A Brief History of the System

A visitor to Grimsby and Cleethorpes would find it hard to believe they were once linked by a trolleybus service, operated by two quite separate municipal undertakings. Grimsby is a thriving, modern town and important fishing port, whilst Cleethorpes is a neat holiday resort, both towns deriving their roles from their position on the south bank of the Humber estuary. Even many transport enthusiasts will be at best only vaguely aware of the past existence of the trolleybuses, although they may note the occasional surviving traction pole and the legend ‘Grimsby Corporation Tramways’ on the depot, a relic of an even earlier age. For those more familiar with the system however, it is still possible to imagine a Grimsby single decker in Freeman Street, or a double deck Cleethorpes vehicle on the sea front. Many of the buildings remain unaltered from those days, harking back to a story which began over eighty years ago.

Grimsby turns to trolleybuses

On 6 April 1925, Grimsby Corporation acquired the lines of the Great Grimsby Street Tramways Co Ltd lying within the Borough boundary. In preparation for this, a Tramways Committee had been set up late in 1924 and Mr J.C. Whiteley, previously Manager at South Shields, had been appointed Manager on 30 January 1925. For a short time the service ran unaltered but problems were soon encountered with the foundations of the single track in Freeman Street and Hainton Avenue, which was laid on poor subsoil and required constant attention. The Town Council was informed that the cost of relaying the track would be £20,000 while the alternative, of converting to trolleybus operation, was given as £12,375. At a meeting on 25 September 1925, the decision to close Freeman Street to trams was taken.

The trolleybus service commenced on Sunday 3 October 1926, two days after the Ministry of Transport inspection of the route which was carried out by Lt. Col. A.H. Mount. Free rides were given on the first day. The route was extended half a mile beyond the original tram terminus further along Hainton Avenue to the junction of Weelsby Road. Here a turning circle was put in and as the vehicle turned the conductor walked in front with a red flag as a warning to other vehicles. When the trolleybus had almost completed its turn the conductor waved on the traffic with a green flag. (This procedure ended when traffic lights were installed at the Weelsby Road terminus).

Work then began on lifting the tram track and laying a new concrete foundation, which disrupted the service. The headway had to be increased and, although all five vehicles were in use every day their number proved insufficient, and a similar vehicle was hired from Ipswich. Two further, identical trolleybuses arrived in March 1927. Reconstruction of Freeman Street was completed in the same month and was ceremonially reopened on Saturday 24 March with a procession that included a decorated trolleybus. The five minute headway now resumed. In the year 1927-28 3,344,358 passengers were carried and the current consumption was 1.41 units per bus mile. Fares were 1d between Riby Square and Welholme Road, and between Hainton Square and Weelsby Road, and 11/2d for the full length of the route. Children over three years and under 12 years of age were charged 1/2d and 1d.

On 24 June 1935 the council decided to introduce trolleybuses on the 'main line' from Old Market to the Borough boundary at Park Street. They obtained a Provisional Order for the main route and for two side street turning loops, Park Street/Rutland Street/Hamilton Street and Weelsby Road/Recto Avenue/Rialto Avenue at the far end of the original route. The latter was never built owing to residents' objections and trolleybuses continued to use the original terminal arrangement, in later years by holding the traffic lights in their favour by means of contacts on the overhead wiring.

In December 1935 Grimsby Corporation placed an order for ten AEC double-deck trolleybuses and the new service commenced on 22 November 1936. A five-minute tram service continued between Riby Square and Cleethorpes and there were complaints that the trolleybus would leave Park Street just before a tram arrived, to the annoyance of through passengers. Five Grimsby trams remained in service from the Cleethorpes depot in Pelham Road, running as far as Riby Square until 31 March 1937, when tramway operation by Grimsby Corporation ended. Through passengers between Grimsby and Cleethorpes then had to change at Park Street.

