In the Dec 2001-Jan 2002 edition of “CLASSIC BUS” magazine, an article by David Pike told the story of seventy years of operation of the bus service between Salisbury and Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, run for the most part by Wilts & Dorset and Western National. While researching for that article, David also studied the Trowbridge scene, in the years following the handover of Western National’s Wiltshire operations to Bristol Omnibus in 1970, and produced the following article which was first published in “Bristol Passenger” – the magazine of the Bristol Interest Circle.
The West Country operations of The National Steam Car Company Limited commenced from Stroud, Gloucestershire, during December 1919. In February 1920 the company was renamed The National Omnibus & Transport Company Limited and a period of rapid expansion began. Services from the Wiltshire County town of Trowbridge started in August 1921 and by 1929 the company had a West Country network that stretched from Cheltenham to Penzance. This network was significantly expanded at this stage by the incorporation of services formally operated by the Great Western and Southern Railway companies and this led to the formation of the associated Western and Southern National Omnibus Companies in the appropriate areas.
In the Gloucestershire and Wiltshire area of Western National, however, expansion had been frustrated by the presence of other large operators – Red & White and Bristol Tramways in Stroud and Bristol Tramways, Bath Tramways and Wilts & Dorset around Trowbridge. The Stroud and Trowbridge depots were linked by only one service, operating via Chippenham and Malmesbury, and in 1929 these depots were totally detached from the rest of the National network.
Following the transfer in the early post war period to state control of Western National, Bristol Tramways (who also controlled Bath Tramways), Red & White and Wilts & Dorset, there was clearly scope for the rationalisation of operating areas. The situation at Stroud was particularly complicated and Western National and Red & White handed over their operations here to the Bristol Company in May 1950. Perhaps surprisingly the enclave at Trowbridge was retained by the Exeter-based Western National. Trowbridge allocated buses now had some contact with other National depots by virtue of the joint (with Wilts & Dorset) service to Salisbury (to where Weymouth-based and for a time Yeovil-based buses worked, also on joint services). Yeovil’s buses were also encountered at Shaftesbury and there was an attempt in the 1950s to forge a Trowbridge to Yeovil service, via Frome and Bruton, but this was not a long term success.
In 1969, following the Transport Act of the previous year, there were major changes in the structure of the bus industry. Western National, Bristol and Wilts & Dorset now found themselves part of the National Bus Company and this organisation was rather more robust than its predecessors in rationalising company operating areas. It was clearly more logical for Trowbridge to come under the wing of Bristol Omnibus (BOC) and this change was effected from 1st January 1970. This transfer of ownership may have been anticipated. In 1967, Bristol’s Bath area services had been renumbered into the 200 series and care was taken not to duplicate with Western National, whose Wiltshire area services ranged from 234 to 252 around Trowbridge and 294 to 299 at Chippenham. Additionally, the 1967 edition of Western National’s rather slight Wiltshire area timetable was the last to be published and henceforth these services had appeared in the Bristol Omnibus timetable covering West Wiltshire and North Somerset.
From Trowbridge, Western National operated interurban services to Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Frome, Bradford-on-Avon, Chippenham via Melksham, and Devizes. There were also a few more rural services and two town routes. In Chippenham, where seven buses were outstationed, Bristol Omnibus also had a presence, consisting of two buses outstationed from Bath. Here Western National’s scope was rather more limited and consisted of a service to Malmesbury and four town routes. The acquired services therefore fitted comfortably into the BOC network and of course the same can be said of the twenty-four Bristol/ECW vehicles which came with them, along with the modern depot cum bus station in Trowbridge. This structure already served as a terminus for BOC services operating from Bath (264), Devizes (276/277) and, on Saturdays, from Radstock (186).
It would appear that some thought (and possibly negotiation?) surrounded the selection of vehicles for transfer to BOC, for in the run up, out to other depots went the Bristol LDs, one of the company’s two LDLs and one of their two FSs, the MWs and Gardner 5LW-engined KSWs. In came six FSFs (which had themselves been acquired from BOC in 1967!), more LSs (to make a total of eight allocated) and two Bristol-engined KSWs. The eight FLFs allocated were transferred enbloc and constituted the most modern stock.
