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.

Going spare
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.

Comments about this page

  • I read this item with interest as a Brighton exile now living in the Midlands. I too worked on the buses but in the Northants and Bedford area – United Counties being a former Tilling company had a lot in common with BH&D. They also had the same sort of standby system. It was lovely in the winter when you had no driver and were told to stand by for the rest of your shift! Most of us used to sneak out of the garage for a crafty pint in the Working Mens’ Club. On the early morning standby shift you were guaranteed to cover someone’s work. The slang we used was ‘Fred’s slipped up again’. Not many of us were sent home although the biggest joke was on the one man who had the worst record in the garage for time-keeping. Instead of coming in for his late shift at 2 in the afternoon, he arrived at 5.30 in the morning. As you can imagine his name was mud that day as the Inspector said ‘you had better go home’!

    By John Wignall (27/09/2007)
  • It was common to hear that so-and-so had “done it in this morning” when I briefly drove for Southdown-BH&D at Conway Street in 1976/77. Your story also brought back memories of the so-called “box times” – changeover times which were frequently scheduled to be in places far from the garage. If you were on late turn and failed to relieve your early turn colleague near the garage at a much earlier time than scheduled, he or she would soon spread it around that they’d been “boxed” by you and you would be very unpopular! There was also an expression to describe the crews who would hang back if you were running late to avoid picking up your passengers, but I can’t bring it to mind right now. Thanks for the memories.

    By Pat Hall (18/02/2008)
  • More common bus work expressions that come to mind are: “domino” meaning a full load, “dodgy dupe” meaning to hang back and let the man in front take all the work, “run dead” meaning to run private, “jumper” an inspector who would jump on the bus to inspect the tickets, “spot” a person in plain cloths trying to catch conductors on the fiddle.

    By John Wignall (08/04/2008)
  • A fabulous read – was the mentor conductor at Whitehawk called Bernie Bryan by any chance?

    By Mark T (12/11/2008)
  • You got it, Mark – Bernie Bryan he was.Well remembered.

    By Len Liechti (21/06/2011)
  • Hi Len, I used to work with Bernie Bryan until he retired, what a lovely man. Oh by the way I think you know my sister Margaret Syrett from Downs Junior School – the school which I used to go to as well. Small world.

    By Graham Maskell (20/07/2011)
  • Hello Graham! Indeed I did know Margaret at the Downs. She was in my class. I don’t recall your name – presumably you were her elder, or younger, brother? Here in Bath we have a saying that the city is really just a big village, because everybody knows somebody who knows everybody else. The same is clearly true of Brighton, though on an even larger scale. One of the joys of contributing to MyB&H is the number of old, familiar names that keep cropping up. Comforting to think that so many old acquaintances are still around.

    By Len Liechti (09/09/2011)
  • Interesting memoirs about BH&D in 1970, I worked there as a relief driver for 6 months on 26/9, mostly driving a K type Bristol. I also worked on the Fishergate route but can’t remember the number. I had a Welsh conductor, obviously called Taffy.

    By Doug (13/11/2015)
  • Re- my time at BH&D Conway street Garage. The Fishersgate route was no 6. Any one remember the two Margarets who were clippies on the 26/46 circuit? One day when my conductor who was a student working his holidays to get some spare cash, and totally fed up with ‘Jumpers,’ dared me to leave the next inspector (jumper) at the stop. Well Jock Boyd was standing at a request stop and failed to put his hand up  so I kept going. Needless to say my request stop arguememt did not go down very well and I got suspended for two days. When you’re single and a roamer, job security is not top of the list and I didn’t worry much about authority. I eventually went back to my old job as a tramp lorry driver which was a really free-wheeling job with very little interference from managers etc where I stayed till I retired.

    By Doug Beales (29/11/2015)
  • Len – The training classroom mentor was Johnny Ellis who worked in the “Detail office”  with Arthur Percy if I remember rightly.  I was a wages clerk around this time and remember lots of the names from printing wage sheets, which was one of our jobs in the wages office. One of the Margaret’s mentioned was Beresford? I think and the other Margaret Whittingham. I remember some of the Inspectors – Harry Keech springs to mind ( he lived next door to me at one time). I have some fond memories of BH&D. I was a very shy 17 year old and we female office girls were teased relentlessly by a lot of the male staff, but we took it all in good humour. These days, they would be shouting sexual harassment!!


    By Lesley Smith (05/01/2016)
  • Lesley Smith, Harry Keech was my grandfather I would very much love to speak to you would you be able to get in contact my email address is, please please get in touch. 

    By Joanne Bassett (12/09/2016)

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