Charles Robert Bullard

Charles Robert Bullard
In 1905 a basket weaver from St Ives invented the treaded tyre, a feature today of every form of transport and a legal minimum requirement for motorised vehicles. His idea was so revolutionary he got an offer equivalent to £3 million for the rights. Choosing to patent the innovation himself, his dreams of making a fortune came crashing down when he was made bankrupt just a year later and his story of 'Fortune Thrown Away' was reported around the world. Read on for more details of his life and how he coped with the disappointment.

Following the introduction of the modern bicycle, John Dunlop's 1888 invention of the pneumatic tyre with inner tube made cycling much more comfortable. Bicycles gained popularity as a means of transport and cycling clubs sprung up.

St Ives' was one of the earliest, formed in 1877. The Cambridge Independent Press 3 May 1889 wrote of the 'desirability of resuscitating the St Ives Cycling Club', which originally ran from 1877 to 1884. An article in the Cambridge Daily News a week later told of the first meeting of the reformed Club, there being about sixteen bicycles and a good number of spectators.
Whippet safety bicycle 1885
Whippet safety bicycle 1885

Charles Bullard most probably was one of those eager cyclists. Born in Crown Street, St Ives in 1865, he was the youngest of five children born to John Bullard and Maria (née Robb). The family made baskets from willows grown on Holt Island, employing four men. Initially Charles worked as an apprentice draper, lodging at James Smith's drapers, clothier and shoe seller's store in Bridge Street.

It wasn't long before Charles took over the family business. The Cambridge Independent Press 5 May 1889 records that Charles and his workers celebrated May Day on Holt Island with flags, refreshments, amusements and evening dancing. And J Kemp Foster, in his reminiscences of St Ives in the late 19th century published by the Hunts Post 12 June 1909, remembers Charles selling his baskets at the corner of Bridge Street, as shown in the image below. Might that be Charles wearing the bowler hat?

Charles Bullard's basket stall, Bridge Street, St Ives
Charles Bullard's basket stall in Bridge Street, on the right

In 1894 Charles married Annie Bebee. They lived in Campion's Yard, St Ives. Their first child, unnamed, was stillborn. A daughter and four sons followed.

About 1905 Charles had his bright idea for a non-skidding device for tyres. The invention was so good it won the 1906 £100 prize awarded by the Cyclists' Touring Club for the best invention of its kind. It also attracted an offer of £16,000 for the rights, equivalent to £2 million today.

Believing he was onto something good, Charles turned down the offer. He contacted Bromhead & Co, a firm of patent agents, to protect his invention in the UK, France, Germany and America.

Another offer to purchase the rights was made, this time for £25,000, today's value £3 million. In fact the bidder, Ernest Terah Hooley, secured acceptance with a £20 deposit. Charles was probably unaware he was now swimming in shark-infested waters.

Hooley certainly had a background in the bicycle business, buying such famous names as Dunlop and Raleigh and selling them on at inflated prices to make a huge profit. He was bankrupt several times and served two prison terms from 1911 onwards. It's easy to see how Charles might have been persuaded by a man the chief prosecutor named the most attractive personalty he'd encountered in his professional career.

The promise of riches all came to nothing. Charles appeared in the City of London Court, sued by Bromhead & Co. and reported by the Hunts Post 6 October 1906. He had paid £30 on account, equivalent to more than £3,000 today, and Bromhead & Co. wanted the balance of their fees of about £10, over £1,000 today. Since he'd never been sent any patent certificates, Charles claimed he had no evidence the work was done.

Bromhead & Co. produced the certificates for Germany and France and explained it could take up to two years for Governments to send the patent certificate, the United States being particularly tardy. The judge found in Bromhead & Co.'s favour. It's ironic the only record of Charles' patent is from the United States, dated 2 January 1906.

Somewhat ominously, there was no mention in court of the UK patent. Ernest Terah Hooley withdrew his offer and Charles found his UK rights had not been properly protected. Being a smooth operator, did Hooley spot the flaw and take advantage? We'll never know. Because of the mistake, Charles couldn't prevent UK tyre manufacturers from copying his invention.

It seems Charles put up a fight for his rights. Sadly, through expense or effort on his cause distracting him from his basket-making business, he ended up in Peterborough Bankruptcy Court in early 1907. Under the heading 'Fortune Thrown Away' the tale was syndicated around the world, reported last in Australia as shown below.

The humbling experience was clearly too much. On Tuesday 23 July 1907 Charles, his wife and six children, now including Catherine Maria, a two month old infant, sailed aboard the SS Saxonia from Liverpool to Boston, Massachusetts. Charles' occupation was listed as a carpet cutter.

Their ultimate destination was South Bend, Indiana. It must have been something of a culture shock, moving from a market town with a population of 3,000 to a city of 54,000 inhabitants. By 1910 they had moved 350 miles west to Kane Township, Iowa. The family had suffered a tragedy, Catherine dying in infancy. By 1920 the family had moved again, 350 miles south west to Kaw Township, Missouri.

Charles died on Wednesday 28 January 1925 of leukemia, aged 60yrs. He had risen from carpet cutter to be the President of K C Carpet Co.

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