The Bus Up the Dale

United Automobile Services, Ltd
Grange Road, Darlington
(this page “New and Improved”—or slightly titivated, anyhow—as at October 2021)

We do not propose here to attempt a complete history of United Automobile Services—it was a big company, and that would be a big task—but United’s service no. 30 ran up Swaledale from 1971 to 1997, so this operator will be covered by The Bus Up the Dale. United printed its own company history in 1987, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary (Nigel Watson’s United—A Short History), and for those who may feel that that account doesn’t go deep enough, illuminating passages concerning United are to be found in The History of British Bus Services (John Hibbs, first published 1968), and in A History of British Bus Services—North East (David Holding, 1979), and Alan Townsin’s article on the history of the National Bus Company in Buses Extra 54 (August-September 1988) is also well worth perusing if you can procure a copy (try eBay): it even includes a photograph of one of United’s numerous Bristol LH saloons (fleet no. 1636) bouncing out of Healaugh on its way up to Keld (top of p. 14). The 1998 Cowie Bus Handbook (David Donati and Bill Potter, eds) covers the ins and outs of the various corporate acquisitions involving United which took place in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a United Enthusiasts’ Club too: we must acknowledge here (and we gladly and gratefully do acknowledge) the colossal assistance kindly given by members of the United Enthusiasts’ Club who have—enthusiastically—shared their compendious material and clarified many points of detail for us. Any errors in what follows here will naturally be ours, rather than those of any of the aforementioned sources!

For the serious seeker after truth, the sources are Vols I and II of United Automobile Services Limited by Alan Townsin, John Banks, and Philip Groves, and featuring additional material from Philip Battersby and John D. Watson, published by Venture in (respectively) 2001 and 2003.

By the way—talking of United clubs, can anyone help us with information on the busmen’s club which used to be at 7, Tower Street (just off Richmond Market Place, up behind the Market Hall) and which closed at the end of the 1980s? Like, when did it first open, and what was its official name? Please use the “Contact Us” link on the Home Page if you have anything you can pass on.

Having started in 1912 as an independent Limited Company, United Automobile Services after years of successful expansion and consolidation was the subject of two rival take-over bids in 1929, in consequence of which ultimately half the shares were acquired by the London & North Eastern Railway, and the other half by a holding company called Tilling & British Automobile Traction, Ltd (T. B. A. T. having itself been formed, during 1928, by two large—rival—transport companies, Thomas Tilling, Ltd, and British Electric Traction, Ltd).  Tilling & British Automobile Traction was dissolved in 1942, whereupon this company’s shares in United were transferred to a new incarnation of the Tilling company called Tilling Motor Services, Ltd. J. F. Parke’s history of the National Bus Company in Buses Extra 27 (Summer 1983) includes an intriguing diagram showing how all the various T. B. A. T. companies were carved up between Tilling’s and B. E. T. (p. 6, reproduced from the 5th September 1942 issue of Modern Transport, p. 4), while Stewart J. Brown’s book N. B. C.—Antecedents and Formation (1983) is a wonderfully clear and concise guide to the individual histories of the bus companies involved.

One interesting consequence of United’s somewhat convoluted company history was that the bodies of many United buses were built by a firm which had originally been part of United itself. In 1931, T. B. A. T. transferred United’s extensive operations in Suffolk and Norfolk to a new subsidiary, the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company, an amalgamation of the former Eastern Counties Road Car Company and other T. B. A. T. firms in the area. United had opened its own coachbuilding works at Lowestoft in 1920, which was also transferred to Eastern Counties in 1931, and later established separately as Eastern Coach Works, supplying bodies for the T. B. A. T. group’s buses. In 1931, Thomas Tilling (as distinct from T. B. A. T.) acquired the National Omnibus & Transport Co., part-owner—with the railway companies in their respective regions—of the Eastern National, Southern National, and Western National bus companies, which had been set up at the beginning of 1929.  With Western National came control of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Co., which had been sold to the Great Western Railway in 1929 by the makers of Bristol aeroplanes, including the factory where Bristol bus chassis were made; and, under the 1942 settlement, Eastern Coach Works was another of the T. B. A. T. companies transferred to Tilling Motor Services.  Hence the standard Tilling group bus came to be a Bristol with an Eastern Coach Works body, and this remained the case—so far as Richmondshire was concerned—from the 1940s almost until the end of United’s existence—or, let us say, to the early 1990s at least.

