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British Industrial History

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Harry Lawson

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1896. Harry Lawson and the Lord Mayor at the 1896 London-Brighton Run.

Henry John Lawson (1852–1925), bicycle designer and company promoter, was an early enthusiast for the motorcar and bought up many patents in an attempt to control the industry. He launched the first major show in May 1896 and also used his influence to remove the 4 mph speed limit.

1852 February 23rd. He was born at 1 Nevill's Court in the City of London, the son of Thomas Lawson, brass turner and Calvinistic Methodist minister, and his wife, Ann Lucy, née Kent, who were married in Q4 1849 at Newington.

1861 Living at 31 Great Bath Street, Clerkenwell: Thomas Lawson (age 32 born Vauxhall), a Mechanical Model Maker employing one man and one boy. With his wife Ann Lucy (age 43 born City of London), and their children Henry John Lawson (age 9 born City of London), a Scholar; Thomas Lawson (age 7 born in London City), a Scholar; Miriam (age 5 born Clerkenwell), a Scholar; and Martha A. (age 2 born Clerkenwell). Also a visitor. [1]

c.1867 He gained a two-year apprenticeship at W. Melville's Iron Factors at Islington

1871 Living at 43 John Street, Finsbury: Ann Lucy Lawson (age 53 born London). With her children Henry John Lawson (age 19 and born at Clerkenwell), a Model Engineer; Thomas Lawson (age 17 born London), a Commercial Clerk; and Martha A. (age 12 born Clerkenwell), a Scholar. [2]

1873 The family moved to Brighton. Little is known about Lawson's early life, but he followed his father as a mechanical model maker in London and then appears to have gained experience in the bicycle trade in Brighton as a young man. With his employer, James Likeman, he patented a lever-driven bicycle

1870s Lawson designed several types of bicycle in the 1870s. His efforts were described as the "first authentic design of safety bicycle employing chain-drive to the rear wheel which was actually made", and he has been ranked alongside John Kemp Starley as an inventor of the modern bicycle.

1876 Haynes and Jefferis made a few 'low' bicycles to the patented design of James Likeman and Lawson [3].

1876 Patent. '2649. And James Likeman and Henry John Lawson, both of Brighton, in the county of Sussex, have given the like notice in respect of the invention of "improvements in the construction of bicycles.'[4]

1877 Patent. '972. To Henry John Lawson, of Brighton, in the county of Sussex, Engineer, for the invention of "improvements in the construction of bicycles."'[5]

1878 Listed as 'Lawson, Henry John, bicycle agent, Preston road'[6] Note: Rev Thomas Lawson (Congregational) is at 27 Rose Hill Terrace

1878 Patent. '2492. To Henry John Lawson, of London-road Viaduct, Brighton, in the county of Sussex, Engineer, for the invention of "improvements in the construction of velocipedes, including certain improvements in the gearing wheels, alarms, spanners, roller bearings, and wheels, belonging thereto, which may be used independently."[7]

1878 Partnership dissolved. '...Henry John Lawson and James Likeman, trading under the style or firm of Lawson and Likeman, at Brighton, in the county of Sussex, Patentees and Manufacturers of the Safety Bicycle, was dissolved, by mutual consent...'[8]

1879 January 25th. He married at the Providence Chapel, Brighton, Elizabeth (Lizzie) (b. 1850), daughter of George Olliver, carpenter. They had two daughters and two sons.

He moved to Coventry where he was involved with Haynes and Jefferis and merged it with the Tangent and Coventry Tricycle Co of which he became manager. He sold his Brighton business to W. H. Halliwell, a gentleman who was afterwards very well known in trade and political circles in Coventry.

