In London in 1829 George Shillibeer decided to try running a big horse-drawn coach available to anybody who wanted to travel at individual fares, at a time when only the wealthy could travel thus. Shillibeer’s venture didn’t last, but his name for it did: the Omnibus (Latin: “for all”). In the second half of the 19th century these vehicles appeared in Berwick and adverts announced that “omnibuses meet all trains” – for visitors staying at the King’s Arms and the Red Lion.
By the 1890s the internal combustion engine had arrived and was transforming the transport business, and early bus manufacturers included Scott-Stirling, Milnes-Daimler, Maudslay, Straker-Squire, Dennis, and Leyland. Because Berwick had good rail connections the need for bus transport was not immediately perceived locally, though some services did begin in the Borders. In Seahouses Stanley Cuthbertson bought two motor wagonettes in 1905 and 1907 to run between Bamburgh and Seahouses Station to connect with trains. (Their registrations were X 482 and X 905; X was the earliest registration mark for Northumberland.)
By 1906 buses on early trial services would have been seen passing through the town, but it was 1913 when a group of local businessmen, led by Adam Logan, set up the Berwick Upon Tweed Motor Car Co. Ltd. Their first bus was a Commer charabanc (reg. KS 99) and Adam Logan himself went to Luton to collect it and drove the bus back – at a maximum speed of 12 mph. It went straight into service with a trip to Norham and Ladykirk. A full programme of day trips followed (Chain Bridge 1/-; North Berwick 5/-, beyond the means of many). They also ran a service between Berwick and Spittal.
The subsequent history of the company and its bus is unknown, but with the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, only very essential bus services were operated. Drivers went into the Forces, and buses were requisitioned for military use.
After the 1914-1918 war, the Government found itself with a surplus of lorries, which were capable of being fitted with rudimentary bodywork to carry passengers. Men who were leaving the army with gratuities saw opportunities to set up in business, and a wave of ruthless competition in the bus industry continued through the 1920s. In Berwick, James Whillis, a pre-war haulage contractor, bought a charabanc body to attach to one of his lorries. On Friday evening Whillis and his wife would unbolt a lorry body and fit the charabanc body, and then they ran local Sunday afternoon trips and took private parties; on Sunday evening the process was reversed. Whillis bought three charabancs and a small Chevrolet bus to expand his business, but he never operated bus services as such; the charabancs were withdrawn by 1930 and the Chevrolet in 1935, after which he concentrated on his haulage business.
If you wanted to run a bus service then you applied to the local council for permission, some of whom were stricter than others, and few records were kept. Berwick issued licences for buses and for drivers and conductors, though records are patchy.
In the 1920s, three main bus operators ran services to and from Berwick:
THOMPSON Brothers. Robert, Andrew and Hector Thompson had set up a haulage business in 1912, and from January 1922 they ran their first bus service between Berwick and Spittal via the Old Bridge (the New Bridge didn’t open until 1928). The venture was a success and they bought more buses, running also to Scremerston from 1923, Ford, Branxton and a summer service to Philadelphia (the one better known as Cocklawburn!).
SPOWART Brothers. Robert and Philip Spowart had bought the Berwick-Spittal ferry in 1907, and until 1922 it was the only means of travelling between the two places. They soon realised that Thompson’s bus, going the length of Spittal and along to Sandgate in Berwick, was more convenient than their ferry. They began their Berwick-Spittal bus service in March 1923.
JOHN YOUNG, based at Norham, bought his first lorry/bus in 1923 and his first ‘proper’ bus in 1924. He chose to run between Norham and Berwick and Berwick to Wooler.
The Thompsons and the Spowarts were in direct competition with each other on the Spittal service, and they and their staffs were soon ‘at open war’. Through the 1920s Berwick Council tried to maintain some order and to enforce timetables with equality between them. At busy times there could be a bus every five minutes. Philip Spowart became a member of the Town Council, and later Mayor of Berwick. John Young was not involved in any of this competition and operated to a high standard.
Other independent operators also appeared around this time.
AMOS, PROUD & CO were private operators from Choppington who worked in the Newcastle area but were growing in size. They obtained licences for a Newcastle-Berwick-Edinburgh service which began in August 1927, twice daily from each end and soon increased to two-hourly. In order to crew this service, staff were transferred from Choppington to Berwick.
