The Bus Up the Dale

Percival Brothers (Coaches), Ltd
—incorporated 1937, closed 1971.

This is probably the bit that most people will want to click on—and if you’re reading this then you’ve probably just done so—but, paradoxically, it may end up being the last bit we complete. Chasing up all the smaller operators has been surprisingly time-consuming—albeit quite fun—and we’ve been aiming to get that done first: try clicking on some of the other red boxes, there have been more bus operators in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale than you’d think (and indeed, more than we at first realized!).

John Lodge Percival (1901–1971) at the wheel of a Selden in the early 1920s, believed to have been the Percivals’ second motor—a more substantial machine than the Fords and Chevrolets run by humbler carriers. Photograph: Susan Restall collection.

Percival Brothers (Coaches), Ltd, was incorporated on 21st June 1937, and one week later the Percivals took delivery of a brand-new A.E.C. Regal coach with 33-seat coachwork by Burlingham. As we have seen, however, the sons of Lodge Percival had already been trading as Percival Brothers for ten years or more.

The Percival family and employees gather proudly round their new six-cylinder Leyland saloon in 1932, outside the Big Shop. With 32 seats and a substantial roof rack, this bus must then have been one of the biggest motors in the Dale. Lodge Percival is visible at extreme R. Photograph: Joan Percival collection.

By 1937, Percival’s had at least six or seven smart buses on the road. At the beginning of 1938, they took delivery of a new Bedford 26-seater with Plaxton coachwork. Taking over the Scratcherds’ motor-bus operation in mid-1938 increased the fleet further; and in the Spring of 1939 they took delivery of a further three brand-new Bedfords, and also a new Albion motor-lorry. Business must have been booming.

Unfortunately, in the Summer of 1939 international politics hit a bit of a sticky patch.

An impressive pre-War business card. The Richmond office was moved from King Street to 53, Market Place in 1945. Card: David Parker collection.

The 1940s were busy but not always easy, as far as bus operators like Percival’s were concerned. On the one hand, private hires and excursions were suspended until 1945—and then resumed in a torrent of pent-up demand. On the other hand, throughout the War there were lots and lots of people in Swaledale wishing to use the bus service, but no decent petrol and no spare parts for the buses, and precious few replacement buses for sale. Just as things were getting back to normal, competition from the Sunters at the beginning of the 1950s came at a very inopportune time, as television sets and private motor-cars started to reduce people’s use of public transport. The loss of eldest brother William Percival (1886–1945) had been a blow both to the family and to the business.

By the 1960s, even with Sunter Bros’ coaches off the road, Percival’s was a less profitable business than it had been. John Lodge Percival, youngest of Lodge Percival’s children, and the only one of the three brothers still living, had left school during the Great War in order to come home and help keep the family business going. He could not or would not abandon the Swaledale service, but it was becoming more and more of a drain on resources. The coaching side of the operation was barely making enough to offset the costs of maintaining an unremunerative bus service up Swaledale.

Geoff (L.) and John Lodge (R.) Percival in 1964 at the Catterick Camp depot acquired from the Sunters. The two Bedfords behind them—with stylish Harrington “Crusader” coachwork—were the last new full-sized buses bought by Percival’s: alas by the mid-1960s, the Bedford was not an ideal machine for the long distances routinely clocked up on military runs. Photograph: Joan Percival collection.

There was not enough money to buy replacement coaches of the quality for which Percival’s had formerly been noted. A dismal period of “make do and mend” ensued, as the lightweight Bedfords were run into the ground. Every attempt to reduce losses by deleting under-used journeys from the Swaledale timetable met with a storm of protest.

After John Lodge Percival’s death at the beginning of 1971 it was decided, not unreasonably but with colossal reluctance on the part of the Percival family, to wind up the business altogether. John Lodge had been approaching 70 years of age, and his widow—who had no personal connection with Swaledale—was only two or three years younger. The Swaledale service was taken on by United, the Arkengarthdale service by Wesley Harker, and the Barnard Castle service by Les Burrell.

The letter tells its own story: Susan Restall collection.

A three-part feature on the story of Percival Brothers (Coaches), Ltd, in Vintage Roadscene was kindly suggested by the magazine’s erstwhile Deputy Editor, David Hayward, whose energetic support for this project has been much missed since his untimely death in 2012. Part I appeared (unexpectedly, so far as we were concerned) in the January 2011 edition; Part II, which we did not consider ready for publication, then turned up in the February issue, and we were obliged to stop Part III going to press until such time as it could be worked on properly. It used to be said that an infinite number of monkeys, given an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time, would sooner or later produce the complete works of Shakespeare. It seemed as if some of those monkeys were actually moonlighting as subeditors and typesetters at Vintage Roadscene. However, an acceptable Part III finally appeared in the May 2011 edition.

More information on Percival’s will be added here in due course. A Fleet List is now available on another page (also accessible from the Home Page). Those who keep asking why the book isn’t out yet have perhaps never tried doing anything like this themselves: for instance, in the Spring of 2013, we began overhauling the amazing accumulation of loaned and donated archive materials which will furnish illustrations for the book, making careful note of what was what and who was who; there turned out to be approximately 3,500 images (comprising documents as well as photographs), and by the time each of those 3,500 images had been carefully indexed, our index notes totalled over 80,000 words (according to the word-counting thingy on the computer)! A further overhaul in February 2017 brought the index notes alone to just over 111,000 words—more than double the total word-count of the draft of the actual book so far. On the plus side, this will certainly give us plenty of images to choose from, and it really is quite remarkable what has turned up; and, since 2013, we’ve had some success in painstakingly working out when and where some bus photographs—which frequently arrive without such information—were taken.

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