Tommy Donaldson

Vol. 10 No. 3 - 2017

Tommy Donaldson, Lurgan cycle frame builder

by John Trimble

Mid-way between Sloan Street and High Street on the north side of Union Street is an unoccupied brick-built block half a storey higher than the houses on either side. Containing two houses and, at No. 92, a shop, it has recently been given a facelift covering broken windows and doors suggesting, at first glance, that the building is still occupied. Three high steps lead up to each of the front doors and, looking down, you will see window heads at ground level indicating basements.

An old photograph of the shop (right) shows William Donaldson, first proprietor of the shop, standing proudly in his dungarees at its entrance. He had previously lived with his wife Lizza Ann (Elizabeth) round the corner in John Street, now called Sloan Street, working as a cabinet maker. Elizabeth died in 1911 aged only 29, leaving him with five children. He remarried to Ruth with whom he had four more children the second of whom was Thomas. All nine children slept in three bedrooms above the shop.

William Donaldson
William Donaldson outside the shop in the 1940s

It's not known when William had acquired the shop but the family were certainly industrious - at the back of the shop was a large two-storey shed where they kept hens and three cows – Ruth sold milk door-to-door to supplement the family income.

Thomas, known by everyone as Tommy, attended Hill Street Elementary School in George Street to age 14. The headmaster of this school was Mr Sloan, who gave his name to Sloan Street, previously known as John Street. As a young man Tommy made leather purses and wallets but he must have also helped out and gained useful experience working with bikes in his father's shop, because shortly after his father died in 1948 Tommy took it over and quickly made a success of it.

Initially Tommy sold and repaired bikes made by the major English manufacturers - Phillips, Raleigh and Hercules and Hudson. Sales were mostly to people from Lurgan, Portadown and the surrounding area, but some of his customers travelled from as far away as Belfast.

Phillips ad
A Phillips advertisement from the 1950s

Almost all of Tommy's early sales were Phillips bicycles, made in Birmingham; the firm was taken over in 1980 by Raleigh, England's largest cycle manufacturer. In the 1950s bicycles would generally cost between £15 and £20 (£300 and £400 in today's values). They were often bought on hire purchase, which would increase the price paid by as much as £5, but Tommy's records showed that his customers frequently made monthly payments greater than the minimum stipulated.

Sturdiness was an asset as the bikes were, for many, their principal or only means of personal transport - to be used in all weathers, day and night. In the 1950s men's bikes were generally heavy and black while ladies usually got green. However, as the years passed frames became lighter and brighter with a choice of colours.

During the 1950s cycling gained popularity, especially among boys and young men. Recreational cyclists would set off from Lurgan to Omeath or Castleblaney on a Sunday morning for a round trip of over 60 miles. The Lurgan Road Club was formed to cater for competitive cycling. There were regular time trials of 10 and 25 miles, where cyclists competed against the clock but also sought to outpace their friends.

Donaldson frame
Donaldson logo

Bill Shankley once remarked "Someone said to me 'To you football is a matter of life or death!' and I said 'Listen, it's more important than that'." The cyclists of Lurgan understood what he meant.

There were cash prizes for some races but, more importantly, pride was at stake and the riders looked for any advantage, giving Tommy a steady market for his bespoke lightweight frames built using Reynolds 531 (always referred to as "Five-Three-One") seamless butted tubing which had been developed in the mid-1930s; it was made from a steel compound containing Manganese, Molybdenum and Carbon in the proportions 5:3:1 to give it maximum strength coupled with light weight. The butting refers to a process which gave varied wall thickness – thicker at the ends where more strength was needed.

Reynolds 531
Reynolds 531 logo

Frames were brazed together, using capillary action to distribute molten filler metal between the surfaces of the metal components to be joined. It was a method well suited to the small-scale assembly of cycle frames - Tommy never made more than one or two frames a month. Other frame builders in Northern Ireland at that time included George Stone, Tommy Graham of Ballymoney and Gordon Brothers of Hillsborough.

Tommy became so successful and well renowned that he built for many well-known names in the sport of competitive cycling including, it is said, for Seamus 'Shay' Elliott (1934 –1971), the first Irishman to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France (1963). It is said that Reynolds 531 tubing was used in the frames of bicycles in 27 Tour de France victories. It was also in the front sub-frames on the iconic Jaguar E-Type.

