Soggy Sacks and a Whiff of Fish

This article describes the remarkable story of the discovery and rescue for preservation of Cleethorpes 54. It was written by Steve Collins and first appeared in the June 1987 edition of 'Fleetlines', the magazine of the Doncaster Omnibus and Light Railway Society.

Introduction

This story begins in 1967, when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, when cash was counted out in pounds, shillings and pence, and when the word gay meant happy or cheerful. Britain basked in contentment, blissfully unaware that disasters such as AIDS, mass unemployment, nuclear dumping and the Leyland Olympian were waiting to worry us. For Nottingham-based trolleybus enthusiasts, Plumtree was the centre of the known universe, and Plumtree was controlled by Ted Farnsworth. Ted's plan was simple. Plumtree was to be the home of the collection of trolleybuses; all systems in the East Midlands would be represented, as would the pick of what the rest of the country had to offer - subject of course to his approval. In 1967 Ted had been following this plan for five years and everything was as it should be: the trolleybus collection was growing and Ted had done his bit by buying a Barton motorbus.

This vehicle was BRN596, a 1936 Leyland TD4 which had started life with a Massey body as Cumberland Motor Services 291. It had been rebodied by ECW in 1949 and had passed to Barton ten years later where it gained fleet number 816. Why Ted picked 816 I don't really know, probably it just happened to be available at the time he was able to buy a bus. Whatever, the reason, in 1967 it was his pride and joy, it was taxed and on the road and it earned its keep taking parties of enthusiasts to places of transport interest on selected Sundays. Who decided what constituted a place of interest is another fact I don't know but, whoever it was, he must have been an original thinker of great talent and style, because the place he chose for the trip which is of particular interest to us was Grimsby!

Why any party of normal, sane people should want to go to Grimsby is, in my opinion, a mystery to rank alongside such gems as the Marie Celeste, the Bermuda Triangle and the contents of Dennis Haig's pipe. It could be said that they went to see what, if anything, remained of the Grimsby-Cleethorpes trolleybus system which had passed into history only seven years before. It could also be said that they went to saunter along the Cleethorpes seafront, eating sea food, eyeing young ladies and chortling over saucy postcards. Valid though these explanations might sound, they can offer no rational reason as to why they went into Armstrong Street.

Armstrong Street dated from the mid-nineteenth century and even when it was new it can't have had a lot to recommend it, but by 1967 it was well past its best. What buildings there were were typical industrial revolution era terraced houses which looked as if they were ready for the condemned notices to go up. There were large scabrous patches of waste land where similar houses had once stood, and a large, untidy scrap yard festered quietly to itself to help dispel any illusions a casual visitor might cherish. I have been told, and I have no reason to doubt it, that no-one on the bus knew that the scrapyard was there, let alone what it contained.

The discovery

It is a fact of nature that, just as summer follows spring, a party of bus enthusiasts who find a previously unknown scrapyard will stop for a look. The yard was closed and locked up, which on a Sunday is to be expected, but Ted was able to see into it and to his amazement he saw two Grimsby-Cleethorpes trolleybuses. He was knowledgeable enough to tell that one was a 1947 Roe bodied Karrier and that the other was a 1937 Park Royal bodied AEC. The AEC was of particular interest to him as it was identical to four ex-Cleethorpes vehicles which had run in Nottingham from 1940 until 1952 and of which he had many fond memories. Apart from noting where the yard was, nothing more could be done that day and, in any event, Ted had other plans.

As I have said, Ted Farnsworth controlled Plumtree and, as soon as he knew that a pre-war Cleethorpes trolleybus still existed, he wanted it for "his" collection. The fact that he could not afford to buy it didn't enter into it; Plumtree needed the Cleethorpes and the Cleethorpes needed Plumtree. All that was necessary was the means to bring them together. Even as far back as 1967 Ted knew that if a person existed who could be conned into buying a festering scrapyard reject and taking it to Plumtree, that person was Hairy Tom.

