Classic Lightweights UK

"As British as the Union Jack" - Carradice saddlebags 

Author Steve Griffith

The Carradice Story by Steve Griffith

A former editor of the CTC magazine, Tim Hughes observed that the presence of a cotton duck saddlebag on a cycle seen abroad proclaims the riders nationality as clearly as a GB sticker or Union Jack.

Carradice have been making cycle bags since 1929 and have achieved pre-eminence in this field seeing the disappearance of all their British rivals. This article attempts to trace not just the history of the firm but also their role in cycling over the last 80 years.

Since the early days of cycling much thought has been given to the best way to carry a load. It has long been axiomatic that it is better to let the bike carry the load, this being safer and far more comfortable (although many mountain bike riders don’t seem to understand this) (1).  A variety of materials have been trialled. Up to WWI leather was predominant; however it is expensive, heavy and not good in the wet.  In the 1930’s leather cloth with a fibre insert for stiffness was used by a number of manufacturers for example Brooks, as was canvas. Chossy used printers felt for their bags (2) and Dunlop who was a major manufacturer of bags used a rubber based material.   In the early 1930’s Wilf Carradice would seem to have been the first to use treated cotton duck (original colour used dark tan). It seems likely that Wilf worked in a weaving mill, at the time Lancashire being the cotton mill centre of Britain.

Cotton duck is extremely hard wearing being able to put up with abrasion caused by leaning cycles against walls. It is specially treated to be rot-protected and waterproof. Wilf began by making saddlebags for himself and his club mates in Nelson. Early on he hit upon the classic design of the large (18-24 litre) saddlebag with two side pockets, a rounded wooden dowel running the length of the main compartment for stiffness, an option of a 10 cm extension to the flap and an attachment on top to hold a cape. Other features included chrome leather straps and side pockets that could be opened when riding. Their largest bag, the Camper has remained in the catalogue (known first as the Camper’s) with only cosmetic change, eg new logo, a reflective strip and even today a bracket for an LED rear light. It is large enough for a hostelling/bed and breakfast tour. The saddlebag’s position is ideal having very little effect on the handling of the bike. It can be fitted to most machines providing there are bag loops on the saddle and in the case of heavy loads a bag support/carrier is advisable.

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Advertisment from the early 50's - the Camper Bag

Carradice had a number of rivals in the cycle bag market these included Baycliff, Brooks, Hutchinson, Midland, Dunlop, Chossy and after WW2 Karrimor who originally were in nearby Rawtenstall.  Karrimor branched out into walking and climbing equipment and were in the mid-1970s the first to market a nylon saddlebag (3). In the 1980’s they converted their entire range over to nylon. Carradice responded with the Overlander range in blue and red nylon.

The relative merits of cotton duck verses nylon have been debated many times amongst cycletourists. The main drawback of cotton duck is its weight (the Camper weighs 1150g compared to 550g for a comparable nylon based bag).  For me the drawbacks of nylon are the gradual loss of  waterproofing over time and the poor resistance to the inevitable  wear caused by leaning the bike against walls. Also nylon tends to sag when empty which is not the case with the stiffer cotton duck.

The Carradice Range

Carradice have focused on making their core products essentially saddlebags and panniers.  Pre-war they marketed equally to walkers as well as cyclists, making tents, rucksacks and sleeping bags. In the 1940’s to 1960’s they made gauntlet gloves, moped and motorcycle panniers. They have added handlebar bags to their range as these have increased in popularity being originally a French innovation.  The first British reference I can find to a handlebar bag is in the 1936 JA Grose catalogue. Carradice continue to make bag supports, saddlebag attachments and rainwear made from waxed cotton.  They have made bags specific to certain cycles, for example to fit on a Moulton, and more recently for a Brompton (a rack top cuboid shape bag). The Super C range was introduced in the  early 1980’s , essentially this was cotton duck brought up to date with the use of nylon inserts, zips, drawstrings, quick release buckles and red trim to give more modern appearance.

Until the early 1970’s they made bags in two grades:
1.    Made of thicker cotton duck, with aluminium cape strap loops and large leather patch underneath to prevent wear to the carrier/mudguard. With leather trimming and the option of white stitching.
2.    Standard material, slotted leather cape strap pieces and double material to prevent wear underneath.
The latter were about 20% cheaper but still had the same good design principles.

Sometimes there is confusion between what is a Camper or a Nelson as the latter is only slightly smaller. The main distinguishing feature is that the former has aluminium cape strap loops whilst the latter has the slotted leather strap pieces. Also the Camper is deeper although the width of the bags is the same.

