Leeds Engine:Histories: Bus Makers

A Brief History of Bus Making in Leeds

All | Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co | Charles H Roe | Clough, Smith & Company Limited | Greenwood & Batley | Mann's Patent Steam Cart & Wagon Co | Optare | Railless Electric Traction Company | Switch Mobility | Wilks and Meade | Yorkshire Patent Steam Wagon Co | Rebuilt In Leeds

Having made its mark in the construction of railway engines and road traction engines, it was perhaps logical that Leeds should progress to the construction of buses. The bus manufacturing industry has always been more spread out geographically than that relating to railways, the result being that only a handful of firms would exist in any one area, but it is perhaps telling that of the handful of British bus manufacturers that remain, one is still based in the Leeds area.
A few of the manufacturers that appear elsewhere on this site dabbled in bus production and other firms around the city produced buses on a small scale. Leeds was at the forefront of the development of the trolleybus with Railless Electric Traction Co operating at premises in the Balm Road area of Hunslet, close to many of the city's renown engine makers. R.E.T employee Charles Henry Roe went on to form his own firm on Balm Road but his business quickly outgrew the site.
The most successful, well known and long lived of the Leeds bus manufacturers was undoubtedly Charles H Roe Limited. The Roe works in Crossgates bodied Leyland buses until its demise in 1984 as a result of problems within British Leyland. Revived as Optare the following year the company went on to produce buses at the works until a move to nearby Sherburn In Elmet in 2011. After a number of changes of ownership the firm became part of Indian company and Leyland's former partners on the subcontinent; Ashok-Leyland. The company continues to innovate bus designs and develop electrical propulsion as those early firms had done a century before.

Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co
Robert Blackburn built his first aircraft in 1908, as fully covered on the aircraft builders page. In 1913 he moved to the Olympia Works in Roundhay Road, Leeds (formerly the Olympia Skating Rink) and the following year renamed his business as the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co., suggesting that there were plans to diversify the product range. Any such diversification was delayed by the demands of the First World war, however.
Initially the aircraft produced at Roundhay Road were test flown from nearby Roundhay Park, but as production stepped up this became unsuitable so, in 1915 a site was acquired at Brough, East Yorkshire, with facilities for testing both land and sea planes. In 1916 the Brough site was requisitioned by the Government, being returned to Blackburn's following the end of hostilities.
After the war Brough was briefly used by a subsidiary of Blackburn's, the North Sea Aerial Navigation Company, to operate a passenger and freight service to Holland, as well as resuming its testing duties.It was already becoming clear that it would make sense to move aircraft production to Brough (although it would be a number of years before this happened- the process was begun "by 1925" and completed in 1932) so the plans for diversification were dusted off, the intention seemingly being to keep the Leeds factory fully occupied by increasing the output of other products as aircraft production wound down.
The first manifestation was the production of a small number of luxury motor car bodies, beginning in 1919. It is stated that Robert Blackburn had financial links to Jowett Cars Ltd of Bradford; the latter was reformed as a limited company in 1919 so it is likely that this involvement was as a shareholder. Jowett had moved to a new factory (at Springfield Works, Idle) following the end of the First World War, but it was not ready to start production until 1920, the implication being that some production was carried out at Roundhay instead. It is not known if the resulting cars were branded Jowett's or Blackburn's.
In 1922 the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company produced its one and only trolleybus body. The chassis was constructed by an unspecified builder for Trackless Cars Ltd, Hepworth Chambers, Leeds, who were a supplier of trolleybus equipment. They could also supply vehicles using a similar system to Railless, whereby the various components (chassis/body/motors) were sourced from outside companies. Unlike Railless, Trackless Cars do not appear to have had their own facility to assemble the vehicles, the bus in question being assembled at Blackburn's factory. Whilst the chassis manufacturer was not recorded (possibly deliberately), it is known that the motors and controller came from Dick, Kerr.
The "Tramway and Railway World" described the body produced by Blackburn's as a "strikingly novel design" which seems to be a euphemism for extremely ugly. On a more positive note it also stated that the body was "in every way admirable" indicating that build quality and finish were to a high standard. The body produced was double- deck, 13 feet 10 inches in height and with a centrally- placed entrance door. The seating capacity in its later life was 35 upstairs and 28 downstairs, its initial capacity is the source of some confusion as it is quoted in a review as 34 upstairs and 30 down, with an accompanying diagram showing 29 seats downstairs(!) Unusually for the time, the front and rear roof domes were curved as was the leading edge of the first side window on each deck and the trailing edge of the last side window on each. Most trolleybus bodies of this era were very square looking, being based heavily on tram car practice, so these styling touches made the Blackburn product stand out. Unfortunately the cab area followed normal practice at this time; it protruded from the lower front of the body rather than being built fully into it, and this combined with a heavy- looking splasher over the rear wheel and a heavy, protruding line of what appear to be ventilators along the lower deck windows conspired to ruin the lines of the vehicle.
Registered NW 5550, the bus entered service as a demonstrator, touring various systems to try to drum up orders. In the event only Bournemouth and the London Underground Group (the latter at Twickenham) were tempted to try it. In December 1923 the vehicle was sold to Leeds City Tramways, entering service in January 1924 alongside three other double- deckers (with bodies by Leeds City Tramways themselves) on the Farnley route. It was given fleet number 513. All four were soon withdrawn, in 513's case in January 1926. The exact reason for this is unconfirmed, but appears to have been down to the archaic steering system employed on the vehicles; this being similar to the arrangement on a traction engine. It was stated that it took 36 revolutions of the steering wheel to perform the u turn at Farnley terminus and there were difficulties negotiating several bends en route and steering around corners in the City centre. Although single- deckers at the time employed the same steering system, their lighter weight appears to have mitigated some of the difficulties.
513 was stored for a year, being sold in January 1927 to a buyer in Horsforth. As was common practice in the 1920's the chassis and body were sold as separate lots (because the metal chassis could usually be re-bodied, whilst the wooden- built bodies after a few years service were often fit only for use as farmers stores, hen houses etc.). In this case both chassis and body passed to the same buyer, suggesting that they were not physically separated before sale. In 1932 a photograph appeared in the "Yorkshire Evening Post" of 16th May, showing the former car 513 in use as a caravan on Otley Chevin. The subsequent history of the vehicle is unknown, whilst that of its manufacturer is covered on the aircraft page; see link above.

