Conducting for Wilts & Dorset, 1973

This personal account has been sent in by one of my regular blog followers. While at University in the early 1970s, Bob Harrison began working for bus companies in the east of England during the long summer breaks. He spent several seasons working for United Automobile Services in Scarborough, Eastern National in Brentwood and Basildon, and Eastern Counties in Cambridge. After university and before embarking on a career in teaching, he joined two of his friends who had already started working for Wilts & Dorset in Salisbury. We pick up Bob’s story in Salisbury as he contemplates working on open platform buses in the winter for the first time.


(Busman John: As a teenager, I took this photo of Wilts & Dorset Bristol LD6G SHR 440, showing ‘Relief’ on the destination blind, at the back of Castle Street garage in summer 1973. Could it have been the bus from Basingstoke depot that Bob mentions in his story?)

Conducting was a completely different job in winter! In the summer some buses got very hot and I especially hated the Bristol FLFs which had very few opening windows. It wasn’t safe to run with the doors open either, although when almost empty we sometimes did.

I was pleased to find that Salisbury had few FLFs on the town roster and thankfully they mainly did Harnham – Bemerton Heaths!

Someone had devised the timetable in such a way that would be easy these days with a computer by reducing layover time to one minute at most destinations. All the town services during the day were normally 10 minutes or 30 minutes apart. By changing the destination each time the layovers could be minimised and it was very efficient in the winter. It was supplemented by buses that just did Bemerton Heaths to Harnham all day.

However, it could go wrong because of conductor error, especially at places such as Waters Road where you would either go next to Harnham or to Bishopsdown.

It wasn’t too disastrous if you went to Bishopsdown the wrong way round the estate because you could either reverse and come back the correct way or more likely just continue on and give passengers time to cross the road.  However, I once ended up ringing the bell on the way to Harnham and, after our only passenger had alighted, went round the front and climbed up on the radiator steps, pointing out the bus at the stop in front. He thought it was the bus 10 minutes in front running late. I broke the news that it was actually running early and we should be in Bishopsdown! I changed the front destination blind to Private and we turned round and headed straight to Bishopsdown. I got away with it as buses were often cancelled due to staff shortages or breakdowns!

It also went wrong in summer when the Wilton Road and London Road jammed up with holiday traffic. Every ten minutes a bus was supposed to go to either Ditchampton, Bulbridge or Market Place. The last was a favourite for all staff as it had a nine minute layover and in the winter there was time for a cuppa in the cafe. But in the summer a lot of buses would end up stuck on the Wilton Road so there was usually at least one extra bus running as required to help out.

I must confess that when the weather was bad and with the destination blinds being long and the journeys short, I sometimes ran with ‘Service’ and just the number. You could get very wet changing both. One of the Inspectors didn’t like it, even when I pointed out that I had a full rear destination board! This was on one of a couple of buses that hadn’t had rears reduced to number only. The blinds were called ‘boards’ by some old hands from the days when wooden boards were used.

Annoyingly, on Saturdays the Inspector didn’t point out the danger of being on the radiator steps as the bus slowly moved round the town centre but wouldn’t accept ‘Service’ or ‘Relief’. I got my driver to stop reminding him it was a bad idea to send us to Wilton. It might have had the longest queue in New Canal but it just meant another bus stuck for ages coming back from Wilton.

The conductor was responsible for time keeping and it was very difficult to stop my regular driver running early. We eventually got a warning one day, not for early running, but for missing out going round the market square at Wilton to make up lost time when on the Bulbridge to Waters Road route. The driver could see there were no passengers anywhere to be seen and I gave him 2 bells to miss out the compulsory stop on the square. However, there was our favourite Inspector hiding in a shop doorway nearby!

A few weeks later on a wet afternoon he ‘jumped the bus’ on the Devizes Road. After he had checked my waybill and the passengers’ tickets he found that they were all correct, as I rarely missed a fare. However, he wrote on the waybill “not showing correct destination” and said I would lose a days pay. When we got to Blue Boar Row I suggested he show me ‘Laverstock’ on the blind. He muttered and made me get wet showing him a long list of Basingstoke town destinations! He didn’t even say sorry until given some abuse from my driver.

My regular driver liked to ensure a punctual end of shift and it was difficult to keep to within a couple of minutes of the correct time. One day we arrived at Bulbridge and he didn’t look well. I wanted to walk down to a phone box and ring up the depot but he thought he would have a rest and be OK, but he agreed to run back as ‘Private’ as it was our tea break and I insisted. We got to Castle Street, handed the bus over and he went home and then to hospital. It turned out he had heart problems and was off sick for a long time.

