Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,165 pages of information and 245,632 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

William Hillman

From Graces Guide

William Hillman (1847–1921), founder of Hillman. See also Smith, Starley and Co


1847 December 30th. Born in Lewisham, Kent, the son of William Hillman, a Cab Master, and his wife Mary Taylor

1851 Living at Lewis Grove, Lewisham: William Hillman (age 41 born Lewisham), Fly Master employing 1 man. With his wife Mary Hillman (age 43 born Ledwardine, Hfd), and their four children; Harriett Hillman (age 9 born Lewisham); Frances Hillman (age 7 born Lewisham); William Hillman (age 3 born Lewisham); and Sarah Hillman (age 1 born Lewisham).[1]

1861 Living at Lewis Place, Lewisham: William Hillman (age 54 born Lewisham). Post(?) and Cab Master employing 2 men. With his wife Mary Hillman (age 53 born Leominster) and their six children; Mary Hillman (age 21 born Lewisham), Dressmaker; Harriett Hillman (age 19 born Lewisham), Dressmaker; Frances Hillman (age 17 born Lewisham); Elizabeth Hillman (age 15 born Lewisham); William Hillman (age 13 born Lewisham); and Sarah Hillman (age 11 born Lewisham).[2]

He trained in the engineering works of John Penn and Sons at Greenwich; Penn had also employed James Starley as his gardener, during which period Starley demonstrated his aptitude with mechanical devices.

Hillman moved to the Coventry Sewing Machine Co (later Coventry Machinists Co), which was the first British manufacturer of velocipedes, based on James Starley's adaptation of a French design.

c.1870 James Starley left the Coventry Machinists Co and, in conjunction with William Hillman, started on his own account in St. John's Street, Coventry to make sewing machines. Starley and Hillman patented the Ariel, an all-metal "ordinary" with modern-style wire-spoked wheels.

1871 Boarding at 11 Union Street, Coventry: William Hillman (age 23 born Lewisham), Sewing Machine manufacturer. In the house of George Addison (age 37 born Coventry), Sewing Machine maker, and his wife and other boarders.[3]

1872 Leaves the partnership of Smith, Starley and Co

1873 November 22nd. Married in Coventry to Fanny Moreton Brockas, the daughter of Henry Brockas, a Farmer.

1875 Founded his own enterprise Hillman and Herbert with capital put up by William Henry Herbert, the son of a Leicester builder and brother of Alfred Herbert. (A reference says that alongside bicycles, the company also made roller-skates and sewing machines). This was eventually so successful that four plants were established in Coventry and the successor company expanded to Nuremberg in 1896.

1881 Living at Stoke Road Villa, Coventry: William Hillman (age 33 born Lewisham), Velocipede Manufacturer employing 160 people. With his wife Fannie M. Hillman (age 29 born Sutton Coldfield) and their daughter Fannie M. Hillman (age 6 born Coventry). One servant.[4]

1891 Living at Stoke Green, Warwickshire: William Hillman (age 42 born Lewisham) Managing Director of Bicycle Works. With his wife Fanny M. Hillman (age 39 born Sutton Coldfield) and their five daughters; Mary B. Hillman (age 9 born Coventry); Evelyn Hillman (age 7 born Coventry); Dorothy A. Hillman (age 5 born Coventry); Margaret V. Hillman (age 4 born Coventry); and Edith R. Hillman (age 2 months born Coventry). One visitor. Three servants.[5]

1901 Living at Keresley, Coventry: William Hillman (age 53 born Lewisham), Mechanical Engineer - Cycle Manufacture - Director of Companies. With his wife Fanny Morton Hillman (age 49 born Sutton Coldfield) and their five daughters; Fanny Mabel Hillman (age 25 born Coventry); Beatrice Mary Hillman (age 19 born Coventry); Evelyn Hillman (age 17 born Coventry); Margaret Verena Hillman (age 14 born Coventry); and Kathleen Edith Hillman (age 10 born Coventry). Three servants.[6]

1911 Living at Keresley Hall, Coventry: William Hillman (age 63 born Lewisham), Manufacturer - Cycles and Motors - Employer. With his wife Fanny M. Hillman (age 59 born Sutton Coldfield). Six servants.[7]

1921 Hillman died at his home, Keresley Hall, Coventry, on 4 February, a very wealthy man [8]


1921 Obituary[9]

Coventry manufacturing circles suffered the loss of a striking personality in the death of Mr. W. Hillman, which occurred at his home, Kersley Hall, on Thursday February 3rd, after an illness of considerable duration. Deceased has attained the age of 72 years, about fifty of which had been spent in Coventry, and in many respects this portion of his career are unique and remarkable.

The story of the pioneering days of the cycle trade is deeply interesting. In 1863, when the cycle trade was barely begun, ‘bone shaker’ bicycles, in fact, alone being the machine made, a young man from Leicester, with a natural and inherited business talent, was learning the hardware trade in the City of Three Spires – this was William Henry Herbert. In Coventry he made the acquaintance of a smart young engineer from John Penn and Co's famous marine engineering works at Greenwich, who had been ‘imported’ in to Coventry by the late James Starley, to put together ‘boneshakers’ at the Coventry Machinist’s Works.