Internal Website Links
List of buses and trolleybuses bodied by Leeds City Transport
List of Wilks & Meade bodied buses

External Website Links
Leeds Transport Historical Society
Dewsbury Bus Museum
Crich Tramway Village
Bus Lists on the Web
Wikipedia article on R.E.T. (in German)
North East Check
Archive images on Leodis.net Search Results for 'Roe'

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Postlethwaite, Harry; Super Prestige 16; Rossendale Transport. Venture publications 2007.
Allen, David. W; Super Prestige 6; West Riding 1. Venture publications 2004.
Brown, Stewart. J; Buses Yearbook 1992 and Buses Yearbook 1997. Ian Allan 1991 and 1996 respectively.
King, J. S; Bradford Corporation Trolleybuses. Venture publications 1994.
Klapper, Charles; The Golden Age of Tramways. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1961.
Reading, S. J; The Derwent Valley Light Railway, Locomotion papers number 37, editions 1 and 3. Oakwood Press 1967 and 1978 respectively.
Hartley, Kenneth. E & Frost, Howard. M; The Spurn Head Railway. Industrial Railway Society 1988.
Unknown; Industrial Locomotives 1982. Industrial Railway Society 1982.
Buses magazine, various.
Bus Fayre magazine, various.
Old Ordnance Survey Maps, The Godfrey Edition. Hunslet 1905.
PSV Circle fleet history PB22, Kingston Upon Hull City Transport. PSV Circle/Omnibus Society 1987.
Trade Directories held in Leeds City Libraries reference library, with thanks to the staff.
Pease, John. The History of Mann's Patent Steam Cart & Wagon Company, Landmark Collector's Library 2005.
Berry, Michael; Leeds Trams and Buses. Amberley Publishing 2013.
Buckley, Richard; Trams & Trolleybuses in Doncaster. Wharncliffe Books 2003.
Kennedy, Mark; Streets of Belfast. Ian Allan 2003.
Miller, Patrick; Provincial- The Gosport & Fareham Story. The Transport Publishing Company 1981.
Otter, Patrick; Yorkshire Airfields in the Second World War. Countryside books 1998.
Twidale, Graham H. E.; Leeds in the Age of the Tram, 1950- 59. Silver Link Publishing 1991 and 2003.
Wells, Malcolm; Kingston Upon Hull Trolleybuses. Trolleybooks 1996.
Roger Davies and Stephen Barber; Glory Days - Wallace Arnold. Amberley Publishing 2019, ISBN 978-1-4456-9463-4
Malcolm Wells and Paul Morfitt, Hull Corporation Buses, Amberley Publishing 2017, ISBN 978-1-4456-6754-6.

This article was produced by Martin Latus