Thomas Humber and his early years in Nottingham

Photo:Thomas Humber

Thomas Humber

The Paul Nix Collection

By Joseph Earp

Thomas Humber was born on 16th October 1841. From the time Humber founded his factory at Beeston in 1869 to the time the company was sold in 1896, Humber established himself as the first maker of series production cars in England.

The young Thomas moved to Nottingham from Yorkshire in 1849 with his parents Samuel Humber and his wife Lucy, nee Turton. Thomas was to experience Nottingham’s Industrial life very young and was taken into the employ of a Mr Cross of Mortimer Street, Nottingham. He was not formerly apprenticed to Mr Cross’s trade of wheelwright and blacksmith but ‘picked it up’ well enough for his workmates and his foreman to notice his skill at forging parts for lace-making machinery.

After a year with Cross, Humber moved to join Bitterly Iron Co, and here, his exceptional skills and talent came to be noticed. Despite his success and the entreaties of his employer for him to stay, Humber wanted to broaden his experience and knowledge. The following years found him moving from employer to employer and learning his trade.

Prior to setting up on his own business, Humber was employed as ‘chief-blacksmith’ in the factory of William Campion on Roden Street in Nottingham. It was while working for Campion that Humber was inspired to go into bicycle making. In 1867, Campion visited Paris to exhibit the line of chain-stitch domestic sewing machines his company manufactured. While in Paris Campion saw and purchased a French velocipedes of Michaux type. This, he brought back to Nottingham and asked Thomas Humber to make six sets of copy forgings. At this date, the system where the pedals acted directly on the front wheel was a break through. Humber, however, was to improve this design and in 1868 created a safety bicycle whereby the pedals drove the rear wheel.

Humber now set up in business for himself, producing bicycles in a shed at the back of his house on Northumberland St. in Nottingham. Such was the high demand for Humber’s break through design he was forced to move to bigger premises on Stretton St, Nottingham. Here, Humber produced his ‘Spider Bicycle’ an early form of the ‘ordinary bicycle’ (penny farthing).

By the 1870’s Humber formed partnership with Frederick Cooper and Thomas Rushworth Marriott. The triumvirate proved to be a powerful combination with Humber continuing to devote his attention to design and production.

The now famous Humber works in Beeston was built in 1880. By 1892 Thomas Humber was employing 1200 people and when he branched into motor car production this rose to 1800. By this time the businesses were locating to other factories outside of Nottingham in Wolverhampton and Coventry. The Beeston Factory products however were synonymous with the highest quality.

By the time Humber died in 1910 of Cancer his work and legacy were revolutionary in influencing future motor and cycle companies. Even though Humber was not born in Nottingham it is his early working career in Nottingham industries that influenced the great man. From early years of small production in his shed at the bottom of his garden to becoming one of the largest motor and bicycle firms in Britain.

Article written by Joe Earp and Iris Tansley

The New Nottingham Hidden History Team

This page was added by Joseph Earp on 05/09/2012.
Comments about this page

Margaret Cooper's book 'The Beeston story', refers to the great exodus of people from Beeston when Humber production moved to Coventry. It says the Beeston factory had workforce of about 1200, and when a significant number of these were transferred to Coventry in 1908/09, it left around 600 empty houses in Beeston.

By Martin Ballance
On 17/03/2014

Everard L. Guilford wrote a little guide to Nottinghamshire which was published at just the time this movement of people was happening (it was published in 1910) and he says(p.56): "Beeston has grown during the last few years from a village into a town given over largely to manufactures. The chief cause of this sudden growth was the prescence of the Humber Cycle Works, where a very large staff was employed. These have recently been removed to Coventry, with the result that the population has decreased by 3000..."

By Edith Beevors
On 18/03/2014

explain how humber set up his factory at beeston 1869 when he was working on stretton street in1871 and cencus has him living there.most of your work is not new just copied from the humber cencus exists to prove he lived on northumberland st. this came  from the humber story.

By Brian Staples
On 23/10/2014

I have spent countless years studying the life and businesses of William Campion.
I have checked the exhibitor list for the 1867 Paris World Trade Expo and Campion's name does not appear there.  Moreover his chain-stitch sewing machine was not patented until 1870. Thomas Humber's business had been bought by a consortium of investors in 1897 and Humber was merely a consultant until he retired in 1892. The businesses weren't really locating to other factories in Wolverhampton and Coventry, these other cycle manufacturers had been bought by the same investors at the same time as Humber and combined as one company. Chain driven bicycles were most certainly not invented by 1868. 

By Brian Binns
On 23/03/2020

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