The success of this initiative drew the rival attention of two of the large corporate bus companies. United Automobile Services Ltd had established itself in many parts of England and its operations included south Northumberland. None of its buses had so far run along the A1 north of Alnwick. SMT (Scottish Motor Traction) was a major Scottish firm whose services already included one between Edinburgh and Dunbar. United and SMT now collaborated to set up a joint Newcastle-Edinburgh service in 1928, and later in that year they were successful in their aim of buying out the competition from Amos & Proud. Some staff for the new service were recruited in Berwick and continued working for it until the 1970s.
By the end of the 1920s, competition had intensified and legislation had failed to contain the questionable practices which some operators applied. Speed limits for buses were related to the weight of the bus: for a 30-seater the maximum speed allowed was 12mph; but a smaller and lighter bus could go at 20mph. Some operators would exploit this difference to run competitors off the road. There were few health and safety laws, and drivers’ hours were unregulated, leading to an increased danger of accidents through fatigue.
The Road Traffic Act of 1930 removed the licensing of buses from local councils and transferred to newly created Traffic Commissioners for given areas, establishing stricter standard for vehicles and staff. It marked a death-knell for poorly-run bus companies and encouraged a process whereby many began to sell out to larger firms.
That didn’t happen immediately in Berwick where the local companies had kept their buses in good order. One significant change was the opening of the New Bridge in May 1928, which made access to the town by larger buses easier. Hitherto buses of all sizes had to use the Old Bridge together with all traffic and pedestrians. The Spittal via Old Bridge service was still busy and continued to run, but conditions were laid down restricting the bridge’s use to buses with no more than 14 seats.
Eventually the expansions of the larger companies like United and SMT could not be resisted, and in March 1934 the local Berwick operators of Thompson, Spowart, and John Young were taken over by United. (The Spittal via Old Bridge service was kept going until 1939 but then dropped.) The coastal route from Alnwick to Berwick via Bamburgh was also bought from Rutherford of Craster, and purchases in the Wooler area allowed United to open a garage in Wooler. Simultaneously in the Borders, SMT had continued to buy out most of the independent companies, including the sizeable network of Brook & Amos which reached Berwick from Galashiels, Duns, Kelso, and St Abbs. On this basis, services settled down for a while.
When war broke out in September 1939, some services such as Spittal-Berwick via the Old Bridge were immediately withdrawn, and the time of the last buses was moved forward to 9pm. The blackout started at once and bus headlamps were covered, allowing only two peeps of light. Interior lights were dimmed and conductors used torches to see what they were doing. When conscription started it did not affect bus driving as it was a ‘reserved occupation’. The ‘invasion scare’ of 1940 led the army to requisition some buses and drivers from United at Berwick. The buses were repainted grey and sent to Ewart Park where troops were stationed. Troops were taken to anti-invasion defences at Budle Bay, Bamburgh and Embleton. The drivers had to stay with their buses and sleep in them; they were returned to Berwick once the ‘scare’ subsided. Buses were also used to take workmen to Brunton, Milfield, Winfield and Charterhall when those airfields were under construction.
Sometimes buses had to be lent elsewhere to make up for vehicles which had been lost in bombing raids; in October 1940 United lent London Transport fourteen elderly Bristol ‘B’ types and another seven went to Northern Ireland (to be returned by late 1941).
From 1941, to reduce fuel consumption, United had to convert some buses to use producer gas. They had to tow a trailer in which anthracite was burnt to produce the gas; the fire had to be lit every morning and put out on return. It required skill to keep the fire stoked up en route and maintain the gas supply, and not all drivers coped.
Buses usually had about 35 seats, allowing 8 standing, but some had seats placed round the inside of the bus to allow 30 standing. Since there were few private cars, everybody had to use buses. Priority was given to essential workers.
In 1943 the service between Newcastle and Edinburgh was split at Berwick and timetabled in such a way as to to stop passengers making a through connection.
After the war the availability of buses was starting to be a problem, as well as their age. Few new buses had been built during the war, and engineering staff had to keep older buses in service as best they could. By 1947 some of the United buses had run 1,000,000 miles, and there was still a 1928 Bristol ‘B’ type and some very elderly AEC buses in service; these were not replaced until October 1949. In April 1949 the SMT company became Scottish Omnibuses.