It meant I had no regular driver for my last couple of months in Salisbury and I soon missed rarely running late. I got to know a wide range of drivers and had to put up with their quirks. Some were great, including one old chap who loved driving the old ‘conker boxes’. I am not sure why they were called that but I believe they were Bristol KSW5Gs. He would be the only driver to choose one of the remaining few in the fleet. He thought they were past their best and I was glad his favourite wasn’t the one with the staggered seats upstairs. It was difficult to collect all fares with a full standing load on a ‘K’, leaning across four passengers on the long upper deck seats without knocking them with the ticket machine or otherwise assaulting them. The staggered long seat made it even more difficult than the bench seating.

Almost all other drivers moaned if they were given one of the old ‘Ks’ and the biggest moaners were likely to be deliberately given one of them in the event of a breakdown, especially if the problem was not as serious as the driver claimed. They weren’t always wrong and the breakdowns and brake failures due to Salisbury having more than their fair share of old buses led to a part-day strike from 10:00 – 15:00 hours. This was to avoid schools being badly effected. As a conductor I knew they had a case when at the strike meeting a crew came in near the end of the meeting to apologise for being late. Their bus had suffered a gearbox failure while reversing at Bulbridge! There was the promise of new buses and eventually one or two arrived, allowing a couple more FLFs to move from the country to the town services.

As well as the three of us friends, there were two other students between college and a career.  One from London came from a well off family or didn’t care about money as he was always short and having it deducted from his pay. His party trick was if a passenger paid for a ticket with a large pile of half pennies he would sometimes mutter and drop them off the rear platform!

The other student was an Irish bloke called John who caused me a bit of trouble. The background was that we all liked a pint and often would cover for a friend on a late finish by conducting his bus from Blue Boar Row to give them time for a swift half, as he wouldn’t finish until after closing. I had upset John somehow and one Saturday I was on the ‘Boozers Special’. This was a number 53 bus to Bemerton Heath at 23:15 on Saturdays only with a 8p flat fare. It was especially difficult to get 8p from those passengers only going a short way so I took fares before leaving New Canal. John thought he was helping by operating the bell and standing by the stairs but as he got out at Skew Bridge (he lived in a guest house near there) he shouted “thanks for the drink!” and took a £5 bag of silver from my unlocked locker before he disappeared into the night! I was lucky to have enough float to make it up and was pleased to find him at Sunday lunchtime still with a bad head with vague memories of the night before.

Another driver was ‘the American’. He was a joy to some passengers but not to the conductor. He worked ‘off the bell’. This was a method some drivers prefered (and some insisted on) usually because of poor bell work by their regular conductor. This meant stopping unless the bell was rung. A problem arose one day when a Londoner, who was used to ringing for a request stop, rang and wondered why it didn’t stop. I managed to stop him ringing again and missing the next stop!. The American stayed in the cab with his flask and was happy. He was from New York and had always wanted to drive red buses. He started on time but would always wait for a passenger so we would get later as the day went on. You ended up apologising for late running and missing your tea break!

His regular conductor was strange. One day, when I was working a couple of hours ‘stand by’, I was asked to start the American’s shift so I walked over to the New Canal and took over a bus headed for Wilton. He got in, adjusted his cab seat in preparation for his three hours in one place, reminded me about ‘off the bell’ and was ready to go, so I walked round to the platform at the rear. It was a lovely warm afternoon and there were few passengers on board. I took the seven or eight fares downstairs and went upstairs to check, as you couldn’t see children or those in the back seat in the mirror on the stairs. The American’s rostered conductor was sitting on the back seat with a girl. He showed me his pass and muttered someting about being ill. The girl asked for Wilton House and he paid her fare. Just before Wilton House he shouted that they didn’t want Wilton House after all so I rang the bell just as the bus stopped and we carried on. They got out at the Market Place and walked away across the grass. As I changed the blind the American moaned about the late bell. He hadn’t noticed his regular conductor leave the bus. The next morning I had my first run covered while I was called in to speak to the police. I told them all I knew. Seemingly, it wasn’t his girlfriend on the bus at all and he had tried to assault her in Wilton later that day. I left Wilts and Dorset shortly afterwards and never found out the result.