Cleethorpes follows suit

The Cleethorpes Urban District Council had powers to purchase their section of the Great Grimsby Street Tramways on 1 August 1930 and in 1928 obtained an Act giving them powers to work the tramway and to introduce trolleybuses. They declined a 1932 offer by the tramway company to change over to trolleybuses if granted a new tenure. Cleethorpes U.D.C. took over the tramway on 15 (or 23) July 1936 and on 23 September 1936 gained the status of a borough. Mr F.H. Peacock was appointed as Engineer and Manager of the Transport Department in early 1937, having previously been Chief Assistant Engineer at Portsmouth where he was responsible for conversions from trams to trolleybuses.

Cleethorpes Corporation quickly elected to replace the trams by trolleybuses so as to reinstate through-operation with Grimsby Corporation. Passenger services commenced on Sunday 18 July 1937, replacing the last trams. A turning loop was installed at Park Street/Sidney Street/Daubney Street but another, for football traffic at Lestrange Street/Garnett Street/Bramhall Street, was never built. The former tramcar depot at Pelham Road was equipped with at least two roads of trolleybus wiring and from the trolleybus route it was possible to turn into or out of Pelham Road from both directions. At the other end of the route trolleybuses were extended beyond the former tram terminus and along Kingsway to a turning circle at the Bathing Pool. The ten AEC trolleybuses carried a livery of dark blue and cream, which contrasted strongly with the light green and cream Provincial Group livery carried by the trams.

Between 8.00 am and 4.00 pm there was a four-minute service. The first bus, which was always a Grimsby vehicle, left Grimsby Old Market at 3.55 am, returning from the Bathing Pool at 4.25 am. The first Cleethorpes trolleybus was the 4.50 am from the Bathing Pool, having run light from Pelham Road depot. The Cleethorpes Manager, Mr F.H. Peacock, was well pleased with the new service and provided the data shown below, covering the periods 18 July - 21 August 1937 and 19 July - 22 August 1936. Three additional trolleybuses were purchased in 1938.

Data for: Mileage Passengers Receipts £/s/d Pence per bus mile
Trolleybuses (1937): 46,459.83 848,690 4,866/6/5 25.13
Tramcars (1936): 45,310.38 718,143 3,834/19/2 20.31
Increase, ’37 over ’36: 1,149.45 130,547 1,031/7/3 4.82
Percentage increase: 2 18 26.8 23.7

The intervening years

The Grimsby livery was always crimson lake and cream. The roof may have been brown or grey. Initially a predominantly cream livery with black lining on cream and gold on crimson lake was used, and there was a coat of varnish over the paint. During the Second World War crimson lake became the predominant colour and the lining was reduced to cream on crimson lake, while a gloss paint was used which unfortunately tended to fade to a chocolate brown. On entering service a repainted bus looked very attractive but after a few months it looked quite drab. In the post-war period the double-deckers had all crimson lake back ends. In the 1950s red lining replaced cream and just before the merger with Cleethorpes a livery with slightly more cream and no lining was introduced.

The importance of Grimsby’s naval and minesweeping docks led to the town being regularly bombed and machine gunned. Soon after the war commenced the Civil Defence Authority became concerned that enemy planes could see the flashes of the trolleys on the wires, and rewiring was carried out. In 1940 Cleethorpes AEC number 56 collided with a traction pole during the blackout while operating on route 12, badly damaging the nearside cabside. In an air raid on 12/13 June 1943 a high explosive bomb exploded opposite Grimsby depot, severely damaging several diesel buses and resulting in most of the trolleybuses running without glass for a long time; some windows were boarded up with plywood. However a report that an Ipswich vehicle was hired to provide cover is almost certainly incorrect. In 1942 the Grimsby General Manager stated that six double-deck trolleybuses were needed to replace the original single deckers. In the event, three utility Karrier trolleybuses arrived in 1944.

Both towns purchased new vehicles in the post-war period and in 1948 route 10 still required the same number of vehicles but double deckers had replaced the single deckers. Grimsby used trolleybuses on the short workings numbered 12 but Cleethorpes was short of trolleybuses in the 1945-50 period and used diesel buses on trolleybus short workings. The four BUT trolleybuses ordered (possibly as early as 1946/47) as replacements for four AECs sold to Nottingham City Transport in 1940 were not delivered until 1950. In 1950 Cleethorpes adopted a new livery of corfe grey and larkspur blue to replace the dark and light blue that was introduced on two new Daimler CWA6 diesel buses (14/5) in February 1944.

