Searching for the Swinnerton Sisters - Part 1

Words: Suze Clemitson / Images:


The Swinnerton surname echoes down the decades. Suze Clemitson went in search of their story.

When I went looking for the Swinnerton sisters I started with a search bar. Google the Swinnerton family and you’ll quickly find the website of the Swinnerton Family Society. Devoted to tracing the name back to the 12th century, its pages are packed with stonemasons and screenwriters, clergymen and MPs. But look under the sport tab and a different dynamic emerges – a dynasty that created an astonishing cycling legacy reaching far beyond the bike shop that bears the Swinnerton name.

The Potteries – as the six towns that make up the city of Stoke-on-Trent are known – are home to some of the most iconic names in English ceramics. The confluence of coal, clay and creativity gave rise to Minton, Spode, Wedgwood and a raft of others whose works are among the finest examples of ceramic art. Stoke-on-Trent, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Longton and Fenton were the centre of the china universe, immortalised by Arnold Bennett as the ‘Five Towns’.

Why five and not six? Bennett dropped Fenton from his novels after a major disagreement with local politicians, claiming it had neither a separate identity nor a chief bailiff – and besides, he simply preferred the open ‘i’ of ‘five’ to the closed vowel in ‘six’. But in 1915 an unassuming redbrick shopfront opened at 69 Victoria Road – then a cobbled carriageway and still the main artery connecting Fenton to Hanley – that would give the forgotten Potteries town an enduring claim to fame for cyclists around the world. Who needed Arnold Bennett when you had Edwin ‘Ted’ Swinnerton?

Ted continued with his day job in the potteries – he was manager of the slip house where the viscous cream used for making the ware was produced – and moved in above the shop with his wife Bertha who ran the business during the week. This is where the clay and the bicycle meet, in a little shop that specialised in second-hand bikes and repairs and rentals. Leasing the dream of freedom to anyone who wanted to get out into the Peak District for a weekend away from the noise and dust and potter’s rot.

Cycling has always been a curious marriage of leisure pursuit, transportation and competitive sport, consecrated by the local bike shop. The LBS is where the Mamil and the weekend warrior, the Cat 2 and the Pashley princess converge around a shared love of two wheels. The tribes shift and evolve but the bicycle remains – clean, green and streamlined, a design that hasn’t substantively changed, nor needed to, since J.K. Starley produced his Rover Safety bicycle in 1885. The two equal-sized wheels, the diamond-shaped frame and the chain-powered drivetrain remain a perfect expression of potential energy, unlocked the moment foot meets pedal.

In the interwar period, the bicycle seized the public imagination. Bike shops like Swinnerton’s with their fleet of 60 bikes for hire, put the dream of two wheeled freedom – however temporary – within reach of anyone with a hankering to head out under their own steam. Access to the freedom machine was no longer the preserve of the well-to-do. Instead a quiet revolution took place based on hire purchase agreements and saving schemes. In the 1930s and ‘40s it’s estimated that one fifth of British men – and one tenth of women – cycled to work. 500 miles of protected cycle paths were planned between 1934 and 1940 in London, Sunderland, Manchester, Cardiff, Norwich, York and Stoke-on-Trent – and at least 280 miles of them were actually built.

It was the heyday of cycling in the UK. The inexorable rise of cheap motoring soon made the glamorous motorcar the way to travel, the promises of the Ministry of Transport only to build roads with accompanying cycle paths quickly abandoned. Between 1950 and 1959, 16% of journeys to work were made by bike and 16.3% made by car. But basic and affordable cars like the Mini were revolutionising the way the British got around. By the 1970s there were around 20 million licence holders on the road and only 4.5% of workers were making their way to work by bike. When depression hit the bike trade in the 1960s, Swinnerton’s diversified opening first a toy shop then a post office.

In 1954 Ted and Bertha retired and sold Swinnerton’s to their youngest son, Roy, and his wife Doris. Ted had spent his life going to the potteries at 6am then working in the bike shop until 10pm, well into his seventies when ill health forced his retirement. Roy and Doris moved in behind and above the shop with their two-year-old daughter, Bernadette. Roy continued the working pattern his father had set all those years before, pursuing his desk job during the day and carrying out repairs and training for his racing career at night. Despite the looming threat of the motorcar to his livelihood, Roy paid £100 for the stock and continued his personal love affair with cycling.