During the week following Ted's discovery, Hairy Tom was summoned to the presence and this wonderful new development in his (Tom's) life. All his previous commitment to trolleybuses was nothing compared to this momentous discovery. How could he (Tom) even think his life was complete without a Cleethorpes AEC to lavish affection on? How could he (Tom) sit there drinking tea while this unique vehicle was in the clutches of some vile scrap man who could cut it up at a moment's notice? How could he (Tom) contemplate going to Plumtree on Saturday when he was needed in Grimsby? And so on. All Tom's objections, such as the fact that Cleethorpes trolleybuses meant nothing to him, were brushed aside by sowing the seeds of the idea that it could be restored as Nottingham 437, originally Cleethorpes 59 from the same batch. When Ted was sure of success he tried to sell the idea of the Grimsby Karrier as well, but backed off when Tom's eyebrows began to move closer together.

At this time cars were not in vogue among Nottingham trolleybus enthusiasts. Most of them had been reduced to penury by buying too many trolleybuses and as such having to pay too much rent, so the following Saturday Tom set off for Grimsby on the train. He was joined for the day by Mad Roger, who thought that a trip to Grimsby sounded a good idea, and when they arrived the first place they made for was the bus depot on Victoria Street. At the depot they asked the way to Armstrong Street and were surprised when a fellow offered to take them in his car. They didn't know it then but this chap was John Pitcher, and their paths were to cross many times after that. John had recently bought Grimsby 81, now at Sandtoft Transport Centre. He knew all about the trolleybuses and was all in favour of Hairy Tom buying one of them.

The scrapyard, owned by R.E. Hill & Co., is in fact still there, but in 1967 when Hairy Tom and Mad Roger extracted themselves from John Pitcher's A35, it was much more untidy. It was an all-purpose yard, which contained everything from old washing machines and gas stoves to large lumps of trawler. Everything was jammed together in no semblance of order and the trolleybuses were visible over large heaps of rammayle with no method of access except mountaineering.

Further investigation showed that there were in fact three trolleybuses in the yard but one had been burnt out and had collapsed to a point below the surrounding piles of scrap so that it could not be seen. All three were in a line along the back of the yard, facing the wall. The first vehicle on the left of the line was the Roe bodied Karrier no. 23 (AEE 26), new to Grimsby, which was one of a batch of six (19-24) and had last run in service in June 1959. This was complete but the nearside was badly damaged by the pressure of all the scrap leaning on it. It had no windows left and appeared to be full of what appeared to be sacking or some kind of fabric. This bus was the only one of the six not to have been sold to Bradford after the system closed in June 1960 (Bradford never in fact used them). In the middle was Park Royal bodied AEC no. 154 (FW 8990), new to Cleethorpes. This also had no windows and was full of sacking, and had only superficial damage on the offside. On the right was the burnt-out wreck of 155 (FW 8991), identical to 154, which had mysteriously caught fire the previous bonfire night. All 155's wooden structure had gone, but the steering column could be seen sticking up out of the pile; the remains were partially buried by scrap which must have been leaning on the bus when it burnt away. 154 last ran in service in December 1958, and 155 in January 1959, so at this time the buses had been in the yard for about eight years.

After having convinced himself that 154 was worth having, Hairy Tom approached the owner and raised the subject of buying it. Mr Hill was all charm, he complemented Hairy Tom on his taste in old buses, he pointed out that it was the only one and that he (Tom) had come at just the right time as the yard was going to be tidied up, including the area occupied by the buses. He very generously suggested the special price of 85 as it was very much a case of buy now while stocks last! He was certain that Hairy Tom was the right person to take on 154 and would obviously give it a good home. The only thing that surprised him was that Tom had not been to see him about buying it before. As Hairy Tom and Mad Roger left the yard Mr Hill pointed to the new metal munching machine that was being constructed and pointed out that although the machine was happy with a diet of old fridges and oil drums, a bit of trolleybus would go down just as well, so it would be better if Hairy Tom could make his mind up and act very quickly.

Preparations

On the next visit the late Alan Calderbank offered to go and take a working party in his car. The party consisted of Hairy Tom, Mad Roger and another person whose name is now a legend - Windy Ted. (Note Windy Ted must not be confused with Ted Farnsworth who found 154. Windy Ted originally owned Derby trolleybus 224 and dropped out of preservation in 1970. He still turns up at Sandtoft now and then and likes to keep in touch with the trolleybus world). In typical fashion Alan was an hour and a half late picking up the other three so the day started in a somewhat strained fashion.

