Nigel and Shelley
(Written by and copyright Nigel Collins)
An introduction to a family business in Cattistock
Nigel’s family ran a bus and coach business from the village for over 70 years. The green and white ‘Comfy-Lux’ coaches were a familiar sight in the 70s and 80s and older residents will doubtless recall the maroon and birch grey ‘Pearce’ vehicles from earlier years. Nigel’s and more latterly Shelley’s lives were entwined with the business, which was a way of life. It’s also fair to say that the company’s history is interwoven with that of the village.
We hope you enjoy this story of how a thriving bus and coach business was formed and developed by a Cattistock family.
Instalment 1. Up to the start of the 2nd World War
Albie & George
Nigel’s Great-Grandfather Albie Pearce was born in Holywell in 1877. One of ten siblings, Albie had several jobs in the area, generally anything agricultural, or horsey. In 1905 he went to Dorchester for the Candlemas Fair, where farm workers wishing to change jobs offered themselves for hire. That resulted in Albie finding employment at Manor farm Cattistock, working for the Ransome and Hooper families initially as a Gardener-Groom and eventually as the Chargehand.
His modest home was No. 763 Cattistock, one of a pair of farm cottages long since knocked into one (now owned by Ben and Phoebe). The high number on the door relates to the number of the house on the Digby Estate. The Ransomes and the Hoopers were tenants albeit “Gentlemen Farmers”.
To supplement his income, he hired out bicycles, which were kept in a shed next to the cottage. Being a Methodist Lay Preacher meant he could not trade on a Sunday. So customers had to collect cycles before midnight on the Saturday and return after Midnight, early on the Monday Morning.
A few days after Armistice in 1918 Albie’s business expanded when he left the farm and bought the coal delivery and carrier business from Percy Shorto. Using a mule and van he set off for Dorchester on Market days and delivered coal on the other days.
However, not everything went smoothly for the new venture. After the first day of operation the cart was severely damaged, the mule’s legs were broken, and it seemed to Albie as though this might be the end of his business. His transport was immobilised, and he had no money. However, his friend, the local undertaker and fellow Methodist Harry Wills came to the rescue and loaned him £50.00. Albie was back in business.
Having left Manor Farm Albie had to find somewhere to live. He moved to Ramsay Cottage in West End, then little more than a barn! Renting a few fields, 10 cows were added to the “rolling stock”. Horses & carts for road construction contracts followed. This grew the business rapidly and a young lad called George Collins was among those who were employed.
George had originally come to Cattistock during the Great War. Coming from a pacifist Quaker family he nevertheless tried to join up but was sent back for being underage. Unfortunately, because of his family’s pacifist beliefs he couldn’t go home and came to work at Manor farm under Albie.
Eventually he did get to go to war and was one of the lucky ones that came back. Following demob in 1919 he still couldn’t go home and came back to Cattistock to work for Pearce’s. George had his sights set higher though and married the boss’ daughter, Ethel, in 1923 and became part of the business.
The first motorised bus was bought in 1923. Based on a Ford Model ‘T’ chassis, it had 14 wooden seats. The “Tin Lizzie’s” seats were folded up on non-Market days so that it could be used to deliver coal. This was supplemented with a second vehicle purchased in 1929, which had upholstered seats!
Passengers didn’t have to travel to get their goods! They just displayed a ‘P’ in the window and the driver would stop and would take their order for provisions, clothing, shoes etc for delivery on the return journey. Who says home shopping is new!
Although displaying the ‘P’ ceased at the commencement of the 2nd World War the delivery of parcels continued until 1972 when the introduction of VAT made it too complex for the on-bus ticket system. Nigel well remembers discounts being received from various Dorchester stores including Bailey’s the gent’s outfitters, White’s shoes and County Stores, the grocers. These shops would pay Albie a commission and the customer would pay a carriage charge
The amount of goods carried regularly exceeded the revenue from passengers and racks were fitted to the roofs to enable a larger payload. On one occasion a new pram was duly installed on the rack, but on arrival a disgruntled customer was not amused when the pram was missing. Subsequent inspection found it dangling from a tree!
In the 20’s and 30’s the main core of the business was in haulage, primarily on contract for Dorset County Council for road construction. Another substantial contract was the delivery of Ford Tractors imported into Southampton Docks from America. This necessitated larger vehicles and there was quite a hue & cry when a Peerless truck was purchased as many locally thought it was too big for Dorset’s roads!
It was not unknown for a lorry to be adapted to carry passengers and the first excursion was operated to the “Tidworth Tattoo”. Despite the discomfort it must have been successful as many more excursions, especially to the seaside, followed. Despite the heavy investment in new-fangled motors, horses and carts will still employed on local haulage until 1937. Albie sold his cows and farm at the same time.
From 1930 the drivers and vehicles had to be properly licensed. Bus drivers had to take a PSV [Public Service Vehicle] test. There was a problem though. The Ministry of Transport decreed that the tests had to be taken on a Wednesday morning in Dorchester. That was Market day, so no buses were available! Albie took in a lorry, discussed it with the local examiner, and the said lorry was used for the test. The Traffic Commissioners never knew. Imagine the newspaper headlines now!
The 1930s saw an increase in passenger travel and the first school contract was obtained in 1933 when Dorset Education Committee centralised education for older Children. When pupils over 11 were transferred from Cattistock to Maiden Newton it was intended that they should travel by rail, but the Great Western Railway refused to stop convenient trains at Cattistock. Albie priced his 14-seater to carry 20 children (3 to every 2 adult seats) at 8/- a day. It fitted in with the Dorchester service, so no additional bus was required.
