Posted: Wednesday 03rd June 2020
Walter Ormsby, was born in December 1906 2. He served an apprenticeship as a panel beater with Jowett’s, the car maker, at their plant in Bristol where he learnt his metal working skills2. His spell there came about because at a time when he was out of work he heard that there were jobs going in Bristol so he just got on his bike and rode down. An example of how quietly determined he could be. From an early age he was an enthusiastic racing and touring cyclist being a member of the CTC and the Clarion.
His first venture in the cycle business was in the early thirties when he opened a shop at 69 Burley Road, about a mile from Leeds city centre. He had to leave this shop in 1939. The council was proposing to knock it down and widen the road but those plans were scuppered by the war and the road is still the same width. He moved round the corner to 27 Hyde Park Road3. In fact Woodrup’s shop was nearby in Burley Lodge Road and probably took some of Walt’s business away, although Woodrup’s were (and still are) lightweight specialists where Walt’s was more of a general cycle shop. He also sold radios and electrical goods as did a lot of bike shops at the time and was a dab hand at radio repairs. The shop was a typical old fashioned place, dark and gloomy with stuff stacked everywhere. Disorderly, but everything that the enthusiast could require, a regular Aladdin’s cave.
Walt built his own frames and was an agent for other lightweights including Paris5. One of his customers was Jimmy Savile who was a very handy cyclist in his time. Jimmy describes Walt as “a quiet shy unassuming man who would do anything for anyone7“. Ann, his son Maurice’s widow relates a story about Jimmy. “Jimmy was always known as Oscar as he rode an Oscar Egg frame. No-one knew his real name at the time. He had been famous for ages before Maurice, who was then working in the shop with his father, realised that he was Oscar1. Jimmy visited Walt at the shop many times after he became famous. He always used to ring up first to tell him when he would be arriving to give Walt the opportunity to put a board outside the shop announcing his visit and maybe get a few customers and a little publicity but typically, Walt never bothered to do it, it wasn’t his style”.
Walt built frames, some for riders in local clubs, both the Burley Touring club and the Westfield club of which he was a member4. He joined the Westfield (which celebrated its centenary recently) on 5th. March 1923 and was a member at least until the 60’s. During some of that time he served on the committee5.
Walt’s shop had two cellars. The front one contained a lathe and the back cellar was where the frame building was done. Behind the shop was a wooden garage in which Walt sprayed the frames. He made both lugged and welded frames which were built from 531 tubing on jigs. In the early days he started out by making lugged frames which were brazed in a coal gas fired hearth and later moved on to making welded frames6. He seems to have built most types of cycles, at least two recumbents, tricycles (he rode a trike himself), a trailer and tandems2. He built a small framed child size tandem which his children rode about on. He also built specialist machines for disabled riders which he designed himself. One of them was a two wheels at the front tricycle with coaster brake that was steered by the shoulders. This for a rider with no hands.
Our own interest in Walt Ormsby came about when in May 2007 I bought the remains of a machine with a Holdsworth trike conversion attached. News and Views were good enough to publish a request in N&V 321/35 for information about the frame. My frame has Walt Ormsby stamped under the bottom bracket and the number 127. It would originally have had “Walt Ormsby” transfers too1. Dating it is difficult. It has Williams cranks with the date codes for 1960/61 but the separate mudguard eyes make it look early fifties.Two people have said that initially at least the frames were rather suspect and that the first one broke. My frame is lugless and welded. (Note, it is welded and not fillet brazed). Welding produces small stringy beads at the joins which even when dressed with a file do not look as tidy as a nice smooth brazed fillet. The drop-outs are Chater Lea. The frame is light, bare frame under four pounds and it must be strong, it’s lasted probably fifty years, some of the time attached to a trike conversion. It’s now built up and rides very nicely. Nobody seems to know how many frames he built, probably a couple of hundred.
Walt was apparently a popular but disorganised man who would do anything for anyone. He had a penchant for “funny” frames and liked struts and curved tubes. Walter had three sons and two daughters. They were Maurice and Walter (junior, known as Wally) who were twins followed by David, Carol and Susan. Maurice went to work in the shop when he left school in1949 and went on to have a shop of his own in Pontefract, opened in 1982 and was a rep for Dawes. Ann comments “Maurice built frames too, in fact I have what was probably the last frame to be made on the premises which Maurice built for me long after Walt had stopped making them. I think Walt had a hand in it too, which Maurice was a little unhappy about as Walt wouldn’t wear his glasses! But, the frame was there on the jig and Walt couldn’t resist it”1. David also worked with his father in the shop for a year after he left school.
Walt seems to have retired some time in the late 60’s/ early 70’s. Even after he retired and went to live in Knaresborough he kept his hand in and worked part-time for Ron Kitching in Harrogate where he built all of Beryl Burton’s wheels. She wouldn’t have anyone else do it apparently7.
Walt sadly died in May 19831.
(1) Ann Ormsby (Maurice’s widow)
(2) David Ormsby (son)
(3) Information and contacts supplied by Peter Duncan
(4) B. Middleton
(5) Robert Tate (present Westfield club secretary)
(6) Walt Ormsby (son)
(7) Jimmy Savile (customer)
Tony Stephenson, Bygone Bykes
Chris Boulton, Leeds CTC
Author, Bill Ives has traced another Ormsby which the owner bought in 2000 as a complete bike from a jumble from Bygone Bikes. The original owner bought it new in about 1953. It is frame number 208. Peter Underwood is an owner of WO no. 127 which would suggest this is an earlier bike from 40’s / early 50’s. This frame was welded, not fillet brazed. The mudguard eyes are on the drop outs. Interestingly it is not stamped with Walt’s name under the BB but was identified from the original transfers which it still carried. This brings the number of known Ormsby survivors to just three.