Seven years rolled by. William Henry Herbert had gone to Leicester, while William Hillman, after working at the ‘Ariel’ and other factories, had started in a small way with some screw-making machinery, and had produced in his leisure a roller skate, which he took over to Leicester in 1875, looked up his old acquaintance Mr. Herbert, and from him got an introduction to the owner of the local rinks there. The result was that the skate was sold for £150.

This transaction, by which Mr. Hillman produced the article and Mr. Herbert found a ready sale for it, suggested naturally the thought that they each possessed the qualities the other wanted for success. The upshot was that Mr. Herbert and Mr. Hillman started in the ‘Premier’ works at Coventry in 1875, works very modest in those days, but later covering 12,000 square yards of ground.

At first their output was sewing machines only, but Mr. Hillman, being a very skilful bicycle rider, turned his attention to the cycle trade and produced the original ‘Premier’ bicycle, and subsequently the ‘Premier’ tricycle: very antiquated specimens now, but the making of which formed the nucleus of the splendid trade which the firm later enjoyed. They soon dropped the sewing machines and turned their energies to the rising cycle trade. Here Mr. Hillman’s inventive genius was of inestimable value and the result of the change in output was complete success.

The first big hit the ‘Premier’ concern made was in the ‘D. H. F.’ double hollow forks, and in this George Waller astonished the world in 1878 by riding 262 miles in 18 hours, 220 of which were without a dismount, at the Agricultural Hall in a six days’ competition. Waller’s total distance for the week was 1,400 miles, a wonderful tribute to the qualities of Mr. Hillman’s great success.

The ‘Cruiser’ tricycle later brought out by Messrs. Hillman, Herbert and Cooper, another of Mr. Hillman’s designs, was ridden north from London over rough roads, 250 miles in 24 hours, and thence on to Edinburgh in a total of two days and a few hours, a great performance.

To the skill of Mr. Hillman, the cycle world owes the introduction of the present safety bicycle, for although later copied on every hand, with more or less variation, the ‘Kangaroo’ was the first ‘safety’ bicycle, driven by two chains with a rotary motion, which was put on the market. And so successful was it, that it was not only ridden to beat the 100 miles record of the ‘ordinary’ bicycle in 1884, but in 1885 with Hale up, an altogether unprecedented performance was done on it, by which its own and every other record at the distance was eclipsed. A hundred miles was covered on the high road from Holbeach, via Peterborough, towards London, in 6 hours, 39 minutes 5 seconds.

The path performance of the ‘Kangaroo’ in 1885 roused sensations at the time, Mr. Engleheart won 25 prizes during that year, 17 of which were firsts and he covered three miles in 8 minutes 46.5 seconds – then a wonderful time. At Springfield he cut every amateur safety record from a quarter to five miles. Mr. Buckingham won 23 first prizes, four seconds, and three thirds, on the ‘Kangaroo’ in that year. In 1880 Mr. Cooper joined the firm, bringing with him the ‘Inextinguishable’ lamp.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hillman's mechanical skill was bringing forward great results, and in 1886 the firm was turning out no less than 212 different makes of machines, including a 30lb roadster cycle and a 40lb racing tricycle. At this time Mr. Hillman’s improvements had resulted in the turning out of a ‘Premier;’ cycle with 46in. wheels of equal size, front rack and pinion steering, band brake, and central gear and chains.

Mr. Hillman proved his adaptability by turning his attention, as a side line, to the invention of a tubular steel lawn tennis racket, which was claimed to not only be lighter, but firmer than those made of wood. Great hopes were entertained of these by the firm, but they were hardly realised. Tubular steel was a great hobby of the deceased inventor, and he turned out an automatic steel music stool of particular clever design.

The following cutting from an 1886 periodical is of interest: “Mr. Hill man drives a carriage constructed of mainly steel tricycle tubing, and the wheels of which are made spider fashion, and tyred with indiarubber. Not only is this carriage the perfection of ease to ride in but its weight – without losing strength – is so much less that that of ordinary carriages that the horse labour is enormously reduced. Similar carriages have been made for Lord Granville and others, and the day will shortly come when the rush for similar vehicles will be immense.”

The year following the commencement of the firm built another factory, and for many years not one passed without some additions.

In 1886 Mr. Hillman instituted the Auto Machinery Company, which is still a very flourishing concern, and was later connected with the Patent Brake and Handlebar Syndicate, which in 1898 was dealing with the manufacture of a back-pedalling brake, which superseded the old tyre-wearing plunger brake, and was followed by the more modern rim-brake. Helical tubing was another important venture which Mr. Hillman originated, while he also held a large interest in the Sparkbrook Manufacturing Co.