With the delivery of two Crossleys to Cleethorpes Corporation the trolleybus system reached its peak in 1951, when 32 vehicles were in use. However, in 1955 the original route between Riby Square and Freeman Street was replaced experimentally by buses for a three-month period and from 1 October the replacement bus service was made permanent using second-hand AEC buses from London. This allowed the withdrawal of six Grimsby AECs: 8-10/2/5/8. Number 17 was withdrawn in 1956 but reinstated on 1 January 1957.

Merger and decline

On 1 January 1957, the two fleets were merged under the control of the Grimsby and Cleethorpes Joint Transport Committee. Mr. J. Rostron M.Inst.T., formerly General Manager at Grimsby where he had replaced Mr. H.R Snow, an old man well over the normal retiring age, was appointed General Manager and Engineer of the joint undertaking. Mr. J.V. Will, the former Cleethorpes General Manager, was appointed Consultative Manager for a short period before retirement.

Twenty-five trolleybuses passed to the Joint Committee, ex-Grimsby 1-3, 11/4/6/7 and 19-24, and ex-Cleethorpes 54/5/8-64 plus 52/6/7 in store. The fleet numbers of the ex-Cleethorpes vehicles were increased by 100 and a new fleet livery of blue and cream was adopted, with both towns' coats of arms being applied to the sides of the vehicles. Initially Cleethorpes blue and Grimsby cream were used, but it is said that the blue did not wear well and was replaced by a darker shade. Stocks of Cleethorpes grey paint were used for vehicle interiors and Grimsby crimson lake for bus shelters. At the time of the merger Cleethorpes had been building a new hydraulically operated tower wagon on the chassis of its first double-deck bus, Leyland Titan TD1 3 (FW1216), and was not contemplating trolleybus abandonment, but this job was left in abeyance by the new owners.

On merging, Cleethorpes trolleybus 58 was transferred to Grimsby depot prematurely due to fuel rationing caused by the Suez crisis. On 13 January 1957, as an economy measure, the Cleethorpes depot was closed on Sundays, all vehicles being worked from Grimsby. After a period of use as a vehicle store, on 2 March (or in May?) 1958 the Cleethorpes depot was finally closed and later let to Eskimo (later Findus) Foods Ltd. Useful equipment was transferred to the garage at Grimsby, the rest being sold. The transport offices and the 100 year old house where the retired Cleethorpes General Manager formerly lived were sold to the company, together with an adjacent vacant plot, and demolished.

As regards the trolleybuses, not only was much of the equipment and fleet aged, but operating costs were higher than for buses. A short news item in the 7 March 1958 edition of Commercial Motor read:

"The cost of running oil-engined buses was 4d. or 5d. a mile cheaper than operating trolleybuses, Grimsby and Cleethorpes Joint Transport Committee were told last week by Mr. J. Rostron, general manager. The chairman, Cllr. J.P. Murphy, said the present transport system of oilers and trolleybuses would remain for a number of years. Discussing the sale value of trolleybuses, Mr. Rostron said theirs had previously sold for only £80 scrap value, but other undertakings had received up to £1,000 for working vehicles".

Trolleybus traffic statistics for the last complete year before amalgamation, the first full year after amalgamation, and the financial year 1959-60 were as follows:

Last year of: Grimsby Cleethorpes First full year 1959-1960
Miles operated 370,598 309,440 606,838 464,000
Tickets issued 6,703,000 5,014,487 8,694,000 6,569,000
Revenue (£) 66,897 50,116 103,149 82,000

In 1999, Mr. Rostron recalled:

"I went to Grimsby in 1955 and it was soon obvious that the small number of the trolley buses in the fleet, the rapid development of housing away from the main routes and the development of industry etc. along the Humber Bank etc. warranted an extension of the motor bus fleet rather than otherwise. Little opportunity for the extension of trolley bus services was available - the legal requirements were cumbersome and time consuming and the cost of traction current, though high, could not be negotiated downwards despite the great usage, because the current was needed at peak times".

