History of Bristol's buses
A brief history of Bristol Tramways and Carriage Co, Bristol Omnibus Co and Bristol Commercial Vehicles
For the body responsible for one of the most progressive and dynamic cities of the day, Bristol Corporation had initially been curiously cautious about the idea of introducing trams to the city, but eventually drew up plans for two lines in 1871. In the event, for financial reasons, only one went ahead. It ran between Perry Road (near the current Bristol Royal Infirmary) and Blackboy Hill (Apsley Road) in Redland. The tracklaying was not completed until 1874. The Corporation did not actually have the legal powers to operate trams, so having laid the tracks, it looked for someone to run the service, and the Bristol Tramways Company was set up in 1874 by local investors in response to this. Initially it leased the tramway from the Corporation, but bought it later when it proved a success.
The horse tram depot at the junction of Perry Road and Colston Street is still visible, although it is now a micro-brewery and bar.
The former tram depot at Perry Road
The line opened on 9th August 1875. The trams were horse-drawn and each could carry a maximum of 36 passengers. They operated every 8 minutes between 8am and 11pm except on Sundays, when they only ran from 1pm to 11pm. There was a flat-fare of 2d. (For younger readers, there's an explanation of the British pre-decimal currency here).
The service attracted plenty of travellers, and early on the company started raising capital to extend to other routes, starting in December 1875 by extending from Perry Road to St Augustine’s Parade (later known as the tramways centre, and today as the city centre). Later, more lines opened from Perry Road to Old Market, and from Old Market to Eastville and St George, and by 1880 there was an extensive network in the centre of the city. By 1886, 60 trams were licensed for use in Bristol.
The Bristol Cab Company Ltd was incorporated and began operations in 1886. It amalgamated with the Bristol Tramways Company on 1st October 1887 to form the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company Ltd, and under this name the company ran Bristol’s trams and buses (and initially cabs and a variety of other forms of transport) until 30th May 1957 when its name was changed to the Bristol Omnibus Company Ltd.
The company would have liked to operate trams from the centre to the Clifton Suspension Bridge but the residents of Clifton had objected to the trams’ introduction onto their streets so horsebuses were used instead, appearing in 1887 and running between the Victoria Rooms and the Suspension Bridge.
Meanwhile, the Cheltenham Omnibus Company began operating horse buses in the town on 2nd June 1890 after a successful trial during May. The first route between Lansdown Station and Pittville Gates was soon joined by a second from the High Street to Charlton Kings, which began operating on 28th June. More routes followed and by 1894 there were four routes in the town. (View the 1894 routes).
The first electric trams arrived in Bristol in 1895 (Leeds had been the first city to use them on a major route) and by 1900 the whole system was electrified. In today’s cynical age, it is hard to imagine the amount of civic pride and public enthusiasm for the electric trams with opening ceremonies marked by firework displays and even free meals for the public, and routes lined by huge numbers of spectators.
As the horses became redundant, many were sold, but some were retained and used to introduce more horsebus routes to places not on the tram network or as feeder services to the tram terminii. In 1899 a new works and depot was opened in Brislington housing 150 trams to cater for the increasing number.
In 1899 the Cheltenham and District Light Railway Company was formed with the intention of introducing trams to the town. Construction began in 1901 and the first trams in public service, imported from America, ran in August. The route ran from Lansdown to the top of Cleeve Hill, and it cannot have done much for public confidence when during trials before the opening, one of the trams ran away down Cleeve Hill and overturned, killing two staff on board. The brakes had not been correctly connected. The public quickly recovered, however, and 44,000 passengers were carried in the first week alone. In fact this was not the last fatality on Cleeve Hill: one of the company's permanent way trucks later ran away there, killing another member of staff.
In 1903 horsebus operations in Cheltenham ceased and the Cheltenham Omnibus Co was wound up. Later the same year extensions of the tramways to Leckhampton and Charlton Kings were authorised, and these opened in 1905.
In Weston-super-Mare, the council had decided that it would be sensible for a single body to provide both electricity and a tramway system for the town, so that only one set of trenches needed to be dug for cables, the tramway's catenary could also carry the town's electricity supply, and there only need be a single generating station. The council transferred both sets of powers to the Weston-super-Mare and District Electric Supply Company which was a subsidiary of British Electric Traction. Construction of the tramway began in 1902. The line ran along the Promenade from the Sanatorium to the Old Pier. A branch ran along Regent Street to the depot and power station at Locking Road. After inspection by the Board of Trade, the first tram ran on 5th May 1902 and the line officially opened on 13th May.
In 1905 Bristol Tramways undertook trials of motor buses using Thornycroft chassis with bodies made by the United Electric Car Company. They were open-top double-deckers. The first motorbus service ran from the Victoria Rooms to the Suspension Bridge at 07.50 hrs on 17th January 1906 and ran every 10 minutes. More routes followed quickly, reaching out as far as Thornbury, Newton St Loe (to connect with Bath’s trams) and Kelston, among other places.
