Centuries of Saddle-Making in Birmingham: A Factory Visit with Brooks England

Although I’ve struggled with a lifelong tendency to overcommit, I’m not a total megalomaniac. A few months ahead of this year’s Bespoked, I asked Josh to make the trip over from Arizona to London to cover the event while I (along with my business partner, another Josh, and an amazing team of volunteers) administered it. Running the show was already a massive feat, and I’d have done a disservice to both the show and the builders by trying to document it at the same time. Josh flew over and covered a huge number of bikes and builders with the diligence and dedication that they deserve (for a refresher, you can view those pieces here and here). It was cool to finally meet the guy on the other side of the emails, as we’d been working together for the better part of a year. During the show we were both focused on very separate tasks, but we made some time for a little road trip to visit the factory where Brooks England manufactures leather saddles, which is just outside of Birmingham in the little industrial town of Smethwick.

A Design Classic

Brooks has been going for about one hundred and fifty years, which is pretty close to how long bicycles have existed. For context, Brooks’ signature leather saddles were designed by its founder, John Boultby Brooks as an improvement on the wooden saddles that were ubiquitous during that era. While we’ve come a long way since velocipedes with wooden saddles, the classic Brooks B17 has barely changed since inception. It’s incredible how good design works that way: the real testament to the quality of a design solution is how long it continues to fulfill its purpose, unchanged.

Looking at catalogs going back over a century, Brooks have produced a number of fantastic contraptions over the years. While their core products have remained the same, some of these other items were released with a zealous fervor and remarkably modern frequency during J.B. Brooks’s lifetime. Even while some items have come and gone—such as gun racks for hunting to tennis racket holders, military saddlebags, and backpacks—all the basic design of Brooks saddles has remained more or less unchanged.

Brooks have continually made leather saddles in the same way, in almost the same place, longer than any other manufacturer in the UK or the rest of the world. The “new” factory in Smethwick, a little industrial town that’s more or less been absorbed by Birmingham’s sprawl, was built in the 1950s after the old factory just around the corner was bombed during World War II.

Having been operating for almost a hundred years by that time, the leather saddle-making process was pretty dialed, so all the new machines were built at the time of the opening of the new factory, and those machines are the same machines currently being run every day. While many of the original manufacturers of the machines have gone out of business, they are serviced by local machine shops, and the factory has its own tool room, where some parts can be made in-house if needed.

Industry in “THE NORTH”

With its locale north of London’s M25 ring road, I’d consider Birmingham The North, as reaching it involves a driving couple of hours from London on the M1 following signs that read in loud block capitals ‘THE NORTH.’ Its inhabitants however consider it Midlands.

Birmingham has been synonymous with metalwork since the 1600s when the town was responsible for supplying parliamentarians with swords and armor during the English Civil War. Thus, it was the industrial heart of the UK by the time of the Industrial Revolution. As long as there has been industry (in the “modern” sense of the word) on this planet, Birmingham has been an industrial town. That industry brought with it a unique and diverse cultural history absent in many other industrial towns. The Quaker suburb of Bournville was formed in the 1820s around the Cadbury chocolate factory.

The area still has no off-licenses or pubs, and the sale of cigarettes is prohibited. Birmingham is also home to the second largest population of British Pakistanis after Bradford, and one of the largest expat Pakistani populations in the world after Qatar, where around 6500 Pakistani migrant workers recently died during the construction of this year’s football world cup stadium. A large number of British Pakistani families (at that time Pakistan was part of India which was part of the British empire) moved to the UK during World War I and II, to work in Birmingham’s munitions factories.

After the war, both the Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations in Birmingham grew further, following the turmoil caused by the British empire and the partition of Pakistan from India. These families made up a major part of the workforce in the steel and textile industries in the Midlands and the North of England, often working less desirable hours in squalid conditions. The 1960s also saw an influx of migrant workers in the form of doctors and medical staff serving the NHS. Due to its population of British Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers, Birmingham has some of the best food in the UK, which was another reason I was super excited about this particular shop visit.

Bleary-eyed and half-mad from the 30-hour continuous show packdown, I collected Josh from Rob Quirk’s workshop where he was visiting, in Hackney Wick. I’m glad Rob was there to reassure Josh that he’d survived long sleep-deprived drives with me before, otherwise I’m sure Josh would have known better than to get in the car. We arrived safely in Smethwick a few hours later.

The Smell of Metal

With the car windows open just a crack, driving into town we were greeted with the unmistakable aroma of metal. Welding? Grinding? Machines? I don’t know which bit makes the smell or if it’s just the smell of steel. Sculpture, fabrication, tall bikes, it’s the smell of making things, the smell of fun. I remember normal people visiting my workshop saying “it smells amazing in here,” and my leaving that same workshop to go to private views of art shows or to have dinner with the same people.

I was acutely aware that while they smelled of Comme De Garcons or Aesop, and dressed in luxury beige, my Uniqlo trousers were filled with holes and covered in white stains from carcinogenic boric acid flux. Metal permeated my persona in the way that cigarettes stain a smoker’s teeth. It’s a smell that set me apart from my peers for a long time, and not in a good way, so for me, the scent of industry is bittersweet. I felt self-conscious walking into a factory, in an industrial town with clean trousers and a camera.

