Chapter 7 Hemel Hempstead Garage
Having successfully passed my second PSV test I now reported to Reg Goodchild, the Chief Garage Inspector at Hemel Hempstead garage. Reg was a very pleasant fatherly figure ready to give help and advice to new drivers, but always aloof in his front office. When I had first seen Inspector George Holby I had explained that it was my intention to work out of Tring garage. George suggested that I stay at Hemel Hempstead until Annette and I had a place to live nearer to Tring then I could transfer to Tring garage. Little knowing the working of the system I agreed. However when I told Chief Inspector Goodchild that I wanted to transfer to Tring he informed me that as Hemel Hempstead was short of drivers I could only transfer to Tring if I found a driver willing to come to Hemel Hempstead. Oh well never mind, we had yet to find a house.
Before doing any driving at a garage you had to learn all the routes and do conductor training. There were many routes working out of Hemel Hempstead. The inter urban routes comprised of the 301 Aylesbury to Little Bushey and the 302 Hemel Hempstead to Watford Heath operated jointly with Tring Garage. The 347 Hemel Hempstead to Uxbridge operated jointly with Garston Garage and the 330 Hemel Hempstead to Welwyn Garden City. There was a small allocation of One Man Operated routes, for example the 322 Hemel Hempstead to Watford Junction and the 307 Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden. The town service mainstay were the 320 Leverstock Green to Gadebridge and the 312 Grove Hill to Berkhamstead.
The main employer in Hemel Hempstead in the early 1970s was the large paper mill of John Dickinson at Apsley. Hemel Hempstead garage provided many buses to take the workers to Apsley from all over the town each morning and at lunch time workers could catch a bus from the mill home for lunch and back again. Five o’clock was a sight to behold as hundreds of workers streamed across the road at Apsley to catch their various buses home. The buses rapidly filled up and you had to be extremely quick to collect all the fares before reaching the town centre, you also had to have cast iron lungs to go upstairs to the upper deck to collect fares as the upper deck soon filled up with tobacco smoke. I preferred to collect all the fares in the lower saloon and wait on the platform to collect the fares from upstairs as they alighted. Fortunately these days smoking is banned from all buses, although it took some persuading for all members of the public to comply. You would often be driving along when the faint whiff of tobacco smoke could be detected drifting down from the upper deck and I would stop the bus and go up stairs and find someone crouched down at the back having a crafty fag.
Route learning was done to a proper schedule so that by the end of a week you should have covered all the routes. Having completed a route a signature was obtained from the conductor or the driver if the route was an OMO route. Once again I was fortunate in remembering all the routes and some route learning certainly had its high lights, manoeuvring into Boxmoor Station (now Hemel Hempstead Station) the bus collided with the concrete pillar at the entrance, I looked at the conductor, Brian Howe, for an explanation,
“don’t worry mate, that’s just Sids driving, Basham by name bash’m by nature” That was my first encounter with Sid Basham.
Whilst learning the 307 one man route to Harpenden, the driver told me the best way to learn the route was to drive over it and promptly got out of the cab of the RF, having left Hemel Hempstead town centre, and told me to get in and drive. I suppose it was a nice way to learn and it gave the driver a break. When I started at Hemel Hempstead there were no surprises in store as regards different vehicles, it was the usual collection of RTs and RFs.
One of the things that was drummed into all the drivers at Chiswick was always to ensure your vehicle was left in neutral gear before you switched of the engine. The preselect gear box on the RT and RF vehicle was air operated. If the air pressure was low a metal flag would drop down in front of the driver with the word ‘stop’ on it. Once the air pressure had been built up the flag would raise and gears could be selected. Unfortunately some drivers at Hemel would leave the buses in gear when they had finished with them, this combined with a driver who would release the handbrake before his air pressure had built up could lead to some nasty accidents. In one incident the driver had released the hand brake with the air flag down, revved up the bus to build up air pressure only to find to his dismay the bus had been left in gear and before he had time to react the gears became engaged and at full throttle the bus shot across the yard and straight into the back of the locker room. The locker room had to be propped up with jacks for some time until it could be rebuilt. The second time this happened was at the front of the garage when a driver made exactly the same mistake and the bus drove across into the office steps, fortunately in both cases nobody was hurt.
The next part was a bit scary, conductor training. My fears were soon allayed when I met my conductor trainer, a wonderful and kind man called Johnny Milton. He soon had me issuing tickets and dealing with change and by the end of the shift showed me how to fill in the conductors way bill and hand the takings to the depot inspector who would meticulously count it and let you know if you had paid in short or over. John survived a long time after retirement, I would often pick him up on my coach when returning from London and we would chat about the old days. John died in 2005.
Meanwhile back inside, the depot inspectors had to be very quick at counting all the cash, which the conductor would have laid out on a cash tray in a semblance of order, especially as there would often be at least a dozen staff waiting to pay in and be off home at the end of their shifts. Although there was one depot inspector, David Bevan, who was a coin collector and who would turn over every two penny piece in the hope of finding one with a particular date on it, so if you were paying in a lot of twopences this could take some time. David has been retired for many years now and ironically is now partially sighted, after all his diligent searching.