In the days following the transfer of ownership, the appropriate Bristol Omnibus fleetnumbers were applied (usually before the WESTERN NATIONAL fleetnames had been removed!). The FLFs were tacked onto the end of the native fleet (7314-7321), while the FSFs regained their old numbers (6022-4/30-2). The elderly LSs and KSWs received rather arbitrary numbers (2409-16, amid reseated former dual-purpose MWs, and L4155/6 – additions to a long-extinct series for lowbridge 7’ 6”-wide buses!) and all these vehicles were withdrawn within a matter of months …. but not before four of the LSs had spent the summer at Weston-Super-Mare!
The profile of the buses transferred indicates that a high proportion of mileage was still crew operated and while one or two LDs were transferred in from the host fleet, there was soon a drive to introduce more OMO and also to update the existing fleet used on these duties. In came numerous MWs and in July 1970 the first RE,1021 (MAE 24F), came from Bath. In January 1971, stablemates 1018 and 1019 arrived and at this time the all day working on the 241 Salisbury service was single manned. The FSFs, which of course accommodated scarcely more passengers than the REs, were moved to Bath and all had left Trowbridge by October 1973. Another interesting arrival at Trowbridge was 3003 (XHW 428), one of the recently refurbished and modernised LSs. This vehicle remained on the depot strength until the end of 1977, when it was among the last LSs in NBC service.
Significant arrivals in 1972 were the first vehicles allocated new to Trowbridge by Bristol Omnibus. RELL 1279 (EHU 380K) and RESL 529 (DAE 528K) arrived in May and June, respectively, the former becoming particularly associated with the 241 working for a number of years, while the latter was shown on the official list as specifically for Chippenham town services. 1972 also brought with it more service cuts, following a trend of cuts by stealth which had been going on during the 1960s. Particularly sad was the loss at this time of the section of route between Longbridge Deverill and Shaftesbury, which ended BOC’s short-lived incursion into Dorset. Sunday operation from Chippenham ceased, although perhaps some comfort was drawn from the transfer to the Trowbridge allocation of the buses based in the town, formerly controlled by Bath. The scope of Trowbridge operations was thus extended to the Sherston, Malmesbury (via The Somerfords) and Calne services. No work on the trunk service to Bath was included, however, and this mirrored the situation at Trowbridge where Bath depot continued to provide all the through journeys on the 264 Trowbridge – Bath service, with Trowbridge buses forever confined to short workings as far as Bradford-on-Avon, which were originally part of Western National’s 240 service between the two towns.
More new deliveries were received at Trowbridge in 1975. However, some surprise was caused by the arrival of Leyland Nationals in the shape of 10.3 metre B44F 558 (GEU 370N) and the first 11.3 metre buses in the Country Services fleet, 3010/1 (HEU 119/120N), which seated 52. As a consequence, FLFs 7318/9 were moved to Bath, but despite these arrivals, the Bristol MW remained the principal workhorse at Trowbridge in the mid-1970s. This type’s dominance was not challenged until the arrival of the depot’s first LHs in 1976. Had Trowbridge remained under Western National control, the LH would doubtless have arrived at the depot rather earlier, since that company had a large fleet from the outset. BOC on the other hand received their first six buses as late as 1972 and then no more until 1975. Lost ground was, however, quickly made up and Trowbridge received 381/2/3 (KHU 615/6P, JOU 162P) in February 1976 and 394/5 (OFB 967/8R) June of the following year, with a singleton in the shape of 465 (AFB 596V) arriving in May 1980. This was the second last LH received by the company.
On the double deck front, a further surprise was caused by the transfer of VRTs 5502/3 (HTC 728/9N) from Weston-super-Mare in December 1976. Although rare in the country services fleet at the time, the type was in fact no stranger to Trowbridge, since Bath operated similar (but Series 3) buses on the 264 service. The inevitable consequence of these arrivals and that of a further new National – 3054 (SAE 757S) – in April 1978 was the demise of the older types. FLFs continued to move to Bath with three going in 1976, and one in 1978 (plus 7321 withdrawn the same year). The last example (7320) moved in November 1979. On the MW front, numbers fell steadily until the last two, 2589/90 (982/3 UHW) were withdrawn, also in November 1979. These were the last MWs operating for Bristol Omnibus and had only been drafted into Trowbridge at the start of August, when similar buses 2621/6 (CHY 414C and DHW 992C) had been withdrawn.
