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16 May 2012 3 comments

Days Gone By - part 1 - The Brooks Tea Rooms

Curiosities Bicycles Heritage Stories
Days Gone By - part 1 - The Brooks Tea Rooms

Mrs. Brooks was always on hand with a bowl of dilute beef extracts for weary travellers.

Editor's note- While recently scouring a car boot at a Nottingham jumble, we decided to happen upon a dusty wooden crate marked with the company logo.  Inside we found an amazing collection of historical notes and photographs about the Brooks company from the late Victorian era.  These notes fill in some gaps left in the Brooks Historical Record. We are still putting together the pieces of this massive find, but are able to already share some of it with you. The first of which are details concerning the Brooks Tea Rooms, related forthwith.

That late 19th Century Birmingham was a hotbed of both biking and bike manufacture is a fact of which even the most casual student of cycling history will be aware. By then, Brooks was already the world's pre-eminent purveyor of bike saddles, while Sunbeam in nearby Wolverhampton could barely meet the customer demand for its "Dwarf Safety".

A lesser known fact, however, is that England's Second City was also the site of the world's first incarnation of what we now know as "the Cycling Culture Café".

The Brooks Tea Rooms opened its doors in 1877, just a stone's throw from the Brooks Works in Great Princess Street. Initially planned by management as a sort of open Works canteen, it quickly attracted regular hordes of non-employees with its selection of beef potions, pork scratchings and triple fermented gooseberry cider.

As "cycling for fun" was at the time still considered somewhat of a non-mainstream pursuit, its practitioners had no obvious contact network, so the Tea Rooms quickly became a hub for fledgling cliques.

It was always Death before Dishonour on balmy Wednesday evenings at the Tea Rooms.

The Rooms famously backed out on to open park space, and in much the same way as fixed gear enthusiasts nowadays gather at cycle culture cafés to race each other on Hometrainers, so too did Penny Farthing riders meet behind the shop on Friday evenings to see who could do the most laps before succumbing to exhaustion.

As the Ordinary gave way to the Bike With A Chain, Brooks's Tea Rooms promptly became the place to hold forth tipsily on the subject of Gear Ratios, Pedal Straps, and biking gear in general. The nascent bike messaging trade in the Midlands had also found a spiritual home, and our 1883 product catalogue featured a short piece documenting the popularity of Brooks saddles among local "Expeditipeders" (sic).

Artist's impression of a courier race finishing in the park behind the Tea Rooms. (ca. 1882)

Clearly, in a new era where the Biggest Wheel no longer signified the Biggest Gear, rider machismo needed a rethink. And while various local suppliers struggled to re-tool their machinery for the production of sprockets and chainrings, the Brooks Tea Rooms became the parliament of choice for riders to debate whether Most Teeth, or perhaps Heaviest Ring was truly "The Guv'nor".

Medical Research had not yet established the inherent usefulness of the human kneecap.

It was hard to disagree with somebody waving one of these in your face.

Still, all sides managed to get along relatively amicably, content to split their differences over a pint or two of Mrs. Brooks's patented "Fat Goose". Afficionadoes of the Ordinary, the Big Ring and the Heavy Ring continued to meet, chat and race with each other at the Tea Rooms, and would doubtless have continued to do so, but for a cruel twist of Fate at the turn of the 20th century.

1902 saw Sunbeam's owner John Marston sell the company to his son Charles, who managed to successfully file patents for a freewheel system in the same year. This step flooded Birmingham and Wolverhampton with correspondingly un-fixed wheels and an attendant number of novice cyclists, none of them using the power of their legs to slow down.

With the bicycle now accessible to even the frail, it became quickly ubiquitous on Birmingham streets, and there was thus clearly close to no market for selling refreshments in a meeting place whose target customer base comprised a putative, but now non-existent "Minority Sub-culture".

Late converts to freewheel discussing the good old days outside Mrs. Brooks's Cider Corner.

Long standing plans to franchise the Brooks Tea Rooms in other European cities were duly shelved, and Mr. Brooks devoted his entire energies from this point onwards to making saddles. The shutters came down on the Tea Rooms for the final time in March 1903, but Mrs. Brooks continued to sell cider from a considerably smaller premises on the other side of the park to thirsty bikers of any stripe until shortly before the First World War.

Was Ariel in the S.A.S.?
Joss 23 May 2016 at 16:31
Much of my life has been spent cycling, drinking various bevvies with my mates, and passing these habits on to the youth in our neighborhood. The rest has pretty much been wasted.
McQ 23 May 2016 at 16:31
nice find and enjoyable article , looking forward to reading more once you've sorted through it all ,
matt lynch 23 May 2016 at 16:31