SLAZENGERS HORBURY

William Sykes, the son of blanket finisher Joseph Sykes and his wife Catharine, was born in Earlsheaton in 1852. In 1874 William married Louisa Abstemia Crabtree of Liversedge and, against the advice of his father, with his own and his new wife's savings, he purchased a saddlery business in Horbury.

William Sykes had been a saddler’s apprentice, but by the 1881 census he had expanded his saddlery business and was now also a football manufacturer employing three apprentices. He and Louisa lived at Lydgetgate, Horbury with their four children, Henry Osborne 5, Gertrude 4, Lionel 3 and Edith 1. Sadly, Lionel died in 1882, followed by Gertrude in 1885.

By 1891, the Sykes family had moved to 3, New Street, Horbury and were joined by two more children William Oates aged 7 and Katie aged 4. William (senior) was now described as an athletic outfitter and manufacturer. By 1901, William had moved his family to ‘Fairfield House’ located Ossett Lane (Westfield Road), Horbury. William Oates Sykes is now 17 years of age and described as a cricket bat maker.

William Sykes died on the 10th January 1910. His executors included his widow Louisa and sons Henry Osborne Sykes and William Oates Sykes, described as athletic goods manufacturers. William Oates Sykes married Ethel May Marshall in 1907. The 1911 census shows them living at ‘Freshford’, Benton Hill, Horbury. William Oates Sykes died on the 21st September 1935 at his home ‘Northlands’, Lacey Street, Horbury.

Lacey Street home of William Oates Sykes

Above: 'Northlands' the Lacey Street, Horbury home of William Oates Sykes, principal of Wm. Sykes Sporting Goods Manufacturers at Horbury Bridge, later Slazengers..

Henry Osborne Sykes married Maud Berry in 1899. Their home in the 1901 census was ‘Crossfield Villa’, Quarry Hill Road, Horbury. By 1911 they were living at ‘Oakfield’, Jenkin Road, Horbury. They had two children, Richard and Margaret. Henry moved to Budleigh Salterton, Devon where he died in 1939.

Sykes Graves

Above: The graves of William Sykes (1852 - 1910) and his son William Oates Sykes (1883 - 1935) in Horbury Cemetery. Pictures by Helen Bickerdike.

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 eventually manufacturing cricket bats in their factory.

In 1935, William Sykes Ltd. purchased Albion Mills at Horbury Bridge. 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.

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

 

Sykes Factory later Slazengers

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.

Slazenger motifIn 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.

My thanks to Helen Bickerdike for her help with census details of the Sykes family and corrections to the original text.

References:

1. William Sykes on Wikipedia
2. Slazenger web page
3. Grace's Guide to British Industrial History - Slazenger

Stephen Wilson, October 2017