Fifty years ago today I started working for London Transport, now, apparently, called “Transport for London”. Bureaucrats will never use two words where three will do.
I had left South Africa six weeks earlier, driving to Bulawayo and then flying to London to avoid a meeting with Detective Sergeant van den Heever of the Johannesburg SB, who, I suspected, wanted to give me a banning order (suspicions that later proved correct, the banning order had been signed by the Minister of Justice, B.J. Vorster, on 11 January 1966) .
I was meant to begin studying at St Chad’s College in Durham in September 1966, and so had about 8 months to wait and support myself in the mean time. The trouble was that I had landed in the UK as a student, and as an alien I needed a work permit, which I didn’t have. Perhaps St Chad helped with his intercessions to get me the job, as 2 March is St Chad’s Day.
But there was also earthly help in the form of shameless nepotism, as my mother’s cousin, Willie Hannan, was MP for Maryhill in Glasgow, and managed to find out, through his contacts in the Ministry of Labour, which hoops I would have to jump through to get a work permit. It seemed that the great fear of the Ministry of Labour was that if they employed foreign workers, it would lead to a strike. It helped to be able to point out that London Transport was short of 7000 drivers and conductors, and that if Brit labour was available they would surely have filled those vacancies already.
So, after getting the necessary stamps in my Alien’s Registration Certificate, I presented myself at the training school at Chiswick Works on Wednesday 2 March 1966.
The day at Chiswick started off very much like the JMT training
school, from the days when I had driven buses in Johannesburg. . Even the pattern of the wooden benches seemed familiar. There were lectures on the whats and whys and wherefores of London Transport, and we were issued with rule books and maps and things. Then a guy doing personnel research came along and wanted to know why we were going on the job. Then came a lecture on the Highway Code, and the PSV test, and the lecturer, Powell, adopted the same moralising tone of the JMT instructors, Sonny Lotter, Jackie Schultz, Harry Nye, and Jacob Venter.
After lunch we were issued with uniforms, and allotted to instructors, and after tea my instructor explained the type of bus to me. It was a Leyland, with the same preselector gears as the AEC Mark IIIs we had driven in Joburg. I drove it for a couple of miles, and the instructor said I should pass my test fairly easily.
We left the bus at Camberwell garage, and there were three other blokes with me, only the other three had started on Monday. We arranged to meet the instructor at 8:00 the next morning at Camberwell garage, and I went back home and packed my things, and took them over to my new lodgings at 12 Brancaster Road, Streatham, which was fairly close to Brixton London Transport garage, where I would be working.
I had spent nearly six weeks staying with Canon Eric James, who had taken me in when I arrived in London as a semi-refugee. He was organiser of the “Parish and people” movement, which meant that he was out most of the time, visiting parishes and running courses and things like that. I would have loved to have gone with him to help him, even just by carrying his bags, and so, in a sense, earning my keep, but he never invited me to go, and I couldn’t very well invite myself. My landlady in Streatham was Mrs Emily Williams, from Sierra Leone. The adverisement had said she was an “African landlady”, and after six weeks in Britain I was feeling homesick enough for that to be an attraction, even though Sierra Leone was thousands of miles from South Afirca.
So the day ended wih me starting a new job, and living in a new home, a rather dingy bedsit that smelt of old cabbage, with only two thin blankets on the bed, so I used the London Transport issue greatcoat as well to try to keep warm. The training lasted a fortnight, and until I actually had to take the PSV test I was rather nervous about driving. The bus itself was familiar enough, as I had driven similar buses in Johannesburg, but the traffic patterns were different. The streets were more winding, and behaviour at intersections was different too. While I was driving the instructor, Harry Webb kept talking and asking me all kinds of questions about life in South Africa. At first I found it rather annoying, and thought he should have known better, but then I thought it was perhaps deliberate, and he was trying to see how easily I would be distracted.
