and actively sponsored many of the better sprint and distance riders in the state. Riders of the calibre of Dave Stevenson, Harold Durant, Jack Casserly, Sid Patterson, Merv Finn and countless others kept the Swansea name to the fore in the results of the big races. In those days programmes gave details of the machine being ridden, as well as the rider's name. One outstanding distance rider, Horrie Marshall, was the only WA rider to defeat Malvern Star's Hubert Opperman in a race. Horrie also won the prestigious Warnambool to Melbourne road race, on a Swansea of course. Swansea also sponsored the annual Swansea Road Race, from Perth to Armadale then on to the finish at Fremantle.

Second hand cycles passed through the factory before being offered to the public. World War II restricted the supply of important British made components for several years. This influence may explain the bias of refurbished machines in the war years. It has also been noted that the standard of finish was not quite up to pre war machines, but the same pride of workmanship was still evident, and there was still a strong demand for new machines. By the 1960's the motorcar had begun to make inroads into the cycle industry throughout the Western World, so Swansea's began selling electrical appliances, refrigerators, radios, as well as cycles.

The business closed in 1973. So a family firm that had given so much to Western Australian cycling, as well as supporting a staff that in its heyday amounted to some sixty-five people, finally closed its doors after more than forty years. Swansea cycles were regarded as one of the best available in Western Australia, and even today many are still to be found in owners' garages, taking pride of place, still giving their riders pleasure. Researched and written by Peter Wells and Stuart Bonser from an interview with Nell Baldwin.

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Swansea Shop and Factory

Swansea Cycles opened at 9 William St, Fremantle in 1927. The business grew rapidly and they were quickly established in the cycle industry. 

Within just ten years of starting Swansea Cycles, the Baldwins had opened a factory in Newman Court, Fremantle, had agents throughout WA and in Darwin and established branches in Perth, Kalgoorlie and later in Bunbury.

1934 saw a name change; the company became Swansea Cycle & Motor Company to capitalise on the rising popularity of motor cycles and the Baldwins ran a garage alongside the William Street store. Manager of William St, Harold Durant, remembers exhibiting BSA motorbikes at the royal show but it isn’t clear if they were ever sold by Swansea.

Components were bought from importers and distributors such as Mortlocks, Coventry Motors and West Cycles. Tubesets were sourced from British Tube Mills Australia, an Adelaide manufacturer who made a variety of tubing including Reynolds 531 under licence.

Most Swanseas sported metallic paint finishes. Frame painter Arthur Raston recalls spraying a silver undercoat with iridescent or transparent enamel paint over the top. Pin stripes and decorative scrolling were hand-painted and the frames varnished. Frame numbers were stamped on by factory manager Dave Stevenson, with the SSH prefix denoting “Swansea Second Hand”.

While bicycles remained the mainstay of the business, the Baldwins began to diversify; trotting spiders and high quality toys were also manufactured in the Swansea factory. Horses on wheels, tricycles, dolls’ prams, scooters, roller skates, radios and miniature motors were all sold at their shops. By 1945 they also expanded their range to include small electrical appliances, kerosene stoves, electric gas lighters and soldering irons.

Assisted by their accountant, Ken Pettit, the Baldwins acquired the Frigidaire agency in the 1950’s and expanded their product range to include refrigerators, stoves and home appliances. 

Howard and Les built their own hall at the Royal Agricultural Society showgrounds to exhibit their range every year and photos from this period show how Frigidaire came to dominate the business, with much of the floorspace given over to fridges. The hall still stands today and now exhibits horse riding accessories.

In 1965 the Newman Court factory was sold to Bruce Small’s General Accessories (makers of Malvern Star) and the Baldwins purchased offices and several shops in the new Westgate Mall in Fremantle. The factory was ultimately demolished to make way for the Myers building.

Following Harold Durant’s departure and the move to Westgate Mall Doug Shear took over the running of the shop, but it wasn’t long before the company closed it’s doors. 

Swansea Cycles dominated the Western Australian cycle scene from the 1930’s until the 1960’s and were one of Australia’s largest and best known bicycle manufacturers.

The Baldwin Family

Howard, Leslie and Rowland Baldwin were born in Bristol, England and migrated to Fremantle in 1911 with their mother Louisa. Father Fred had travelled ahead of his wife and children. Fred had been a blacksmith in England and found work at the State Engineering Works in North Fremantle.

