Elgar and his bicycles

edward elgar on a bicycle in the malverns

In the summer of 1900 while staying at Birchwood Lodge, his cottage just beyond the north end of the Malvern Hills, Elgar learned to ride a bicycle.

His friend, Rosa Burley, remembered these times:  "Our cycling trips began in earnest after 'Gerontius'...There cannot have been a lane within twenty miles of Malvern that we did not ultimately find...to Upton, to Tewkesbury or Hereford, to the Vale of Evesham...to the lovely villages on the west side of the hills...as we rode, he would often become silent and I knew that some new melody or, more probably, some new piece of orchestral texture, had occurred to him".

Edward Elgar purchased two “Royal” Sunbeams over the years both of the machines had 28inch frames and three brakes.  He called them both 'Mr. Phoebus' and he was an enthusiastic cyclist, often going to the works for a 'tuning'.  The 'Gent's Royal' model sold for 16 guineas.

Elgar with his sunbeam bicycle
Elgar with his sunbeam bicycle
Elgar with his sunbeam bicycle

Sunbeam Cycle on Display

The bicycle on display in the birthplace is a 1910 26” frame Sunbeam ‘Golden’ Bicycle No.  118204. - Steel construction, 28” wheels, three-speed Sunbeam gear.  - Weight 38 lbs ( 17.25 Kilos) - Minimum saddle height 40” ( 98 cm.)  It is on loan from the owner Bob Cordon Champ.

This actual Sunbeam is owned and ridden by Bob, the acknowledged authority on ‘The Sunbeam’, for the last forty years.  It has now ‘lasted three gentlemen for a lifetime’ with only normal service and replacement tyres and saddle-cover. 

It has its own Elgar connection, having been utilised by sculptor, Jemma Pearson, as an ‘artist’s model' for her recent statue of Elgar for Hereford Cathedral.  It was present, and was ridden, at the statue’s unveiling. 

Bob Cordon Champ.  Author: The Sunbeam Motorcycle: The Illustrated History of Sunbeam Bicycles and Motorcycles: Sunbeam S.7 and S.8.

History of the Sunbeam

Advertised as ‘The Gentleman’s Bicycle’, ’The Sunbeam’ (never just ‘Sunbeam’) was made by the firm of John Marston Ltd, Paul St, Wolverhampton between 1887 and 1937 and by other makers until 1957. 

John was a keen cyclist and became interested in trying to improve the machines of the day.  Around 1887 he constructed a rather crude and heavy bicycle with solid tyres.  At the time, William Newill, the works foreman, built a much improved machine for his boss, with a special low frame because John Marston had short legs.  The cycle had been finished in the usual japanning colours of black and gold leaf and to the same high standard as Marston products of the time.

The story is told that John's wife, Ellen saw the sun reflected in the high gloss finish and so the bicycle became known as 'The Sunbeam', the name being registered in 1888.  John was so pleased with the cycle that he decided to manufacture them and gave William Newill a partnership in the new venture. 

Sunbeam bicycles were marketed as de-luxe machines, and are renowned for their smooth running and beautiful ‘japanned’ enamel finish, the latter a Marston speciality since their domestic-ware days in the 1860s.  ‘The Sunbeam’ bicycle was hand-built to each owner’s specification and as maker John Marston said, was ‘designed to last a gentleman for a lifetime’.

Frequently referred to in the press as the ’Rolls-Royce of bicycles’, their ‘Golden’ model had the frame lining in genuine 22ct gold leaf and was, like all Sunbeams, exclusive and extremely expensive.  Elgar’s second bicycle was a ‘Royal’, lined in red and bought in 1903 from Robbins, the firm’s agents, in Malvern Link.  The Sunbeam was priced, in Elgar’s day, at up to £23.0s.0d, approaching £2600.00 in 2018 values.

The unique feature of Marston’s design was the patented ‘The Little Oil-Bath’ chain-case, made from hand-soldered sections of formed tinplate, with the two outer layers sandwiching hessian cloth, in order to reduce the noise of the chain.  As the name implied, the oil-bath contains oil, which lubricates the rear wheel-hub, the chain and the pedal axle, making the bicycle very smooth to ride.  The gear-case cannot be removed, with any servicing needing a skilled hand.

The Sunbeam chain case logo
Sunbeam chain case logo
The Sunbeam chain case logo

The gears, when fitted, again silent in operation, were, like almost all of the machines, of Sunbeam’s own manufacture.  The hum of the tyres was usually the only sound produced by ‘The Silent Sunbeam’ in operation, a quality which may well have appealed to Elgar.  ‘The Sunbeam’ was made with the option, depending on the model, of single, two, four or six-speed gears.

Although supplied with a fitted tool-kit, and with concealed puncture-outfits and oiler, owners were advised not to service ‘The Sunbeam’ themselves but to return it to the Wolverhampton works for attention.  This recommendation is said to have been followed by Elgar, who, according to factory legend, sometimes went by train with his ‘Royal’ Sunbeam to ‘The Works’ on Saturdays, enabling him to watch his favourite team, The Wolves, afterwards returning home by an evening train with his serviced bicycle. 

Edward Elgar was 5’10” in height but, in line with other riders of the period, rode ‘tall-frame’ bicycles, such as this one, in the upright Edwardian fashion, the cyclist’s height, in relation to other road-users such as horse-riders, being seen as socially important.  A Sunbeam poster of the period showed both horse and Sunbeam riders, with the simple legend ‘Both are Thoroughbreds’.  Sunbeam, in common with other makers, modernised with the introduction of ‘low-bracket’ models in the 1920s, though the tall bicycle remained in the catalogues.

In common with other leisure cyclists of the period, Elgar would not have expected to ride up the steeper hills and would walk alongside the bicycle.  ‘Top’ gear was very high, being intended for flat or downhill use, ‘Normal’ gear for other roads.  Single-speed Sunbeams, perhaps the majority of those sold, had a gear-ratio corresponding to the three-speed’s ‘Normal’. 

Male riders would mount by use of the rear axle ‘step’ and would not expect to dismount at every road junction, though, since neither ‘Stop’ signs, traffic islands or traffic-lights had yet been adopted, halts were not as frequent as they are today.

Elgar at play
mural of elgar on a bicycle
Elgar at play