Bus drivers, bus conductors and the spirit of Tobruk in Sloane Square

Loyalty, respect and transgression on the number 10s.

Black and white photo taken through the window of a London bus showing part of an older open-platform Routemaster bus in the background, a passenger visible through the smeary glass

In the early 1950s my mum and dad were both London bus conductors. It’s how they met – at Vauxhall bus garage. My mother, Bridie, from Ireland and not long out of her ATS uniform and my dad, George, from South London, between the river and the Elephant. He was a young lad, three years younger than her but they were both in their early twenties.

Black and white photo of a young George Bowbrick, wearing his London bus conductor's uniform and Brylcreme in his hair, sitting in the driver's seat of a bus - in the early fifties
George Bowbrick, bus conductor, apparently pretending to be a driver. This is not his story

There were so many stories from that period. I imagine working on the buses is all stories, even now. My dad was the storyteller in the family so most of them were his but mum used to tell this one story that I always felt was so rich in meaning – about the period, about the people she worked with, about London and working life and all that.

My parents worked on the 10s and the 73s, both long routes that ran right through town. I’m pretty sure the number 10 went from Vauxhall to Kings Cross (via Victoria) and then out into the Eastern suburbs – Wanstead, Woodford and so on (bus nerds, correct me).

Black and white photo of a young Bridget (Bridie) Bowbrick in the early fifties, wearing a spotted party dress and a cardigan, handbag hooked over her right arm, smiling quizzically
Bridie Bowbrick, bus conductor. This is her story

Along the busy bit of the route – through the West End – the buses were crowded almost the whole time and they ran frequently – at the busiest times of day they’d leave the garage every 90 seconds. London’s population had peaked in 1939 but even in 1951 it was still above eight million. It was teeming with working people day and night.

A lot of the stories centred on the strange, sometimes quite intense relationships the conductors had with their drivers. It was a partnership and a hierarchy. The driver was the boss, sometimes a father figure, and the conductor was a kind of apprentice – often younger and less experienced. The war had thrown everything in the air, of course, as it had before – women had entered the bus service to cover for conscripted men and then, afterwards, many men brought the driving skills they’d acquired back to the buses. Drivers, consequently, in this period, were often literally battle-hardened military men. They’d driven tanks and ambulances and trucks in theatres of war all around the world.

These men were fascinating and charismatic – fearless and sometimes a bit unhinged. If you’ve been chased by Nazis across the Libyan desert you probably feel a bit less concern for what you’re told to do by a man with a notebook and a peaked cap. People deferred to these men, left them to it.

So this story takes place on a number 10 going North, in the early evening. The route’s still busy with commuters but it’s dark and it’s raining. My mother’s on the platform. Behind her, bunched up by traffic and rain, she can see five other 10s, in a line going back down the Kings Road. This is the worst case scenario. Her bus is at the front of a convoy of others, during rush hour and in the pouring rain.

Bus conductors hate this. If you’re at the front of the convoy, all the buses behind you will make it their business to keep you there – that way you get to every stop first and have to pick up all the passengers and, of course, take all the fares, fold all the pushchairs, shove all the luggage into that space under the stairs, help all the pensioners into their seats by the platform.

Meanwhile, if they’re lucky, the buses behind won’t have a single passenger to pick up and their conductors can continue to lounge at the back of their half-empty buses all the way through town, watching the city go by. There are various strategies for dealing with this terrible situation if you’re the crew at the front – you can stall and wait a bit longer at each stop or try to persuade passengers to hang on for the next one – “the one behind’s empty!”

But ultimately it’s not up to you. The drivers behind will make superhuman efforts not to pass you, under any circumstances – it is, after all, their duty to their conductors. And these are very loyal men, as I’ve already explained, men schooled by war, by years in the cabin of a light tank or at the wheel of an ammo truck. They will not yield.

A London Transport RTL1125 bus waiting for a new crew from Gillingham Street, probably in the 1950s
This number 10 is of the right vintage – it could even be the one in Bridie’s story. It’s from London Bus Route Histories.

So, my mother and her driver – I’m pretty sure his name was Len, a Desert Rat – communicating through a complicated code of taps with the conductor’s budget key or by banging on the roof of the cab – are resigned to their fate. The whole schlepp through the West End will be a nightmare and it will not ease up till the quieter roads beyond when the drivers behind might finally give up their stations in the convoy and generously overtake, waving sarcastically as they go.

But, on this occasion, on this cold and rainy night, Bridie’s driver has a better idea. Sloane Square is coming up and he has a plan to get out of this bind. All six buses are now in a tightly-packed convoy with no gaps. The scene is set for an audacious escape. Our driver is going to do something so bold, so wrong (so in contravantion of the rules in the drivers’ handbook) that he will be remembered for it for years afterwards – and quite possibly disciplined for it, if anyone can pluck up the courage to do so.