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7 comments on “Conducting for Wilts & Dorset, 1973

  1. Sandra Cannon says:

    Hi Have just been looking at you page i hope you dont mind if i ask if you knew a Richard Smith who worked on the buses as a driver Wilts and Dorset going back quite a few years Many Thanks Sandra

  2. This is fascinating – and thanks for the article. I worked as a Wilts and Dorset conductor between school and university in 1972/3 and, as I came from London and was very much doing it as a hobby, I wonder if I’m the student from London referred to. I certainly remember another student at the time who was Irish, but he was seriously weird and I kept my distance! I did several months in Salisbury (including the astonishing training session inside an old single-deck Bristol parked up in a corner of the yard) before being transferred to Basingstoke, where I regularly worked with a fabulous driver called Dave Brown on the 76 Basingstoke-Andover-Salisbury. It was often an FLF but once or twice we ended up with a Bristol K, which I loved. On one return trip to Basingstoke in K, Dave told me the bus was off to the scrap heap after the run, so somewhere near Overton, we cut out the complete rear destination blind, and I still have it. I went on to drive for a succession of coach companies across the UK, and although I am a university lecturer in music at Singapore, my wife and family stay in Scotland and during our long vacations I go back and spend several months driving for Moffat and Williamson from their yard in St Fort, in north east Fife.

  3. John Walker says:

    Hi,

    Love these little stories as they remind me when I was on the buses (the first time) in the early 70s. I was a conductor with the former Glasgow Corporation Transport, then Baxter’s of Airdrie after they had been taken over by Eastern Scottish. All of the work was on local and town service work and the Baxter’s drivers had a hard job with FLFs on the tightly timed Airdrie and Coatbridge locals compared to their counterparts in Glasgow, where the fleet was 100% semi-auto and pre-select at that time.

    For me the archetypical English country buses were the Bristol LS and MW saloons with bus or DP bodies. I lived in Suffolk, Hampshire, Somerset, and Sussex at various times, and although the Southdown buses stood out from the crowd, it was the plainer Bristol saloons that captured my attention. Conducting FS and FLF Lodekkas was OK, but I really wished I could have driven an LS or MW.

    I did return to the buses after an absence of 32 years and was a driver for the legendary Worst Bus here in the Scottish Borders for just over 11 years. I left just before they sold out to Craig Motors, now trading as Borders Buses, but cannot say that I got any real pleasure out of my time there. I started in 2005 by which time there was certainly variation in the fleet, but the fleet was in a terrible state, and the new buses they bought in to replace the rubbish were often worse than those they replaced.

    I was outstationed at Hawick where the allocation varied widely between 6 and 14 buses, and the only routes we operated were the X95 from Carlisle to Edinburgh (the longest stage carriage service in the UK at just under 100 miles), and we also had three buses on Hawick Town Service. Our duties did take us onto other routes in the Central Borders, but these were only occasional journeys used to fill in our working day when we would relieve Galashiels drivers for meal breaks, or operate school and college journeys etc. I still have a bus licence which expires next year the day before I turn 66, but I won’t be renewing it, as I had a bellyfull of driving on today’s roads when I did it for a living. Never really had the time to get into the preservation scene or driving old buses, but I suppose that’s what separates me from the real enthusiasts!

    Wilts and Dorset was one of those companies that I could never quite work out where their territory was or why they chose that name. I had travelled on Hants and Dorset buses in the Gosport area, and know that a lot of Wiltshire was served by Bristol Omnibus, who also served a large part of North Somerset. I lived near Yeovil where it was all Western (formerly Southern) National and Hutchings and Cornelius, but I do believe the only time I ever saw Wilts and Dorset buses was in Shaftesbury, where the only ones I can remember there were Bristol REs,

    I have recently ordered a couple of books on Wilts and Dorset to improve my knowledge of the company and the area it served. It certainly seems to have been a decent company to work for.

    Cheers,

    John Walker

    • busmanjohn says:

      What a fascinating memory. I love it when folks share their reminiscences on here! You might be interested in a book I’m publishing about Wilts & Dorset Buses. More details on this blog soon.

  4. John Walker says:

    Thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for the book.

    I did a total of 12 years on the buses in Scotland, one as a conductor and 11 as a driver, in two separate stints, 32 years apart, but I would have to say that most of my happy memories of buses were before I actually worked as a busman!

    By the time I finally got driving in 2005 the job was so different from my first experience in 1973. I had worked for Eastern Scottish after they had taken over Baxter’s of Airdrie. The fleet of 55 buses was kept in near immaculate condition, and was still painted in the old Baxter’s blue and grey livery. The double deck fleet had been predominately of Leyland manufacture, although we had accumulated a selection of Lodekkas, with FLFs coming to us during the infamous period when SBG decided that rear engined VRs weren’t for them and gave them all away to various NBC companies south of the border, in “exchange” for FLFs.