After leaving school Howard worked at The Grant Cycle Agency in Market Street Fremantle and Les worked as a farm labourer. Both young men were keen cyclists and Les competed in amateur races for a short while. Rowland joined his father at the engineering works, and was in the RAAF during WWII.

Howard nurtured his talent for cycling production, sales and promotion while working at for Mr Grant. In 1927 Howard and Les started Swansea Cycle Company at 9 William Street in Fremantle, naming it either for the Welsh waterside city near their birthplace, or for the proximity of the Swan River and Indian Ocean to their new home in Monument St, Mosman Park.

Howard and Les quickly established and supported the Swansea Road Race, a 50 mile event run by the Fremantle Cycling Club, and they provided excellent prize lists for both amateur and professional cyclists in races year round. Swansea supported riders won most of the big cycling races in WA during this era. 

Both Fred and Rowland were employed at the Swansea factory; Fred after he retired from the the SEW, and Rowland on his return from war. In 1943 whilst working in the Swansea factory Fred had a massive heart attack and couldn’t be revived. Rowland, memorable for his long dust coat, worked in the reconditioning department.

Howard and Les Baldwin are remembered as gentlemen with a distinctive quaver in their voices. Les Baldwin’s generous nature endeared him to cyclists everywhere. He was seen at every country and metropolitan cycling carnival in Western Australia. He helped all riders, whether they were riding for Swansea or not. He was also keen photographer and was known to have a collection of photos of successful cyclists from across Australia.

None of the brothers married until relatively late in life. Howard had two boys, Noel and Chris, Les had no children and his estate was left to Rowland’s adopted daughter, Gail. 

Fred and Louisa also had a daughter, Violet, the only family member born in WA. She never married and having lived her life with her parents at Mosman Park, moved to Cottesloe when they died.

Two brothers with a great passion for cycling left their mark on the cycling industry and established their name in the history of Western Australian manufacturing. 

Howard Baldwin at the York Track. photo courtesy Chris Baldwin

Howard Baldwin at the York Track. photo courtesy Chris Baldwin

Howard & Leslie Baldwin in 'Men of WA' published 1937_sp.jpg

Sid Patterson and Swansea

John Garland in British "Cycling" 1949

Patterson returned to Europe in June. He sprinted a lot in the summer, but gave no sign of really mastering Schandorff, Heid, Bannister and the Frenchmen. Until Copenhagen.

There he not only mastered them, he slaughtered them, and came back to England for the Meeting of Champions to show us the manner in which he had done so.

It was at this meeting in September that we at home saw for the first time a real giant in every sense of the word, among amateur sprinting. It was a rapid transformation.

He started racing when he was 13 and won his first event, a 25 mile road race, one year later. The Patterson of today is 22 years old, stands 5 ft. 11 in. and is burly, weighing 14 st. 7 lbs.

Greg Griffiths in Bicycling Australia magazine 2000 

The cycling record of Sid Patterson will never be eclipsed. The man was unique, truly 'The Greatest'. He was able to overcome odds like no other before him. Apart from dominating Australian track carnivals for the bulk of his career, and winning numerous six-day races, Patto's greatest achievement is one that set him apart from every man on Earth. This achievement is the fact that he was not only World Sprint Champion but also World Pursuit Champion! This feat will remain alone not only unequalled but in all probability, untried.

Bill Gilbride

"I get emotional when I talk about Sid. One of the nicest guys you’d ever find. He’d won the Commonwealth games and then he won the World Championship and he called in here on his way. I had a race against him. Around the back track at Fremantle, I’m thinking “Patto’s the world champion, how often do you get to race against a world champion?” And I’m up there, I turned around and I worked him up the bank and got him in a bad position - I thought “you bastard, I’ve gotcha!", you know? And he’s turned around and leant on me. And he’s bigger than me and he practically pushed me halfway across the oval! I couldn’t hold him, he was too strong. That night we went out to a party, Mr Brown, he was the President of the Cycling Association, they had a party at his place. I think Patto spent all night long nursing somebody’s little baby. I don’t know whose baby it was but Patto walked around all night long nursing this little kid. He was such a lovely bloke. Nicest guy in the world... boy, he could ride!"

Harold Durant

"I was involved with Sid Patterson. Sid was seven times Champion of the World. We were very good friends, in fact he used to stay at my home when he was here. He had a particular popular size frame; a lot of blokes used to say “I want Patterson’s size”. The frame didn’t make the champion! “

He rode a Malvern Star in Melbourne and during the World Championships but I convinced him that he should be on a Swansea when he was in West Australia. I took him to the company’s accountant, Ken Pettit, and came to an arrangement. Sid always rode one of our bikes when he was in Western Australia. Bruce Small wasn’t very happy but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Sid was far too popular for Bruce to interfere with what Sid was doing."