He started up Queen Cycle Co

1880 January. Proceedings for his bankruptcy. '...Proceedings for Liquidation by Arrangement or Composition with Creditors, instituted by Henry John Lawson, formerly carrying on business at the Rink, Lewes-road, and in London-road, both in Brighton, in the county of Sussex, and then residing in Springfield-road, in Brighton aforesaid, afterwards in lodgings at No. 17, Hertford-terrace, in the city of Coventry, and now in lodgings at No. 40, Hertford-street, in the same city, Machinist...'[9]

1880 Lawson brought out his chain-driven "Bicyclette", which he had patented the previous year (No. 3934, 30th September, 1879). This machine had ‘bridle-rod’ steering, but it must be borne in mind that, in his patent specification, Lawson claimed "the steering handle is connected to the said fork by means of a bar, or the last mentioned fork is arranged at an angle so as to bring the handle within reach of the rider." The words in italics are supremely important. It was the success of the ‘Bicyclette’ which caused George Woodcock to present Lawson with a gold watch engraved "To the inventor of the Safety Bicycle." Lawson persuaded the Rudge Company to make a number of "Bicyclettes" but limited demand led to commercial failure [10].

1879. Lawson's chain-driven Bicyclette. From 'Bartleet's Bicycle Book'.

1880 Lawson patented his first motor-cycle (propelled by “compressed gas ") in 1880, patent No. 3913, 20th September.

It was not till many years later (1895) that Lawson was publicly acclaimed as the inventor of the rear-driven "safety" bicycle.

1880 Patented a motor car driven by a petrol engine. [11]

1880 With Henry Hughes and Co he claims to have invented the first motive-power tricycle. [12]

1880 When the Tangent Cycle Company joined with Dan Rudge to become the Rudge Cycle Co he became sales superintendent.

1881 HJL was living at 860 Warwick Road, Coventry age 28 and was a bicycle salesman. Also in the house were his wife Elizabeth (age 31) and Elizabeth A. (age 1) plus one servant (age 14). His father (a Calvinistic minister), mother and sister Martha A. were living at 109 Ditchling Rise, Preston, Brighton. His brother Thomas Lawson was living in Strood, Kent as an Accountant and Independent Minister with his wife Rebekah and her mother Amy Sandland.[13]

1883 Partnership dissolved. '...the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned, Barnet Joseph Vanderlyn and Henry John Lawson, at the National Works, Spon-street, in the city of Coventry, as Velocipede Manufacturers, under the style or firm of the National Bicycle and Tricycle Manufacturing Company, was, on the 19th day of November, 1883, dissolved by mutual consent...'[14]

1887 He was involved in the conversion of Rudge into a joint stock company.

1889 Floated the London and Scottish Trustee and Investment Company which became the London and Scottish Issue Company and this was also liquidated but gave birth to the Financial Trust and Agency in 1890

1891 Henry Lawson was living at Coniston Lodge, Watford age 39, described as a Director of Trust Company with his wife Lizzie (age 41) and their children Lily (age 11), Maria (age 9), Thomas (age 7), Henry (age 6) and an infant son (age 1 month) plus Alice Lawson (age 23) and Francis Kent (age 67) both visitors. Four servants. His brother Thomas Lawson was in Northfleet, Kent as a Congregational Minsiter with his wife and three children [15]

1892 He launched the British Cattle Foods Co but this resulted in liquidation in 1892[16]

1895 As one of many attempts to promote his schemes and lobby Parliament for the elimination of the Red Flag Act, Lawson and Frederick Simms founded the Motor Car Club of Britain.

1896 Launched the New Beeston Cycle Co; the first works to be taken over would be Quinton Cycle Co. In a P.S. to the announcement, Harry Lawson said this was the last Cycle Co that he intended to be connected with[17].

1896 He set up the Daimler motor company with Gottlieb Daimler and Frederick Lanchester having purchased the rights from Frederick Simms. Was chairman. [18].