Gradually pre-war timetables were re-established and some new services appeared.
By 1954 there were signs of declining passenger traffic. Private cars and petrol were more widely available, and the arrival of television was changing habits of going out in the evening for entertainment. Nevertheless some new services started in response to local circumstances:
By 1968 double-decker buses were in use (to Spittal, Prior Park, and Eyemouth). One-man operation was also introduced in Berwick to cut costs.
In 1972 the 477 service linking Berwick and Holy Island began, once the causeway had been completed by a bridge over the River Low; it operated to a tide table, not a timetable.
The Road Traffic Act of 1930 had brought order from ruthless competition in the early 1930s. That remained until in the 1980s a political decision was taken to ‘free’ bus operation and allow it to become competitive once again. A deregulated system was introduced in Scotland in 1985, and in England on 26th October 1986. Bus operators now had to ‘register’ the services they wished to run, and the scope of the Traffic Commissioners changed. The big companies had to be broken up: United’s operation in Northumberland became Northumbria Motor Services Ltd.
Competition flared, and in some urban areas for a while there were ‘wall-to-wall’ buses. Berwick had both green and red minibuses on town services at frequent intervals, but that could not be sustained and things eventually settled down. The ‘new’ companies would change hands periodically: the former United company became part of Arriva, and the former SMT became part of First Group.
One innovation introduced in Berwick under the new transport legislation was local services operated initially by 8 seater vehicles and later by minibuses. Taxibus, later Cross-Country Connexions, provided services to Wooler, Eyemouth, and later to Edinburgh.
In the late 1920s almost all bus services were run by private operators – Thompson, Spowart, Young, etc. By 2016 the ‘big’ corporate operators had vanished, and buses were again in the hands of smaller private companies, notably Perryman’s. Then in 2017 came more change – with Perryman’s operation passed to Border Buses, owned by West Coast Motors.
And now… along comes the ‘Berwick Hoppa’ running minibuses across the Old Bridge – for the first time since September 1939.
From the end of WW1 attempts were made to address the bad state of housing in the town. The opening of the New Bridge in 1928 encouraged the Council to build new houses in Tweedmouth, and in October 1934 the North Road Housing Scheme got under way. Highfields Estate (colloquially known as “Abyssinia”) was completed before WW2, with an SMT bus service added as it developed. In the town centre slum property remained a problem and clearances began in Walkergate, Chapel Street and Weatherley Square.
Most buses stopped in the High Street, and traffic congestion was creating demand for a bus station to relieve the pressure. The clearance of Weatherley Square etc. gave the opportunity for a bus station on that site, and in 1935 SMT bought some of the land to build the garage and station (in a joint arrangement with United). The station was in use in 1937 with SMT using the rear entrance in Chapel Street. For many years a wallpaper shop stood on an island in isolation at the bottom of the Bus Station, creating an entrance and exit; it remained until the lease expired and was then demolished.
In the years before the bus station and garage, buses had been garaged in various places. Spowart – on Berwick’s Quayside.
United – Boston’s fish yard, Spittal; A&B Garage, Silver Street; (plus office at 17 West Street); also John Young’s garage, Norham.
SMT – Boston’s fish yard,Spittal; Chisam’s Garage, Castlegate.
The demise of the bus station
By 1994 the structural condition of the buildings of the bus station, still owned by the successors to United and SMT, was in doubt. Both operators moved their buses out of the garages to the MOT Testing Site at Ord Road in February 1996, and work to demolish the bus station began in the late spring of 1998. The main bus terminus was moved to the top of Crawford’s Alley, off Chapel Street, which was generally deemed inconvenient to bus drivers, passengers and local businesses. The idea of an Interchange at the station was mooted but did not come to fruition. Eventually services settled down with Newcastle and other southbound services terminating at the Station, northbound services stopping in Tweedmouth, and others in Chapel Street.
Buses garaged on Ord Road were moved to the Furst Garage at Scremerston in September 1998. After a period of uncertainty about the future of Arriva’s town bus services, the company decided to withdraw them. and their Berwick depot closed in October 2002. Perrymans took over their services two days later, while Arriva continued to operate services to Alnwick and Newcastle from other depots.
Fred Kennington. Travellers’ Tales from the Borders. (Stockport, 2000.)