William Sykes was just 23 when, against the advice of his father he married and then with his own and his new wife's savings purchased a saddler business in Horbury, England, in about 1870. He married Ethel Marshall, sister of Herbert Marshall and Alice Whitmarsh. The business prospered and a few years later added footballs to the other leather goods it was making. The Sykes Zig-Zag branded football was used in many leading events including the FA Cup finals of 1936, 1937, 1939 and 1946. Sykes subsequently expanded his business by dealing in cricket bats before moving into their manufacture.
Donald Bradman, widely acknowledged as the greatest Test batsman of all time, used bats produced by Sykes throughout his career. In 1929, shortly after Bradman scored the then highest First-Class innings of 340 while playing for New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Sykes signed him up to help promote what became known as the Don Bradman bat, or the Autograph bat.1
During WW2, Sykes at Horbury Bridge are thought to have been responsible for the production of the butts for Lanchester submachine rifles used in battle.
Above: William Sykes factory, formerly Albion Mills, at Horbury Bridge, later was to become Slazengers. Albion Mills was sold to Wm. Sykes in 1935 and was extended considerably over the years to cope with increased production of sporting goods.
In 1881, Ralph Slazenger, the elder of the two Jewish brothers, left his native Manchester, and opened a shop on London's Cannon Street selling rubber sporting goods to found the Slazenger business. He later once described it as "rather a small, friendly Company, despite its international operation." He also reflected that his father, Albert, "had an excellent eye for selecting splendid agents to represent us around the globe, which tended to give the impression that we were a very large organisation, but we were not." But, over the years following Ralph's assessment of the company that he founded, Slazenger grew in size and stature to one of the leading sports companies in the World.
Founded by brother's Ralph and Albert Slazenger in 1888, Slazenger has a long and distinguished history, which was further enhanced in 1940 with the Company's acquisition of Ayres (est. 1810) and Wm. Sykes (est. 1875). On the 15th September 1940, during The Blitz on London, it is thought that incendiary bombs fell on the Slazenger factory. The Gradidge factory in Woolwich similarly suffered. The competing William Sykes Ltd factory at Horbury was undamaged by the bombings. Slazenger and Gradidge were able to continue production at other facilities, but began a series of mergers with competing companies. In 1942, it acquired William Sykes Ltd. to broaden its wartime production facilities. Around 1943, Slazenger acquired F. H. Ayres. Thereafter the company was known as Slazengers Sykes Gradidge and Ayres.
In its heyday the empire of Slazengers Gradidge Sykes and Ayres stretched across the world with either licensed distributors or agents and/or manufacturing operations in which the company had partnerships or licensing agreements with. Distributors were flung far and wide as far away as New Zealand and Africa, in remote places such as Iceland, Newfoundland, Madagascar and even Bolivia.
In the days when wooden tennis racquets held no peer, brands such as Slazenger and Dunlop were a dominant force in the world, but with the popularity of the metal tennis racquets from the early 1980s and then the fast transition to even more popular composite materials such as fiberglass, graphite, Kevlar and so on more and more brands became available to the consumer. The new brands became popular due to their ability to meet the consumer trends and demand for the new technology. Slazenger was slow to react. The company could not re-gear its existing factories to produce products in the new materials and there was a major existing investment in plant and raw materials. The company tried to market its product against these new products using quality as the unique selling point, but the quality level of imports quickly improved and soon Slazenger lost popularity and fell from prominence.
1949 saw Bobby Locke, a South African professional golfer, winning the first of four Open Championships with Slazenger golf clubs. Ken Rosewall won both the Australian and French Opens with this Slazenger tennis racket in 1953 and Althea Gibson became Slazenger’s first Wimbledon Ladies Champion since WW2.
In 1959, Ralph Slazenger Jr. sold the family business to Dunlop Rubber.
In 1960, Slazenger player Neale Fraser won both the US and Wimbledon Tennis Finals. 1963 saw the company register their now famous panther logo and develop an extensive clothing line. Jack Nicklaus signed with Slazenger in 1964 and in 1966 Slazenger soccer balls were selected for the World Cup. 1970 saw Slazenger’s Margaret Court win all four tennis Grand Slam titles. In 1971, ICS (Slazenger’s umbrella corporation) received the Queen’s Award to Industry and in 1976 Slazenger introduced the Graphite ‘Phantom’ Racket.
1979 saw Seve Ballesteros win his first ever Open Championship. At 23, Slazenger’s Seve Ballesteros became the youngest ever winner of the Augusta Masters in 1980. Dunlop-Slazenger International was formed in 1983, combining both brands under a single umbrella.
In 1985, Dunlop Rubber is purchased by BTR plc, which forms a Sports Group combining Slazenger with the Dunlop Sport branded goods.
In 1986, yellow Slazenger balls were used at Wimbledon for the first time and Slazenger signed up tennis legend Jimmy Connors in 1988. 1991 saw Slazenger’s Ian Woosnam win the Masters Golf Tournament, followed by Bernard Langher in 1993 and Jose-Maria Olazabel in 1994.
In 1996, BTR sells Dunlop Sport in a management buyout for £300 million. The buyout was backed by investment company Cinven and the new company is known as Dunlop Slazenger.
Slazenger became the official Wimbledon tennis ball supplier in 1902. Eighty four years later, the yellow Slazenger balls were first introduced at Wimbledon. This is now acknowledged as the longest unbroken sports sponsorship in sporting history. Tim Henman switched to Slazenger rackets, reaching the Wimbledon finals in 2001 and 2002. Slazenger signed England Cricket Internationals Paul Collingwood, Matt Prior and Ian Bell as well as South Africa’s Jacques Kallis.2
In 2004, CINVen sells Dunlop Slazenger to Sports Direct International for a reported £40 million, who in turn sold on the rights to the Slazenger Golf brand in Europe to JJB Sports.3
Since the factory at Horbury Bridge closed, and production moved to Barnsley, the name is preserved in Slazengers Sports and Social Club on Southfield Lane in Horbury, which has facilities and floodlit grounds for many different sporting activities.
1. William Sykes on Wikipedia
2. Slazenger web page
3. Grace's Guide to British Indistrial History - Slazenger
Stephen Wilson, May 2016