    I believe most of ours came from United Automobile, and they looked exceptionally smart in Baxter’s livery.

    In 2005 I was basically in for a culture shock when I discovered I was having to drive buses, most of which were totally unsuitable for the routes they were used on. From the passengers’ point of view I don’t know what they were making of a 3 1/2 hour 100 mile journey from Carlisle to Edinburgh in a rattling city type Scania L94 or Volvo B7 bus. Mind you, although the buses worked right through, the passengers tended to be fairly local, with relatively few of them travelling in excess of 40 miles.

    We did try a few Volvo B7 coaches on the route, but had issues with timekeeping due to the excessive passenger loading times at busy stops, where we would often also be unable to access the underfloor luggage lockers due to street furniture. If we could manage it we often had to run past the bus shelters so that the luggage locker doors were clear, much to the consternation of intending passengers with mobility issues. Our city colleagues in both Carlisle and Edinburgh would try and make sure they never got caught behind us or they would suffer the same delays.

    In continental Europe they have tackled the problem with inter-urban vehicles purpose built for the sort of journeys we operated, but here in the UK the big companies don’t seem to be interested and it’s a “one size fits all” situation, obviously based on operating costs.

    When I retired in October 2016 the Volvos had all gone, as the Borders workshop never had the necessary diagnostic equipment to keep them on the road for long, and the clapped out Scanias (virtually wrecked due to our harsh operating conditions after only about 5 years) were being replaced by what in IMHO is the worst drivers’ bus you could ever imagine, the Alexander Dennis Enviro 300.

    Suffice to say the Enviro 300 was one of the reasons I retired early, as I never really felt safe when driving them. The high winds we experience in this area made them less stable than most double deckers, and I’d better not start talking about the cab environment, as I don’t think I’ve got enough years left to be able to document all of the issues I had with them.

    For some reason they were very susceptible to blow outs (at least when I was driving them!), and I once had a guy run down the bus telling me my back wheels were on fire. He was absolutely correct on that score. A large sharp stone had wedged itself between my left rear tyres. The fitter who came to change the tyres deduced that the inside tyre had blown as I was taking a bend and the explosion then caused the stone to shred the inner wall of the outer tyre. I had two other single rear tyre blowouts with Enviros, and the scary thing was I never knew anything about them until well after the incidents happened. I did feel a slight nudge during the double blowout, but it was raining at the time with high winds on a stretch of winding road, and the buses were so unstable it was often the case that you had to make steering corrections when you effectively went “off-road” with your front nearside wheel for a split second.

    If you were really unlucky whilst driving “off-road” the huge nearside mirror bracket would snag in a rain soaked tree branch and the mirror would swing round and smash the passenger door window. Fortunately that never happened to me, but it was a fairly regular occurrence on that winding section of the A7 between Edinburgh and Galashiels. On the southern section of the A7 the main hazard was timber lorries with the drivers working on a tonnage bonus basis. Many a driver would meet one of those fellows in a bend and have two or three offside windows taken out by wood sticking out of the trailer side. It would have been a rare occasion if the lorry driver knew anything about the incident, and any unfortunate bus driver would be disciplined for losing two journeys, regardless of whose fault it was. It was often the case that it was impossible to trace the lorry concerned. CCTV did help on occasion, but the managers’ remit seemed to be to find that the bus driver was culpable. The lorry would typically be doing 65mph, and you never really wanted one of them behind you as they just had to pass you to get that bonus! The A7 was not particularly bus driver friendly, but we just had to get on with it.

    In all the time I drove buses the only other incident regarding tyres I experienced was that on the last bus from Edinburgh to Galashiels one night I sustained a puncture to the outer rear tyre on a Scania. The bus was very lightly loaded and on the twisting bends of the A7 road I never knew anything about it.

    The matter only came to light when the shunter drove the bus into Galashiels depot and the tyre came off the rim onto the floor! I was known as “Five tyre Johnny” by depot staff for a while after that, as they couldn’t believe I never felt the tyre go or saw the flat in my offside mirror. In daylight I probably would have seen it, but I had no chance in the pitch black night.

    Now, if they had dug up some old Bristol LS and MW buses and let me loose, I might still be driving today, providing my arthritic legs could cope with the controls!

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