Tommy Donaldson
Tommy Donaldson in the back room of his shop, probably in the 1980s

Every customer's bike was individual, not only in size (measured in ¼" increments), but also in the wheels, gears, saddles, handlebars, brakes, pedals and various fittings. Tommy built his first racing frame in 1949/50; his ledgers detail a bicycle described as "own use":

Reynolds butted tubes: 23" frame: 22½" top tube: angles 73⁰/72⁰. Nervex standard lugs: Tacoma seat eyes: brake and gear eyes: gear boss. Pump pegs top tube 18". Round chain stays. Clements gear ends. Mudguard eyes on fork blades and seat stays: rear ends chrome: Stronglight B.B. (ball bearings). Forks: Ekla crown: 2¼" rake: oval to round: chrome crown and fork tips: chrome head lugs: Gnutti head sets. Colour red with white panel

Donaldson frame
An early Tommy Donaldson frame – stamped 8255

The specifications for all of Tommy Donaldson's bikes were carefully recorded in ledgers, some of which survive. Some contain scraps of paper and cardboard with scribbled specifications brought in by customers.

The grill in the pavement of Union Street (now covered over) let light into the basement where Tommy would build wheels to order for racing cycles. Tommy's living room was behind this and in his back yard was the two-storey shed where frames were assembled on a jig to ensure correct alignment. Upstairs in the shed was Tommy's paint shop and oven, looking like a large steel cupboard, where he would bake the paint on to his finished frames.

Tommy never married but he had many friends. The door of the shop was always open and the distinctive smell of oil and rubber wafted out on to Union Street. Tommy would often sit on the front steps of the shop, his day's takings stuffed into a pouch at the front of the oil stained dungarees. He was always happy to greet and talk to passers-by, his hands oily and his thumb bent back from working at the bikes, but he was happiest when fellow cyclists would gather in the back room of his shop on Friday and Saturday evenings, feeding cardboard into the fire and swapping stories about their exploits while Tommy's young nephew, Dermond, sat listening, out of sight, on the stairs until chased up to bed.

Young men coming into Lurgan for a night out would park their bikes in the passage beside Tommy's shop. Dermond would collect thruppences from them while Tommy might stay up to 1 o'clock in the morning to ensure the bikes were returned safely to their owners.

Tommy in Scarva
Tommy (in foreground) and Wilfie Wethers at Scarva

Tommy never raced, although he enjoyed getting out on his bike with his friends. However, his real passion was his pigeons and if he wasn't to be found in the shop the likelihood was that he was out feeding his pigeons in one of his many pigeon lofts. He also kept chickens and bred turkeys for the Christmas market.

The shop was renowned for being cluttered, and customers who left their bike in for a simple repair one week would return the following week to find it buried (and unfixed) under a pile of bikes also awaiting repair. But Tommy was industrious, good natured, humorous and thoughtful, and he would eventually fulfil all orders to a standard which ensured customer loyalty.

Reynolds 531
Reynolds 531 publicity brochure

As well as bike sales and repairs, making cycle frames and looking after his many feathered friends, Tommy was famed for painting cycle frames and he even fulfilled orders from England in the 1950s and 60s. He retired from the shop following a heart attack in 1982 and moved out of the Union Street shop to live with family. However he returned to painting cycles for a time after this – the quality of his work, coupled with modest prices, ensured a steady stream of cyclists looking for his services and he continued painting bikes well past the age when he might have retired. Illness finally forced him to stop and he died, aged 80, in April 2000.

The cycle shop was closed many years ago but some of the original fittings remain there, including ceiling hooks which held the wheel rims, pigeon holes which held spare parts, a single white-wall tyre hanging over tattered posters for Hercules bikes and cycle transfers, while some postcards on the wall assured Tommy that his friends were having a good time on their cycling holidays.

Thanks to Dermond Maxwell, Chris Aspinwall, Irene Dickson, Christopher Green, Ronnie "Spoke" McCabrey, Owen McQuillan and Cecil Renshaw.