During 1906 the company carried (astonishingly) over 46 million passengers at a time when the city’s population was around 340,000. With an expanding business and the success of the concept of the initial motorbuses (although not the vehicles themselves, which were not very satisfactory), the company decided to start building its own buses, and the first two Bristol-built buses started work in May 1908 and were followed by four more by the end of the year. (View details of all the types produced by Bristol over the years).
BT&CC's former garage at Westbury-on-Trym
In 1907 a new motor bus depot and works was opened at Filton, leaving Brislington to the trams.
Tram drivers had previously worked 12-hour shifts, exposed to the elements, and standing at the controls. The shifts were reduced to 9 hours per day in 1907.
The tram network reached its maximum extent in 1908.
The third bus chassis to be built entered service in Bristol in May 1908. AE772 was a C40 and is seen near the Suspension Bridge. The 16-seat bodies were also built by BT&CC.
Bus manufacture moved to Brislington Tram Depot in 1910, and in 1912 the chairman leased the existing Filton works for another of his companies to build aircraft in. In 1913, the Motor Constructional Works were opened at Kensington Hill, Brislington (half a mile or so from the tram depot). Chassis now rolled off the production line allowing more vehicles to enter service and for more routes to be introduced, and the company expanded into Bath, Cheltenham, Weston-super-Mare and Gloucester, initially as a charabanc and taxicab operator, but later running buses as well.
Today there is a new entrance into the Kensington Hill site from a set of traffic lights on the A4 Bath Road, called Tramway Road. Just to the city side of these lights is a six foot wall at an angle to the road with a narrow driveway next to it. This was the original works entrance and the wall is one of two that had the Bristol scroll mounted on them. When the site was cleared two large retail stores were built there instead.
Many employees joined up to fight in the First World War, and among other resulting changes the first conductresses appeared, while Weston-super-Mare employed the first women tram drivers in the west of England.
After an interruption caused by the war, chassis production resumed. The 4-ton chassis in particular was popular with other operators. More buses were also added to the company’s own fleet, and its reach extended to Bridgwater, Malvern, Tewkesbury and Coleford. New depots were opened in Swindon and Wells.
The first double-deckers on Bristol chassis were supplied to Kingston upon Hull Corporation Tramways in 1923. They had bodywork by Dick Kerr, the tram manufacturers, of Preston. There were just three of them.
The 4-ton type was built after the First World War, developed from the pre-war C series. AF8752 and AF8753 seen here were built for Devon Motor Transport of Okehampton in April 1924, with Bristol-built bodywork. They had fleet numbers 21 and 22 and were allocated to the Cornwall Motor Transport fleet.
In 1923 a lightweight 2-ton chassis was introduced. It was intended for goods use as well as a small bus and charabanc. BT&CC placed more than fifty of these small charabancs into service in 1924/5. These were the first Bristols to have pneumatic tyres as standard. The bus version was built originally on solid tyres but deliveries from 1925 could have either solid or pneumatic tyres.
Cheltenham's trams were in a deteriorating financial position by 1923. Takings were slightly down, and costs had risen steeply (both in wages and in the post-war capital improvements necessitated by the neglect of the war years), and there was increasing competition from buses. Bristol Tramways & Carriage Co had agreed not to compete on the town's tram routes, both other companies were not so accommodating. Later in 1923 the Cheltenham Light Railway Co therefore bought three Guy single-deck buses of its own and used them to connect areas of the town not on the tram system. Their first route was between Harp Hill, Lansdown Station and Montpelier. Another bus joined the company the following year and another route was added in 1925, running between the Promenade and Sandy Lane.
Meanhile in Bristol, BT&CC bought a large site at Lawrence Hill as its bus works in 1924.
The ‘A’ and ‘B’ type chassis went into production in 1925 and 1926 respectively, the former intended for vehicles to carry 60 passengers, and the latter a light passenger chassis.
Bristol's first design especially for double-deck bodywork was the 'A' type. This was a low-frame chassis with 16' wheelbase for 7' by 25' bodywork. It had a four-cylinder 36.2 horsepower petrol engine. Despite being built as a double-decker, four chassis were bodied as single-deckers and one as a horse box. Six of the double-deckers were bodied by Bristol for Manchester Corporation, three of which are seen here. Only 23 'A'-types were built.
The most significant production was the 'B' type single-decker introduced in 1926. These had four-cylinder six litre petrol engines of the GW type. Marketed as the "Superbus", 778 were built and were sold all over the country both as buses and coaches. HL4218 was one of two 'B'-type coaches added to the Yorkshire (West Riding) Tramways fleet in March 1929 to supplement a large fleet of Bristol buses in use at that time.
In 1927 the company had services reaching as far as Chepstow (this was long before the Severn Bridge, of course), Burford, Hungerford, Devizes and Frome.
In 1928 the company gained financial control of Greyhound Motors Ltd, which had been a competitor in Bristol itself since 1921 and which also operated a Bristol to London express service and coach routes to Bournemouth and Paignton. It absorbed Greyhound completely in 1936, although the name was revived later for BT&CC’s coach operations.