In contrast to the vehicular changes, the mid 1970s were a period of relative stability so far as the services operated by Trowbridge depot were concerned. There was some widening of headways and early casualties were the Longbridge Deverill stump of service 248 and the lesser of the Trowbridge town services, the 252 to Studley Rise, both of which were withdrawn. A major reorganisation around Chippenham from 25th June 1978, however, gave a taste of things to come. The town services were decimated. One was withdrawn entirely, another was replaced by a diversion of some Bath-bound buses, while that to Manor Road was now largely worked by Bath-based buses which would otherwise lay over in Chippenham. Only service 299, Avon Valley Estate to Hill Rise, remained broadly in its original form, albeit with the headway widened from 30 to 40 minutes and one man operation introduced. The rural routes fared little better and that to Sherston was withdrawn. Cuts were also made to the Malmesbury corridor as well to routes worked into Chippenham by other depots.
From 4th November 1979 the Trowbridge area was subject to a major reorganisation. Trowbridge’s 238 service to Devizes and the 243 to Edington were combined with the Devizes-worked 276 & 277 services, to form just two jointly-worked routes between Trowbridge and Devizes, under the latter numbers. Two small villages, Worton and Poulshot, were left without BOC services as a result. In Trowbridge, the remaining town service, that to Studley Green, was linked across Trowbridge in a complicated manner to services going to Hilperton, Melksham and Chippenham. This arrangement proved less than satisfactory and was soon revised to provide just a Hilperton – Studley Green link. On the plus side, a subsidy was made available to provide a better service again on the Malmesbury routes which, from 9th June 1980, were renumbered 291 (via The Somerfords) and 292 (via Hullavington). Journeys on the former route were marketed as “The Dauntsey Vale Link” and as this photo shows, a number of LHs were fitted with brackets at the front to accommodate a slipboard carrying this title.
Reduced services of course required fewer buses and the allocation by 1980 had fallen to just nineteen buses, split between Chippenham and Trowbridge, and a start had been made on removing the Bristol REs from the depot. More Leyland Nationals were drafted in, so that by July 1981 only two REs remained – 1099 and 1279. The use of one RE was mandatory on the 241 due to a low bridge restriction at the Salisbury end of the route. It was quite appropriate when, at this time, the two bus seated RELLs were swapped for two DP seated RELHs, 2071 and 2072 (GHY 133/4K), which were well suited to the 90 minute run to Salisbury.
During 1981, MAP-inspired service revisions were introduced in most areas served by BOC and Trowbridge’s turn came in October when, from the 11th of the month, a revised network was introduced. Rural services to West Ashton, Upper Westwood and Dilton Marsh were withdrawn and the Devizes services were again reduced. The Studley Green service (reduced from half-hourly to hourly) was again linked with the Chippenham services! Surprisingly, the 292 Malmesbury service was withdrawn, with replacement facilities being provided by Hatts Coaches. Further revisions were made in Chippenham from 22nd November, when town service 299 was withdrawn – doubtless the economic equation of operating short town services with full sized buses could not be balanced. Only the Manor Road route survived, now linked with the service to Calne. Such buses based at Chippenham which survived this carnage now came under the umbrella of Bath depot and this requirement was further reduced from 24th January the following year, when, as part of the Swindon scheme, the 291 Malmesbury service passed to Seager’s Coaches.
