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.

Wilks and Meade

Above - 1948 Wilks & Meade Advert (Photo - Graces Guide to British Industrial History

It has proved difficult to research the history of Wilks and Meade, as references to the company tend to be somewhat brief and the few sources of information that exist contradict each other to a great extent. What follows is the third attempt at telling the company's story, but as with other sections research is continuing and updates and corrections will be added as information becomes available.
David B. Wilks and Harry Meade set up as "Coach and Motor body builders" at Hilltop Works, Buslingthorpe Lane, Leeds, sometime prior to 1942. One source states that they had premises in Millwright Street in the Mabgate area of the city, but there is no mention of this anywhere else. It is possible that the original premises were in Millwright Street, that one of the proprietors lived there and gave his home address for some correspondence, or that the company took temporary premises there whilst the Buslingthorpe Lane site was rebuilt, which according to an advertisement in Grace's Guide, it was during the mid-1940s.

Above - The somewhat sad site that is Hilltop Works, Buslingthorpe Lane in 2012. Within this building was the original works of Wilks and Meade and, as the sign states, it was still home to vehicle related businesses.

Wilks and Meade (sometimes erroneously shown as Wilkes and Meade, including on official advertisements as we shall see) was registered as a limited company on 22nd June 1942. There is no evidence that they built any bus or coach bodies at or prior to this time, indeed it was to be a change of ownership which led the company into this line of work.
At some time in the mid-forties, most likely in 1946 (although sources vary), Wilks and Meade was bought by the legendary Leeds-based coach operator Wallace Arnold.
Following the end of World War 2 demand for new buses escalated rapidly as operators rushed to replace aging and worn out vehicles, as supply of new buses had been rationed by the government during the war. Demand for leisure travel, and in particular coach trips, also increased markedly as wartime restrictions eased and people became eager to exploit their new-found freedom. As a result the existing bus body manufacturers struggled to cope, leading to long delivery times for new buses, and also leading operators to rebuild and refurbish older vehicles to address the shortfall. The purchase of Wilks and Meade allowed Wallace Arnold to carry out this refurbishment work in house, and would also allow them to build some of their own bus bodies and therefore avoid the long waiting times.
The main Wallace Arnold depot at this time was in Chadwick Street, off Hunslet Road, Leeds, and it was to a site further along this street that the Wilks and Meade business was moved in around 1947. The original premises at Hilltop Works were sold and at the time of writing several motor vehicle body repair and MOT firms are listed as occupants of the building.

Below - This building is believed to have been the second home of Wilks and Meade, following the Wallace Arnold takeover. It was on Chadwick Street, off Hunslet Road, Leeds, located opposite the former depot building. (Photo - Martin Latus, November 13th 2012)

