Sawyers Velocipede

Dover's Role in the Creation of the Bicycle:

Sawyers Velocipede Manufactory, Dover and Deal.The life of Willard Sawyer 1808 - 1892.

By Mark Frost, Dover Museum.

Edited by Francesca Street.

Willard Sawyer was a Dover carpenter who went on to be a velocipede manufacturer. Velocipedes were an early ancestor of the modern day bicycle. Sawyer  is a figure of national importance in the world of cycling and has been called "the first truly professional maker of man-powered vehicles."


The Sawyer family were from Kent, Willard was born in Romney in 1808. The family moved to Dover when Willard was still a boy and, despite being the youngest of several children, he became head of the household after his father's death.

The 1841 census lists Willard as a carpenter and as head of his household in Chapel Street, Dover, living with his brother, his sister, his nephew and his aunt.  By the 1851 census, the family had moved to St. James Street and Willard was married. Ten years later, in the 1861 status, the most notable change in the 1861 census is that Willard is no longer listed as a carpenter but as a velocipede manufacturer.

During his career as a carpenter, it is believed Sawyer most commonly made wooden hobby-horses for customers. This was common practice for all carpenters and blacksmiths of the period. During his carpentry career, Sawyer became inspired to make improvements on man-powered machines. It appears that he began to make 4-wheeled velocipedes sometime before 1840. By 1841, the family moved to St James Street in part so that he could have a larger workshop for his work. 

Sawyer's early machines were impractical, as were all velocipedes of this period. All were largely experimental and usually made as one-offs or to order as a side-line of blacksmiths, iron-founders, carriage builders, and carpenters. Sawyer initially used long foot treadles attached to a rear crank-axle to drive his machine, with a tiller on the front axle to steer. The issue with this design was that it severely limited steering as the wheels would hit the riders legs. The massive throw of the crank-axle, like two steep V's, one inverted, are a characteristic of a Sawyer machine.

Sawyer later switched the crank axle to the front wheels and used a rope-and-pulley system to steer the rear wheels which made his velocipedes  more practical and more saleable. Additionally Sawyer was soon making his machines entirely from steel bar and strap with only the wheels in woodmaking. This ensured his machines strong, fast and lightweight. Crucially, due to mass-manufacturing, Sawyer's new kind of velocipedes were also cheap.

Sawyers St. James Street factory in Dover was probably the worlds first mass-production cycle factory. It is labelled 'Velocipede Manufactory' on the 1858/60 Ordinance Survey map. Sawyer was certainly the first to market his product nationally and establish a brand-name.


Sawyer made a variety of models, from a 6-seater family machine to a lightweight racer. His Promenade and Visiting model was designed to "preserves evening costume" and he also made models suitable for "Ladies "Invalids" and "Children."

Sawyer's brand grew in prestige following his appearances at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the American Exhibition of 1854. Orders came from all over the world: he built machines for the Emperor of Russia, the Prince Imperial of France, the Crown Prince of Hanover and numerous other members of the aristocracy. Even the Prince of Wales visited the Dover factory in 1857 to take possession of his own machine. Sawyer advertised himself as the "original inventor and Registered improver" and referred to his machines as "double-action self-locomotives."

Sawyer had few competitors and compared to other velocipedes his machines were far superior in technology and superbly engineered. His "best bright iron work velocipede, capped and bound with silver" cost between £25 and £40. Japanned versions were £15 to £25. In addition he also sold second-hand and trade-in  models and hired machines out by the hour or day. He also supplied the Crystal Palace with hire machines so visitors could promenade the Gardens.

The virtues of the Sawyer velocipede were extolled by many, including J.C. Skeffington who rode his machine home from Dover to Brighton in 1858 and then toured southern England, covering 526 miles in 20 days. All riders praised Sawyer for the way his velocipedes climbed hills with such ease.

Sawyer was at his height in the 1850s. By the beginning of the following decade, the two-wheeled 'boneshaker' was becoming increasingly popular. With the arrival of the Ordinary ("penny-farthing") bicycle, Sawyer's market disappeared and the Dover factory closed in about 1868. In 1868 Sawyer also disappears from the Register of Electors. Sawyer had been attempting to sell or cancel his factory's lease since since 1856. On August 5th that year he asked the Town Council to cancel his lease, claiming that previously "his living depended on the hire and sale of velocipedes; but since a decision of the{Magistrates} Bench had declared them a nuisance, he was unable to obtain a livelihood, and wished to move to some locality where they were not regarded as nuisances." (The Dover Telegraph 9/8/1856)

Sawyer and his family moved to the nearby seaside town of Deal. Here Sawyer opened a small workshop at 8 St. George's Place, now St. George's Road, where he continued to make wooden velocipedes. His son William traded as a photographer from upstairs. One can assume that Sawyer chose Deal as the headquarters for his new workshop as it was a very flat, popular holiday resort and thus it appeared Deal would still provide a market for promenading in hired vehicles. Interestingly, modern 4-wheeled velocipedes are still hired out in many resort towns, particularly on the Continent..

The Deal workshop closed in 1887 and Sawyers stock-in-trade was auctioned on 29 March 1887. The lots included 50 velocipedes, steamboat models, a turning lathe and carpenters tools. The sale also included his son's photographic darkroom on wheels. This would have been used for the outmoded wet collodion process. William himself had modernised his equipment; he continued his photography business from 83 Dover Road, Lower Walmer, until about the time of First World War.

Sawyer retired to his son's house in Walmer where he died in 1892. He was buried at St. Mary's Church, Walmer, on the 13th February, aged 84.

Sawyer's original workshop in Chapel Street now lies under the York Street dual carriageway. The factory on the corner of St. James St. and Fector's Place is now under the middle of the widened, southern half of Russell Street, between the bus garage and the car park.

The Deal workshop has largely survived and is now the home of the Deal Maritime and Local History Museum.

Text : © Dover Museum.




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