DAYS OF THE “MIDLAND RED”.
By W. John Green.
During the 1930’s and 40’s there were three possible ways to get from
Stourbridge to Birmingham, by Great Western Train, by pushbike, or by the
“Midland Red” bus. I suppose we could also have walked, but that would have
taken up too much time. The familiar red buses provided a service which
stretched over most of the midlands, but most intensively in the Birmingham
area. The headquarters were at Bearwood, the full title being “The
Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company Limited”. You could not get all
that on the side of a vehicle as a logo, so on the side was simply “MIDLAND”
- suitably decorated, hence the term “Midland Red”. On the front and rear of
each vehicle was a medallion which was made up of the letters “B.M.M.O.C”.
The vehicles were further embellished with gold lining.
A mystery which was never solved was the letters “SOS” being on the hubs
of all the bus wheels This was the old Morse equivalent of the present
“May-Day” distress signal. It seemed to indicate a certain pessimism. A
recent commercial publication confirms that the origin of the “SOS” remains
Somewhere low down on one side of each vehicle was the full name of the
company in small letters, giving its address as “Bearwood, Birmingham” and
informing the public that the Traffic Manager was one “O.C.Power” The name
seemed to be rather appropriate for an “Officer Commanding” so much horse
The extremities of the company’s operations were the Shrewsbury area in
the north-west, Hay-on-Wye and Whitchurch (Mon) in the south-west,
Gloucester and Cheltenham in the South, Banbury, Leicester and Grantham in
the east and north-east, Derby and Stafford in the north.
At the extremities
there was some overlapping with other companies such as Crosville, Trent,
Lincolnshire and Red and White. The “Stratford Blue” buses, operating in the
Stratford-on-Avon area appeared to be a different company, but it was
suspected that they were Midland Red in a different colour. The buses were
identical apart from the colour.
Separate timetables were issued for the various areas, the Birmingham one
being over an inch thick and providing good value for money in paper alone.
Old copies were often found hanging from a string in works toilets.
Other Areas having their own timetables were Worcester, Shrewsbury,
Leicester and possibly some others. The Birmingham one could be bought at
the enquiry office at Stourbridge ‘bus station, but if extended travel were
proposed, timetables for other areas could be obtained by sending the
necessary postal-order to Bearwood.
Bearwood at that time was for administration purposes, part of Smethwick,
then in Staffordshire, and all Midland Red Buses were registered at Bearwood
with the Smethwick registration letters “HA”. Later these became “AHA” “BHA”
and so on, and the age of the bus could be assessed by the prefix letter.
Each ‘bus, too, had a small hemisphere attached to its rear. (One can be
seen on the bus towing a producer) These hemispheres were coloured according
to which garage the vehicle had been allocated. For instance, Stourbridge
was red with a diagonal white cross. Bearwood itself was white,
Wolverhampton blue, Worcester blue with a vertical white line, Tamworth was
green, Banbury light brown - and so on. The purpose of this coded system we
could never quite understand and most of the public were unaware of its
existence. The father of a schoolmate, one Tetstall, worked for the company,
so I was made privy to the system, and for a long time had a “code book”
which enabled me to spot “foreign” vehicles when they appeared in the
Staff of the company wore distinctive uniforms, wearing of which was
rigidly enforced. Drivers wore brown and conductors navy-blue. Peaked caps
were always worn, the tops of which were made of a sort of woven
basket-work. In summer, and particularly on “excursions”, conductors
appeared in white coats with red collars and with white covers on their
Apart from the normal local services, there were “X-Service” buses which
travelled comparatively long distances, one being from Hereford to
Conductors were equipped with a black box containing a variety of tickets
which varied in colour according to cost. The penny ticket was white, the
three-halfpenny yellow, twopenny red and so on. Tickets in units of
shillings carried blue lines down either side. The return fare to Birmingham
was one shilling, so a white ticket with blue stripes was seen fairly
frequently. Longer distances were rare, so the possession of a used
two-shilling or even three-shilling ticket was a rare acquisition.
Tickets for the journey were placed by the conductor in a wooden rack
with “mousetrap” type spring clips. Each conductor had a small machine which
punched each ticket, registered its issue on a counter, and at the same time
rang a bell to assure the passenger that this precaution against sharp
practice had been taken. Appropriately, the punches bore the title of the
“Bell-Punch Company - London.”. Return tickets were punched again on the
other side when making the return journey.
“Anywhere” tickets were available at the cost of five shillings -
half-a-crown if you were under 14 - which enabled you to travel anywhere on
the Midland Red system during one day. The economics of these were probably
based on the assumption that people buying them would do so if their
proposed journey was likely to cost a little over five shillings. The
company, however, had reckoned without the ingenuity of certain Stourbridge
boys who, having bought timetables covering the whole system, had spent days
working out the maximum mileage which could be extracted for half-a-crown.
Acquisition of an “Anywhere” ticket involved a visit, not to the enquiry
office, but to that of the Divisional Inspector, a rather splendid but tubby
character who wore braid on his cap. Our initial purchase at the age of
thirteen aroused his interest, and whilst he was delighted with our
enterprise, seemed disbelieving wen we announced our proposed route.
