Tyres & wires

These days, if you switch from your petrol or diesel car to one that is electrically powered, you are considered to be a real friend of the earth. But back in the 1950s and early 1960s, when green was a colour associated more with traffic lights than the environment, hundreds of environmentally-friendly buses were sadly scrapped in favour of diesel-powered vehicles.

These were the long-lamented loves of my 1950s’ childhood: the trolleybus.

Trolleybuses were a kind of cross between a tram and a motor bus. Trams had flanged wheels like a railway engine and ran on rails like railway lines (except that they were embedded into the streets).

They were powered by electricity picked up from a single pole that ran along an overhead wire.

They were big and lumbering, and because they were restricted to their rails, their inflexibility in being able to steer around things got in the way of motor traffic. What was needed was a vehicle that could be cheaply powered by electricity but which had the manoeuvrability of a motor bus.

I only have only two memories of trams. One is of sitting on a hard wooden seat when I was around four or five years old with my father saying to me, “Remember this and you’ll always be able to say you rode on a London tram.” The other is of workmen tearing up the tramlines in my town.

Enter that true transport of delight, the trolleybus.

By and large they were the same size and shape as a motor bus, usually double-deckers. Having normal rubber tyres rather than metal wheels on rails, they could steer around obstacles. Their power was picked up from a network of overhead cables, but they needed two wires, because they didn’t have metal rails to complete the electric circuit in the way trams did.

Not that there was anything really new about trolleybuses. The first one, called an elektromote, ran in Berlin way back in 1882. They spread throughout Europe and arrived in Britain in 1911, when Leeds and Bradford were the first to operate fleets. Soon there were around 50 fleets running around the country, with London being the largest.

I lived at Barking, now a Greater London borough, but in those days a town in Essex, and one that was served by London Transport Central Area buses. Those were the red ones. As a child, I’d been on holiday to Bournemouth, where I’d seen yellow trolleybuses, and I’d heard rumours that there might be blue ones in Walsall and green ones in Nottingham. But for me the only true colour for a trolleybus was red – the kind I travelled on to school every day.

While many of my school friends became train spotters, standing on cold railway station platforms and writing down the numbers of passing locomotives,

I became a bus spotter. And if you thought all buses were the same, you never heard a group of London schoolboys in the 1950s discussing the difference between the RT and the RTL, the extra six-inch width of the RTW, the roof height of the RLH, which allowed it to go under low bridges, the RF, RFW, T, TD…

But in the end it was the London Transport trolleybuses that won my heart. They weren’t like other buses. For one thing they had two extra rear wheels at the back, making six wheels in all. They also had a strange flat front with no sign of a bonnet to house the engine, and inside downstairs the seats right at the front faced backwards. They ran smoothly and – thanks to the electric, rather than petrol or diesel engine – almost silently. They simply hummed along the road, with the occasional exciting splutter of sparks from overhead. Unsuspecting and slightly deaf pedestrians often found a trolleybus sneaking up on them when they were least expecting it.
On the doorstep

I lived on a main road and they ran past my front door. There was a deceptive bend in the road just outside my house and new drivers, not accustomed to it, often took it too wide. The result was that the arms that picked up current from the overhead wires would spring off and the bus would roll to a halt.

That was when the driver and conductor had to jump off and pull out a long bamboo pole from under the bus. Together they would wrestle it upright and, looking like a couple of demented fishermen, they would hold it at the base with the top waving and wobbling in the air as they fought to hook the arms back onto the wires again.

The two routes that ran past my house were the 691 and 693, which were actually the first trolleybus services introduced to the area, beginning in 1938. The 691 went from Barking Broadway, through Ilford to Barkingside which, despite its name, was not beside Barking but several miles from it. The 693 also started at Barking Broadway and went through Ilford to Chadwell Heath.

I remember when, after several months of collecting and

marking off bus numbers (found in gold just above the front wheel), I and my fellow bus spotters were mystified about two that appeared to be missing from the 691/693 fleet.

So we wrote to London Transport to ask where they were – and received a polite letter to say they were being serviced and would be back on our routes soon, which they were. I wonder how many big corporations these days would take the time and effort to reply to a bunch of schoolboys over such trivial matters?

We were also confused as to why many of the buses on our
routes had tinted windows. What I later discovered was that trolleybuses on the 691 and 693 routes had originally been built for use in South Africa. The Leyland company built 25 for Durban, while AEC had made 18 for use in Johannesburg. But the war had intervened and the buses ended up in London, where the tinted windows, made to reduce the glare of the South African sun, were a little less appropriate.

Interestingly – at least to a geekish bus spotter of the time – these buses were built with front exits for use in South Africa, although those exits had
been sealed up by the time they started working on the London Transport routes. Entry and exit was by the usual red London bus means of a rear platform with a pole up the middle on which to hang.
Pointing the right direction

At Ilford Broadway, a mile up the road from where I lived, the 691 ‘s route took it straight ahead past the station, while the 693 turned right into the High Street. This necessitated a set of points for the overhead wires that worked much like those on a railway track. They were operated by pulling a large brass knob that protruded from a box on one of the wire-supporting poles.

To ensure that each bus went in the right direction, the two routes ran alternately. As the 693 went over the points and turned right, the conductor would lean out of the back and
pull down the knob to change the points so that the following 691 could go straight ahead. The conductor of that bus then changed the points ready for the next 693.

It was, of course, a major temptation for small boys to climb on each other’s shoulders to reach up and pull down the brass knob to change the points back again. So when the 693 arrived, the driver would turn the bus right and the arms would try to go straight on.

The London Transport trolleybuses were gradually withdrawn during the latter years of the 1950s, and my beloved 691 and 693 trolleys hummed their way into obscurity on the evening of August 18th, 1959. They were replaced mostly with Routemasters. In North London trolleybuses ran for a few years longer.

When the wires were torn down outside my house, I sneaked out in the night and nicked a bit of the cable as a souvenir. Those of you who are still small boys at heart won’t be surprised to learn that, half a century later, I’ve still got it.

John Wade