Map of Sloane Square area in London with the route of the No 10 bus (now defunct), from Kings Road, through the square and along Eaton Square shown overlaid
Pretty sure this is the correct route through Sloane Square

He doesn’t tell Bridie about his plan – there’s no code he could use to communicate this kind of transgression anyway – he just does it. The bus enters Sloane Square and proceeds clockwise around the oblong, past Peter Jones but then, instead of exiting the square in the prescribed manner, through Eaton Square and up to Victoria, he does the unthinkable and continues round the square, past the Royal Court, past the tube station and on round. You’ve already guessed it. His plan is to join the back of the convoy, escaping from the bind in one brilliant, incisive move, bold like he’s back at Tobruk. And this is a bold move. In the code of the buses there’s really no greater transgression that diverging from your route. It’s right at the top of the list. If they were seen they’d be in real trouble, and the driver might even be dismissed. And it’s worse – there are very often inspectors at Sloane Square. This is high risk.

The thing is, though, it doesn’t work. Our driver doesn’t break out. He doesn’t break out because driver number two sees the first one dodge the exit from the square, instantly divines his plan and – I told you they were bold – follows! So now two buses have broken the rules and two have headed back round the square. And, obviously, the third bus follows too. And it goes on, no one backs down. The fourth, the fifth, the sixth – they all follow!

They don’t stop at one circuit either. The whole convoy is now, like a big, red fairground ride, going round and round Sloane Square. And this is now a game of chicken. The first driver to lose his cool and turn off the square will inherit all the passengers for the rest of the journey across town. He will dump his conductor right in it and there will be hell to pay. It’s a matter of honour.

This is now all a bit wild, unprecedented, a thrill for all involved. The conductors are all hysterical – shouting to each other as they circle the square. The way my mum put it, this was a career high and the absolute peak of naughtiness in her whole respectable working life. She was giddy with excitement, giggling on the platform, swinging out as the bus took the corners of the square. She told me they made seven or eight circuits – passengers beginning to yell and complain, ringing the bell – before one of the drivers gave it up and turned North.

But the thing is, it wasn’t Len! It was one of the other drivers and she was liberated, relegated to third or fourth place in the line of buses. Her heroic driver had taken an enormous, bold chance to save her a bit of work on a miserable Winter’s night. You can imagine what this did for their bond.

  • I’d love to have met Len but my mother told me he died not long after this. She put his early death (he wasn’t even 50) down to his 60-a-day fag habit.
  • I realise I’ve been reluctant to share this story over the years because I’ve always slightly suspected that this convoy thing is too perfect and that it might be an urban myth or bus conductor folklore or something and a story that’s passed around by bus conductors, but, knowing my mum, that seems unlikely.

On the buses

Red Routemaster buses in Oxford Street, London, in 2002
Roitemasters in Oxford Street

The Routemasters are like jellied eels or Hawksmoor Churches or those people who swim in the ponds on Hampstead Heath. They’re eccentric and they say something about London’s weirdness and complexity and also its attachment to worn-out ideas and things. History tells us we won’t miss the old buses as much as we think we will, though. They’ll go the way of smoking carriages on the tube (or that pub on the platform at Sloane Square tube). In a few years they’ll be a folk memory – and besides, the bendy buses are already acquiring their own myths which will smoothly replace Routemaster stories over the next decades (they’re so huge: they’re like two tennis courts joined together. You could film an episode of Strictly Come Dancing in one half easily).

Like most people, what I’ll miss most is the conductors and not only because both my parents were conductors on Routemasters in the 50s. In those days the conductor was very much the junior crew member. Lots of drivers from that period were war-scarred veterans who’d learnt to drive in a tank or a military ambulance or a truck and joined the buses on demob. These men were worldly and full of stories and they often took their young conductors under their wings. My parents still talk with a lot of affection about their various drivers from that period, men who brought the wisdom and stoicism of the battlefield to the buses and weren’t really bothered what jumped-up inspectors and managers had to say, what with having seen off the Nazis and all that.

They’re not all Routemasters, you know. We call them Routemasters now like we call vacuum cleaners ‘hoovers’. Stick your hand out and stop the next bus geek and he’ll tell you that there were loads of other brands of double-decker, half-cab, open-platform buses on the road back then and that, whichever one you worked on, they were all hard work. No proper heating, no power steering, no automatic transmission, nowhere to stow a pram or a suitcase.

Fifteen years ago I went down to the London Transport Museum and bought my Dad an old conductor’s ticket machine for his birthday. It was a thing of beauty: made from shiny aluminium, worn smooth by years of service. It was heavy and had a satisfyingly chunky action (“whizz-whizz-clunk”). Of course, when I gave the thing to him he said: “Never used one of these. This is a model G. Very unreliable. We used the D in my garage”.