In fact there are still quite a few old retired staff about, many who had joined London Transport just after the war or having done their national service. They saw the bus industry as a very good career with good pay and conditions and viewed bus driving as a job for life which to them it was. Whereas now with low pay, below the national average wage and long arduous shifts very few drivers stay for more than a few years.
Remembering from my earlier days at Edgware it was no surprise to find that the conductresses still ruled the roost. We drivers were expected to carry the conductresses ticket machine box to and from the bus. My first encounter with Muriel Major, with her bright red lipstick and strong perfume was very intimidating, especially to a young lad like myself.
“You will go when I say so driver and you will stop the bus when I say so, do you understand!”
Mind you these days Muriel is a very sweet old lady and always has a pleasant chat with me when ever I see her, mind you she still wears bright red lipstick and wears strong perfume.
There was one route however that we mere bus drivers were not expected to learn and that was the Green Line route 708 from Hemel Hempstead to East Grinstead in Sussex via Victoria London. One only learnt the Green line routes when one was elevated to the Green Line Rota.
So for a few weeks I spent time driving double deck RT buses to Aylesbury Uxbridge and Welwyn and around Hemel Hempstead town and of course conducting as well. Then came my first OMO job. I was asked by the depot inspector if I wanted to do a bit of overtime, naturally I said yes, I would soon have a mortgage to pay off and a family to support. To my surprise it was on route 322. The inspector could see I was a bit apprehensive,
“Well lad you’ve got to do it sooner or later, and it’s a late shift so it’ll be quiet”
The ticket machines on the one man buses was the ‘Setright’ named after its Australian inventor, engineer Roy Henry Setright. I found these machine extremely difficult to use and very glad when I had completed my two journeys to Watford. I am sure I had issued many incorrect tickets and my takings certainly bore no resemblance to the readings on the ticket machine, but I had completed my first piece of OMO work.
Although not on the Green Line rota I was asked by a depot inspector if I would mind changing duties with a coach driver. The coach driver required my Saturday rest day and so I was allowed to go route learning to East Grinstead during the week. The driver, a keen fisherman as were a lot of the drivers from Hemel Hempstead, was very helpful and made route learning quite an enjoyable experience. At East Grinstead garage, like Hemel Hempstead garage and all the other garages which operate Green Line services the coach drivers had their own table in the canteen. Green Line drivers were certainly the elite in those days. Unfortunately before Saturday arrived the depot inspector had arranged for another coach driver to swap his rest day. I never did drive to East Grinstead although the route learning stood me in good stead for when I was eventually promoted to the 706 Green Line rota at Tring Garage.
In between travelling to and from Hemel Hempstead to work each day from our flat in Watford, Annette and I were also house hunting.
Not only had the prices of houses gone sky high the practice of guzzumping had started, this meant that even if you had found a property and had agreed a price with the seller if someone else came along and offered a higher price the seller was quite entitled to accept the higher offer and you had to start searching all over again. All of the house prices in the Berkhampstead and Tring area were beyond our reach or the property was affordable but needed a lot of renovation.
At one time I was talking about putting our name down for a council house but Annette said that she had not worked hard all that time in Australia to end up with nothing, and she wanted something of our own even if it was a chicken hutch.
Whilst we were in Australia my mother had been looking after her Aunt Francis and when my great aunt had died she had left a small sum of money to my mother and her three sons, and so when we had arrived at Heathrow in July my brother had given Annette and I a small cheque which we had put with our savings to provide enough money for a deposit on a house and now this was looking more and more unlikely.
My sister-in-law Joyce suggested that we drive into Aylesbury and go into a few estate agents to see what was on offer in our price range. I had by this time made contact with my parents. My mother had I think after five years come to terms with me being a bus driver, anyway to help us out for a few weeks she had lent us her car. So one Saturday morning we drove to Aylesbury, a town I had never visited before, apart from the bus station. A house was by now out of our reach but the estate agents did direct us to a very nice maisonette on an estate just outside Aylesbury and so began our long stay at Bedgrove. Purchasing the maisonette took some time and we finally move to Aylesbury on Saturday 14th October 1972.
At one point whilst waiting to hear if we had been granted a mortgage I was called in to see Inspector George Holby. George told me he had received a letter from the building society requesting confirmation of my earnings. George told me that as I would be doing one man operating sooner or later he had informed the building society that I was on the higher rate of pay applicable to one man operations. In fact I was to reach that rate quicker than I had imagined.
As soon as I knew we were going to move to Aylesbury I set about trying to get a rota swap to Tring garage. As luck would have it a driver at Tring had wanted to move to Hemel Hempstead and we in fact swapped rota positions and so one Saturday in August I signed on for my first duty as a Tring driver.