1895 Chairman of the Beeston Pneumatic Tyre Co and applies for its winding up. '..."That it is desirable to reconstruct the Company and accordingly that the Company be wound up voluntarily...'[19]

1895 Holding powers of attorney on behalf of the Assurance Trust Corporation in the winding up of the Hounslow Brewery Co[20]

1896 Chairman of Beeston Pneumatic Tyre Co and the British Motor Syndicate and a director of the Great Horseless Carriage Co. President of the Motor Car Club. [21] [22]

1896 November 14th. Lawson and the Motor Car Club organised the first London to Brighton run, the "Emancipation Run", which was held to celebrate the relaxation of the Red Flag Act, which eased the way for the start of the development of the British motor industry.

Lawson attempted to monopolise the British automobile industry through the acquisition of foreign patents. He acquired exclusive British rights to manufacture the De Dion-Bouton and Bollée vehicles; bought the Humber Bicycle Co; and British patent rights for US bicycle designs. He founded a succession of promotional companies including: the British Motor Syndicate (which was the first of many of his schemes to collapse in 1897), followed by the British Motor Co, British Motor Traction Co, Great Horseless Carriage Co, Motor Manufacturing Co (MMC), and he bought in the rights of Gottlieb Daimler, and of Edward Joel Pennington, forming the Anglo-American Rapid Vehicle Co.

1897 Criticism of a patent of Lawson's that had just been published, that it was of little inventiveness, something that could have been achieved by a competent mechanic [23].

1899 Produced the 'Motorwheel' in 1899 as a self-contained unit that could replace a pony in the shafts of a trap. This was a single-cylinder air-cooled engine mounted on a light open frame and driven through gearing. [24]

1900 Newspaper suggestion that if Lawson's involvement in the British Electric Street Tramways Company had been known, the subscription for shares would have been even poorer than was the case, because of the recent experience with British Motor Co, Great Horseless Carriage Co, London Steam Omnibus Co[25].

1901 His wife and six children were resident at Eglington, Lyndhurst Gardens, Hampstead but he was not shown there [26]

1901 The British Motor Syndicate was reorganized and renamed the British Motor Traction Co led by Selwyn Edge.

1904 After a succession of business failures, Lawson's Daimler subsidiary was reorganised

Many of Lawson's patents were not as defining as he had hoped, and from 1901 a series of legal cases saw the value in his holdings eroded. Lawson's patent rights were subsequently eroded through successful lawsuits by the Automobile Mutual Protective Association.

1904 Lawson, aged 52 and of Lyndhurst Gardens, Hampstead, and E. T. Hooley, aged 45 and of Risley Hall, near Derby were tried in court for fraudulently obtaining money from shareholders; Lawson, after representing himself in court, was found guilty and sentenced to one year's hard labour. [27]

1911 Living at 11 Ornan Road, Hampstead (age 59 born City of London), Electrical Engineer and Employer. With his wife (married 32 years with six children of five are living) Elizabeth (age 61 born Brighton) and their son Reginald W. Lawson (age 20 born Watford), a Stockbroker's Clerk. Also his sister-in-law Sarah Cleary (age 56 born Brighton), a Widow and his nephew Victor E. Robinson (age 13 born Brighton). Two servants.[28]

1913 February Application for restoration of a lapsed patent. '...Henry John Lawson has made an application for the restoration of the patent granted to him for an invention, entitled "Improvements in wheels for vehicles," numbered 14099 of 1908, and bearing date the 3rd day of July, 1908, which expired on the 3rd day of July, 1912, owing to the non-payment of the prescribed renewal fee...'[29]

1915 HJL with John Henry Swinburn and C. W. Langford were fined for irregularities in the shares of the Bleriot Manufacturing Aircraft Co, the English branch of Louis Blériot's aircraft company. Lawson secretly acquired control of the company just before a public subscription to help expand its war effort, but soon found itself in breach of its contract with Blériot; when this came to light the company was wound up and its director found guilty of fraud and dishonesty.[30]

1925 July 12th. Lawson died at his home, 25 Roxborough Avenue, Harrow, Middlesex.

One son, John Oxenham Lawson, who married Enid Dorothy Maxwell in 1926 [31].


