Memories from a 1960s BH&D conductor: Part 1
Mind the gap
On leaving Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School in July 1967 I made a belated decision to go to university. Too late for the September entry, I started what would now be called a ‘gap year’ and looked for temporary work. After spending four months as an underpaid storeman/delivery driver for a catering equipment wholesaler in Kemp Town, I happened to meet a former school friend who was also marking time before university and who was working as a bus conductor with BH&D. It transpired that the company was so desperate for staff at that time that it would take on just about anyone who could read and write and who would promise to stay long enough to master the job and students waiting to ‘go up’ were warmly welcomed. I had eight months to spare and, on being told this, the company recruiter snapped me up without hesitation.
I was a mild bus fan with fond memories of the Service 26/46 trolleybuses to Hollingbury on which route I lived, a good knowledge of the Five Towns through cycling around, and the valuable ability to count quickly up to a pound in pounds, shillings and pence.
Training for the bus
I arrived at Conway Street one Monday morning in early 1968 to start the two week training course. We were given a quick tour of the whole site, the only point which I still remember clearly being the surprising discovery that all buses were still hand-painted with brushes rather than being sprayed – though their splendid finish belied this.
The initial classroom training took three days, the tutor being an old-hand former conductor called Johnny (I forget his surname). On the fourth day we were each allocated a service conductor as a mentor for one week (excluding the weekend) and allocated to a garage, in my case to Whitehawk. My mentor was called Bernie and his surname also began with B (I forget the rest of it), and his service was, appropriately enough, the 26/46 which I of course knew well. From the outset I had to run the bus, while he watched closely and commented. The initial nerves soon passed and I quickly became confident and competent. The hardest trick for me was to operate the bellpush over my shoulder whilst facing outwards on the open rear platform of the KSW, giving two crisp sharp rapid dings. If the two dings were separated by too great a gap, the driver would interpret the second as a single ding, the signal to quickly stop the bus, and would apply the brakes sharply, a gesture not appreciated by the passengers.
After this week’s on-the-job training there were two more classroom days and we were then passed as conductors and received our badges with pride. I still have mine: KK 56524.
On the following Monday I began service at Whitehawk Garage as a Spare List conductor. In those days each depot maintained a small standby pool of drivers and conductors, mainly comprising a Spare List of ‘rookie’ staff and experienced recruits from other companies, supplemented where necessary by experienced BH&D staff who were offered standby duties as overtime if the Spare List was itself deficient. The standby drivers and conductors stepped in for staff who were on annual leave, had reported sick or were late for duty.
The rules regarding lateness on early shift were strict: your bus went out in the morning at its allotted time and, if you hadn’t arrived, a standby man took it out and you were sent home without pay for the shift. Since the first departures were just after 5am, this was easily enough done! In eight months this only happened once to me when I overslept – ‘did it in’, to use the common parlance of the crews – and arrived less than five minutes late to find my bus already gone. The late shift standby duty was more relaxed and was staffed completely by overtimers who, if not called upon, spent the shift playing ‘brag’ for unfeasibly large stakes: often a day’s wages were won or lost in an hour. (I kept well out of it when I eventually did a few late standby shifts as overtime.)
The Spare List duties were hard work for a ‘beginner’ and deliberately so – if you stayed the course as a Spare, you made the grade. You were told at the end of each shift what your duty for the following day would be if a vacancy was already anticipated; otherwise you attended the depot at the earliest departure time and waited for someone not to arrive. The route could be any of those offered by the company, and the Spare List was thus effective in rapidly teaching new staff the whole network.