The Bus Up the Dale

Sunter Bros, Ltd
Broadway Coaches

Many locals still remember the rivalry which subsisted between two Gunnerside families, the Percivals and the “Fire” Sunters—it will be convenient for us to use the old local sobriquet “Fire” here, so as to distinguish this particular Sunter family from others in Swaledale having the same name.

All four of George “Fire” Sunter’s sons: L. to R., Tom, George, Len, Joss. Photograph: George Sunter Percival.

The brothers who gave their name to the widely-known Limited Company, Sunter Bros, were Tom, Joss and Len, three of the sons of local dealer George “Fire” Sunter. Tom Fire had driven motor-lorries during the Great War and drove a charabanc for George Metcalfe of Reeth in the 1920s. It must have become very evident to Tom Fire that there was money to be made out of these new-fashioned motor-vehicles.

By the 1930s, both the Fires and the Percivals were running motor-lorries of their own, plying for trade as hauliers and coal merchants, dealing in hay and livestock and meal, and also using generators to supply electric light for properties in their respective parts of Gunnerside. Scratcherd family tradition has it that, when Tim Scratcherd of Reeth was selling up in 1938, Tom Fire tried to buy his bus business, but found to his chagrin that he had been beaten to it by Willie Percival.

In the 1940s Sunter Bros specialized increasingly in haulage work, but the Labour landslide in 1945 gave Tom Fire pause for thought. It seemed the road haulage industry was to be Nationalized. By way of diversification, therefore—and since they already had a pool of drivers and fitters—the Fires bought up a number of motor-coaches, some second-hand and some brand-new, at the end of the 1940s. They already had a depot at Northallerton, and around 1954 they built a bus garage at Catterick Camp, on the corner of Byng Road and Catterick Road. In due course the fleet name Broadway Coaches was adopted.

Catterick Camp in the days of National Service was a very substantial military base and, on top of the troop transport work which still provides steady business for local coach operators to this day, there was good money to be made at that time in conveying servicemen back to their home towns for week-end Leave. Indeed demand for coach services of this kind seems to have been on the increase in the first half of the 1950s.

In addition, Broadway Coaches were not backward in coming forward to compete with Percival’s for local private hire work.

It’s sometimes said locally that Tom Fire tried to register a timetabled Swaledale bus service which would break the monopoly enjoyed by Percival’s since 1938. The name of Thomas Sunter first appears in the Northern Area Traffic Commissioners’ Notices and Proceedings at the beginning of 1949, in connection with an application to take over the Stage services of North Cowton bus operator Les Ellerby. This particular application came to nothing.

In January 1951, however, Sunter Bros did attempt to register an Express service between Reeth and Catterick Camp, to convey civilian workers—of whom there used to be a great many—from Swaledale to the Camp. Following a public sitting at Newcastle County Court on 11th April 1951, the Traffic Commissioners rejected this application in favour of a contemporaneous one from Percival’s, who of course were already established as providers of Swaledale bus services. Feelings at that meeting—not to say after it—must have run pretty high, and this perhaps explains the abiding local rumour.

From 1952, the Fires were among many coach proprietors competing with Percival’s and United for lucrative Road Service Licences from Catterick Camp, running servicemen home for their week-end Leave. In October 1957, the Fires did take over the local Stage services formerly run by Les Ellerby (from the Cowtons to Northallerton, and from Danby Wiske to Darlington), but in November 1960 Percival’s took over all of Sunter Bros’ Road Service Licences—including those covering their Leave runs from Catterick Camp—and the Fires withdrew almost completely from P. S. V. work.

Tradition has it that Tom Fire decided to dispose of Broadway Coaches when his barber happened to mention in conversation that National Service was going to be stopped. The end of Conscription would obviously lead to a reduction in demand for transport from Catterick Camp. Equally, however, this was a time when State control of the road haulage industry had relaxed somewhat, and Sunter Bros were doing increasingly well in the field of specialist heavy haulage—for which they are still well remembered. Joss Fire, the brother who ran the coach fleet, had died in the Summer of 1957, and it may have seemed to Tom and Len that they might as well concentrate their energies on a more promising line of business.

By the mid-1950s, instead of the rag-tag assemblage of vehicles with which they had started out, Broadway Coaches could boast a fleet of top-quality luxury coaches bought new. It is therefore significant that in January 1960 the Fires put three new Bedford 41-seaters on the road, and another in June 1960: these would have been much cheaper to buy than the A.E.C. saloons favoured latterly by Broadway Coaches, and were obviously intended as a short-term expedient in view of the imminent disposal of the whole coach operation.

A Sunter’s Leyland saloon (HAJ 300) with stylish Burlingham “Seagull” coachwork,
seen at Liverpool Pier Head with driver Paul Bateson.
The destination indicator is set for Catterick Camp, so they were probably on a Leave run.
Photograph: George Sunter Percival.

Percival’s bought the Byng Road garage, and two of the four nearly-new Bedfords, in November 1960. Sunter Bros undertook not to resume P. S. V. operation within five years—although Tom Fire’s nephew George retained the 41-seat A.E.C. which he had driven from new, running it now for private hire under his own name for several more years.

It is said that Tom Fire laughed all the way to the bank, because as far as he was concerned there was no real future in coaches. On the other hand, John Lodge Percival must have felt that his money had been well spent, because a significant local competitor had been removed from a shrinking market. It says much for the success with which Broadway Coaches had broken into the local coach business that Percival’s were so glad to see them off the road.

The Sunter Bros heavy haulage depot at Northallerton finally closed in 1986. Tony Eaton of Northallerton has written a history of the firm, Sunter Bros—High, Wide and Mighty, first published in 2001. At the kind suggestion of the magazine’s erstwhile Deputy Editor David Hayward, Reuben Frankau of Low Row wrote an article on the Sunters’ coach operation for the October 2010 edition of Vintage Roadscene. This was drafted with the close co-operation and full approval of the Sunter family, for which we are most grateful—order your copy now!

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