Bill Okely, Sid Patterson and Bill Gilbride with Patterson’s Swansea. photo courtesy Bill Gilbride

Bill Okely, Sid Patterson and Bill Gilbride with Patterson’s Swansea. photo courtesy Bill Gilbride

Bill Gilbride and Sid Patterson. photo courtesy Bill Gilbride

Bill Gilbride and Sid Patterson. photo courtesy Bill Gilbride

Amateurs & Pros

Anyone new to Australian cycling history will quickly learn that the cycling world was divided into amateur and professional cyclists. 

While a professional cyclist was simply one who raced for prize money the division was arguably less to do with the cyclists themselves and more to do with the competitiveness of their clubs and controlling bodies for influence, financing and credibility. Clubs classed themselves either pro or amateur and riders in choosing a club through circumstance or friendship would be classed the same.

This is not to say that the amateurs did not mix or train with the pro’s - they often did – but  egos and allegiances coloured these interactions and saw the two groups keep their distance. Sponsors like Swansea were relatively blind these prejudices, supporting amateurs and pros alike, mostly with tyres and the occasional free bike.

Whilst a top tier cyclist’s winnings could be a substantial proportion of his annual income, the reality was that the prize money and endorsements would for all but the very best merely supplement income from full-time work. Training and racing time had to be found outside the “9 to 5” and family life.

“I wanted to get married, never had enough money to, so that’s when I turned around, got stuck into racing, won a whole heap of races that year and got enough money to get married on. Cycling was good to me; otherwise I was battling. ” 

Bill Gilbride, WA Track Champion of Champions, 1951

Many young cyclists would have gravitated towards the local cycling club for reasons such as convenience, existing friendships or to perhaps train under a notable coach. Some prestigious races such as the Northam-to-Perth were open only to amateurs. Similarly there were many track events and races such as the Beverley-to-Perth and the Warrnambool that were open only to the pro’s.  

Club goals aside the ambition of many amateur cyclists would have been to represent the state at national titles. The opportunity to beat the best in Australia held the potential of Olympic selection.  Selection did not guarantee the chance to go for gold; with little assistance, riders had to raise their own funds to attend, which they were often unable to do.

The metamorphosis to professional life was difficult to reverse. Jimmy Taylor became a pro aged 13 after winning just £1. It was with great effort that he was reclassified as an amateur and permitted to compete in amateur events.

A  “lillywhite” amateur who had turned professional would need to have their response prepared for an invitation into “the chop”, “take” or “joke”. This was an agreement between a number of riders, sometimes made whilst already racing, to share the prize money of place-getters with other riders prepared to block, lead out and bait other competitors.

"I woke up to what’s going on; he’s on the take! I’ve gone on his wheel and through the inside but I laid off, I couldn’t come past him, I was stuffed. He won it, I came second, but I think I pocketed more money because he had to pay six other guys!" Clarrie Minciullo

Clarrie Minciullo racing on a 5 Swan Swansea

Clarrie Minciullo racing on a 5 Swan Swansea

John McGrath

In the late 1940’s John McGrath, while an amateur at the Canterbury Club in Sydney, struck up a friendship with visiting WA State Champion Geoff Baker.

I got to know him really well and he said, “If you ever decide to come over to the West, let me know and I’ll fix you up at our place with mum and dad. I’d always wanted to come over here and have a look at it but it seemed so distant. It was like another world. People used to talk about WA as though it was another country. Even then in 1949 it was very isolated. I arrived after an eight day journey by ship on the Strathaird.

John stayed in Perth for two years, joining the Fremantle Amateur Cycling Club and was chosen for the WA State Team in 1951. In 1952 he returned home to ailing parents after competing in the Australian Titles in Goodwood, SA, again as part of the State Team.

He came back to Perth in 1960, this time crossing the country not by boat but by bike. Setting out on track singles (lightweight tubular racing tyres) he was obliged to make some changes to his touring setup en route;

Once you got past from Ceduna it 's all dirt. I had no idea what I was up against. By the time I got to Melbourne I had to get most of them repaired and by the time I got to Adelaide, they were going again. When I got to Ceduna I stopped at this bike shop for a bit of advice about how the roads were and he said, “You’re not going to ride on that?” “Yeah, why?” “You won’t get round the corner on that bike.” I said, “No?” He said, “No, not on those tyres; no way.” I said, “Well, what do you reckon?” He said, “You need a pair of heavy duty wheels to get through.” So I said, “OK.” He only had 26 inch wheels so that meant my brakes were no good, they wouldn’t fit the wheel and he said, “You don’t need brakes, it’s all flat.” It was nearly all flat except coming down to Eucla! There’s this great big hill - a joke! Straight down, no turns, straight down then flattens out and I thought, “Well one thing, we’re not going to run into a car.” So I just sat on it and let it go. That was the only hill in over a thousand miles. 

