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Working for Southdown in the 1930s

I am writing from New Jersey, in the US, at the age of 85. I lived at 7 Firle Road from 1928 on, and was pushed out of St Luke’s Senior Boys School at the age of 14, near the end of 1936. My mother saw an advertisement by Southdown Omnibus Company in the Evening Argus, seeking to employ ‘apprentices’ and took me on a Tillings bus to the Victoria Road works, about 5 miles from home. Here she signed me up to be taught ‘engineering’ for which I was to be paid tuppence (two pence) an hour for a 48-hour week.

Robert in the arc welding shop at Southdown

A very long working day
This week consisted of five days of eight and a half hours each, and half a day on Saturday, of four and a half hours. To work in Portslade required me to rise at 6:30, walk (often run) down to the Level and board one of three buses that transported workers to Portslade (and back in the evening) for a penny a day. The bus ride home took me to the Level again, and I then walked up to the top of Freshfield Road, arriving home, tired and hungry at about 7:15pm.

Pay raised by a penny and hour
At the ‘works’ I answered at first to Harold Smith, who was responsible under foreman Jack Daniels, for reconditioning cylinder heads for the six-cylinder engines in most Southdown buses, made by Leyland. Later, I worked for Ernie Sibley, an expert engine fitter, who reassembled complete engines that were also being reconditioned or overhauled. At the end of a year of satisfactory service, each apprentice received a raise in pay of a penny an hour.

Joined the RAF

After a couple of years, I was sent to learn welding with Bert Edwards, from Lancing, and began to ride a second-hand bicycle to Portslade to save the sixpence a week of the bus fares. That was when I joined the Brighton Excelsior Cycling Club. War was declared in September of 1939 and in November I turned 17. I went to work at Crawley Aircraft Company, making gun turrets, and later joined the RAF to be trained as a Flight Engineer.

Southdown was a thriving business
I believe the works has been demolished, but in my day it was a solid business, with regular reception of buses to be overhauled and or repaired, and large shops or areas for dismantling and re-assembly of engines, gearboxes, axles and other parts, a machine shop, an engine shop, a blacksmith’s forge, and a paint shop, and several hundred men worked there.

Comments about this page

  • Hello Robert, I have been trying for a long time to find someone from the Southdown Company in your era. Did you know or do you have any knowledge of a chap called Clensey- cannot remember his Christian name but he was called “Chubby” in the family. He was a mechanic with the Southdown Company and he also joined the RAF and was in air/sea rescue. I think he went back to Southdown after the war.

    By John Wall (29/09/2008)
  • Hi Robert, my father worked for Southdown, I think around 1937 onwards. I remember a garage near Trafalgar Street and being taken in a pub that had a dog that used to balance a bottle on its head, play the piano and make the bed. My father’s name was Horace but he may have also been called Ted. During the war he went to work at Hatfield on Mosquito fighter bombers, maybe you might have met him.

    By Cliff Lashmar (02/10/2008)
  • Dear Robert, I worked for Southdown in the 1960s, and was based at Edward Street. Do you remember a chap called Charlie Trott, he was the garage manager? Always wore a long coat with a trilby hat. Also there was a fitter who looked like the Incredible Hulk. As you went into the garage on the left was the bus schedules on the walls and a partition in the middle. When we had a chance we used the snooker tables in Manchester Street. My bus routes were mostly out in the country with the occasional 49s, 110,13, 22 to Steyning, 18 Hawkhurst, Tunbridge Wells bus no? We used to swap buses with Maidstone & District in those days. I loved the A.E.C Buses they used, the old Guy buses with the five cylinder Gardner engines were something else. The old Queen Mary’s, single deckers Leyland Leopards, the Cubs and the old Commer two stroke were great, mostly the sound. I’m not sure but I think Eastbourne routes were 112. Many happy times were had, great bunch of lads. My son works at B&H in the Newhaven depot on the coast routes.

    By David M. Hicks (18/12/2009)
  • Hello Robert, I have written a number of books on Southdown and am currently working on one in which I would like to include memories of Victoria Road Works. I wonder if you could perhaps contact me at Hope to hear from you.

    By Glyn Kraemer-Johnson (14/12/2011)
  • Hi Robert,

    My mother’s family; father, mother and three siblings lived at number 8 Firle Road in the 20s and 30s.
    I would appreciate hearing any memories anyone has of life in that road during the 1920 / 30s.

    By Chris Young (17/12/2022)

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