One such journey was: Stourbridge - Worcester - Stratford-on-Avon -
Coventry - Leicester - Burton-on-Trent - Birmingham - Stourbridge.
Another: Stourbridge - Worcester - Hereford - Symonds Yat - Malvern -
Worcester - Stourbridge.
In those days punctuality could be relied upon, so that the late arrival
of any one bus causing a missed connection was unknown.
Buses ran from Stourbridge to Birmingham every ten minutes on week-days,
and every five in the rush hour, so a “trip to Brum” needed little forward
planning, especially as I lived within five minutes’ walk of the bus
station. The return journey cost one shilling (adults) or sixpence if you
were under 14. It was marked by various stops, mostly at the succession of
“pubs” which lined the route.
THE TRIP TO BRUM.
Access from Stourbridge bus station to Birmingham Street, was limited by
two low bridges carrying the railway to the gasworks and to the canal wharf.
This meant that for several years, the Birmingham-Stourbridge route (No.130)
could not be used by double-deckers. The journey would start with the single
decker plunging under the railway in Foster Street and negotiating the two
bends round Jabez Attwood’s iron foundry when the first pub would appear.
This was a sleazy joint on the right hand side named the “Hole in the Wall”.
Outgoing buses rarely stopped there.
Next, this time on the left-hand side, was the “Railway Tavern” on the
banks of the River Stour near what was known as the “Ice House”. Here a
small footbridge crossed the Stour and led to the area known as Clatterbach
. A footpath led to two tunnels under the railway embankment, the larger one
known as the “murdering tunnel” for the simple reason that a murder had been
committed there within (then) living memory. It had a wonderful echo and you
could frighten your companions by making weird noises in the tunnel.
The main road then climbed a slight rise leading under Stambermill
railway viaduct to a road junction where Bagley Street on the left and
Hungary Hill on the right met the main road. Here, too was “The Bird in
Hand” pub, known to all as “The Bird” and to bus conductors, simply as
“Bird”. On this road junction my maternal grandfather, William Hughes owned
a row of terraced houses and himself lived in the end and largest house.
Here he and my grandmother kept a clothing shop. Later, when my Aunt Ethel
reached years of responsibility, the local Post Office was incorporated into
the shop and Aunt became postmistress, holding that office for forty years.
It was some time before I learnt that grandfather actually lived at
Stambermill and not at “Bird” The latter was the destination one stated to
the bus conductor.
The fare from Stourbridge to “Bird” was one penny - with no half fare for
children. Later, having reached years of sagacity and cunning, I discovered
that there was a return to Lye Church for 3d. and that there was a half fare
for children for three ha’pence. You could always get off the bus at a stop
before that to which you had paid. My mother was unaware of this, so having
been given twopence for two single fares to and from “Bird”, I could save a
ha’penny which in that plenteous age could be transformed into chocolate.
The next pub on the route was the “Hart in Hand”, just before another
railway bridge, but buses rarely stopped there. Then on up the hill, past
St. Mark’s Church where my parents were married, to Lye.
At a fork in the road, at Hay Green was another foundry owned by J.
Higgins, with a descendant of whom, Geoff Higgins, I was at school, and with
whom I went plum picking in 1940, the year we left school. Geoff was last
heard of doing Mech. Eng. at Birmingham during the war.
There were probably other pubs on the half mile to Lye Cross but these
did not feature in the bus stop vocabulary. On the right was a red-brick
house where Dr. Darby had his surgery. His daughter married one Claude
Aston, of some local celebrity, they in turn having a daughter, Hilary who
was one of the “Red Hill” girls in our time. Dr. Darby, I was told, brought
my younger brother in his little black bag. It took me a few years to
discover that this was a black lie!
At Lye Cross itself was the “Cross Tavern” which grandiloquently on its
stained glass window announced that “Wines and Spirits” could be obtained
there. This puzzled me somewhat, as its reputation indicated that “Mild” and
“Bitter” were all that it had to offer. Going shopping in Lye on a Saturday
night meant that our ears were assailed by raucous melody emerging from the
“Cross”, and from which I was hurried away.
Once again, there may have been other pubs, but the next stop was “Lye
Church”, then “The Hayes” - usually contracted to “Th’aze” where the road to
Oldnall colliery went off to the right between a mass of corrugated iron
which formed industrial buildings.
Next came “Colley Gate” with a pub of that name, where a road branched to
the left, leading to Cradley and Quarry Bank . By this time the bus driver
and conductor having brought the vehicle an exhausting three miles or so,
found themselves in need of refreshment, so there was a pause whilst one of
them fetched an enamel can of tea from a nearby café. This was sometimes
stowed away to be consumed at the longer halt at Halesowen.