Although it was agreed that trolleybus abandonment should not take place without the approval of both authorities the number of vehicles in use continued to decline. Sunday operation of trolleybuses ceased from 30 June 1958 (another source gives September 1958), making maintenance and repair work on the overhead and electrical equipment much easier, and replaced by extensions of the 3/3A bus routes. From 10 February 1959 these routes also began to run on Tuesday and Friday afternoons and all day Saturday. From the latter date, it seems that some buses began to be used in all-day service on trolleybus route 11. No trolleybuses were overhauled for the two years or more before the closure of the system and eventually all were well run down, needing such major items as rear axle overhauls.

In October 1959 a report was prepared calling for the abandonment of the system, and in November the Committee sought the approval of the Councils of both towns for the changeover. The reason given was the necessity for the vast majority of passengers to change vehicles at Old Market when travelling between the residential areas and the docks and business centre. Approval was forthcoming and the last day was set for 4 June 1960. At the end of May the only indication of the imminent closure was the appearance of official notices advertising the sale of the vehicles. In the final weeks of the system trolleybuses that needed repair were replaced by buses: the full schedule needed 11 vehicles but latterly only eight were still serviceable (five ex-Cleethorpes, numbers 159/60/2-4, and three ex-Grimsby, numbers 19/21/22), and only four trolleybuses were noted in service on the final day. Formerly six mechanics worked exclusively on trolleybus maintenance but latterly there were only two.


J.C. Bates, writing in the British Trolleybus Society magazine, gave this evocative account of the day's events:

"The final day was warm and sunny and at Cleethorpes hundreds of day trippers enjoyed the sea and air. Few, if any, took any notice of the trolleybuses which had been part of the sea front scene before the war. Local interest in the closure, apart from the local paper, was nil. Due to some legal point a closing ceremony was not planned and thus no local feeling had been aroused. The management was glad to see the end of the trolleybuses which had become unreliable and unpopular with the travelling public.

The last trolleybus arrived at Old Market shortly before 11.00 pm and apart from ordinary passengers anxious to get home, there were seven enthusiasts, a reporter and his photographer. At 11.00, trolleybus 160 (GFU693) left on its last round trip through the two towns. The penultimate vehicle in the other direction was passed at 11.20 pm, and on arrival at Cleethorpes Bathing Pool a twenty minute wait was necessary before the final departure at 11.45 pm, in the company of two diesel buses accompanying 160 on late night dance specials. 160 was filled to capacity on its last journey (mostly with dancers) passing along the deserted sea front, on to High Cliff and past Pelham Road. The last fare-paying passenger alighted at Old Market to 12.10 am.

160 then turned and proceeded silently through Grimsby shopping centre to Victoria Street depot, where on arrival, one solitary enthusiast recorded the scene on film as garage hands pulled down 160’s trolleys - to the amazement of two policemen who were looking on! The vehicle slid into the depot for the last time. The conductor, who had been on one of Grimsby’s first trolleybuses in 1926, and who had become conductor on the last vehicle quite by chance, departed with his driver to pay in and clock off, bringing 34 years of trolleybus operation to a close".

The last trolleybus was driven by William Saunders of Lovett Street, Cleethorpes and the conductor was Ernest Allen of Convamore Road, Grimsby, who had been with Grimsby transport since 1916. The route was replaced by the extension of two existing bus routes, the 3/3A from Bradley Cross Roads, and the 9 from Waltham, to Cleethorpes Bathing Pool. The success of this measure was shown by a £5,000 increase in revenue on these two services in the first year. Economies were effected by not having to pay £6,000 per year rates on the trolley poles, or renew the parts of the overhead that were nearly worn out, or employ the five men who, two at a time, had manned the tower wagon 18 hours a day.

Further reading

  • Grimsby turns from trolleybuses. Transport World, June 1960, pp. 10-16.
  • The first six years of amalgamation. Bus & Coach, October 1963, pp. 384-388.
  • The Tramways of Grimsby, Immingham and Cleethorpes by J.H. Price. LRTA.

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