Here are two preserved Bristol single-deckers of the late 1940s with Eastern Coach Works bodies (one in the green livery of United’s subsidiary company, Durham District Services).
Photograph: Bob Robson

In pursuance of the Transport Act 1947, the railways’ shareholdings in bus companies—including the L. N. E. R. share of United Automobile Services—were transferred to the new British Transport Commission with effect from New Year’s Day 1948, and Tilling Motor Services sold out to the British Transport Commission later in that same year, so that by the end of 1948, United was wholly owned by the B. T. C. Control of B. T. C. bus companies (including United) passed to a new organization, the Transport Holding Company, on the dissolution of the B. T. C. at the end of 1962 (in pursuance of the Transport Act 1962), and then duly passed to the National Bus Company with effect from New Year’s Day 1969 (in pursuance of the Transport Act 1968—yes, another one; sorry folks, that’s just how it is: you wait ages for a Transport Act, and then two or three turn up, one right after the other).

When Percival’s finally gave up their Stage Carriage services at the end of May 1971, United being a major local State-owned company was perhaps the only bus operator substantial enough to bear the risk of taking on the unremunerative Swaledale route. The archives of the United Enthusiasts’ Club reveal that this was not the first United bus service up Swaledale—so now, let’s go back a bit.

Having commenced operations first in Suffolk and then in County Durham before the Great War, United by the end of the 1920s had networks of bus routes up and down the Eastern side of England, serving Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as long-distance coach services to destinations as far afield as Edinburgh and London. By the end of 1931, United’s East Anglian operations—and Lowestoft coachbuilding works—had been transferred to Eastern Counties as noted above, and another T. B. A. T. subsidiary, the Lincolnshire Road Car Company, had likewise taken over United’s Lincolnshire bus services. United’s Head Office was moved from Lowestoft to York in 1926, and from York to Darlington in 1932. During the early 1930s United established itself as the dominant operator of regular coaches from the North-East to London—the “Tyne-Tees-Thames” route—by the simple but effective expedient of buying up competitors who had begun such services in the late 1920s, such as Orange Brothers of Bedlington; the fancy style of lettering United began applying to its own and Orange’s coaches in the 1930s was inherited from another of the services acquired, and United’s distinctive olive green and cream coach livery was introduced in 1938.

The well-researched and well-illustrated Tyne-Tees-Mersey, by Keith Healey and Philip Battersby (Venture Publications, 2000), contains further information on United’s extensive network of long-distance services, including involvement from the 1930s to the 1970s in the eponymous Limited Stop service between Newcastle and Liverpool via Leeds and Manchester.

Construction of a purpose-built United bus depot at Richmond was being discussed at Board level as early as 1923. The garage which stood, until September 2013, alongside the railway station, across the river from the town, was opened in 1931. A Wensleydale outstation was established at Gayle Greens, just outside Hawes, around the same time—United had taken over the services of the Northallerton Omnibus Company, including their Wensleydale routes, in the Summer of 1930, thus consolidating their Richmondshire operations.