They arrived at Hill's in brilliant sunshine (which Hairy Tom thought was a bad omen) and found that the metal muncher was in action and earning its keep, but as yet nowhere near the buses. The gang decided that the best thing would be clear any easily movable junk from round the bus and to empty the interior of its contents. The entire lower deck was full to a depth of about three feet with an assortment of old sacks, army greatcoats and string, the whole of which was, thanks to the lack of windows, wet through. As an added bonus the vehicle and its contents exuded a smell of fish - at least everyone thought it was fish except Mad Roger, who was convinced it was cat pee.

Mad Roger and Windy Ted volunteered to empty the bus and were soon happily occupied heaving sodden sackbags in all directions. Windy Ted was well equipped for this work as he had a stout pair of waterproof gloves and some decent overalls. Mad Roger, however, had neither gloves nor overalls but worked happily amidst the soaking contents which must have been a breeding ground for every kind of virus and bacterium from cholera to typhoid. He was particularly pleased when he found a noisome greatcoat which still had some buttons on it. He carefully spread it out to dry, saying he would sort it out later. Alan expressed doubts about the advisability of handling festering wet clothes and rags without proper protection but Mad Roger shrugged it of as of no importance. Apparently, when Mad Roger was a child he often used to play in the yard of an animal by-products factory near where he lived. He spent hours dodging about among piles of sheep's heads and skips full of offal, and hiding behind diseased carcasses or animals which had been found dead in the fields. Possibly as a result of this he tended to have a different view on hygiene to most people.

While Windy Ted and Mad Roger were occupied with the oozing interior, Hairy Tom and Alan were shifting a stack of rusty oil drums between 154 and 23. These oil drums had seen better days. Most of them contained stagnant water and, to add a bit of interest, when they were moved some of the bottoms fell out. During this operation a pile of organic yellow goo was discovered hidden under the clutter close to 154's nearside. What this goo was or had been was never discovered but it became the target of several barbed comments from Alan. For example: "I wonder if the NTA is out today digging one of their trolleybuses out of a heap of bright yellow s**t!" (Alan didn't like the NTA).

By the end of the day the bus was cleared out and all possible obstacles round it had been removed. All the tyres were checked and founded to be at best dangerous and at worst potential death traps. The steering was passed OK but the steering wheel was viewed with suspicion. It was agreed that, apart from a wheel change, everything else was acceptable. The following week a set of decent wheels was assembled from other buses at Plumtree and Alan arranged with someone he knew to take them over to Grimsby in a tipper lorry. While he was there, the tipper driver gave 154 a once-over and said that he would be happy to tow it to Plumtree.

Hairy Tom and Mad Roger made a special trip to change the wheels and, if necessary, to pressurise Mr Hill into clearing a path through the scrap so that 154 could be pulled out. They decided to travel to Grimsby by bus instead of by train and the route and vehicles used is worth a mention. First from Nottingham to Newark by Gash Daimler CVD6, then on to Lincoln by Lincolnshire Bristol LD, finally from Lincoln to Grimsby via Outer Obscure and the Back of Beyond by Lincolnshire Bristol SC4LK. The SC4LK was packed with the kind of load most bus operators today would give their eye teeth for, and its raw power was demonstrated on the climb out of RAF Binbrook camp when, with foot to the floor and first gear engaged, the driver was able to pass all but the most sprightly of pedestrians. The trip from Lincoln to Grimsby took over four hours!

When, laden with jacks, wheelbraces, tools and lunch, Hill's was reached, an unpleasant surprise awaited them. Mr Hill had been clearing a path so that 154 could be pulled out and, during the operation, while a large lump of ship was being craned out of the way, a chain had snapped causing the ship to guillotine the back end of the trolleybus. At first Hairy Tom thought that the project was over before it had begun, but closer inspection showed that the damage was not as bad as it looked, so they heaved the damaged lumps into the lower deck and looked for something to prop up the back end with. What they found were two large props which they cut to length and fastened to the bus with some shelf brackets and the bicycle axles. Hairy Tom said it would do as a temporary job but it goes without saying that it is still like it twenty years later!