John joined the Midland Cycling Club and began racing a variety of road and track events including the first 6 Day Race held at Lake Monger. He was sponsored by Swansea, initially riding his Bobby Jones (NSW) built frame repainted and badged as a Swansea. The steep track at Lake Monger demanded a frame that allowed better pedal clearance at low speeds, Swansea built him an appropriate frame finished in copper plate.

It was a wonderful experience. Once I rode one, really I didn’t want to ride another one; because for one thing I considered myself a bit old for it. They ride longer these days but, how old was I? 30, 33, something like that; and that would’ve been considered as 'getting on a bit’. The young ones, 19 or 20 year olds used to give you a bit of a serve. The Victorians controlled the race. It was a set-up, you know, and was really determined by  Bill Long. He was the organiser and in charge of the event. If he said that a team was going to win tonight well, that was the way it went. It wasn’t what a lot of people thought.

Harold Durant

Harold Durant, born in 1922, was one of five children born to Bob and Mary Durant. Mary’s sister May Hicks didn’t have children and Harold counted Aunty May as a second Mum. May won £600 in a newspaper crossword puzzle competition and bought Harold his first bike, a Swansea, with some of the proceeds.

Harold was a talented young rider and represented his school, Fremantle’s Christian Brothers College, in the 1935 State Schoolboy Championships. He started riding for Swansea in the 1935/36 season and in 1937 won the Swansea Consistency Trophy.

In his teens he worked for his brother’s South Fremantle butcher shop. Harold would load up his bike and make meat deliveries to seven local pubs on Saturday mornings. Track racing was a sport fraught with danger and his father pressured him to quit in case he injured himself and jeopardised his brother’s business. A job offer from Swansea Cycles enabled Harold to continue competition riding.

WWII interrupted his cycling; he was recruited as a commando in the 2nd Australian Imperial Forces and saw active duty overseas, spending his 21st birthday in New Guinea.

He met his first wife, Bettye, during the War and they married while he was on leave from duty. Les Baldwin had plans for Harold’s leave as well; he wanted him to visit the south-west to close the Bunbury store. Harold incorporated that trip with his honeymoon at the Rose Hotel Bunbury.

After the war Harold and Bettye rented a house in King William Street, Fremantle but they were keen to have a home of their own. In the postwar year you needed ‘numbers’ to build a house, numbers that Harold and Bettye didn’t have. They contemplated moving to Melbourne where he had connections before, once again, Les Baldwin, keen to keep Harold as manager, offered him a house in Florence St, Cottesloe. The Cottesloe Flour Mill manager was renting it but was transferred to Northam and the home was empty. The Durants lived there for 12 months rent free but insisted on buying the property to avoid being indebted to Swanseas. Ken Pettit arranged terms and Les sold Harold the property for £600.  

Cycling in Fremantle was huge in the early years. The port was the big employer and everyone rode bicycles to work which was great for Swanseas. On his return to Fremantle at the end of the War, Harold resumed working for Swanseas as store manager, but things had changed; “Back in Fremantle no one was interested in racing and the cycling fraternity had dwindled”. 

Harold also managed the WA Professional Track Team for two years which included taking the team to Devonport in 1955. His manager’s report details frustrations with the team’s racing machines going astray in transit in Adelaide and with Barry Waddell’s injury during practice, putting him out of contention before racing had commenced.

In the 1960’s Harold, concerned that Howard Baldwin’s two university aged boys, Chris and Noel, could assume management roles at Swansea and become an impediment to his advancement, resigned, taking over the nearby BP garage and Avis agency.

Harold’s most memorable Swansea? His own custom bike with inch pitch chain and distinctive paint work done by Swansea painter and signwriter Arthur Curtis. The two sides of the bike were sharply divided with one side being white and the other red.

Harold putting the Robina Joy Trophy (for winners of the Australian Professional Track Championships) in the 9 William St shop window ahead of the 1956 Fremantle contest. Image courtesy of Harold Durant