In Cheltenham, the trams had come to be seen as a contributor to the increasing traffic congestion in the town. In 1928, the Light Railway Company proposed their replacement with trolleybuses but this was widely opposed on aesthetic grounds (it would have involved extending the wiring into new areas), and the visit of a civic party to see Wolverhampton's system was not a success. As a result, the company and Cheltenham Corporation agreed in 1929 that buses would replace the trams. A new company, named Cheltenham District Traction, had been set up by the Light Railway Company in readiness to run the proposed trolleybuses, and when this did not happen, the new company became the bus operator instead. Later in 1929 the first tram-replacement buses arrived in the town, and the last tram ran in late 1930.
In January 1930 the Great Western Railway bought 67% of BT&CC's shares, but as it had no legal powers to operate trams, it transferred its interest to the Western National Omnibus Co in December of 1931, the effect of which was to give Western National a controlling stake in Bristol. Western National was half owned by the GWR and half by the Tilling group.
By the end of the 1920s, routes had reached Oxford and Yeovil, and various ex-GWR routes in Wiltshire and Somerset were now operated by BT&CC.
The ‘C’, ‘D’, and ‘E’ type chassis were produced around the same time, although none sold very well, and the ‘C’ sold none at all. The ‘D’ type was for the first time intended for a 6-cylinder engine. The ‘E’ type was a 6-wheel trolleybus design, but only two were sold.
In 1930 expansion continued, as BT&CC bought a 40% stake in Black and White Motorways Ltd. Midland Red took 40% and City of Oxford the remaining 20%. Both were British Electric Traction (BET) companies.
1931 saw the start of production of more types of chassis, the ‘G’, ‘H’ and ‘J’ types. We have one ‘J’ type in the Bristol Vintage Bus Group collection, dating from 1934 (AHU803). Both the ‘G’ and ‘J’ types were for 6-cylinder engines, and the ‘H’ and ‘J’ were the first 27’6” chassis. All chassis were powered by Bristol’s own petrol engines. Diesels began to be fitted in the 1930s, mainly supplied by Gardner. Over 800 ‘G’ and ‘J’ type chassis were eventually produced, the majority for Tilling group companies. Most of these had bodywork by Eastern Counties Omnibus Co., which was another member of the Tilling group (it later became the famous Eastern Coachworks in 1936).
The 'G'-type was a more modern double-deck chassis. 38 were built with JW 6-cylinder petrol engines before oil engines were introduced. From 1935 all 'G' types were produced with oil engines, and their classification was "GO". All the petrol-engined chassis were converted to oil (diesel as we would now say). In this view G114 (HY6605) was one of a number of demonstration vehicles built, this one being fitted with a Glasgow standard type body by Cowieson. After trials in Glasgow it returned to BT&CC in March 1933 and is seen here in their dark blue and white livery.
The single-deck equivalent of the 'G' was the 'J'-type, of which J114 (HY8253) was an early example added to Bristol's own fleet in March 1933. It is pictured in Chipping Sodbury High Street on route 131 to Bristol. Like the 'G' production began with petrol engines. A number of engine variations were tried in the 'J' chassis including 4-cylinder petrol and a rotary engine, but like the double-decker, diesel eventually took over and by mid-1936 only "JO" versions were built, of which the JO5G became the most numerous.
The Group's Bristol "J" type, AHU803. Photo: Bob Brimley
During the 1930s the company bought several small Gloucestershire operators and Burnell’s of Weston-super-Mare, and in 1936 it bought both Bath Electric Tramways Ltd and Bath Tramways Motor Co. while Gloucester Corporation leased its services to the company.
Taxi operations had not been very profitable for a long time and were gradually run down, ceasing finally in 1930.
In the early thirties another site with some large sheds was bought a few minutes walk from the tram depot at Chatsworth Road. Chassis were assembled at this site until the end of production with all the parts still made at the original works. Chatsworth Road sheds still stand and are now used by a large car dealer. Opposite these works is a large black mock castle (the Black Castle pub) which was the Bristol social club with a sports field at the back which is now a Sainsbury's supermarket.
In 1934, with competition on express coach routes becoming more problematic, several operators clubbed together in a pooling arrangement as “Associated Motorways”. BT&CC were involved through the ownership of their 40% share of Black and White, and ownership of Greyhound, both of which were in the pool along with Red & White, Midland Red, United Counties and Elliot Bros of Bournemouth (Royal Blue).
Section 43 of the Tramways Act 1870 gave councils the power to buy tramways operations in their area, although the option was available only every 7 years. Bristol Corporation had considered purchase each time the 7-year option arose, and had essentially dithered and prevaricated, on one occasion even sponsoring a private act of parliament so that when it had bought the system it would have the power to operate it, only to decide once again not to go ahead with purchase. In 1929 the Corporation’s external specialist advisor told it that it should on no account go into the tramway business, which he saw as declining all over the country as buses gained popularity. The Corporation seemed to be using its power as a bargaining tool in the hope of extracting payment from the company for not exercising the option. (View the Tramways Act on the Legislation.gov.uk website).