1876. Lawson's 'Safety' Bicycle. From 'Bartleet's Bicycle Book' No. 6.

No. 6. Harry John Lawson's first lever driven ‘safety’ bicycle, patent No. 2649/1876. Weight 65.5 lbs. For this machine Lawson registered the word ‘safety,’ which was suggested to him by his father, a minister of religion.

The patent was taken out in the joint names of James Likeman and H. J. Lawson, and it has been suggested that Likeman, whose name appears before that of Lawson in the patent specification, was the true inventor, Lawson finding the money.

It is interesting to note one of the claims in the specification:— "The rider drives the machine by hand and foot levers, either separately or in combination." This system was not original, having been used on the "Rantoone" tricycle made by Peyton and Peyton, Bordesley Works, Birmingham, in 1864.

In 1879 Lawson brought out his chain-driven ‘safety’ bicycle, Patent No. 3924, which was made by the Rudge Co, in whose employ Lawson then was. It was for the introduction of this machine that Lawson was hailed as the inventor of the rear-driven ‘safety’ bicycle, and at a dinner held at the Queen's Hotel, Coventry, on 13th July, 1895, a gold watch was presented to him with a testimonial bearing the signatures of many men well known in the trade.

The dinner and presentation were organised by Walter Phillips and the members of the Humber Cycling Club. Lawson's chain-driven machine was known as the 'bicyclette' (a word which was adopted in France and used in that country for many years to describe the rear-driven dwarf bicycle and to distinguish it from the older high 'ordinary').

This Lawson lever driven bicycle, No. 6, was purchased by H. W. Bartleet from H. Horsley, of Brighton, whose father had purchased Halliwell's business when the latter moved to Coventry; it is likely, therefore, that this identical bicycle passed through the hands of Lawson, Halliwell, and the Horsleys Senior and Junior. [32]


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1861 Census
  2. 1871 Census
  3. Biography of Henry John Lawson by Richard A. Storey, ODNB [1]
  4. [2] Gazette Issue 24367 published on the 26 September 1876. Page 24 of 54
  5. [3] [4] Gazette Issue 24448 published on the 27 April 1877. Page 11 of 62
  6. 1878 Post Office Directory of Sussex
  7. [5] [6] Gazette Issue 24606 published on the 19 July 1878. Page 12 of 56
  8. [7] Gazette Issue 24635 published on the 22 October 1878. Page 24 of 54
  9. [8] Gazette Issue 24804 published on the 20 January 1880. Page 36 of 52
  10. Bicycle: The History by David V. Herlihy, Yale University Press, 2006
  11. The Times, Thursday, May 21, 1896
  12. The Times, Thursday, May 21, 1896
  13. 1881 Census
  14. [9] Gazette Issue 25314 published on the 1 February 1884. Page 18 of 42
  15. 1891 Census
  16. [10] Gazette Issue 26354 published on the 16 December 1892. Page 93 of 96
  17. The Standard, 18 June 1896
  18. The Standard 5 March 1897
  19. [11] Gazette Issue 26606 published on the 12 March 1895. Page 36 of 90
  20. [12] Gazette Issue 26637 published on the 25 June 1895. Page 65 of 66
  21. The Times, Tuesday, May 19, 1896
  22. The Times, Tuesday, Dec 01, 1896
  23. The Pall Mall Gazette 4 March 1897
  24. The Light Car by C. F. Caunter. Published in 1970. ISBN 11 290003 8
  25. The Pall Mall Gazette 27 December 1900
  26. 1910 Census
  27. The Times, Wednesday, May 18, 1904
  28. 1911 Census
  29. [13] Gazette Issue 28692 published on the 21 February 1913. Page 36 of 116
  30. The Times, Thursday, Dec 30, 1915
  31. The Times, Wednesday, Jan 27, 1926
  32. Bartleet's Bicycle Book
  • Veteran and Vintage Cars by Peter Roberts. Published 1972
  • Wikipedia
  • DNB
  • Daimler Century by Lord Montagu and David Burgess-Wise. Published 1995. ISBN 1-85260-494-8