Even as Harley Davidson packs its corporate saddlebags for the metaphorical roadtrip to expand its dealerships across the globe, a country other than the United States can apparently claim roots to the American icon.
Many books have been written on the history of the company, from the early success being built out of a shed, to its dramatic downfall in the 1970’s and eventual rebirth after being bought by former employees.
Titles like '100 years of Harley Davidson', 'Jean Davidson’s Harley Davidson family album', 'Growing up Harley Davidson', 'The Harley Davidson Century' and 'The complete Harley Davidson' populate the shelves of book stores and libraries. They all detail the rise, fall and resurrection of an American legend, retelling a familiar story among motorcycle enthusiasts.
But how does a company that’s as American as apple pie have ties to a small village some thousands of miles away in England? Not just any village, but a sleepy dot on the British map known as Littleport.
Located in the mid-eastern part of England, the quiet village sits on the edge of a very flat area known as the Fens and still retains the same charm American servicemen grew to love during the Second World War.
Just to show how little time has changed Littleport, the United States Air Force still maintains two airbases nearby and many American servicemen live in the village. With the 6600 residents either working on the local farms or commuting to larger towns and cities like Cambridge, Newmarket, Kings Lynn or even London, the village has a slow but steady pace to it. The ‘High Street’ or shopping area is populated by a butcher, baker, bank, post office, three pubs, two fish and chips establishments and a tea room as well as the newsagents and convenience store. More traditional trades such as a blacksmith and chimney sweeper are still alive and well in Littleport.
The village made its mark in history as early as 1816 when a starved population rose up and took control of Littleport and Ely before being defeated by a detachment of dragoons (soldiers) sent from Bury St Edmunds. This came to be known as the Littleport Riots, coining the phrase ‘being read the riot act’ as well as resulting in five of the rioters being hanged and a further five deported to a penal colony in Australia. In fact, the harsh treatment caused a national outcry, and the Littleport Rioters are remembered today by a commemorative plaque outside St Mary's church tower in Ely.
So how is such a quiet, historical village connected to a world recognized icon such as Harley Davidson, the pre-eminent cruising motorcycle?
A country of immigrants
Like all great American legends, the seeds were sown far away in another country. If William Sylvester Harley can be considered the father of the American Motorcycle, the grandfather of the ‘Hog’ was born thousands of miles away from the shack that saw the first Harley Davidson built. This person was born in Littleport.
William Harley was born on May 2nd 1835, in a house on Victoria Street, Littleport. By 1859 he left Littleport and immigrated to Oswego in the newly formed country, the United States of America. William Harley enlisted in the army shortly after arriving in the U.S. fighting on the side of the Unionists in the American Civil War. Afterwards he fathered several children with Mary Smith, one of which was William Sylvester, born December 29th 1880. As everyone knows William Sylvester Harley went on to form the Harley-Davidson Motor Company with Arthur Davidson in 1903.
This history hasn’t been lost on the modern day inhabitants of Littleport and they commemorated the village’s link to its place in American folklore with a full size motorcycle statue and an unveiling ceremony in 2003. Warm wishes were given by Harley Davidson, who happened to be celebrating its one hundred year anniversary. The grandson and granddaughter of William Sylvester Harley attended the ceremony, inviting all to join them;
“As the birthplace and home of one of the original founding families of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Littleport has a particular place in the hearts of Harley-Davidson owners and it is great to see a permanent memorial to mark the occasion – particularly in Harley’s 100th birthday year”.
“We are thrilled that during the year marking the 100th Anniversary of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Littleport will be hosting events that embrace celebrating the contributions of William Sylvester Harley, one of the co-founders and the memory of his father, William, who was born in the village.
Our families feel a deep sense of gratitude towards all who are making the events possible and look forward to meeting you all when you join us at the festivities”.
- John Harley and Margo Manning
The day’s events included the American Civil War Society, vintage vehicles, American themed music and of course a turnout of Harley Davidson motorcycles. Starting at 9.30am the entertainment, fair and unveiling went on into the day with the final act, a British pop band The Groundhogs, coming on stage at 11.15 that night.
The village has even marked its link with the famous motorcycle manufacturer with the Harley Trail, a nature walk that makes it way through Littleport is around 2 miles long and starts from The Barn, home of the Littleport Society, who discovered and confirmed the link between Littleport and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
According to a website, a 2004 Harley Davidson celebration was cancelled, ‘After careful consideration by the primary organizers, taking into account the current available funding sources, it has been decided to provisionally reschedule the Event until 2006.’
But the memorial, a life-size silver motorcycle still stands on the village green outside St George's Church to this day. If you ask for directions to it, the local will most likely throw in “Without Littleport, there’d be no Harley Davidson!” at the end with a wry smile.