“My dad used to say cycling is only geared walking. It needn't be hard work, you can go at your own pace and see a lot more scenery than you can walking.” Roy Swinnerton

There’s a picture of Roy Swinnerton being carried shoulder high by his club mates, bike and all, after winning the national grass track half mile title in 1956. Slender and bespectacled, hair a shock of ringlets, he started his cycling career with The St Christopher’s Catholic Cycling Club in 1939. Roy’s brother Douglas was among the founding members of the North Staffs branch and one of the 17 young men who rode from London to Lourdes on 6 August 1939, on the very cusp of the second world war. Flying the papal flag on their bicycles, the cycling pilgrims headed the 550 miles south through Poitiers, Bergerac and Tarbes to pray for peace. It was the first of many trips that the Swinnertons would take over the years – they even named two of their children Bernadette and Bernard after the miller’s daughter whose visions made Lourdes a place of international pilgrimage.

The Swinnertons figure large in the early palmarès of the St Christopher’s, when Roy was virtually untouchable on the grass tracks where he kept winning into his 40s. “If it was a bank holiday we would take the kids, have a good day out and I'd come back loaded with prizes,” Roy told the Swinnerton Magazine, attributing the relaxed nature of the racing to his longevity as a competitor. The track was different. Hard knocks and hard boards. But Roy was unbeatable and soon the Granta Trophy, the Brooks Bowl and the Michelin Perpetual Trophy were glittering in display cabinets in the shop alongside the (not solid) gold medal for winning the National Half Mile Grass Championships, when he was carried aloft in triumph.

As the collection of trophies and medals grew, so did the premises. Swinnerton’s bike shop gradually swallowed number 71, then 67, 73 and finally 75 Victoria Road to create the footprint of what the cycling world now knows as Swinnerton Cycles. Roy focused on his day job with a local iron foundry leaving the shop in the more than capable hands of Doris, who took up where Bertha left off.

Doris and Roy met at the St Christopher’s when she joined the club as an eighteen-year-old in 1944. Six years later the pair were married. By 1958 she was the inaugural president of the Lyme Racing Club, offering her invaluable experience and advice to the fledgling club and playing a central role alongside her husband in the burgeoning cycling scene in the Midlands.

It was Doris and Roy who realised the true potential of Swinnerton Cycles. Like a blueprint for the modern LBS with its emphasis on the beautifully crafted and the artisanal and taking a holistic approach to a cyclist’s needs, the pair began to focus on modern lightweight bicycles and performance gear rather than the old ‘sit up and beg’ tourers. The move towards niche specialisation was driven by the unparalleled experience of the Swinnertons themselves. “We’re users as well as sellers,” as Doris put it, recounting with pride to the Swinnerton Magazine the words of a customer from London who knew they could always rely on Swinnerton Cycles to stock anything and everything they wanted.

“Mum and Dad were riding up to the age of 85 and only stopped working out at the gym a couple of years before that. They loved putting the bikes into a camper van to holiday in Europe after they retired at 65. Mum never really retired though because she still went to the shop daily, when not on holiday, because it was her life.” Bernadette Swinnerton

“When I was three and a half Mark was born and then when I was seven mum had twins – Catherine and Paul – so we had to find a bigger house, a semi-detached with two beds and a box room. The loft was converted because after that another child was born every two years until we had seven. We were a proper Catholic family!” The Catholic faith played a major part in the Swinnertons’ lives. Bernadette never missed Mass – no matter which country she found herself in. “I even found Catholic churches behind the Iron Curtain, in East Berlin and Czechoslovakia, for Sunday masses. We four girls went to a convent school until we were 18.”

Bernadette, like all the members of the Swinnerton family I made contact with, is unfailingly polite, helpful and utterly fascinating. We talked about the early days of the Swinnerton empire, and just how influential her parents were in the development of cycling in the area, from running the Newcastle-under-Lyme track league for 20 years to being an active part of everything cycling in North Staffordshire through the 1950s to the 1980s.

The influence spread further afield, too. Roy’s skills as a mechanic made him much in demand for World Championships and though he never made it to the Olympics as a rider, he was an indispensable part of the national squad as a mechanic at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. He was track team manager at the Commonwealth Games in 1974 in New Zealand, when every team member bar one took home a gold medal. He was even the mechanic when Bernadette went behind the Iron Curtain to ride in the 1969 Worlds in Brno, Czechoslovakia.

According to Bernadette, her parents “never stopped. With the shop and the organising, Mum needed help bringing up seven children and she was lucky to have her own amazing mother who, despite being crippled with arthritis and terrible breathing problems, looked after us,” she remembers. Being the eldest at 13 when the youngest was born, Bernadette was also expected to play her part in looking after the burgeoning Swinnerton clan.