As a shop visit, Brooks is a really different proposition to visiting a small independent bicycle builder, because the guy who designed the thing has been dead for over a hundred years. So while the factory itself is incredible, it’s trickier to see the humanity and motivation that went into building it. Thankfully we had Jim Holland, Brooks’s marketing manager to show us around the factory and, later, Birmingham’s legendary Balti houses. Thinking about the number of saddles produced, the factory is relatively compact. Each machine has its place and having made the same product for 150 years, in exactly the same way, it’s unlikely it’ll expand to accommodate anything new.

More or less everything is from the ’50s, so it feels as though we’ve stepped into some kind of boomer era “how they make it” British Pathé film segment. Imagine a post-war factory making something in a grey Northern town. Now imagine that shot wide angle and in technicolor, and you’re at Brooks. The room we enter first is a sort of loading bay with a big roller shutter, filled with spools of heavy gauge wire.

The factory floor is divided into two (and a bit) main areas. Metalwork, leather work, and packing (packing’s the bit because it doesn’t have its own room). The spools go into the metal work side, where they’re fed into the machines that neatly line the factories right hand side. Each machine makes one part, however, depending on the part, that means a number of different operations with differing levels of automation.

Little Metropolis

The machine that makes the rails is fed by one of the massive spools of wire. It’s an open machine, so you can see everything going on and it’s flat like a massive alignment table, where all of the various stops and jig setups are moving around. It reminds me of a toy train in many ways, like a little town machined from case-hardened steel, where everything is automated; like a greasy, Brutalist architect’s model from a dystopian future. The wire is fed in and the little buildings in the town slide about, mysteriously deforming the wire in a way that seems so abstract, until it’s bent back on itself and the process is mirrored.

By the time I realized it was making rails, the bit of wire had been cut off and shot out into a metal cage filled with rails and another rail was halfway to being made. The process is seductively mechanical. It’s exciting to feel my perceptions of the properties of a material shift through just one process, from a flexible raw material that can be rolled onto and unrolled from a spool, to a rigid rail ready to hold the weight of a cyclist for decades over unpaved roads.

The two machines beside it look identical to each other; a little hole surrounded by tools that don’t seem to move. Both machines are feeding wire through the ring of little tools, which coils from the friction and fires out a couple of feet into a bin as a spring. Although they look the same, one makes exclusively left-hand coiled springs and the other makes exclusively right-hand springs.

The Soft Fleshy Bits

As well as being head of marketing, Jim is also a photographer, so he draws our attention to the afternoon light that floods in through huge windows of the metal workshop, illuminating the machines that require manual operation. Each machine has a workstation, where a person sits and fulfills a part of the process; cutting out cantle plates for sheet metal with a huge punch, or aligning them in a press to be deformed into three-dimensional objects. Each machine has a counter on it, counting the machine’s actuations. Not all of the workers are cyclists, but even those who don’t ride understand their work as important and meaningful, in part through the touring cyclists that frequently visit the factory and share their stories from the road.

The factory and workforce are quietly eccentric. Crates branded “property of Royal Mail” that haven’t seen service with Royal Mail since the 50s when the factory opened hold parts. People have named their tools and machines, workstations are personalized with newspaper and magazine cutouts, or pictures of family, and the factory’s workforce each takes ownership of their small part of the factory and the process. In that way, the factory feels like its own little village.

Over in the leather part of the building, it’s easier to see and understand the process as being connected to the manufacture of leather saddles. Hides from a herd of British cattle are piled high on shelves in a storage room. From there, they are selected and punched into saddle shapes, soaked on racks to become flexible, then pressed into three-dimensional objects with a heated copper press, before being polished, chamfered, and riveted onto the nose and cantle of the saddle by hand. Music plays through big speakers in each room loud enough to be heard over the sound of metalwork machinery being operated, and the whole factory moves in an air of quiet contentment.

At four o’clock work stops, the workers say a swift goodbye to each other and the building filled with its Boris Artzybasheffesque machines becomes dormant. No longer a hive of process, we poke around a bit and look at all the specific tooling and jigs that have been made over the years for each model of saddle, and the toolroom where a robot butt in the corner is repeatedly stressing and counting the actuations of the ro-butt on a saddle in a little copper cage.

The Real Reason to Visit Birmingham

That night we stayed in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Heading into town we paid the city’s “clean air zone” fee, although the streets still smelled like metal, with just a hint of perfume and coffee. Jim took us to Lasan – an Indian restaurant, now in its second decade, serving some of the finest Indian food in the UK. Jim described it as “the UK’s shortest Dishoom queue,” but it was better than that. It was both thought out and plentiful, a rare thing in the UK. Lasan’s luxury interior is a stark juxtaposition to the building’s industrial roots, and this is true for a number of the design shops and specialty cafés in the jewelry quarter.

In spite of Birmingham’s gentrification, and a number of Brooks’ other products being made in Italy or elsewhere, the factory in Smethwick continues, unchanged by time or its surroundings, to produce the best leather saddles in the world.

Color photography: Josh Weinberg; analog black/white photography: Petor Georgallou