The first mention of a United Automobile Services bus up Swaledale discovered so far occurs in United timetables commencing June 1926. This was United’s service no. 11, which nominally ran from Darlington to Gunnerside via Stapleton, Barton, Melsonby, Gilling West, Richmond and Reeth seven days a week, although most of the runs on this service were actually between Darlington and Richmond—in other words, it was a service which ran regularly from Darlington to Richmond, with an occasional extension up Swaledale to Gunnerside. Monday to Friday, the 10:05 ex Darlington and the 14:05 ex Darlington, due in Richmond at 11:03 and 15:03 respectively, continued to Reeth and Gunnerside: the morning bus was due in Gunnerside at 12:15, and set off again at 13:15 arriving Richmond 14:30 and Darlington 16:03; the afternoon bus apparently reached Gunnerside at 16:15, but the return run did not depart until 18:45, arriving Richmond 20:00 and Darlington 21:03. The no. 11 did not run up Swaledale at all on Saturdays, but on Sundays the 14:05 ex Darlington did continue to Gunnerside (arriving 16:15 as on weekdays), with a return run departing Gunnerside 19:45 (arriving Richmond 21:00 and Darlington 22:03).

The fact that United did not establish a more regular Swaledale service in the 1920s, when it was building up quite a network of routes in Richmondshire (and elsewhere in Yorkshire and Durham), can perhaps be ascribed to the energy and competitiveness of Swaledale’s own family firms—and to the local loyalties of Swaledale passengers: someone at United may have concluded that there wouldn’t be enough fares left for the taking. United timetables for January 1928 show Tim Scratcherd’s Reeth Motor Service running between Richmond and Reeth ; the October 1929 timetables show Tim Scratcherd’s service running from Richmond as far up as Muker, and from January 1930 the “Swaledale Joint Service” (Scratcherd’s and Percival’s) is shown running from Richmond right up to Keld. It would seem that the two main Swaledale operators may have come to an arrangement with United, as well as with one another. United’s own service appears to have ceased running up Swaledale by November 1926.

One of the most significant effects of the Road Traffic Act 1930—and one of those which the “Free Market” zealots of the 1980s were most eager to reverse—was that of practically suspending competition between rival operators over Stage Carriage routes. In a nationwide busman’s game of Musical Chairs, the music stopped in the Spring of 1931, and whoever was in possession of a particular route at that time stood a good chance of retaining his hold on that route indefinitely.

This quirky—albeit well-intentioned—licensing mechanism was to be dramatically swept away by the Transport Act 1985, in accordance with the principle of “Deregulation”. But the point here is that, after 1931, the Percivals and the Scratcherds could have lodged formal objections with the Area Traffic Commissioners against any would-be newcomer on their route: Percival’s and Scratcherd’s, having run motor-bus services in Swaledale since 1921, would effectively have Grandfather Rights on the Swaledale road. The Road Traffic Bill was already a pending piece of legislation by 1929, and most bus operators would have been aware of its implications.

In any case, United may well have taken the pragmatic view that the Percivals and (up to 1938) the Scratcherds were already doing a grand job of bringing Darlington passengers down the Dale to Richmond where they could then board United buses. Not only did Swaledale buses connect with United’s Darlington buses at Richmond, it was even possible to purchase a through ticket. Alas, it seems this sort of idea is too complicated to arrange in the Twenty-First Century. Wonderful thing, progress, isn’t it?

Of course by the time United did take over the Swaledale service in May 1971, a guaranteed monopoly on this route was not much of a prize. From the outset United received a subsidy—although, as a bigger operator than Percival’s, United must have been able to cross-subsidize more successfully than Percival’s from some of its more remunerative services, and there would have been more chance of the hitherto loss-making Swaledale service breaking even (or at least, less chance of this one chronically unremunerative service bleeding the company dry).

However, as the long-term decline in passenger numbers inexorably continued, and as County Hall’s grip on its purse-strings showed no signs of weakening, United began to cut back on the Swaledale bus service. A study of successive Swaledale bus timetables from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s is pretty depressing (even for those who actually like looking at old bus timetables). It’s the old “Use it or lose it” paradox: every time the bus company cuts the timetable, people scream Blue Murder, all too easily drowning out the ever-diminishing noise made by the ticket machines as fewer and fewer fares are tendered. Few bus companies reduce their services out of sheer badness. Few Traffic Managers sit in their grimy back offices with demonic grins lighting up their unshaven faces as they ponder new ways to make life difficult for us by cancelling buses. They mostly delete buses from the timetable because they’ve realized with horror that they are actually paying their crews to trundle empty seats up and down the road. It could be said that this was the conundrum which had ultimately baffled Percival’s.