So what was it like to grow up at the epicentre of the UK cycling scene?

“We all grew up surrounded by bikes and all did our bit working in the shop, dusting the bikes in the showroom as well as selling them,” she remembers. “We lived in the world of cycling clubs and all cut our teeth on club runs and youth hosteling weekends and holidays, moving on to competing, as a natural course.”

She recalls how fit the family all were, from cycling everywhere. Uncle Douglas – who gave up competitive cycling in favour of table tennis and was an ex-Royal Marine Commando – never bothered to own a car. But in the strictly amateur days before National Lottery funding transformed the scene, she tells me racing was never seen as a route to a job.

“There was no money in cycle racing in this country. All the best racing was amateur and the best amateurs either went abroad to race as paid professionals or stayed in England and eventually turned ‘pro’ to finish off their career in England – the same few of them riding against each other every week around the country. I’m only talking about men here; there were no women professionals.”

There was no family pressure to race, Bernadette says.

“We were brought up with the idea that to stand still is to waste valuable time and to try to get as much done as possible, as quickly as possible. Our parents didn’t push us into cycling or racing but it was just there. Unlike most kids, we were never reliant on parents for lifts for getting about as we all used our bikes for free transport and so the whole country was open to us long before we were old enough to drive.”

It’s the kind of endless freedom that parents dream of giving their children, the sort of idyll that we now file under ‘perfect childhood’.

Academic achievement was prized and school work was seen as the route to good job or career, but Bernadette was bitten by the racing bug anyway.

“I began racing with a few time trials, like everyone, where you could only claim your £3 first prize if you produced a receipt to prove you had paid for something and that you had not made money out of the sport.” As she points out, while the European scene was packed with professionals, “The British were true amateurs and any number of people were ready to report you if they thought you were getting cash as a prize.” Being a grass track star, she says her dad won enough prizes to kit out most of the house when he married but “never cash, only goods.”

Meanwhile Doris kept the shop running like clockwork. She was pictured recently on Facebook, still spry at 92, deftly threading spokes on a set of wheels. “Wheels from our shop used to have a very good reputation and they have won quite a few medals over the years,” Bernadette recalls with pride.

"If Bernadette gets selected for the World Championships in Switzerland and Italy this year we'll take as many kids and bikes as we can. We have a caravan and tents, and I've made a special rack for the car which takes five bikes – more can go in the caravan. Cycling has brought us friends everywhere. Bernadette has a cup called after her: The Bernadette Trophy is for the most popular rider in the St Christopher's Cycling Club, which is a national club and it was first awarded to her.” Roy Swinnerton

“Women’s racing was almost non-existent, except in time trials.” Bernadette tells me. “A kindly event organiser might stick a couple of women’s races in the programme of a track meeting or a women’s supporter would put a road race on but we were lucky to get six road races in a year.”

There was only one category, women aged 16 and above. There were no schoolgirl or junior events.

“As soon as I was old enough I entered a few races,” she says “and I was immediately successful so was selected for the World Championships right away.” Bernadette talks about the days when the federation had little money, and couldn’t afford to send many competitors. “We had to ride track and road,” Bernadette recalls. “There were only three events – sprint, pursuit and road race.”

If men’s cycling in the UK had become a clandestine affair, driven off the roads and into the velodromes in the 1880s by the lily-livered attitudes of the National Cyclists Union, women’s cycling never truly saw the light of day to start with. The great cycling revolution and the loosening of stays that characterised the 1890s was followed almost immediately by a period of prohibition. In 1912 the Union vélocipédique de France stopped sanctioning women’s racing altogether, a move that was mirrored by other federations across Europe. In 1926 Sportive Magazine would write that "sportswomen go on rides for fun; nobody can object to that, but that women speed like 'giants of the road', no, a hundred times no!" Alfonsina Strada’s appearance in the 1924 Giro remains an anomaly.

But 1924 was the year that the all-woman Roslyn Ladies club promoted their first 12-hour time trial, following up in 1927 with the first ever women’s track race held at the Herne Hill Velodrome. The pioneering London club dominated women’s time trialling but it was a Yorkshirewoman who would become the UK’s first woman road race champion in 1959. Beryl Burton would still be competing throughout the 1960s and ‘70s when she beat Bernadette to the senior ladies’ title in 1971. Bernadette was just twenty at the time.

“I got about five trips abroad over the four years that I raced and was sent to every Worlds whilst I was competing, until I married at the age of nearly 21.” Travelling abroad was a revelation, she says. “I found that European countries had women’s teams who were provided with free kit, travelling expenses, team coaches and they were actually professionals but riding as amateurs.”

