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.

4 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s