In the end, with Thomas Tilling in the driving seat, as it were, negotiations resulted in agreement whereby Bristol Corporation bought the tramways and in addition became half-owner with the company of the Bristol city bus services. So began what was known as the Bristol Joint Services. This would be operated by the company but overseen by a joint committee equally made up of the corporation and the company. Part of the corporation’s intention in this arrangement was the closure of the tramways. There was brief disagreement at the corporation about whether to replace them with trolleybuses or buses, but after investigation a committee firmly endorsed their replacement with buses, and this began rapidly. (Other sources suggest that the joint agreement itself needed a special act of parliament to give the required statutory power to the corporation and that this was provided as the Bristol Transport Act 1937, but there is no record of this act in the national legislation archives.)
Also during 1937 the company paid Weston-super-Mare’s tramways £15,000 compensation and replaced the trams with buses. The last tram ran on 17th April 1937.
In 1937 the Motor Constructional Works began production of the ‘K’ and ‘L’ type chassis, the former a double-deck and the latter single-deck. The two types became the Tilling group's standard chassis and were supplied to virtually every fleet in the group as well as a number of British Electric Traction and municipal fleets and independent operators. The Gardner 5LW was the standard engine pre-war. Many of the ‘K’ types were for the company’s own use to replace the trams.
The replacement for the 'G' type was the 'K' type, introduced in 1937. Hants & Dorset TD755 (FLJ532) was new in April 1940 with ECW lowbridge body, and is typical of the type. It is seen in Endless Street, Salisbury, in full wartime livery of green with the window surrounds painted over in grey. (Photo: P Hulin)
The pre-war 'L' type is represented by this Rotherham Corporation vehicle with unusual Cravens body, new in 1938. Although Gardner 5LW engines were generally the norm (like this bus), many four- and six-cylinder Gardner 'L' types were built.
The final closure of Bristol’s tram system was due in 1939 but was delayed by the Second World War. Air raids in 1941 destroyed first Bedminster depot and then St Phillips Bridge, which carried the power cables for the remaining line from the company’s own generating station, and that was the end of Bristol’s trams.
In July 1939, Red & White, the bus operator in the Forest of Dean and Monmouthshire, bought Cheltenham District Traction, which had for a number of years been owned by the construction company Balfour Beatty.
Also, from 1939 onward, wartime fuel rationing caused services to be pruned dramatically, with rush-hour services maintained, but rural services and off-peak journeys cut back or discontinued. Those services that did run were heavily loaded as they catered for the additional workforce at aircraft factories, docks, and other essential wartime facilities. With almost 2000 of its employees having joined the services, the company recruited again women conductors and, for the first time, a smaller number of women drivers to fill the gaps.
Almost 450 new buses entered service to replace the trams as they were phased out and finally killed off by the blitz. The war also involved the requisitioning of vehicles, sometimes at short notice, and some for the duration of the war. 25 buses were destroyed by enemy action, including a single bomb dropped on Broad Weir in 1942 which killed 44 passengers and two conductresses, and destroyed three buses.
New buses during the war were few. Those that did arrive had very basic (“utility”) bodies and most were not Bristols but Bedfords or Guys. Buses were also hired and borrowed from other operators.
One of the reasons for the lack of production of buses in Bristol was that the Motor Constructional Works had been largely turned over to producing aircraft parts, munitions and other military requirements, along with a major production run of gas-producer trailers for operators all over the country, including Bristol. Other than two prototypes, no bus chassis were produced at all between 1942 and 1944.
The war work began to tail off in 1944 and the company began production of ‘K’ and ‘L’ type chassis again in 1946. It also continued developing its own diesel engine. In the same year, services began to recover as fuel allowances grew. The garages at Winterstoke Road and Muller Road were built before the war, but both were requisitioned for war work. They were reinstated as bus depots in 1945.
In 1944 the company changed its livery from the blue and white of the tramways era to Tilling green and cream.
BVBG's GHT154 displays the blue and white Tramways livery
The war had caused about 400 buses that would otherwise have been scrapped and replaced to be retained. Now many ‘J’ types were re-bodied and given new diesel engines to replace their original petrol units. This is what happened to Bristol Vintage Bus Group’s own ‘J’ type, AHU803.
The end of the war didn't bring an immediate end to the company's problems. Many staff were not yet demobbed, parts were hard to obtain, there were large numbers of passengers to carry and the fleet was ageing and tired. Larger numbers of private cars began to appear and the dominant position of public transport began a process of erosion that lasted for most of the rest of the century, although passenger numbers did not suffer until the 1950s. Services remained truncated from their pre-war state, due to labour shortages, but gradually recovered.
The company introduced its own diesel engine, the AVW, in 1946. 4000 were produced of this and its successor from 1957, the 'improved' (but apparently less reliable) and bigger BVW.
New buses arrived in larger numbers in the next few post-war years. Most were Bristols with Eastern Coachworks bodies, although some carried bodies manufactured in the company’s own body works, and some were made by Longwell Green coachworks. The majority of the city's own buses were Bristol-engined as this engine was regarded as most suitable for the city's hilly topography; country area buses often received Gardner engines instead.