Mr Hill's metal muncher must have had a voracious appetite because a large area of the yard was now clear. Grimsby 23 had been tipped over and hacked into several large ragged lumps. It was a very untidy job, not the sort of thing any self-respecting Barnsley lad would admit to, and it was further proof that Mr Hill wanted the buses out of the way. Hairy Tom and Mad Roger changed all the wheels and swapped the rancid steering wheel for the virginal white one from Nottingham 502. When they had finished everything was ready for the bus to be collected the following week. As they left the yard Mr Hill reminded them that if they didn't remove the bus next week his muncher would see to it the week after, so they went back to Nottingham feeling somewhat tense.

The trip to Grimsby

The following Sunday had been arranged for the tow to Plumtree and Alan Calderbank's tipper driver friend agreed to pick up the working party. He wanted the job to be finished by Sunday lunchtime so, as a result, he demanded a 04.30 start. In order to simplify things, Mad Roger spent the night at Windy Ted's house which was not far from where Hairy Tom lived, so that the three of them could be at the pick-up point on time. I still don't know how Hairy Tom made it, but he did. To him, ten o'clock on a Sunday morning is the middle of the night so it must have been a real effort to get up at four o'clock. Possibly it was worry at the thought of his beloved Cleethorpes going to the muncher. Whatever it was, it worked!

The three heroes were waiting when the tipper turned up, dead on time, and then it was realised that there was a slight snag. There was only room in the cab for one passenger, so it meant that two of them would have to ride in the open lorry. Windy Ted had offered to drive the bus back and, knowing that there were no windows in it, had kitted himself out in good thick, warm clothes as a precaution. In view of this he unselfishly volunteered to ride in the back. So did Mad Roger, whether from altruism or as a direct result of his state of mental health I don't know. Hairy Tom went in the cab.

Even in mid-summer it can be very cold at 04.30 and in the back of an open lorry travelling at 50 mph along traffic-free roads it can be more so, as Mad Roger found out once they had gone over Trent Bridge and were on the way to Newark. Fortunately the back of the lorry contained an old, oily tarpaulin which Windy Ted had viewed with some distaste when they first climbed in, so Mad Roger was able to wrap himself up in this to keep reasonably warm. They followed the usual route through Newark, then on to Lincoln, where Mad Roger learnt something he was never likely to forget. The tipper driver had made it plain that once they were on the road he did not intend to stop until they reached Grimsby, so Mad Roger found he had a problem when he began to feel the need to urinate. Most people would have tried to do something about it whilst in mid country, but not Mad Roger. He waited until they were half way up Cathedral Hill in the middle of Lincoln, then announced he was going to have to do it off the back of the lorry. What he didn't know, and what Windy Ted didn't tell him, is that a moving vehicle creates an air current which passes underneath, then rises up the back and curls back over the roof. This is why if you drive a van with the back doors open the interior fills with exhaust fumes. It was on that Sunday morning that Mad Roger learnt that the air current which comes up the back of a moving lorry is more powerful than the force of gravity and that the old saying "he who spits in the wind gets his own back" can apply to other things as well!

The yard was reached at and 07.30 and was found to be locked up. Hairy Tom had the address of the keyholder but the driver decided to wait for a while to see if he turned up, rather than go to look for him. While they were waiting, Windy Ted and Mad Roger started singing hymns and were half way through 'Onward Christian Soldiers' when an upstairs window in one of the houses opposite the yard opened. A head emerged from the window and in a loud voice demanded to know what all the noise was about, as decent people were trying to sleep. Mad Roger informed him that they had come to collect a trolleybus and was asked in return "Can't you do it quietly?" The answer to this was "It is Sunday morning and we're singing hymns". The window closed again.

In view of thus altercation, and because time was ticking away, the tipper driver thought it might be a good idea after all to try and find the key holder, so off they went to the address Hairy Tom had been given. They found the house without difficulty and were informed by an old biddy who looked about 102 that her husband had already gone and should be at the yard. They retraced their route and pulled up at the gate just ahead of a geriatric cyclist who turned out to be him. With the tipper engine revving impatiently and Mad Roger singing 'All things bright and beautiful', they waited while the old man fished the keys out of his voluminous trousers, then they were in.