Ever moving with the times, Mr. Hillman foreshadowed the coming of the motor-car, and in 1907 started the Hillman Motor Company. Mainly through his efforts the firm made steady progress, and at the present time it is one of the busiest factories in the city, with prospects which are considered very bright. He was a keen and enthusiastic advocate of motor racing, and specialised in the manufacture of racing cars. The Hillman car at the present time holds many of the prominent records. Quite recently at Brooklands, Mr. G. Bedford (who drove the deceased’s funeral chassis) on a Hillman light car, set up world’s records and covered 78 miles 1,280 yards in an hour. Deceased’s quiet and retiring personality had endeared him to his employees and friends alike, and he will be greatly missed.

The Funeral

Amid every manifestation of sympathy and respect the remains of the late Mr. Hillman, were laid to rest in the Keresley Churchyard, near his home, on Monday.

The body was conveyed to the church on a Hillman chassis, followed by a new Hillman car loaded with a beautiful collection of floral tributes. The cortege was completed by firm representatives and some 120 employees from the various works in which the deceased was interested.

The cortege was met by the Rev. W. Kerr, M.A., Vicar of Keresley, and the Rev. E. P. Sherwood, rector of Baginton, by whom the service was conducted. The body was contained in a Warwickshire unpolished oak casket, enclosed in an elm shell, with heavy brass fittings, and hence the inscription “William Hillman, died February 4th, 1821.”

Those present included Capt. Wilks, Mr. P. R. Hill, and Major Dick (sons-in-law), Capt. Black (of the Hillman Company), Mr. W. H. Hughes (a life-long friend and co-director with deceased), Mr. Hugh Rotherham, Mr. Edgar Turrail, Mr. T. Meredith, Mr. Percy Pridmore, Mr. A. J. Probert, (Draper’s Club), Mr. E. V. Dodman (Works Manager, Hillman Co), Mr. C. Absalom, (secretary, Auto), Mr. ? Seeley (general Manager, Auto), Mr. Wheeler (managing director, Sparkbrook), Mr. Hewitt (late Premier), Mr. Linford (secretary, Sparkbrook). Representative of a gathering of employees, the following foreman were present: Messrs. H. Richardson, Percy Shaw, C. Partridge, G. Bedford, A. Grice, H. Hancocks, J. Nelson, H. Smith, P. Howell, etc.

There were wreaths from the staff of the Hillman Motor Company, two from the employees of the Hillman Motor Company, Mrs. Frances (Kenilworth), Mr. and Mrs. E. W. Walford, Mr. and Mrs. Dodman, Edith and Will Hughes, and Mrs. Clarke, Ethel and May.

An Appreciation

‘Rover’ in this week’s Cycling Notes in 'The Midland Daily Telegraph’ writes the following appreciation of Mr. Hillman.

The Coventry cycle and motor industry has sustained a severe loss by the death of Mr. W. Hillman one of the founders of the late firm of Hillman, Herbert and Cooper Ltd., the makers of the Premier bicycles and tricycles, the Hillman Motor Company, Ltd., The Auto Machinery Co, Ltd., the Sparkbrook Manufacturing Co. Ltd., etc. Among the notable introductions made by Mr. Hillman are 'The Kangaroo', or dwarf ordinary bicycle, with geared-up front wheel, double hollow forks, the Sparkbrook tricycle balanced gear axle in 1883, helical tubing, etc. The Kangaroo was brought out in 1884, and had a big vogue until it was superseded by the safety bicycle in 1885. Hillman, Herbert and Cooper also made hollow, steel-spoked wheels for light spring carts and traps, which at one time looked as though they would become universal.

Mr. Hillman was undoubtedly a prolific inventor of mechanical devices, and seldom made anything that was not appreciated by cyclists. I have heard several excellent first-hand accounts of the thoughtfulness and philanthropic work among the staff and employees of the firms with whom he was associated. He was one of the old-time employers who came in to direct touch with those who worked under him and he will be missed by a large number of people. In addition when he joined the Coventry Machinists Co. in 1869, he took up cycling with avidity and in 1870-72 won many races at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere.


1873 November 22nd. Married in Coventry to Fanny Moreton Brockas (1851-1927), the daughter of Henry Brockas, a Farmer. They had six daughters and a son.

1875-1964 Fannie Mabel Hillman - Unmarried

1876 November 1st. Private baptism November 5th. William Hillman (unconfirmed but death may be at end of 1876 - shortly after birth)

1881- Mary Beatrice Hillman (1898 Trinity college of Music award for violin[10])

1883-1996 Evelyn Hillman married Percy Rowland Hill

1885-1975 Dorothy Annie Hillman married Thomas Sidney Dick

1887-1965 Margaret Verena Hillman married John Paul Black

1891-1972 Edith Kathleen Hillman married Spencer Bernau Wilks

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1851 Census
  2. 1861 Census
  3. 1871 Census
  4. 1881 Census
  5. 1891 Census
  6. 1901 Census
  7. 1911 Census
  8. The Times, Thursday, Jun 02, 1921
  9. Coventry Herald - Friday 11 February 1921
  10. Leamington Spa Courier - Saturday 19 November 1898
  • DNB
  • Wikipedia
  • Coventry’s Motorcycle Heritage by Damien Kimberley. Published 2009. ISBN 978 0 7509 5125 9