Kingston Eco-op bicycle workshop was a community project that worked with local people with mental health issues and learning difficulties. The workshop sought to provide experience in a work environment and teach valuable technical skills. It was also a source of affordable second hand bikes for the community. We spoke to Gary Lee and Jonathan Rowland who both worked at the workshop until it was forced to close in 2017.

Origins of the workshop

Kingston Eco-op was a project that came out of Springboard at Tolworth Hospital. A mental health and learning disability service was set up to provide a number of different activities including a gardening project, a community furniture project and a packing workshop with an arm which refurbished bicycles for second hand sale. Local people with mental health issues or learning difficulties - referred to as clients - were given the opportunity to learn how to refurbish bicycles, which were then sold to generate money for the charity. The workshop was based at Adams House in an industrial estate off Kingston Road.

The refurbishment workshop

The workshop aimed to provide affordable bicycles for people in the borough and offered training and social opportunities to the clients who worked there. The workshop ran a structured day to encourage a sense of purpose and provide a regular work environment. Clients, local volunteers and staff members worked alongside each other on a range of tasks from cleaning donated bicycles, to stripping the parts from bicycles which could not be sold. The clients were included in all elements of the process including health and safety procedures and working with the members of the public interested in purchasing the bicycles to give them an overview of the entire process. As a result they gained an understanding of different systems and types of bikes. The workshop became a popular resource for the community, with a large number of sales coming by word of mouth.

Gary Lee (left) Jonathan Rowland (right)

Jonathan overseeing repairs

The clients

The workshop provided a safe space for its clients whilst equipping them with new skills. Gary Lee explained ‘Being part of something...was very massive for people...the social inclusion. But then there was also the technical skills and finding things in them that they didn’t think they see that flourish and come out was - yeah it was very big.’ The workshop also ran sessions with adaptive bicycles to include cycling opportunities for all abilities. Gary Lee recalls ‘there was - definitely a couple of people who hadn’t cycled for many, many years who we got on a bike for the first time in all those years and that was amazing to see that happen...sort of re-sparked something that maybe had been very dormant for maybe 20 years.’

The process

Bicycles primarily came from public donations, although the workshop also received bicycles from Southwest Trains, Kingston University, from the police and from the tip. The level of work needed on each bicycle varied greatly, from changing brake pads or replacing saddles to complete refurbishment, with volunteers supporting all of the stages. Bicycles which were not economical to refurbish were used for spare parts and the process of identifying the relevant parts became an important part of volunteers' understanding of the build process.

Jonathan Rowland remembers ‘we built a bike for one of the staff members because he had his bike stolen. So what I tried to do was make sure that everyone in the workshop had at least some hand in building that that he had a bike that actually came from the workshop’.

Inside the workshop. Adams House, Kingston Road

Eviction puts project on pause

In December 2017, the family that owned Adams house sold the workshop site to the adjacent timber merchant. The Eco-op’s packing workshop found a space in the basement of the Jon Bunion Church, however no space could be found for the bike workshop. Unfortunately, this means the project has now been put on hold. However, Kingston Voluntary Action are keen to restart it and are seeking suitable premises in the Borough.