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The Forgotten Man - the life and legacy of John Kemp Starley

160 years ago, on 14th December 1854, John Kemp Starley was born. He went on to invent the modern safety cycle, that has been copied more times than any other means of transport in the world. But who remembers him now? ... and why is there no monument to him in his adopted city?

It all started on 14th December 1854, in Walthamstow, London. John Kemp's father was a humble market gardener, but his uncle James was doing well in Coventry. John Kemp had one brother and two sisters. They tried to keep up with polite society. In 1872 John Kemp Starley moved to Coventry and lodged with his uncle James Starley and family at Upper Well Street. It was a full house with workshops at the rear. John Kemp started working for his uncle at Starley & Hillman at the St. John's Works. They were famous for making the first "Penny Farthing" cycle and they also made tricycles, inventing the differential gear in the process. These tricycles were very popular and even Queen Victoria had one. James Starley became known as the 'Father of the Cycle Industry'.

In 1876 John Kemp married Abigail Statham at West Orchard Chapel, Coventry, and he started up his own cycle company with William Sutton. The Starley & Sutton Meteor Works was in West Orchards, Coventry. In the 1880's Penny Farthings were the most popular cycle but they were dangerous to ride being so high and with poor brakes which often threw the rider over the handle bars if put on too soon. So John Kemp started to make and develop a safer cycle. He went through different designs, each one better then the previous until 1888 he designed a bicycle that became the blue print for all modern cycles, the "Rover Safety Cycle". John Kemp was able to show people that the cycle was easier to ride, as your feet could reach the ground, but with no loss of speed due to chains and gearing.

The new Rover SAFETY Cycle soon caught on and everyone wanted this new type of cycle. Other cycle makers started making their own version based on John Kemp's design. He made a lot of money and his family of ten children moved into Barr's Hill House in 1889. But in 1901 John Kemp Starley died at the early age of 46 and was buried in London Road Cemetery. His company continued to grow and started making cars in 1904. Production of Rover Cars grew and continued until the end of the marque in 2005.

There is a direct link between John Kemp Starley's Rover cycle and all modern cycles of today. But is John Kemp Starley remembered for his great contribution to the most popular form of transport in the world? The answer is "No". Most people mix up John Kemp Starley with his uncle James Starley, thinking they are the same person. Coventry City commemorated James Starley when he died in 1881 and a monument to him was unveiled in 1884 in Greyfriers Green.

But no monument has been erected for John Kemp Starley. His home, Barr's Hill on Radford Road, was made into a School, but even this beautiful Victorian house was knocked down to build a car park for the new Barr's Hill School.

Should we have a memorial to John Kemp Starley who created possibly the greatest contribution to mankind in the field of transport? What do you think?

Paul Maddocks has created an artist impression of what such a monument could look like.

Artists Impression of JKStarley Memorial

Reader Comments (2)

What a super article Paul- well done. Yes we must have a quality memorial to this historical pioneer and engineer in Coventry. It must also be in an appropriate and prominent place. I would suggest the Friargate development which will be a gateway into Coventry from the train station. Let's tell visitors what our city has done for the world. Most people wrongly assume that the Rover company was formed in Birmingham. That city takes credit for many of Coventry's achievements and maybe that is because our civic leaders and our citizens are too reticent in projecting our city and basically boasting about Coventry.

By Stephen Williamson on Monday, August 11, 2014

Loved reading your article. I am related to the Starley family. His mother, Mary Ann Coppen was my GG Aunt. Best wishes Eleanor Roberts nee Coppen

By Eleanor Roberts on Friday, December 1, 2017

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