The post-war Labour government set about nationalising industry in a big way, and the Transport Act 1947 resulted in the company coming under the control of the British Transport Commission, which also became responsible for the railways, many docks, and canals. One effect of this was that the company was no longer permitted to sell its products except to associated companies. This meant that sales to municipal operators (who did not come under the British Transport Commission’s aegis) and overseas were no longer possible, although from 1951 the company did instead manufacture lorry chassis for British Road Services, the British Transport Commission’s road haulage arm.
In 1949 a prototype of a new low-height double-deck bus entered service. This did away with the previous sunken top-deck gangway on low-bridge buses on which lower deck passengers tended to bang their heads when leaving their seats, and which involved four people sitting in a row on the upstairs seats, causing a good deal of inconvenience getting to and from seats as passengers climbed over each other. The new bus was the Lodekka, and went into production in 1953. It was very successful and in all over 5000 (including its later variants) were produced.
The company also turned its attention to the question of how to seat more passengers on single-deck buses, then limited in length by law to 27’6” (30’ from 1950). This was achieved by fitting the engine beneath the floor rather than in the traditional position at the front. Working with Eastern Coach Works, the company also went for integral design, instead of the stand-alone chassis. This resulted in the prototype “LS” or light saloon. The prototype entered service in December 1950. 1400 of the type were eventually built, including over 100 for Bristol itself.
The prototype Bristol "LS", NHU2
The company operated in Stroud, which was also served by Red & White, and by Western National. The British Transport Commission decided to rationalise this and in 1950 Bristol took over these two operators’ Stroud services. It also took over Cheltenham District Traction Co. from Red & White, while Red & White took over Bristol’s Forest of Dean services and Coleford depot. Although Cheltenham District became part of the Bristol empire, it remained a separate company and its buses retained their traditional red livery for another quarter of a century.
1950 also saw a tax increase of 9d per gallon on fuel, which sharply increased the company's running costs, at the same time as wartime fuel rationing was greatly relaxed. The rise in fares needed to meet the fuel bills, and the easier availability of fuel for private cars again combined to act as a disincentive to the use of public transport.
The LS type with its relatively large seating capacity of 45 was regarded as unnecessarily large for rural operators, and the SC (small capacity) chassis was developed, entering service as a prototype in 1954 with Eastern National. Over 300 were built when the type went into production. They generally seated 35 passengers.
In 1943 a company called Bristol Commercial Vehicles Ltd had been set up with the intention of it taking over the Motor Constructional Works, and this eventually happened in 1955, along with the body building works based at the former tram depot in Brislington, and the engine repair works at Kingswood. Bristol Commercial Vehicles was also controlled by the British Transport Commission. At the same time, the body works stopped making bus bodies, which were all made by Eastern Coachworks from now on, although it did continue to produce some non-bus vehicle bodies.
The mid 1950s saw big housing expansion in the Bristol suburbs, and the Bristol Joint Services network continued to adapt and expand to meet this demand. Despite this, passenger numbers began to reduce from 1954 and to cover costs, the company had to increase fares, which itself tended to deter passengers. From later in the 1950s traffic congestion began to take its toll too, reducing reliability. The company carried 325 million passengers in 1952, and this now began to reduce dramatically, and had fallen to 244 million by 1963.
Although Greyhound had been absorbed into BT&CC in 1935, losing its identity, the BT&CC’s coaches carried the Greyhound logo from 1937 for use on express services, eventually acquiring a cream and maroon livery from 1960. Greyhound routes included the express Bristol to London route, which in these pre-motorway days took 6 hours and involved a stop at Marlborough for passengers' refreshments and for crew reliefs.
The Greyhound logo
In 1957, the company finally amended its name to reflect the fact that it now ran neither trams nor carriages (in the sense that its name originally intended), and became the Bristol Omnibus Company Ltd.
The 1950s and 60s saw the opening of major new bus stations in Wells, Bristol, Stroud, Gloucester and Swindon as the company sought to provide better facilities and retain its customers.
Large numbers of Lodekkas began to enter the fleet from the mid-1950s along with the last of the K-type variants. Meanwhile, the successor to the LS type was the MW (medium weight), which first appeared in 1958. Bristol REs began to appear from 1963.
The Group's Bristol "MW", 536JHU
Example of a Bristol "RE", Cheltenham District 1003
In 1961, the Bristol Evening Post ran a series of articles exploring a colour bar in Bristol's employment practices. There had been some evidence of it for several years prior to this, but it had not attracted public attention. The company and the Transport & General Workers Union each said that the other was responsible for the bar: in fact, it appears that it was bus crews themselves who objected to the employment of black staff. The City Council (as the partner in Bristol Joint Services) became involved in 1962, but the Town Clerk advised the Joint Services Committee that the employment of "coloured" crews would actually make the labour shortage worse. Such advice now seems not only illogical but unacceptable and its implementation would be illegal, but at the time there was no discrimination legislation.
The West Indian Development Council took up the issue, the High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago met the Lord Mayor, and the Jamaican High Commissioner met senior officials in the Transport Holding Company (which in 1963, had replaced the British Transport Commission as the company's parent body). The Transport Holding Company directed Bristol to end the bar, and in August 1963 Bristol complied.
