Obituary: Pat Hanlon

Prissie Jane Howell, bicycle-wheel builder: born Newport, Cardiganshire 11 April 1915; married 1938 Frank Hanlon (one son; marriage dissolved), 1979 Jim Clark (died 1983); died Magullas, Majorca 29 December 1997.

Building a bicycle wheel is both an art and a science, which many men fail to master. For a woman to be rated the top wheel builder in Britain was extraordinary.

Racing and touring cyclists travelled from all over the world to acquire a pair of Pat Hanlon's wheels. Her original "boys" brought their sons and grandsons. When her retirement loomed, they ordered spare sets to keep in a cupboard.

These were not ordinary everyday wheels, but what Hanlon called "important" wheels, delicate, light-as-air affairs, hand-built. On the one hand you have a hub. On the other, a flexible alloy rim weighing so little it might almost float away. The wheel builder's job is to attach the two together with a set of slender spokes which must be perfectly tensioned. The rim must be absolutely round and the hub dead centre.

Pat Hanlon was given her first bicycle at the age of 14. Born Prissie Jane Howell, in 1915, in a damp valley in Cardiganshire, of publican parents, she was a sickly child until the family moved to drier Somerset where, physically, she flourished. But, as a Welsh speaker, she went from the top to the bottom of the class. She discovered a mechanical bent instead, through regularly dismantling her beloved bicycle.

At 16 she was taken by an aunt to London, where for 10 years she worked as a waitress in J. Lyons teashops. But it was the bike she lived for, thinking nothing of cycling to Somerset and back at weekends to visit her parents (a minimum of 18 hours each way), or rising at 3am to join friends for 90-mile rides before the afternoon shift.

With her yearly mileage approaching 15,000 miles, including impressive feats in racing, she had progressed to custom-built lightweight bikes, one of which she ordered from Macleans, a famous bicycle shop in Islington, north London.

She took to hovering about the shop, especially on busy Saturday mornings, provoking the "guvnor" to tell her to lend a hand. She did, for no pay, but her real interest was in the old wheel builder in the basement. She used to watch him and beg him to teach her, but, on the grounds that "women don't do jobs like that", he refused.

It was the Second World War that enabled her to fulfil her dream. With the young men otherwise occupied, one day the "guvnor", Mr Bailey, barked: "You want to do wheels. You be here Monday morning."

She stayed for 18 years, until Mr Bailey retired. At first male prejudice behind and in front of the counter was rife. She was told she should be at home looking after her child (in 1938 she had married a fellow cyclist, Frank Hanlon, and had a son); that they would never let a woman build their wheels. But Pat Hanlon, all five foot of her, would let it go over her head. She knew she could build wheels better than anyone.

After leaving Macleans, she acquired her own bike shop, first in Tottenham, north London, and then in Palmers Green. She ran it single-handed, her marriage having failed. But the shop was just a business. She much preferred to be in her workshop with her wheels. In the beginning, she built all her own. Then she could afford to buy in the cheap wheels and concentrate on the best, selling as fast as she could build.

In 1979, aged 64, Pat Hanlon remarried, Jim Clark, one of her reps, and reluctantly began to contemplate the dreaded day, as far as she and her customers were concerned, of her retirement. Just after she finally shut up shop in 1983, Jim died.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own