But there was a darker side to the professionalism of the European teams.

“Some of them did not have bodies that resembled women, particularly the Russian sprinters. Of course, we now know why! We knew why back then but the sporting powers would not tackle it.”

According to Bernadette, North Staffordshire had been lobbying national bodies to make representation to UCI regarding doping since the 1950s. “There were Italians openly injecting in the dressing rooms in one Italian road race that I rode. Maybe Vitamin C,” she recalls with clear sarcasm.

Cycling has a long and infamous relationship with doping to which the women’s sport has not been immune. Rumours about the Soviet bloc cyclists circulated throughout the 1960s and ‘70s as the Soviet women monopolised the women’s pursuit gold medal, taking the world title eight times on the trot, virtually closing out any other nation. Beryl Burton said of the six-time champion Tamara Garkushina, “she was five feet tall and five feet wide!” But Garkushina’s titles remain even though, according to Russia’s renegade former head of anti-doping, Grigory Rodchenkov, organised doping in the Soviet Union dates back to 1968 when testing was first introduced. He says there were never doping tests in the USSR.

Bernadette rode the Worlds four years straight from 1968 to 1971. In a period when women’s cycling was virtually non-existent and all but invisible in the national press, she was national sprint champion and, like her father, national grass track champion. Then there was a string of second places in the pursuit and on the road.

“In the Worlds, I always got as far as the quarter finals on the track where I would be knocked out by a Russian. On the road the worst I got was 14th.” It’s an astonishing record for a young woman studying on the side to become a teacher and with virtually no support outside her tight-knit family.

“Doris and I, with three of our children, drove out to Brno, in Czechoslovakia – quite an adventure at that time.” Roy Swinnerton

“In 1969, Czechoslovakia, I got second in the Worlds road race. Women’s road races were usually short and fairly flat but this one, five laps over the Brno motor racing circuit, had a very long climb which suited me well. Two nights before the race, the Czech Army drove tanks in to calm the riots that were expected because it was the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. The tanks had churned up much of the surface of the road race and so punctures were expected. I left my heavy training wheels with thick tyres in and it paid off. There were a lot of punctures and, though I hadn’t got my light, fast wheels in, I still managed to stay up at the front, counteracting every break except the one that beat me to first place.”

The 1969 Worlds were split between Belgium and Czechoslovakia, who had bid for the Worlds to commemorate the centenary of the first bicycle race held on Czech soil. But the Soviet bloc would only recognise the amateur championships and so the professionals were ‘banished’ to Belgium.

On the first anniversary of the suppression of the Velvet Revolution, feelings were running high. The women’s track pursuit was nearly called off, so loud were the boos and catcalls surrounding the two Russian finalists. Eventually the race was run in stony silence. The scent of tear gas hung heavy in the air. “It’s an incident which lives forever in our minds,” wrote Roy Swinnerton later.

10 days after her 18th birthday, Bernadette lined up in Brno with the other hopefuls for the women’s World Championship race. The reigning British sprint champion, she’d used her raw speed to outsprint Doug Dailey during training earlier in the week. No one gave much of a chance to the three-woman British team, not when they lined up against the might of the Russians, Dutch and Italians. But Bernadette’s slender frame belied the Swinnerton steel.

At 70 km the Brno road race was one of the longest and toughest the women had yet faced. With gradients touching 10%, the 14 km circuit was unrelenting – and then the rain came down, drenching the riders in minutes. The leg-sapping brutality of the climb plus repeated crashes whittled the peloton to just 30 riders after two laps.

John Wilcockson, an English journalist, recalled the scene for VeloNews.

“As the bell sounded for the final lap, McElmury had fought back into the much-diminished lead group, while Horswell rejoined just as the final climb began. Inspired by her move on the previous lap, the American again went clear, climbing strongly and bravely through the heavy downpour. McElmury was never more than a few seconds ahead, but no one had the strength (or volition) to cross the gap. Swinnerton and Horswell later said ‘We would rather see Audrey win than take up the Russians.’”

As McElmury crossed the finish line a chant went up among the British team and supporters: “Come on Bernie!” Emerging from the downpour came the fiercely committed teenager, battling against the brute force of the Russians for a precious silver medal. She forged a gap, started to pull away and by the line was five bike lengths clear of Nina Trofimova.

Roy Swinnerton would later recall how the Russian was cut from the official Czech race photos, leaving only McElmury and Swinnerton on the podium, hair plastered to their faces, holding magnificent bunches of pale pink gladioli that nearly dwarf Bernadette’s slight, sodden figure. She remains one of the youngest women to ever stand on the podium of the World Championships road race.