Most sources suggest that the bulk of Wilks and Meade's production was coaches for Wallace Arnold itself, but in terms of new-build vehicles this is not true. Wallace Arnold rebuilt many coaches at this time, either by refurbishing the bodywork or by swapping bodies between vehicles, both practices allowing the fleet to be refreshed until suitable amounts of new vehicles could be obtained. This probably made up the majority of Wilks and Meade's work under its new owner.
The first new bodies were produced in 1946, these being two coaches on Leyland chassis for the parent fleet. 1947 saw fourteen bodies manufactured, of which ten were for Wallace Arnold.
This was the last year that production for WA outnumbered that for other operators; 1948 saw twenty-six vehicles leave Chadwick Street bound for everywhere from Jersey to Northumberland, of these only two were for the home fleet. 1949 was the peak year of production with no fewer than twenty-nine coaches manufactured, again only eight of these were for Wallace Arnold. Just two WA vehicles were constructed in 1950 from a total production of fifteen. 1951 was the last year any new vehicles were built at Wilks and Meade, of just four produced two were for Wallace Arnold. These were mounted on secondhand chassis and there is some doubt as to whether the bodies were actually new or older bodies reclaimed from other chassis. The other two coaches produced in 1951 were definitely new and both were first-time customers of Wilks and Meade; Harman of Wolverhampton and Mills of Gornal Wood (near Dudley) each taking a Daimler CVD6. The Mills vehicle had a full-fronted body (see below) as had a couple of coaches for Wallace Arnold in 1949 and the double-deckers for Premier Travel (again see below) in 1950.
The vast majority of the ninety vehicles manufactured were 33-seat coaches on a variety of chassis, but there were some notable exceptions. Four of the 1948 vehicles were service buses, all on Leyland Tiger PS1 chassis; two 35-seaters for Jersey Motor Transport and two 34-seaters for Sheffield Joint Omnibus Committee. The latter are the cause of some confusion, as several sources state there were ten of them. It is likely that Sheffield JOC ordered ten vehicles but that Wilks and Meade could not build them in time, so some of the body order was switched. Certainly PS1's with Cawood (Sheffield) and Weymann (Surrey) bodies entered service in Sheffield at around the same time as the Wilks and Meade buses did.
1950 saw probably the best known Wilks and Meade bodies leave the factory, in the form of three double-deck coaches for Premier Travel of Cambridge, the only double-deckers produced. Although stunning in appearance and luxurious in their appointment these were not happy vehicles. Wilks and Meade had underestimated the cost of the bodies and had to ask Premier Travel for more money than the original quote. Premier deliberately made their last payment late in protest. Once on the road the operator had to modify the front suspension to improve the ride due to the immense weight of the bodywork.
Worse was to come however. Wilks and Meade bodies quickly developed problems due to the use of unseasoned "green" timber for the framework, as a result of post-war materials shortages. This timber soon rotted and required expensive repair work, usually tantamount to a complete rebuild. This was not a problem for Wallace Arnold, who were in the habit of rebuilding or rebodying their vehicles at frequent intervals, usually around every three years, in order to keep them looking fresh and modern. And of course they had their own coach works to do it in! It did cause trouble for Premier Travel who, having bought nine Wilks and Meade bodies endured some financially very lean years due to the cost of repairs, especially to the flagship double-deckers.
These problems were by no means confined to Wilks and Meade; many body manufacturers sprang up in those heady early postwar days, and most fell by the wayside within a few years as build quality issues caught up with them and the established, higher quality, manufacturers found their feet again.
Notably some of Wallace Arnold's 1949 and 1950 coaches were sent to another Leeds bodybuilder, Roe, for rebodying as double-deck service buses for the subsidiary Farsley Omnibus fleet, whilst at least one coach body, when removed from its chassis to allow the latter to be rebodied, was attached to an older chassis and put back into service.
After 1951 Wilks and Meade concentrated on repairing and rebuilding Wallace Arnold's coaches. Notable in this period was a large number of "full-front" conversions on coaches with various makes of bodywork, including Duple and Burlingham (see box below).

Half-cab and full-front explained
Most pre-war and early post-war coaches had a "half cab", i.e. the cab occupied the offside half of the front end, the nearside being the location of the engine and its bonnet. The arrival in the early 1950's of coaches with engines under the floor allowed full-width bodywork to be fitted at the front, referred to as full-front or full-fronted.

The arrival of full-fronted underfloor-engined coaches made the half-cabs look old fashioned. At an image conscious company like Wallace Arnold this would never do, so Wilks and Meade were set to building full-width front ends on half-cab bodies, with an arrangement of access flaps to allow servicing and repair of the engine. For most of these the firm copied a frontal design from Yeates of Loughborough, and as such these conversions are often wrongly credited to them. The full-front conversion usually made the coaches heavier and more awkward to repair, but this was considered a small price to pay for the benefit of a more modern appearance.
As the beginnings of Wilks and Meade are somewhat ethereal so is the ending. Wallace Arnold set up a car dealership in the 1950s known as WASS (Wallace Arnold Sales and Service) and in 1958 the Wilks and Meade workshops were amalgamated with this to provide body repair facilities. When exactly the workshops ceased dealing with coaches is not known, but it appears that car repairs became their sole business. The Wilks and Meade name appears to have died out internally at around this time, although it was still being marketed externally to motorists for their bodywork repairs in 1967; a photograph exists from this year of a Farsley Omnibus (a Wallace Arnold subsidiary) double-decker with an advertisement for Wilkes and Meade car body repairs (note the incorrect spelling, proving even the in-house sign writers didn't always get it right!). Ironically the bus in question had been new as a coach with Wilks and Meade bodywork!
The name appears to have become dormant around the end of the 1960s, although the company wasn't officially wound up until 28th November 2000, by which stage its registered address was in Sunderland.
In the mid-1960's Wallace Arnold vacated its Chadwick Street depot for a temporary home in nearby Donisthorpe Street (a former Leeds City Transport bus repair works which was rented from them), and ultimately for a purpose built depot, works and coach station in Gelderd Road, leaving the Hunslet Road depot and Chadwick Street workshops to WASS.
WASS remained a familiar name in Leeds until fairly recent years, eventually becoming part of Evans Halshaw, who still used the building as a car showroom and repair facility until recently moving to new facilities, resulting in the redevelopment of the former Chadwick Street site.

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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This article was produced by Martin Latus