As at May 1971, United were putting on four buses each way as far as Gunnerside on weekdays, two of which ran on up to Keld on Mondays; on Saturdays, United ran four buses to Gunnerside and two more right up to Keld, and on Sundays there were three runs to and from Gunnerside. United’s Leaflet T/141 shows the weekday service being recast to offer two buses each way as far as Gunnerside, and two continuing to Keld, from September 1971.

In March 1976, the County Council and United carried out—or so their publicity claimed—an extensive survey “to look after the changing needs of the travelling public.” A new timetable was introduced with effect from January 1977, offering four regular weekday buses each way—two of which ran right up to Keld—plus one additional afternoon bus from Richmond to Gunnerside on school days; there were six buses each way on a Saturday as before (four running as far as Gunnerside, plus two which carried on to Keld), and now also two Summer-only Sunday buses which both ran up to Keld.

An imaginative step—alas never very imaginatively publicized—was the introduction in 1978 of a run over the Buttertubs Pass to Hawes, connecting United’s Swaledale and Wensleydale services, and offering passengers even more spectacular views en route than were already available on the ordinary Swaledale run. This was running twice each way on Summer Sundays in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the idea was revived periodically during the later 1980s and the 1990s. United—A Short History includes an atmospheric photograph of a Bristol LH (fleet no. 1702) climbing out of Swaledale on this service (p. 78), unfortunately with only one or two passengers aboard.

In fact, it was the West Yorkshire Road Car Co. who first ran a regular service over Buttertubs, commencing in the 1950s as an extension of their week-end Summer service to Hawes. 

A 41-seater Bristol saloon (no. 1715), with bodywork by Eastern Coach Works, which had just run down Swaledale practically empty one sunny morning in August 1993.
Photograph: Reuben Frankau.

By the 1990s, the Swaledale service was being run very much on a skeleton basis. Timetables from the first half of the Nineties show just two regular weekday buses between Richmond and Gunnerside, with an extra afternoon journey to Gunnerside on school days, and two additional buses running right up to Keld on Tuesdays. Three buses between Richmond and Keld are shown on Saturdays, and no service at all on Sundays. Unless you wanted to spend all day in Richmond, there was no useful bus service for people in Swaledale except on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which were also the only days of the week when there was any service at all above Gunnerside (schoolchildren from further up the Dale were now conveyed to Richmond in a minibus owned by the County Council, and driven by Norman Guy).

In fairness it can be said that, from the later 1990s to the present, Swaledale has enjoyed slightly greater frequency of service than this, with continuing County support, although the buses used seem sometimes to have been chosen with a view to discouraging all but the most robust (or most desperate) travellers. This was a tactic developed by the British Transport Commission in the 1950s, and perfected under Dr Beeching in the 1960s, as a means of closing railway branch lines in areas where there weren’t too many votes at stake: just make the service as unsalubrious and unappealing as you can, and then demand will fall, and soon enough you’ll have the figures to prove that hardly anyone is using it—Q. E. D. So we are at liberty to speculate as to why the County Council omits to stipulate decent buses for long journeys over rough roads. It is the County Council which writes the contracts, after all. “The Little Red Bus from Richmond to Reeth is in danger of becoming the Little Dread Bus, so great is the facility with which it finds bumps in the road” commented the Northern Echo in July 2009.

It is also fair to say, though, that the present-day no. 30 continues to be appreciated by its regular users, and is not often to be seen running completely empty.