Trowbridge was now left with an allocation of just twelve buses and from April 1982 the last two REs were exchanged for Leyland Nationals, when changes to the 241 timetable resulted in the BOC car being restricted to the northern end of the route, which removed the low bridge problem. The seven Leyland Nationals now allocated were complemented by three LHs and faithful VRTs 5502/3. To say that the depot (and the company as a whole) had reached a low ebb is an understatement. It was clearly not viable to utilise a garage capable of accommodating twenty-five or so vehicles for only half that number. It was no surprise when as part of yet another revision, the depot was closed. The new network was introduced from 10th April 1983 and while it contained some welcome innovations, such as a through Salisbury to Bristol service, it spelt more cuts for those rural services which remained (principally the Devizes corridor) and saw the demise of the last town service in Chippenham. Readers may be amused to learn that the Studley Green service was again removed from the Chippenham timetable and was henceforth largely interworked with the 264 Bath service. Upon closure, Trowbridge’s buses were transferred to Bath and this depot now maintained outstations in Frome, Devizes, Warminster and Chippenham, all of which worked into Trowbridge.
Thus after nearly seventy-two years, the Bristol company had finally removed the Western National cuckoo from the nest. While the routes and vehicles inherited from Western National had fitted well into the BOC network, there had been some administrative problems. Former Western National men were in the NUR, while BOC staff belonged to the T&GWU. This made for protracted negotiations and may have been a factor in determining which base to close when rationalisation became inevitable. Had Trowbridge been a BOC depot from the outset, things might have been different. In these circumstances, it would likely have had a major share in the Bath road, which would have brought significant revenue and extra buses to the depot. History also dictated that the depot’s share in the Salisbury road was perhaps smaller than might be considered equitable.
Sad though the closure of Trowbridge was, it is this type of operational anomaly which makes the bus industry so interesting to study! Ironically the introduction by Badgerline of Ford Transit operated Mini Link town services in Trowbridge during 1985, led to buses being based in the town once again and eventually this was expanded to include full size vehicles. However, the old bus station site is, alas, no more, having been redeveloped for housing after many years of lying vacant.
First Group took over Badgerline in 1995 but has retained an outstation in the Trowbridge area to operate its network of local services, plus those that pass through Trowbridge to Bath, Warminster, Chippenham and Frome. This base has expanded over the years to the extent that it was necessary to relocate it to a larger site on the West Wilts Industrial Estate between Trowbridge and Westbury, and this has now replaced the outstation in Frome plus all the other Wiltshire outstations. In August 2013, the services operated from there were:
- 30 – Frome local service
- 234 – Frome – Trowbridge – Melksham – Chippenham
- 236 – Melksham / Hilperton – Trowbridge – Studley Green
- 260/263 – Trowbridge – Silver Street Lane & College
- 264/265 – Bath – Trowbridge – Warminster – Salisbury
- 267 – Bath – Norton St.Philip – Frome
but sadly even having a base in West Wiltshire was not sufficient to keep all of these services commercially viable and now the only bus service that is operated by First through Trowbridge is service 265 to Bath, Warminster and Salisbury. However the outstation at Westbury still continues to flourish, providing vehicles and drivers for services 265, 267 (Frome-Bath) and 272 (Bath-Melksham), as well as the 271 (Bath-Devizes-Urchfont) tendered route that runs during the evening and on Sundays.
Do you have any photographs or reminiscences of bus services in West Wiltshire prior to 1980 ? If you do, and you would be prepared to share them with others by allowing us to include them on our website, we would be keen to hear from you. To contact us, please click here to email us, or write to us at “WVBRD Website”, 15 Saxon Drive, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14 7PX.
This article has been included on this website with the kind permission of The Bristol Interest Circle, a group of enthusiasts interested in buses and coaches constructed by Bristol Commercial Vehicles.
The photographs used to illustrated this article have been provided either by the author from his own collection, or have been supplied by the Bristol Vintage Bus Group to whom we are grateful for allowing them to be reproduced here. Please note that the copyright of these photographs lies with David Pike and the BVBG and so they should not be reproduced except for your own personal reference. Similar photographs of Bristol Omnibus and Western National vehicles are usually available from the Bristol Vintage Bus Group’s own sales stall which attends many rallies and vintage bus running days in Southern England each year.
Other photographs of Trowbridge area bus operations can be found on the title page and Plates 181-4 & 218 of “A Pictorial Tribute to Bristol Omnibus Company, 1936-1983” by Allan Macfarlane (OPC, 1985).