“There is a long list of amateur GB riders from that era and they achieved some amazing results – but few of them live in the past. If they get together they will talk about the past, but rarely. They rode for their country, they won medals, they have some great memories, but have moved on and unless pressed will not reminisce. They are modest and certainly did not benefit in any material way from their achievements.” Louise Cumming

“Training was in the evening, after college or longer rides at the weekend,” Bernadette tells me. “Interval training, sprint training, track leagues – where the judges turned a blind eye because women were not allowed to race with men and there was no one else of my ability to ride against. Other countries had mixed racing of course, but then we had only just got the vote so we couldn’t expect too much!”

Audrey McElmury who had beaten Bernadette in the 1969 Worlds always raced with men and used scientific training and nutrition in her preparation. “We were light years behind,” recalls Bernadette. “Because we were jolly British. English women did not work as a team either – it was every woman for herself.”

Bernadette says she became disillusioned with the doping and the inequality in opportunity between the British teams and their rivals. “I was nearing the end of my training as a teacher, I married Phil Griffiths and supported his international career.” Griffiths was five times the winner of the Best British All-Rounder title, won stages in the Peace Race and the Milk Race and a silver medal in the 1974 Commonwealth Games road race in the team managed by Roy Swinnerton. Bernadette started teaching and had two children – Jen, a financial director, and Kevin who runs global marketplace Bikezar – but cycling is bred in the bone with the Swinnerton family and the itch was still there.

When the British Cycling Federation decided to allow sponsored clubs in 1976, Phil and Bernadette set up G. S. Strada – the only other sponsored team at the time was Manchester Wheelers. It marked a step up in that they could seek financial help for transport, kit and other expenses. “But there were still no wages or bonuses, we were still amateur!” she exclaims, the frustration palpable.

“We were given about £4,000 for the whole club in the first year and all the racing clothing we needed for a handful of the Olympic team that joined us,” Bernadette recalls. “Over the years we were lucky to get more sponsors and even a car but we could only provide the lads with travelling expenses and some kit. Every year Phil and I ended up putting our own money into the club – from my teaching and his wages as a telephone engineer.”

She explains that prior to the relaxing of the rules, only elite riders would get any kind of help.

“Bike shops would provide the country’s top riders with bikes and kit but it was all under the counter. Your job, your parents or your dole money provided the rest.”

She says she only knows of two women riders who were ever given any kit during her time competing.

Then in 1984 the impossible happened. Women’s cycling was to be included in the Olympics. The first women’s road race took place in Los Angeles in 1984 – the time trial would follow in the Atlanta Games of 1996. “When it was announced that women cyclists would be allowed in the Olympics I thought I might give it another shot, although I was teaching full time and had two young children,” Bernadette says. “I did a few evening training rides after work and entered a few road races in 1979 and 1980, getting third in the National Championships road race and being ‘up there’ in all the events.”

However, for Bernadette, just being up there was not enough.

“Just going to the Olympics was no use if I was not confident of a chance of a medal and there was no way I could put in any more time training, with my other commitments.”

She gave up on the idea, riding time trials for fun and still equalling the time of the women in the international teams, a mark of her quality and talent as a rider.

In 1984 she divorced Phil Griffiths and four years later married Lennie Malvern, who had worked as a British team mechanic for several years. “We had a daughter and I got a Master of Science degree and then a headship, in 1994, just as Lennie died suddenly.”

Now retired, Bernadette Swinnerton takes after the indomitable women in her family, doing the school run and spending hours helping her eldest grandson with his homework.

“As you can see Suze,” she concludes, “my racing experience bore no resemblance whatsoever to that of my sisters, or of women cyclists today, although I do have 12 National Championship medals and one Worlds silver – which I won in the days when English women, apart from Beryl Burton, won nothing.” That quiet, fierce pride again, richly merited.

She asks me if I’m aware of the prolific careers of her brothers Paul, who rode on the track, and Mark, the road. But they’re not the story that interests me. It’s the Swinnerton sisters that I came looking for, to tell the story of their extraordinary success at a time when there was no Lottery funding, no British Cycling behemoth, no aerodynamic suits and ultra round wheels and marginal gains. Just women who rode because they loved the licence to be competitive and to sometimes beat the men at their own game. The transgression of gritting your teeth into the wind and pushing down hard on the pedals and doing something deeply unladylike and truly, beautifully, deeply satisfying as you smashed the competition and filled your trophy cabinet with the spoils.


This feature first appeared in Conquista 20.