It’s an inherent problem in most minibuses that they’re really only vans with seats and windows added, and the springing isn’t kind to their human cargo. On country roads, you almost have to drive slower in a 16-seater than you would in, say, a 41-seater or a 53-seater, if you want to avoid jolting your passengers cruelly.  That’s a fact too easily forgotten by the driver, whose seat (in a typical minibus) tends to be more comfortable than those of the passengers, who has car-like levels of engine power and braking capability at his or her disposal, and who isn’t burdened with the 8-foot vehicle width of a full-size bus (which slows you down considerably, on many stretches of the B6270): in short, you can chuck a modern 16-seater around like a car, but your passengers won’t enjoy the ride. If, as a passenger, you’ve had a smooth and comfortable journey in a minibus, then you certainly have the driver to thank for that!

Meanwhile, in 1986, when the National Bus Company was being prepared for Privatization in accordance with the Road Traffic Act 1985, that part of United which operated North of the River Tyne was constituted as a separate company—Northumbria Motor Services—and United’s Pickering and Scarborough depots, and the routes they ran, were transferred to East Yorkshire Motor Services. This reflects the extent of United’s territory, even without the Lincolnshire and East Anglia operations which had been given up back in 1931: in 1986, it seems to have been felt that United was too big to be sold off in one piece (until the end of 1968, United had also run a depot in Carlisle and an outstation at Alston, but those operations were transferred to Ribble Motor Services on the formation of the National Bus Company).

At the end of 1987, the remainder of United Automobile Services, which still covered ground from Newcastle down to Leeds, was bought by Caldaire Holdings, proprietors of the West Riding Automobile Company, Ltd, and the Yorkshire Woollen District Transport Company, Ltd. It was announced in 1989 that United’s operations on Teesside would be established as a separate company, Tees and District, within the Caldaire group; and then in 1990, the old-established firm of Trimdon Motor Services sold out to Caldaire and was subsumed by United Automobile Services, though the Teesside Motor Services name devised by Trimdon Motor Services in 1989 for its Cleveland operations remained in use. Confused? You will be! In a 1992 “demerger” the Caldaire group divested itself of United, Tees and District, and Teesside Motor Services, which were sold off together under the name of North East Bus. United’s old Head Office on Grange Road was vacated in 1994. Another old-established County Durham operator was subsumed by North East Bus in 1995, with the purchase of The Eden Bus Services of West Auckland.

In 1994, Northumbria Motor Services had been acquired by a holding company called British Bus (which also went on to take over Caldaire in 1995), and then during 1996 the Cowie Group bought both North East Bus and British Bus, thus reuniting much of the old United: Northumbria Motor Services, Tees and District, and United all now belonged to Cowie’s—though United’s Ripon base was sold off to Harrogate & District Travel following the purchase of North East Bus. Cowie’s had hitherto been better known in the North-East as car dealers, but their involvement in P. S. V. operation dated back as far as 1980, when they took over the George Ewer Group which included the famous coaching name of Grey-Green. In 1997, the Cowie Group changed its name to Arriva, and United buses became Arriva buses with effect from January 1998.

All this post-Privatization excitement at Boardroom level had little direct impact on the Swaledale bus service, except in terms of a visible decline in the drivers’ morale through the 1990s, and an all-too-visible—not to say virulent—shade of turquoise beginning to appear in place of the familiar United red (apparently the official name for this, er, striking new colour was “Shimmering Aquamarine”). The Bus Up the Dale is expressly concerned with Twentieth-Century bus operations in Swaledale, but we may note in passing that Arriva closed the former United garage at Richmond early in 2006 and thereupon gave up the Swaledale service—and indeed most of its remaining Richmondshire services—presumably having concluded that running buses in the rural North Riding, even when subsidized, was no longer worth its while (the very last bus to depart from the old Richmond garage was fleet no. 2706, which was towed away for scrap one sunny morning in May 2008, following which the building stood empty for several years until its recent demolition). In 1971, United had allocated the number 30 to the Swaledale service, and subsequent operators have continued to use that same number on this route from 2006 to date.

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