Something fishy on the Yarmouth buses!

AT a time when the nation is becoming fervent about the impending Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, it might seem anti-monarchic - even treasonable - to link in this column the Coronation ... and the smell of fish. Anxious to avoid being thrown into the Tower of London, I will blame Mercury readers and correspondents, insisting that they started it, not me!

The link is our long-gone but much loved Great Yarmouth Corporation buses.

It all began when a letter to the Mercury editor wondered what became of our old corporation blue buses with “hard wooden seats and smelling of kippers.” The writer asked why these seats were not cushioned.

That led to another letter in which a reader said he was once told that these buses were purpose-built for “ferrying the hundreds of herring gutting girls to and from the Fishwharf,” and slatted seats instead of padded ones enabled the interiors of the vehicles to be hosed out easily “in a bid to get rid of the reek of fish.”

No no, another reader declared in our letters columns. The buses were not specifically designed to ferry Scots fisher lassies who did not use them but travelled to and from their work-places on special flat-back open lorries. But another reported that one foreman at the Caister Road depot always allocated a wooden-seater to the Fishwharf-Newtown route to coincide with fish workers’ leaving-off time.

And the last writer, son of a herring girl, confirmed that they travelled to and from work on lorries; the so-called “utility buses” with their wooden-slat seats were common across the country because soft ones were not readily available at the end of the war.

Reading this correspondence prompted Robin Hambling, of Lawn Avenue, Yarmouth, to delve into a reference book that is a “must” for all Corporation bus enthusiasts hereabouts – the third and final volume of the history of municipal transport in the borough written by Terry Barker in 1987.

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Mr Barker, who lived near Bath and was a Bachelor of Science and Master of Education, researched and produced the detailed trilogy as part of his studies for his academic qualifications. This third volume covered the period 1934 to 1953.

Robin says that in 1944 five vehicles were bought from each of two body builders, all Guys. They were wartime “utility” bodies with wooden-slat seats, and the total cost of the ten new additions to the fleet was �23,557 - “sounds silly now, doesn’t it” he comments.

Certainly does: that’s the cost of a pair of family new cars today!

In his book, Terry Barker noted that positioning the ranks of seats closer to one another meant the capacity rose to 56 compared with the 48 of pre-war vehicles. For the purists, and fleet numbers were 14-23. Two other buses damaged during the war were repaired and rejoined the fleet.

“My Dad drove one of the utility buses when they were brand new, and he let me sit in the driving seat - quite a thrill for a ten-year-old schoolboy,” Robin Hambling tells me.

I certainly recall travelling in the so-called utility buses with their slatted wood seats. The varnished slats went length-wise and were shiny. Almost as if orchestrated, passengers gripped the rail on the back of the seat in front of them to save sliding off into the central aisle if the bus briskly rounded a bend.

Four Yarmouth buses that had been sent to heavily-bombed Coventry to help the city’s transport services in 1940 and 1941 now needed a major overhaul. And I was surprised to learn that there were no fewer than eight other Yarmouth buses operating in Coventry during the war, presumably augmenting its bomb-ravaged fleet; they too drove back to the borough in 1944.

As so often happens with Through the Porthole, one thing led to another – and Robin drew my attention to a photograph in the Barker book of a vehicle that was converted and given a new livery in be transformed into our Coronation bus. His father was at the wheel in the local Coronation parade – on a day when the weather threatened to mar a great occasion, for the rain poured down for much of the time and a cold north wind blew, as I recalled in this column last week.

The double-decker (fleet number 33) was one of a batch of seven that entered service in 1934 as replacements for trams but were loaned to the municipal bus company in Coventry in 1940 before the city was devastated by bombing; they were intended as reserves to ensure that bus services could continue in one of the most strategically important industrial cities in Britain.

Most of these on-loan buses were damaged in the blitz on Coventry but were repaired and continued in service. Number 33 returned to Yarmouth in 1944. After the war, it underwent a major overhaul but was used mainly during the summers only, being withdrawn from service in 1950.

However, it was not consigned to the scrapyard and was chosen to be the borough’s Coronation bus. At the cost of �60, the roof was removed, the livery was changed to cream with added adornments, and the vehicle was ready for the Coronation parade. Driver Hambling was dry in his cab as were passengers on the lower deck, but the unprotected upstairs was, one assumes, shunned by the public on that particular day when the weather turned nasty.

The decorated vehicle impressed the judges because it won first prize, a cash award that was passed to the Corporation Transport Department Social Club.

Yarmouthians were used to being wet in 1953, of course: the Coronation was only a few weeks after the disastrous East Coast floods!

According to Mr Barker’s meticulously researched book, the open-top No 33 continued in its Coronation livery as a seafront attraction until 1960 when it was a remarkable 26 years old, mainly operating on the Newtown-Pleasure Beach service.

It did not always bear the number 33, however, for two batches of new buses slotting into its former numerical sequence meant it became 39 and then 40 for a while. Its glorious later life ended in 1960 when it was sold for scrap to a dealer in Beccles.