From Colley Gate, there was a steep hill up to the “Round of Beef”. In
the days of large gears and crash gearboxes, buses always gave the
impression that they could only just manage to get to the top. They usually
did, sometimes at rather less than a walking pace, but fears of coming to a
grinding halt, or even running backward, were not entirely absent from the
The Round of Beef summit was passed and the vehicle descended the equally
steep “Drew’s Holloway”, sometimes accompanied by equal uneasiness about the
brakes, This led from the despised Cradley area to the rather more up-market
area of west Halesowen, the next pub stop being the “Samson and Lion”. This
seemed to be rather a mouthful for the conductor, so was usually called
“Alexandra Road” which led off right at the pub.
From here was a short run into Halesowen itself. The bus stopped at a red
brick building which may have been council offices or public library. Colley
Gate tea was sometimes consumed here by the ‘crew’, it having cooled
sufficiently to avoid the need for saucering and blowing.
Then down the hill to where the road crossed the stripling River Stour,
already contaminated by industrial waste, and then began the long ascent of
Mucklow Hill. Once again, until more powerful diesels were introduced, the
traveller was inclined to nervousness when the driver double-de-clutched
down to first gear on his crash box whilst having little momentum to
guarantee forward motion. The long climb up Mucklow was overlooked latterly
by the headquarters building of the S.W.S. (Staffordshire, Worcestershire
and Shropshire) Electricity Company. This building was of the latest 1930’s
art nouveau architecture, its frontage resembling an oversize tramcar.
Having surmounted this Everest of summits, there was a gentle cruise down
to the “Stag and Three Horseshoes” at Quinton, usually and simply announced
as “Stag!” This was the western limit of the Birmingham Corporation buses
with their dark blue and cream livery, so that on an inward journey the
Midland Red could set down, but not pick up passengers after this point.
Then came a “down and up “, latterly dual carriageway, to the “Hollybush”
at Warley. This was one of the magnificent pubs built during the 30’s by
Mitchell and Butlers, a principal Birmingham brewery. The object was to
entice the locals out of their miserable hovels into some semblance of
luxury for a brief hour or two and get enough beer into them so that they
did not notice the contrast when they got home broke.
Soon the crossroads at Bearwood was reached. The headquarters of the
B.M.M.O.C. were here and a magnificent red brick building could be seen to
the left after Bearwood park. One had vague imaginings of “O.C.Power -
Traffic Manager” sitting in a magnificent office managing traffic and
wearing a bus inspector’s uniform but with gold braid and red tabs.
The final pub stop was the Ivy Bush, an unpretentious hostelry with its
name emphasised by ivy tendrils in green stained glass forming its windows.
Not far from here the bus would travel along Broad Street to the Town Hall,
and then down the hill past New Street Station to Station Street which was
the terminus for Stourbridge buses.
As we lived near to the Stourbridge bus station, all this could make an
interesting day out, particularly if you were under fourteen. Sixpence of
your pocket money for your return fare, another sixpence for a cup of tea
and a sandwich at New Street station buffet, and another sixpence would buy
a full L.M.S. railway timetable. The latter was of foolscap size and about
an inch-and-a-half thick and it covered all L.M.S. services all over the
country. It provided hours of intense study, giving the student a knowledge
of the location of such unlikely places as Wath-on-Dearne and Heckmondwyke.
This knowledge was to come in very useful in the years which followed when
one was likely to be posted to some remote spot at a day’s notice. I still
have the maps which accompanied this literary bargain, carefully bound in
shoe-box cardboard and carrying my old address.
From Stourbridge buses ran frequently to Dudley, Wednesbury,
Wolverhampton, Kidderminster and Worcester (several routes) with plenty to
Cradley Heath, Quarry Bank, Clent, Bromsgrove, and Kinver. There were also
frequent local services marked by an “S” prefix on the service number. I was
fascinated by there being a bus to Bridgnorth on alternate Mondays and
frustrated by its leaving late in the afternoon so that you could not get
back. I discovered later that this was designed to take Bridgnorth citizens
back home after their doing a day's shopping in Stourbridge. There was a
morning bus on the same day from Bridgnorth to Stourbridge.
How things have changed!
(Extract from a letter)
Something which has puzzled me “from my youth up” is the significance of
“IN” and “OUT” printed on either side of the tickets of the time. One can
understand, if not approve of, the Birmingham metropolitans’ arrogance in
assuming that when approaching their wonderful city one was going “IN” to
some sort of sanctum, and that when issuing from it one was going into
“OUT”er darkness. However, one was given the same sort of ticket when
travelling from Stourbridge to Wolverhampton (No. 882 Via Wordsley,
Kingswinford and Wombourne) which route never came anywhere near Birmingham.
How did the conductor know on which side to punch the ticket ?
In the case of a return ticket one can assume that “OUT” meant the
outward journey and “IN” the return journey, but I recall that this did not
necessarily apply. This is confirmed by your own ticket’s being accurately
punched on the “IN” side whilst it was still a valuable document, but
inaccurately on the “OUT” side when it had become mere litter, except to us
latter day aficionadi. Furthermore, on which side was the ticket punched if
one was only making a single journey to “The Bird”?
There is little hope that this problem will now ever be solved as the
Midland Red Conductor has now become extinct.
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004