The most interesting thing in the training was driving on the skid pan, with the first demonstration being an uncontrolled skid, where the double-decker bus spun around a couple of times, rocking quite alarmingly, and the difference when one corrected the skid. Similarly there was emergency braking, and seeing how much more quickly the bus stopped when one pumped the brake bedal. Fifty years ago vehicles were not fitted with ABS mechanisms, which do that automatically.
After passing our test we went to our various garages. We had visited them all in training, and I was pleased that Brixton seemed to be one of the better ones, with good food in the staff canteen. Some of the menus were unfamiliar — I once saw rice on the menu and asked for some, and they asked if I wanted custord on it. It turned out that it was rice pudding.
The first few days at the garage I had to learn the routes, so just rode around on the buses seeing where they went.
The most common routes were the 109 route, from the Embankment to Purley, and 95A, from Cannon Street Station to Tooting Broadway. There were a couple of Sundays-only routes, the longest being the 133 from Croydon to Hendon, and it was easy to get lost, because it was so seldom that one had a job that included that route.
I once got lost in my early days. We did Job 25 on Route 95, and I got lost on the way to Cannon Street — at least I missed a turning and it was too late to go back, so I could only go on. I thought I could go round the block, but not a chance. In London there are no blocks. And we ended up driving past St Pauls, down Ludgate Hill, and over Blackfriars Bridge, miles off course. It was then too late to bother going back to look for Cannon Street, so we went on our way back to Tooting Broadway. When we came off after the first half I thought I had better tell an inspector at the garage, in case they wondered what had happened. But he didn’t seem at all worried, and said as long as the coppers didn’t get me there was nothing to worry about. It struck me that the coppers had a lot of say about everything in connection with buses, it was almost like a police state After our break we did a half trip to Tooting, and I couldn’t see to read my time card, and the conductress rang the bell at the garage, and we nearly went on to Cannon Street again. we took over our last bus, and finished at 10:30 without any further incidencts.
At first we had two kinds of buses, the RT type, which was similar to the AEC Mark III buses we had driven in Johannesburg, and the RTW, which were similar, but a little bit wider. After a couple of months these were replaced by the newer Routemaster buses, and the RTWs were sold to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The Routemasters were used on the 95A route.
The Routemaster bus had an automatic gearbox, but it was controlled by speed, which made it unpleasant to drive late at night, when there was little traffic, as one had to drive slowly, and it kept changing down into third gear even wehn it wasn’t necessary. Another thing that took some getting used to was the British practice of driving at night without headlights. People only used headlights on rural roads, where there were no streetlights. The most difficult thing was pulling away from a bus stop with cars coming up from behind, and they were often difficult to see if there were lots of shop lights and others.
One of the perks of working for London Transport was a free bus pass, which was good for the red central buses, the green country buses and the Underground. I used mine to explore London, and visit widely scattered friends who lived in different parts of London. Willie Hannan was the only relative I knew of in London, and he usually went back to Scotland for the weekends..
One of the interesting things I discovered was that one of the inspectors at Cannon Street Station, the town terminus of the 95A route, was a worker priest, and after work he organised Bible studies and such things.
On my first free Sunday I went to Mass at St Leonard’s Church, down the road. It was all rather strange. The church itself was rather old, and similar in some ways to the old Maritzburg Cathedral, with fancy woodwork and choir screen and the rest of the trimmings. However there was a nave altar, and the priest celebrated facing the people, and the altar was left bare until the offertory. They also used ordinary bread, and not wafers. However the place still managed to convey the impression of deadness, as if the heart of the people was not in it, any more than when it was done the other way. I noticed my landlady’s son singing in the choir, and said hello to them, but had not had much contact with the family, being out most of the time.
I worked my last shift on London Transport on 20 September 1966, and hired a car to take all my goods to Durham. I was not aware that there was a thing called British Road Services that would have taken my trunk door to door for 5 bob (25p). I don’t think such a thing would be possible today.