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The Reyrolle Story: Two - A Small Workshop In London

Continuing his story of one of England's greatest engineering firms, Robert Owen tells how Frenchman Alphonse Reyrolle set up his first business in London.

It seems that one of Alphonse's compatriots knew a French engineer named Jean Lege, who had a workshop in London. Lege was a scientific instrument maker of Turk's Yard near Farringdon Street Station, and he was Alphonse's first employer when he arrived in England at nineteen years of age. He must have learnt quickly and picked up entrepreneurial as well as engineering skills, because after only three years, he left to open his own workshop in George Street - now Gower Street - in central London. He employed a small number of men doing a variety of jobs for the growing number of electrical contractors in the capital.

One of Reyrolle's first employees was an Emanuel Daniels who worked for him from 1886 to 1889. Writing many years later, Mr Daniels recalls, "The workshop was a lean-to shed in a back yard." He went on, "Reyrolle had only a small lathe, which he made himself, and a French swivel vice that I had to keep polished. I was paid 18 pence a week, plus any brass cuttings from the workshop floor."

Another employee who joined Reyrolle very early, was an engineer named Alfred E Nicod, whose father, Charles, was another French Instrument Maker. It is more than likely that he knew Jean Lege, Reyrolle's first employer and a fellow Frenchman of the same trade. Alf's son Fred, tells a story of his father sitting in a pub in Tottenham Court Road, London after work one night, when a gentleman came in and asked if he could join him. That gentleman was Alphonse Reyrolle. Whether or not the meeting was pre-arranged, the initial outcome was that Alfred Nicod became a Reyrolle employee. The longer outcome was that many brothers followed him and thus began a long association between the Nicod and the Reyrolle families.

Fred goes on to say his father remembered Alphonse as being about 5 '7" tall, well dressed, and handsome, with curly auburn hair and the mandatory moustache. He wore pince-nez glasses and had a personality that commanded respect.
Reyrolle's reputation for producing work of high quality grew, and in 1897, he acquired a small factory not far away in St Pancras Street, off Tottenham Court Road. Here, he continued to undertake sub-contract work for a variety of electrical firms. Rowe (1984) however, suggests this was only a part of his business. He points out the firm was well known for the production of vitrines steel framework for the exhibition of jewels and curios. Also, Reyrolle's early patents, three in the years 1896-98, related to the construction of bicycles. His idea was to replace the bicycle chain with a system of mechanical driving gears. The provisional specification for his 1896 patent read:-
"This invention relates to a system of mechanical driving gear for bicycles, the employment of which enables the usual chain to be dispensed with; whilst in operation it requires less power than similar mechanism at the same time it ensures a swift and easy motion of the vehicle."

An improved, complete specification was made for a 1898 patent, but then for some reason his final 1899 patent was abandoned. Did Reyrolle see a better future in the growth of electricity than a bicycle without a chain?


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