The mid-1960s were the era of the Beeching Axe on British Railways, and 9000 miles of railway closed nationally. Over 2100 stations closed, many of them local stations on the lines that were retained. Locally, the entire Somerset & Dorset system went, along with the Midland and South Western Junction Railway (Cheltenham to Southampton) and the Midland line from Bristol to Bath, amongst others. The thinking was that bus services would replace the trains on the lost rail routes and between the stations that had been closed. In the event, most of the replacement bus services were not successful, and it appeared that rail passengers were simply lost to public transport altogether.
However, modest expansion did take place when in September 1966 the Severn Bridge opened and new services were introduced to Chepstow, Newport and Cardiff, run jointly with Red & White. A service was also introduced from Stroud to Chepstow via Dursley, Berkeley and Thornbury, although this was not very successful and was withdrawn in 1972. The Bristol to Cardiff services still run today in a revised form. The bridge's opening ceremony itself involved 77 of the company's buses.
1966 also witnessed the introduction of one-person operation to the city of Bristol, in the form of the newly-introduced route CCC (City Centre Circle). One-person operation was to spread rapidly after a halting start, although it was another 18 years before the last crew-operated route in Bristol was converted. To pave the way for one-person operation on double-deck buses, it was necessary to move the engine so that passengers entering the bus could interact with the driver, who up to now had sat in splendid isolation in the cab. The Bristol VR (Vertical Rear) was the answer to this, and prototypes were first displayed and tried out during 1966. It was another six years before Bristol Omnibus took delivery of new Bristol VRs.
Also in the mid-1960s the route numbering system was altered, as the publicity material of the time put it “to eliminate the number-letter combinations”. In other words, getting rid of the quirky but rather fun system in favour of a dull one. For example, previously you could travel from Bristol to Weston-Super-Mare by routes 24 or 24D, and to Nailsea by route 24B or 24C; while the 24A would take you (rather infrequently and only on Saturdays) from Weston to Langford, and the 24E once a day from Bristol to Winscombe. The suffix letters denoted the minor differences in the routes – the 24D for example went via Claverham, while the 24 went via Rhodyate Hill, but other than that they were identical. They now became the 352 (formerly 24), 353 (24D), 354 (24C) and 355 (24E). The 24A and B disappeared completely. (Many of the revised numbers remained in use until late 2013 and early 2014). Now, numbers 1-99 were for Bristol city, 100-199 for Weston-Super-Mare, Wells and district, 200-299 for Bath, 300-399 for Bristol country area services; 400-499 for Stroud, Cirencester and Swindon district; and 500-599 for Cheltenham and Gloucester districts.
View one of the renumbering leaflets (1.88mb)
In 1965 the Transport Holding Company and Leyland Motors Ltd agreed that Leyland would purchase 25% of Bristol Commercial Vehicles’ shares, and as a result the company escaped the restriction on selling only to the state sector and its products were once again available on the open market. Leyland's shareholding increased to 50% in 1969.
Conversion of another city route to one-person operation took place in 1968, in the form of route 19. The government was keen to encourage extension of single-crewed vehicles nationally, and introduced a "new bus grant", which initially paid 25% of the cost of new buses provided that they met certain requirements, including one-person operation. The grant was later increased to 50%. To demonstrate the difference, Bristol introduced a revised livery for one-person buses, where the cream became the dominant colour with smaller amounts of green. Despite the savings involved in running single-crewed vehicles, Bristol Joint Services' profits halved between 1966 and 1969. Perhaps this was partly due to the slow speed of introduction, and the fact that the company, even after it was lawful to do so, was reluctant to use double-deck vehicles with only one crew member.
At the start of 1969, the bus and coach interests of the Transport Holding Company passed by law to the National Bus Company (NBC).
Although Bristol had controlled both the Bath companies (Bath Electric Tramways and Bath Tramways Motor Co.) since 1936, they had remained separate – this arrangement ceased at the end of 1969, although the fleet name “Bath Services” continued to be used.
From the start of 1970, in a further rationalisation, the NBC transferred Western National’s operations in Wiltshire to Bristol Omnibus, involving Trowbridge depot and 24 buses.
Despite the growing use of one-person operation, staff shortages worsened during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although women had been welcomed into the company in both World Wars, their services had not been retained afterwards, making way both for existing male employees returning from the services, and for new recruits who had gained the necessary skills in the services. However, in 1970, the company again began to accept women for training as drivers.
In 1972 the company received its first Bristol VRs since the prototypes were tried in 1966. Once agreement had been reached with the union about one-person operation of double-deck buses, these buses were used to convert Bristol Joint Services' routes 22 and 23, and they were the first of a large number of VRs in the company's fleet, becoming the standard double-deck bus in the area.
In 1972 the Gloucester to Hereford route 538 was handed over to Red & White (it is still run as route 38 today by Stagecoach Cheltenham & Gloucester, albeit only from Hereford to Ross on Wye with connections to Gloucester). The M4 had opened all the way to Bristol in 1971, and in 1972 express services from Bristol to Victoria Coach Station began using the motorway. The National Bus Company decided to standardise its coach fleet in a white livery, and Greyhound's colour scheme and name were among the casualties.
