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Days Gone By - When trolley buses ruled the roads in Ipswich town centre

19:00 09 February 2016

It is more than 50 years since the last trolley bus service ran on the streets of Ipswich, writes David Kindred.

These quiet vehicles had replaced the town’s electric trams, which had fallen into disrepair during the First World War. A test service was operated on the route from the Cornhill to the station in 1923. The routes were converted and the last tram in Ipswich ran in July 1926 after having been in service for only 23 years.

As the town expanded new services were needed and the trolley buses were replaced with diesel-powered buses, the first running in to the new Whitehouse estate in May 1950.

Days Gone By recently featured photographs of Ipswich trolley buses and readers have responded with their memories of the service which came to an end in August 1963.

Readers have sent me their memories of Ipswich’s trolley buses following a recent letter from reader Paul Hyder.

Mick Hawes, Caerwys, North Wales, wrote: “As a non-cycling child (a skill I still failed to master as an adult), the Number 11 trolley bus was a major link to the rest of my world. To get into town to have my hair cut; to do some limited shopping; or en route to Portman Road, I could get on it right outside my house in Sidegate Lane, three doors up from the Royal George, and get off at the Mulberry Tree or the Electric House. Electric House - what a great name for the hub of the whole electricity-powered network!

“At an early age, by modern standards, I was able to make my independent way to St John’s Primary School in Cauldwell Hall Road. The trolley bus took me only as far as the Woodbridge Road end of Sidegate Lane, but that was probably over half-way. The cost of the ride was 1d. Once this was established as my ‘getting-to-school’ routine, I would challenge myself to get as far as the Sidegate Avenue stop before the trolley bus came along.

“There was no financial advantage, as this was a ‘Request Stop’ rather than a ‘Fare Stage’ like the one at the Royal George. Of course, before long the personal challenge was extended to get to the Stradbroke Road stop, just past Sidegate Lane School. By this time it seemed pointless to get on as, being another ‘Request Stop’, I still wouldn’t save any money! At some point the cost element became even more important as the fare went up a whopping 50% to 1½d.

“There were certain skills to trolley bus use that, as a young lad, it seemed necessary to acquire. First, if you didn’t quite reach the bus stop in time, you had to have the courage to make the leap onto the platform at the back after the trolley bus had already started to move. Adults who did so, then collapsed onto the back seat, which went lengthwise (all the other seats faced forward), while panting profusely and muttering, “I didn’t think I would make it!” Slightly safer, because the trolley bus was slowing down rather than getting up speed, was jumping off before it came to the designated stop. By timing this right, you could save yourself anything up to twenty feet in the distance you had to walk when you got off!

“As a child, the most exciting thing to happen to a trolley bus, especially if you were viewing from our front room window and not as a passenger, was when the long poles, that attached the trolley bus to the overhead lines that provided its power, came off. The conductor and the driver would then wield a really long pole to reattach them.

“Sometimes this took only a few minutes, but with a ‘really good one’, sparks would fly and it would take ages.

““Talking of conductors, and avoiding any puns based on long poles and electricity, some of these were real characters. The most well-known was the legendary ‘Swede’, the long-time Ipswich Town mascot who walked round the pitch before the game with the distinctive chant of ‘1,2,3,4, Who are we for? I, P, S, wubble U, I, C, H.’ The ultimate satisfaction after a Town win was to get on a trolley bus home from the ground to find that this icon was now collecting your fare!”

Rod Cross emailed to say: “Like Paul Hyder I have vivid memories of the Ipswich trolley buses, probably because they were ubiquitous when I was growing up in the town in the 1950s.

“It was only a few years earlier, in 1947 when the trolley bus network was at its absolute peak, covering 25 miles, with as many as 80 operational vehicles.

These clean, gently-humming leviathans served the town proudly right up until August 23, 1963, when a trolley bus pulled into the Cobham Road depot for the very last time. It was covered in flags and bunting and many enthusiasts shared its final journey along Nacton Road. After exactly 40 years, the ‘trackless trolley bus’ era was over.

“In my time, all journeys started from either Tower Ramparts, Cornhill or the top of Lloyds Avenue. There were just 10 routes numbered 1-10, or rather 1-X because, initially, there was room for only one figure on the destination board. The trolley bus that ran to Ipswich Station – usually a single decker, thus carried X rather than 10. “As the town spread in all directions, motor buses were used increasingly to serve the new estates and the number and complexity of the routes increased accordingly.

Before that, journeys were restricted by the overhead power cables and were mainly of the out and back variety. My regular bus, for instance, was the ‘5’ which travelled via St Helen’s Street, Grove Lane and Foxhall Road, to the roundabout and then returned the way it came. A novice driver certainly wouldn’t have required a sat-nav to learn the route!