Instalment 2. The 2nd WW and onwards
The outbreak of the 2nd World War meant that all bar one of the lorries were commandeered and, whilst some passenger transport operators near to military establishments experienced rapid growth, elsewhere only essential journeys could be undertaken. The Pearce fleet was subsequently reduced to 2 buses, 1 elderly lorry for coal deliveries and 1 ambulance for emergencies. In addition to his heavy involvement in the business George was also an ARP warden and drove the ambulance, regularly accompanied by Ethel who volunteered for the Red Cross.
The immediate post war years were austere for many but not for those operating buses and coaches. Whilst petrol was rationed, the bus services and school contracts were all deemed essential as people needed to get to work, shop for groceries or attend school.
After the suspension of the Pleasure motoring allowance in 1947 coach excursions and tours became extremely popular leading to a substantial increase in patronage.
Although the carriage of goods and parcels was still an important source of income, the coach business expanded rapidly. In the surrounding towns and villages every organisation from the Sunday School to the WI had coach trips and sports fixtures at weekends, which integrated nicely with the school and local bus work.
There was a serious shortage of vehicles though, leading to some wonderfully varied acquisitions. One such was fitted with what was then known as a ‘Utility Body’. Its first job was to convey Cattistock Cricket Club and assorted supporters to an away match. Apparently, the supporters got excited at their teams dramatic batting and decided to climb onto the roof to cheer their heroes. Suddenly the cheering turned to shouts of alarm as the canvas roof gave way. To add insult to injury they were suitably drenched by a summer downpour on the journey home. Thenceforth some of the locals refused to ride in it, so the bus was re-bodied by local firm Vailes of Hazelbury Bryan under Nigel’s dad Ivor’s guidance and design. Nigel remembers his peers at school referring to it as the ‘Matchbox bus’ because of its square appearance, although its Harrington coach seats were extremely comfortable. Despite its somewhat austere exterior it proved a valuable workhorse remaining in service until 1966.
Just as the future looked good though, tragedy struck. In 1948 George at only 48 died of cancer. His 21-year-old son Ivor was in the Teacher Training Corps at Chester. He was summoned in person by the late Mannie Shinwell (Govt. Minister – then Secretary of State for War) and told he was to return home and help run the family bus and coach business. His ambition to teach had to be forgotten.
However, Ethel very much remained the boss. She had her 3 musketeers as she referred to them: Lew Tompkins, Pete Watts, and Lionel Rogers. Albie, although now in his 70s, was still around as a sounding board.
Even though she undoubtedly welcomed Ivor’s help; there is also no doubt that she was not prepared to fully relinquish the reins. To modern eyes it may seem inconceivable that she should have to; but in 1948 it was equally inconceivable to the Powers that be (i.e. the Traffic Commissioners) that a woman could run such a business on her own! But run it she did and continued to do so until her death in 1973.
Ethel had strong moral principles. Nigel recalls a coach dealer promising her a particular vehicle. “We drove up to Loughborough to collect it and the guy had sold it to another operator. He tried to palm her off with a different coach. She told him straight that she would never deal with him again. And she didn’t. We drove to visit his rival, also in Loughborough, where she promptly bought not one but two coaches!”
Ivor & Hazel
Ivor, of course, became a partner in 1948 and brought some much-needed modernisation to the business in accounting, timetabling, and booking systems and also through his engineering acumen. He was a great admirer of the Midland Red bus company who had a reputation for re-building and refurbishing their vehicles. A practice he emulated on a smaller scale and which continued as company policy until its sale in 1990.
New vehicles became available with the ever-flowing work, including additional contracts for the Police Training Centre at Chantmarle. These were real luxury coaches and in 1951 were used to convey visitors to the Festival of Britain from all over the area. The new vehicles established an excellent reputation and work came in from Yeovil and Dorchester. Travel was new and exciting for many of their customers and Ivor used to recall how many of the passengers visiting London for the first time would follow him around all day for fear of getting lost!
All these coaches came with large ‘Sunroofs’. A brilliant idea on a sunny day when nearly half of the roof could be slid back. Not so good after a thunderstorm, however. When one driver thought it a good idea to open the roof one afternoon having forgot that morning’s down pour it resulted in four ladies getting thoroughly drenched when he suddenly had to brake!
The first minibus joined the fleet in 1954. It was painted black and contracted to the local undertaker (Bunter Burt) as a hearse. You had to book the funeral between schools though! Amended regulations meant it had to be replaced a few years later. Hazel, Nigel’s mum, passed her PSV driving test on one of minibuses and drove a school run, working in the office between journeys.
1954 was also the year that Pearce’s acquired local rivals Legg’s who ran from Evershot, and Lovell’s Sydling based business.
Sadly, Albie passed away in May 1955. He’d seen his company develop from humble beginnings to a leading operator in the area.
1956 saw a major rail strike and a major influx of passengers for Pearce’s. The services blossomed and besides their own private hire and excursions additional work was carried out for “Royal Blue” on their Weymouth to London or Exeter to Bournemouth Routes and for the Yeovil based Barlow, Phillips.
The coaches were getting higher and longer so the garage too had to be altered and expanded. In 1957 “Bunter Burts” neighbouring carpenter shop was purchased, and a new workshop was gradually built by the staff in between other work over several years. A car repair business was also started to fill the mechanics time when the coaches were out.
Longer journeys were run, and excursions and tours prospered with visits to Blenheim Palace, Windsor, and Stratford upon Avon frequently offered. Combined boat trips on the River Thames and Dart became popular. By the 1960s Ethel had relented, with Ivor’s strong encouragement on the need to modernise, and Sundays became a busy day. That change also enabled the introduction of holiday tours. The first being a 4-day tour to Chester & North Wales, which Nigel recollects was sold for the fully inclusive price of 11 guineas!
To be continued…………………………..next instalment: Nigel and Shelley