Stagecoach's VK07MCH descends the hill from King's Thorn to Much Birch on route 38 to Ross on Wye, July 2009
Standardisation of the coach livery was followed within a few months by the announcement of standard national liveries for all buses. In a small nod to history, the National Bus Company allowed operators to choose between green, red, or blue but all three colours involved white relief bands and the NBC logo (pictured above) with the fleet name in white block capitals. Although the NBC optimistically said that the new colours would soon become popular, they didn't, probably in part through the feeling of loss of local identity, and partly as a result of the colours themselves. Whereas Tilling green had been a rich colour, and Cheltenham District's red had been a deep shape of red, the national shades were light and somehow insubstantial. In late 1972 the company's buses began to appear in these new liveries.
Discussion on what livery to apply to the Bristol Joint Services buses continued for some time, but it was clear that even these could not escape the NBC's diktat. They began to enter service in national green, but with the Bristol scroll in white (instead of the NBC's block lettering) and the city's coat of arms above the scroll. The NBC's logo appeared in a separate location above the cab and entrance doors.
YHT927, the last Bristol KSW ever built, displays the NBC logo on the upper deck along with the traditional Bristol scroll and coat of arms on the lower deck. Photo: Roger Newport
Another big change brought about by the National Bus Company was the introduction of the Leyland National. This was a bus designed for the NBC by British Leyland, and whilst it was a very successful bus, it had the effect of killing off the Bristol RE with which it essentially competed. As nationalised companies neither NBC nor Leyland wanted two models competing for the same market. The Bristol RE continued to be produced in small numbers for overseas customers and for Northern Ireland, but this was the end of the road of production for mainland Britain.
A huge upheaval in local government took place in 1974 throughout the country. Long-established local authorities and whole counties disappeared and the number of local councils reduced dramatically. Among the casualties was Bristol's proud 600-year-old status as a county. Several brand new counties were created, one of which was Avon, covering Bristol; Bath; the northern part of Somerset including Weston-Super-Mare, Clevedon, Nailsea, and Radstock; and southern Gloucestershire including Thornbury, Chipping Sodbury and the urban sprawl of north and east Bristol that was not actually within the city's boundaries. The City Council never really came to terms with the loss of its county status, and in fact the roadsigns welcoming visitors to the city bore the words "City and County of Bristol" right up until 1996 when a later government scrapped the new and unloved county of Avon, whereupon the City Council, now a county once more, celebrated by erecting brand new signs bearing exactly the same words.
County of Avon coat of arms
The impact of this on the Bristol Omnibus Co. might not be obvious, but Avon County Council became responsible for public transport strategy within its area, while Bristol City Council was the partner in Bristol Joint Services and therefore actually a transport operator. That being the case, the two councils needed to cooperate, but the city regarded the new county as an upstart, and relations between the two tended to be hostile. The fact that operating conditions were becoming increasingly difficult would have made cooperation even more valuable, but it was not to be. The Joint Services made a loss of over £400,000 in 1974 and this was projected to more than double in 1975 due to a national pay award linked to the retail prices index. Clearly a fares increase would be needed. That in itself required the permission of the Traffic Commissioner, and that in turn required consultation with the local authority, in this case Avon County Council. Although the City Council tried to obtain a response from Avon, and even tried to get a County representative onto a working committee to look at fares, the county remained silent.
Presumably to make movement of vehicles within the Bristol Omnibus fleet easier, in 1975 Cheltenham District buses began to be repainted into national green to match the rest of the fleet, and the red island in the sea of green had finally succumbed. Although the fleet name "Cheltenham" remained, in standard National Bus Company lettering, this too began to disappear within a few years, and had vanished by 1980.
In the absence of agreement on a fares increase, by June 1975 the financial situation for the Bristol Joint Services was looking dire. The only alternative was a drastic reduction in services. It was open to local authorities to subsidise services and Avon County Council was prepared to provide a grant to do so, but it was not willing to have Bristol City Council as a public transport operator. The city councillors reacted (rather illogically, it would appear) by refusing to approve the fares increase. The city also approached Bristol Omnibus to establish the company's view about ending the 1937 agreement on the joint services. The National Bus Company was required by law to break even, and told the City Council that it could not take over the joint services unless the fares increase was implemented. Eventually, and after many more months of discussion and the drafting and agreeing of legal agreements, the Bristol Joint Services came to an end on 15th July 1978.
In 1980 the new Conservative government began a huge programme of dismantling the industries that had been nationalised by the post-war Labour government. In public transport, it started by deregulating long-distance coaches; making it easier for competitors to apply for Road Service Licences for local routes; setting up trials of deregulation in certain areas of the country; and simplifying the process for operators to change their fares. Almost immediately, in a sign of things to come, an independent operator applied to run routes in Bristol, although this was refused by the Traffic Commissioner.
With the need to contain costs, deal with the fact that the government was clearly heading in the direction of privatisation, and match supply and demand, the company had carried out market analysis that led to reductions in the size of the fleet and in mileage. A consequence was the closure of several depots and bus stations.