Some of the model names are based on local places: Nelson, Kendal and Pendle. A solution to the problem of having little space between saddle and carrier was provided by the Low Saddle, the side pockets being deeper than the main portion of the bag.  The earlier version of this was the Low Down (illustrated below) half saddlebag, half pannier. In some clubs this was known as the Marble Arch .  Carradice has always produced a range of small day saddlebags, including the Junior without any side pockets. Other models include the Cadet and the smallest bag, another local name Barley (the village about 5 miles from Nelson with the last remaining Clarion Club House nearby). 

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From the 1936 catalogue - "The Lowdonw"  a solution to the problem of lack of saddle height

The Appeal of Cotton Duck

There is something peculiarly British about the use of a saddlebag and even more so about using proofed cotton duck. Amongst many CTC and RSF (Rough Stuff Fellowship) members of an older generation they would not consider using anything else.
The benefits include:
- Waterproof 
- Long lasting (I have got 10 years out of a Nelson in almost daily use).
- Does not affect the handling of the bike unlike panniers.
- The long flap means capacity of even a full bag can be expanded.
- Side pocket right size to take a tool kit so no need to root about in the bag for tools the other pocket can be used to carry a stove or now maybe a flask.
- Cape/waterproof can be carried outside avoiding the need to open the bag when it’s raining.
- Don’t show the dirt and need no real looking after.

I have always felt Carradice bags were designed by cyclists, for example they were the first British manufacturer to introduce a handlebar bag support that took the bag away from the bars enabling full use of all hand positions.

Apart from all the practical advantages there is for me an aesthetic appeal. Somehow the bags look just right on many of the understated British clubman’s bikes which themselves were often black.

The current Nelson Long Flap
Capacity 14 - 18 litres
LED bracket below the oblong badge

Many bags have remained in production with only cosmetic changes this is particularly true of the Camper and the Nelson. The best way to date older bags is by the address on the oblong label (3cm x 1cm). This was always in Nelson, Lancs.

 -Pre World War II  -   16 Bedford Street
- From mid 40’s to 1960  -  Leeds Road
-1961 to 1979  -   North Street
-1980 to 1983   -  Brook Street
-1984 to present day: St Mary’s Works Westmoreland Street. (A former weaving mill)

 NB The post 1983 bags just have Carradice of Nelson without any address. Some VCC members in search of authenticity have been known to remove the modern badge when using the bag on a period bike.

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Above: 1960's badge
Right: Current badge
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Carradice Today

When Wilf retired the company was bought in 1974 by Neville Chadwick a keen cyclist who has maintained the quality and core products.  It is currently owned by his son David.   Carradice still produce a full range of cotton duck bags (more recently with the option of green cotton duck) plus the Super C range which is aimed at cycle campers and expedition cyclists and the cheaper nylon based Cordura range. Many of their products are exported to Japan and the USA where they have acquired a retro-cult status. (a market that Brooks since their takeover by Selle have sought to tap into by re-introducing bags). Nearer home they have the contract for producing panniers for Royal Mail cycles (these are appropriately red).   Currently (2009) their best selling bag is their smallest, the green cotton duck Barley (7 litres) with honey coloured leather straps.

In the late 1990’s they made a small run of  bags for Classic Bikes based on the Nelson in 1950’s style i.e. with an old style badge and leather piping, unfortunately these have sold out.  Carradice offer a superb repair service which keeps many an older bag in use. So next time you are in need of a new bag why not support one of few remaining British cycle accessory manufacturers.   

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Attention to detail for Carradice bags (from 1935 catalogue)

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From the 1936 catalogue - note the diffrent sizes for different frame sizes
also version designed to avoid fouling a Sturmey  cable

1. Cycle (magazine of the CTC) December 2008 advocates using rucksacks for off road trips on the grounds it makes the bike easier to manoeuvre! This claim met with howls of protest from more experienced CTC members.
2. Chossy was the trade name of C.T. Osborne.  Based first in London and latterly Epson, Surrey they continued in business until the 1990’s. Pre-war they seem to have wanted to keep their material a secret as in the 1935 Lightweight Cycling Exhibition Catalogue they refer to it as “an exclusive material” p 34.
3. Cycletouring CTC Magazine   April 1972 pp 90/91.

Other sources:

1951 Carradice catalogue in the Veteran Cycle Club library.
1964 and 1967 Carradice catalogue.
Selection of Carradice catalogues including 1936 provided by Carradice themselves plus their own website  www.carradice.co.uk which has useful data, eg weights and dimensions.
Adverts in the CTC Gazette (1958 to 1963), Cycletouring and Rough Stuff Journal.
1982 Richmond Cycles Catalogue
1983 Freewheel Catalogue pp 68/69 (leading mail order firm of the late 70’s to 90’s).

Finally my thanks go to Margaret at Carradice for dealing with my long list of questions.