“The Ipswich trolley buses had an open doorway at the back which meant the crew couldn’t decamp and lock up at the terminus. Instead, as soon as the bus arrived, passengers boarded and then sat and waited patiently until time to leave. In wet weather, of course, this was particularly beneficial.

“The conductor, in his navy blue uniform and peaked cap, wore a ticket machine and a leather money bag. With most fares being paid in old pennies and halfpennies, the latter must have weighed quite heavily by the end of the day and contained a fair amount of cash – fortunately, mugging hadn’t been invented back then!

“There was an occasional visit from the ticket inspector. I had an unfortunate habit of chewing my ticket which, of course, earned me a steely glare when I presented my sodden, barely legible offering for inspection. Each ticket was numbered along the top and I obsessively used to total up the digits – 21 being the target.

“Two routes that deviated from the norm were those serving the Northgate Schools. Two trolley buses would set from the top of Sidegate Lane at 3.30, pick up the waiting pupils and transport them to Felixstowe Road (4) or on to Gainsborough Estate (6a). Because they could only run on the overhead wires, neither route was direct, but involved a circuitous journey via Woodbridge Road, Heath Road and Bixley Road. The 6a then went via Lindbergh Road, Nacton Road and Landseer Road, back to the town centre. My friend Rowley lived near Cliff Quay and was amongst the first to board in the morning and the last to alight in the afternoon. He must have spent quite a few hours of his life on that bus!

“During bad weather, long queues of pupils built up at the stop outside the boys’ school. A few smart alecs decided to circumvent the queues by walking up the road to the preceding stop, thereby guaranteeing themselves a seat. Needless to say, it was not long before the redoubtable Norman Armstrong, head of Northgate Boys, was made aware that some pupils weren’t ‘playing the game’ and, though technically no actual offence was being committed, put an immediate stop to such sharp practise.

“Continuing with the school theme, I remember sauntering past the Cricketers Hotel when my trolley bus began to move off. With a sprint and a mighty leap, I caught up with it, grabbed the rail and triumphantly pulled myself aboard. Unfortunately, an elderly special constable was standing on the platform and, recognising my school uniform, told me he would be reporting me to my headmaster. Of course, he didn’t know me from Adam or indeed, any of the other 600 plus boys at the school. Even so, I was mightily relieved when the next few days had passed without a summons to the head’s study!

“One other example of trolley buses providing special transport was on match days at Portman Road. During the game, a whole string of them would assemble nose to tail waiting to take the leaving supporters to all points of the compass. They were parked so close together, the destination boards were difficult to read and one had to get really close and peer upwards to see where it was bound. It would have been too 
easy to have found oneself at Rushmere Heath when one lived in Whitton!

“Although I knew them as trolley buses, my parents, and doubtlessly many others of their generation, harked back to earlier times. Whatever the mode of transport, my father would still say, ‘I walked into town, but came home on the tram!’

“I’m sure many people would also love to turn back the clock, not necessarily to the era of the tram, but to see trolley buses back on the streets of Ipswich. They had their shortcomings, but were certainly more environmentally friendly than the noisy, fume-emitting buses of today!”

Stanley (Les) Lucas, Ipswich, wrote: “The recent feature about trolley buses brought back memories for me. I started working as an apprentice fitter in April 1941, working on overhauls, maintenance and running repairs. I assisted in the change from brass wheels to carbon blocks, this made the buses much quieter.

“When there was ice on the wires the first buses out had cast iron slippers fitted. At about 8am two gangs would change these for carbon ones. One gang worked on the Cornhill and the other at Tower Ramparts.

“Periodically a saloon bus was driven over all routes pumping out a mixture of graphite and caster oil on the wires.

“When the trolley bus overturned on Bishops Hill a gang went to the scene. I had to remove the booms and make safe the springs on the top of the bus. The other team made the body safe plus chocking up the wheels. A tower wagon took the strain and it was pulled upright. I think we finished the job at 3am.

“After national service I retuned to the workshop. I then went to work at the Constantine Road and Cliff Quay power stations until I retired.”

Also featured this week are photographs of the Felixstowe yacht pond. The area of this once popular feature of the seafront is about to be revamped with plans costing over £100,000. I have found photographs of the area in its heyday.

Families often picnicked on the surrounding grass areas while children played with boats or hired a paddle boat.

The area, part of which had been used as a go-kart track and crazy golf course, has fallen into disrepair in recent years. Now there are plans to spend over £100,000 to build a car park and an outdoor events area. Do you remember the paddle boats on the pond, or did you sail your model boat there?

Share your memories, email David Kindred


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