Heroes of the year - Brompton Bikes workers

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Every day over the festive period here on UniteLive, we highlight a different ‘hero of the year’. Today, we pay tribute to Brompton bikes workers, many of whom are Unite members, who joined in the national effort at the height of the pandemic by manufacturing the iconic foldable bikes to help NHS workers.

Back in April, we spoke to Brompton Bikes CEO and Brompton bikes workers who took part in an extraordinary crowdfunding project to provide alternative modes of transport for NHS staff. Find out more in our feature below.


As UniteLive has highlighted over the last few weeks, heroes abound amid the coronavirus crisis. While some are obvious, like doctors and nurses, others are more hidden, working tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the UK going.  

Workers for Brompton Bicycle, many of whom are Unite members, have joined in the national effort in their own special way. They’re now hard at work manufacturing the iconic foldable bikes as part of a unique crowdfunding project that aims to provide an alternative mode of transport for NHS staff.

Brompton Bicycle CEO Will Butler-Adams OBE told UniteLive how the idea all started at Bart’s Hospital in London.

“A contact of ours was chatting with someone at Bart’s – just in passing conversation – about how they were having problems with transport for their staff. And then we thought, well hold on, we’ve got bikes!”

The company started by providing 50 free bike rentals to Bart’s Hospital staff.

“We thought 50 would be more than enough – that they’re never going to use them all. But they all went in three days. We completely underestimated what demand was going to be. The 50 became 200 and then basically we just ran out. The word rapidly spread and has gone national with registrations from Portsmouth, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester and further afield. Every single bike we have in London is out, with only a few left here and there dotted around the country.”

With the company’s hire fleet totally depleted, the demand has still kept rising, with more than 500 registrations from NHS staff and counting.

This unprecedented demand lit the fuse for a crowdfunding project – dubbed the Wheels for Heroes campaign — to accelerate production of Brompton’s hire fleet so that NHS staff around the country can avail themselves of the foldable bikes for free. Now that the crowdfund has already raised an astonishing £128,000, Brompton will start with an initial production of 1,000 bikes — all in NHS colours.

The firm plans for their special Wheels for Heroes bikes to have a lasting impact beyond the current crisis. Afterwards, the bikes will continued to be used by NHS for a nominal maintenance fee and some of them will be donated to hospitals to manage as a fleet or for graduate doctors and nurses. Will noted that Brompton Bike Hire will not profit from any of these hires or bikes produced.

He went on to explain why the bikes have proved so popular with NHS staff.

“You have a combination of people working pretty weird hours at a time when public transport has been massively reduced. So they can’t be sure of planning their transport how they might have done in the past. And also there is a genuine fear as public transport provision is diminished that people might be putting themselves at higher risk by going to work on a bus, tube or tram, which may get quite crowded.”

The portability of the foldable Brompton bike makes the model especially suitable for NHS workers at this time of crisis, Will added.

“Since it’s foldable, if you’re coming to work from further afield you might take the train but you might not take the tube – and then you can pedal the last bit in. Other NHS staff might be driving in and then decide that they want to get some exercise or clear their head. When people are under a lot of pressure – certainly me personally, the best way to sort my head out is by getting on a bike. You can have your bike in your car and just whip it out. And of course you’re able to store the bike in a safer place since you can take it into the building with you.”

This was precisely the experience of St Bart’s Hospital chief cardiac physiologist Zoe Griffin, who received her hire bike earlier last week.

 “Since the Covid crisis started my biggest fear was my travel to work on the tube, due to the risk of getting an infection from there,” she said. “The roads are quiet and I’m managing to exercise before and after a busy day of work.”

Unite members working for Brompton Bicycle, who over the next few days will be producing the first Wheels for Heroes batch of 150 bikes, praised the campaign.

Unite member Pawel (pictured above), who works on the production line, said he felt a “huge sense of pride and responsibility” as he goes to work producing bikes for the NHS.

“We are all doing something to help combat the coronavirus whether it’s by staying at home or helping each other out in different ways,” he said. “With the work we’re doing now, I feel part of the nation, every day working towards a common aim.”

Pawel’s colleague Brian (pictured below), also a Unite member and production line worker, agreed.

“It’s really amazing knowing that in some way we will be helping to ease the stress of NHS workers getting to and from work without having to worry about public transport,” he said. “I’m very pleased to be doing something to help those who help us in times of need.”

Unite member Mark (pictured below), who works in brazing for the bike manufacturer, said he was “extremely proud” to “give back just a little bit to help NHS staff with our bikes.”

“It’s given me a huge incentive to wake up every morning and come into work,” he added.

The Brompton Bicycle workers sent messages of gratitude and support to NHS staff on the frontline.

“Heroes have a new name – the names of every single one of you under one symbol – the NHS,” Pawel said.

Brian added, “Keep going – we are all behind you.”

Brompton Bike’s CEO Will also praised the NHS and other key workers – many of whom he said, like for example, electricians fixing fire alarms at hospitals or workers in logistics – don’t get the recognition they deserve.

“The people who are trying to fight this really challenging virus – by God it’s amazing,” he said. “We need to support them as best we can.”

Will also hailed his workforce, who he said have always been committed to the work they do, but who are even more so now.

“What has been really special is the number of staff who have donated to the crowdfunding page,” he said. “I didn’t expect that at all and it’s really touching.”

“We’ve always had a sense of pride in what we’re doing but to be able to articulate that and genuinely deliver something for those who are putting themselves at the greatest risk – it makes us all feel like we’re trying our best,” he added.

Above all, Will said that British industry has an obligation to help the nation however it can at a time of dire need.

“In our case, we’ve been designated as an industry that is allowed to stay open to support the fight against the coronavirus,” he explained.  “In many ways this is an enormous privilege. As a business you need to take that seriously. Even as we struggle to keep our business viable, if we can help and if there’s some way that we can contribute then we ought to do that.

“With Wheels for Heroes, we didn’t plan for this opportunity; it just came about — and what we’ve done is run with it.”

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail hailed the Wheels for Heroes campaign.

“When the NHS reached out for help Brompton Bikes picked up the challenge and is running with it,” she said. “This practical support to NHS workers saving lives is possible not least because Brompton Bikes and Unite members are determined to up production to meet the needs of the hour. Perfect symmetry.”

Find out more about Wheels for Heroes, and how you can contribute, on the crowdfunding page here.

Pics: Lara, Brompton Bicycle.

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