As the tipper moved into the yard the window in the house opened again and there was a stream of abuse in which the word "police" featured. At this Mad Roger made a gesture which I understand signifies disrespect just before the lorry turned out of sight behind the metal muncher.

The tow

Everything was in order and the driver suggested the easiest thing would be to pull the bus outwards on to the road, then connect the tow bar. Once on the road things went smoothly, with Hairy Tom helping the driver, Windy Ted running wires for an intercom between the cab of the tipper and the cab of the bus, and Mad Roger crawling on to the upper deck to see if his army greatcoat was where he had left it. While these simple preparations were going on the window opened again and a strident voice asked "When are you b******s going to p**s off?" Windy Ted replied "We'll be off in a minute", which drew a further stream of invective, then all was ready.

So, with Windy Ted at the wheel and Mad Roger in the cab wearing his army greatcoat to keep out the cold, Grimsby-Cleethorpes trolleybus 154 was off on the longest trip it had made since it was delivered in 1937. Windy Ted was delighted with the way it behaved; the steering was superb, which is very good when one considers that the vehicle had stood in a scrapyard for eight years. It was not yet nine o'clock, and it was a Sunday, so not many people saw the last trolleybus in Grimsby on the road. Several people stopped in their tracks to have a look and one fellow stood open-mouthed in amazement as the cortege swept past, but whether he was shocked at the sight of the bus or by the sight of Mad Roger sat in the cab eating an unpeeled banana, it is difficult to say.

Mad Roger took advantage of the lack of windows to shout abusive comments to several unwary pedestrians. How these people felt about their day of rest being shattered by a huddled schizophrenic hurling unjustified insults is something I would rather not think about. He did, however, make one error of judgement when he shouted something at the driver of a milk float on the outskirts of Grimsby. He obviously believed himself to be on safe ground, but what he didn't know was that they were in fact approaching some traffic lights which had just changed to red. This gave the milk float a chance to catch up and the driver was able to give Mad Roger a verbal battering before the lights changed again.

All continued to go well until, at a place called Walton Hall near Lincoln, the attracted the attention of the law. A police car was parked in a layby when 154 zoomed past. The tipper was making good time as the roads were very quiet, so possibly the constabules didn't have much to do; in any event they pulled out and gave chase. The police car followed for a while, then sped past and pulled up about half a mile in front. The tipper passed the parked police car and carried on, and Windy Ted had a clear view of the two sets of eyes scrutinising the operation as they went past. A few minutes later the police car passed them again and, as before, pulled in up the road and watched the bus pass them. In all, the police car overtook the bus four times but they did nothing to interfere. Possibly they thought the bus was not as dangerous as it first appeared; perhaps they were concerned in case the tipper lorry was not capable of towing such a large vehicle but were, on inspection, reassured, or it may be that the sight of Mad Roger leering insanely from the cab unsettled them. No-one will ever know.

The bus arrived at Plumtree without incident and in good time. The tipper driver parked it up, loaded his towbar, pocketed his fee and left amid protestations of goodwill and mutual admiration. 154 settled into its new home for a stay that was to be as long and as uneventful as its stay as its previous resting place had been. Apart from being shunted round the site, usually in a vain attempt to hide it, 154 would not move again until December 1974, when it became one of the last trolleybuses to leave Plumtree. Where it went, and what happened to it before it arrived at Sandtoft in April 1977, are tales that will have to wait for another day.

Postscript

Hill's yard is still there but there are no signs of any trolleybuses ever having been there. Two souvenirs did survive, however. Hairy Tom found the towing hatch cover of FW 8988 in 54's lower deck, which led to the mistaken belief that the burnt out bus was Cleethorpes 52. It was in fact, as I have already said, formerly 155 (FW 8991). Why 52's hatch cover was there is still a mystery. The other item was salvaged by Windy Ted and is the Karrier badge off the front of the front of Grimsby 23. Windy Ted very kindly gave this badge to me so that in the future it can go on the front of Nottingham 466.

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