The Bristol VR had been the only new double-deck type to enter the fleet for several years, and had done so in large numbers, replacing the crew-operated Lodekkas. However, production of the VR now came to an end, and it was replaced by the Olympian, which the National Bus Company wanted as its standard double-decker. As well as replacing the VR, it was also to replace the Leyland Atlantean and the Daimler Fleetline, and in consequence was to be a Leyland vehicle. Bristol Omnibus started receiving the Olympians in 1982. The writing was on the wall now for Bristol Commercial Vehicles, and although it produced some of the early Olympians, in 1983 Leyland ended production in Bristol and the proud history of bus manufacture in the city came to an end.
In 1983, in preparation for privatisation, the National Bus Company split Bristol Omnibus in two, creating the new Cheltenham & Gloucester Omnibus Company for the operations at Gloucester, Cheltenham, Stroud and Swindon, and the original company. After a decade of increasing corporate control, the NBC was now encouraging the creation of smaller companies that reflected local markets, and even the two separate companies operated under several different local fleetnames, with "Gloucester", "Cheltenham" and "Bath" re-appearing, for example.
The Bristol Omnibus Company was itself split into two operating units, one branded Citybus in the city of Bristol and one branded Bristol Country Bus for the remaining services outside the city.
Surprisingly, crew operation of buses in the city still lingered on, and the final route to be converted to one person operation was route 88 in 1984.
The Transport Act 1985 deregulated all bus services outside London and the government embarked upon its privatisation of the National Bus Company in earnest: all its 72 subsidiary companies were sold off in under two years, starting in 1986. In October of that year the Cheltenham & Gloucester Omnibus Company was sold to its management, who in 1993 sold it to Stagecoach.
Meanwhile, in 1985 Bristol Country Bus was rebranded Badgerline, and in 1986 the Bristol Country operations were transferred to a new company, Badgerline Ltd, which was sold to its management later that year. Badgerline adopted a green and yellow livery involving a much livelier shade of green than the pallid NBC colour.
The effect of the government's changes was that operating companies needed to make profits, like any private company. It follows that they would only be prepared to operate profitable services. Local authorities were therefore given the duty of assessing the need for socially necessary routes in their area, and for putting those out to tender. Avon County Council was clearly keen for the public to be aware of the extent to which it was subsidising services, because it introduced a system where all subsidised services had route numbers in a different sequence to commercially-operated routes. In Bristol itself for example, this involved adding 500 to the route number, even if the route that the bus was running was in fact identical to the standard route, which must have been confusing to passengers. The Council also liked the public to think that it was providing better value for money than the commercial operator, so the fares were (initially at least) a few pence lower than the standard fare. Whereas the standard fares went up in 5p increments, the county fares involved odd amounts, which must have been irritating for drivers and passengers to deal with. Another effect of tendering was that a number of independent operators appeared in the city running these services, and oddly, some Badgerline buses appeared on routes in the city like the 528/529 Avonmouth to Hartcliffe, while city buses appeared on tendered services outside the city, like the 629 Bristol to Yate via Iron Acton.
The Bristol Omnibus Company, by now trading as CityLine, was sold to Midland Red West in 1987, which itself was bought by Badgerline in the following year, reuniting the Bristol services in one company. CityLine's colour scheme was largely red, with yellow and blue, the first time red had appeared on the city's buses. Its use somehow made Bristol look a less provincial city, and certainly livened up the look of the buses themselves. The company (in common with many all over the country) introduced large numbers of minibuses on urban routes, and increased frequencies, and this reversed the trend of falling passenger numbers. The tendency in the past had been to increase vehicle size and reduce frequencies, but it was clear that passengers preferred high-frequency services where you could turn up at a bus stop without consulting a timetable and know that a bus would be along shortly. Gradually in the years that followed, vehicle sizes increased again, while frequencies remained about the same.
Bristol VR MOU747R displays the red, blue and yellow livery. It's on route 99, but it doesn't seem to know where it's going.
Ford Transit C450BHY was one of the early minibus types used in the city. It is pictured on the city centre on the now defunct route 38 to Broomhill.
In 1995, Badgerline merged with Grampian Bus Group to form FirstBus (which later changed its name to FirstGroup), and increasingly the old (and often more flamboyant) liveries of the privatisation era and long-established operating names disappeared in favour of First’s corporate look. The subsidiary companies are now First Somerset and Avon and First Bristol, which between them, other than the loss of the Gloucestershire and northern Wiltshire operations, provide many of the same services as BT&CC did throughout the 20th century.
Route numbers remained much the same in the former Bristol country area after the re-numbering of the 1960s, but in autumn 2013 and spring 2014, First renumbered virtually all its Bristol country routes again. It started by renumbering the 353 Bristol - Weston-Super-Mare as route 1. This in itself was potentially a bit confusing as there was already a route 1 in Bristol, and another in Weston, so passengers could have got on the wrong bus fairly easily if they weren't paying proper attention. The route was renumbered W1 from April 2014 presumably to overcome this. Almost all other country routes lost their 300 prefix and either became X routes or simply a two-digit number, like the 342 to Chipping Sodbury, which became the 47, or the 361 to Clevedon, which became the X6.
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