Rambler Coaches celebrate 90 years
Hand washing with a sponge rather than a brush or any kind of mechanical device is the reason why members of the distinctive green, black and cream painted fleet of Rambler Coaches, Hastings always look so shiny and immaculate
This month marks the business’s 90th serving the East Sussex populace and its many summer visitors and with a celebratory Open Day coming up on Good Friday, 18 April
Stuart Jones paid a return visit to St Leonards to catch up with Colin Rowland and hear about the history of the company and developments in recent years
Colin’s father was ‘a bit of a lad’ by all accounts. Born Frederick William Stock in Nottingham, he died Richard George Rowland and had a number of other names in between, among them A.G.White and Dicky White. The moniker sometimes depended upon who his mother was living with at the time. ‘She was obviously quite a girl,’ said Colin of his grandmother who he remembers seeing in a nursing home in later life. In the period from 1919 to 1923 her partner was a Mr Robinson, proprietor of Red Rambler Coaches of Margate, so Frederick William became a Robinson. Despite being only 16 years old, he drove the charabancs which were apparently parked wherever space could be found for them.
After parting with Mr Robinson, Colin’s grandmother, whose surname was Rowlett, which may be where the name Rowland originates, moved to Hastings along with her son. In 1924 he bought a charabanc of his own, possibly of Unic manufacture and started operating in his own right. His first trip was to Bodiam on 18 April 1924. The work he undertook was almost entirely seasonal local tourist trips sold off the boards on Hastings seafront, with a very occasional private hire. After a while winter work was won from the Old Centamodians football team.
The Rambler title was not always the one carried as it seems other names were also used, possibly those carried at the time vehicles were acquired. Others included, Felix, Green Emerald and the Lancias, though oddly the last was not on one of several Lancias owned.
Competition between the various operators during the short summer season was intense, but when Hastings Town Council proposed a severe reduction in the number of stands on the front from which coaches could ply the operators joined forces to hire a solicitor to jointly represent them.
More detail about the early years of the company might have been available had it not been for the Second World War, the outbreak of which saw the entire fleet of three coaches requisitioned and unceremoniously removed from the company premises when the family was out. Unfortunately, all of the records, along with his tools, were in one of the coaches, though this was denied by the requisitioning team when attempts were made to retrieve them. Neither was a receipt issued, which was to have ramifications after the war when one would have entitled him to a place on the list for a new coach.
After the War, it was 1946 before it proved possible to acquire a serviceable coach and recommence operations. Richard George Rowland and his well-to-do brother-in-law, William Pocklington each put £25 into the business, though William was a sleeping partner.
Richard married his second wife, Muriel Maisie, known as Mary, who he’d met when she was 18 and working at the tobacconists near the coach stand. Colin was born in 1949, twenty years after, Peter Robinson, his half-brother and his half sister.
Prosperity of a sort returned to the South Coast resort, though it had suffered during the war years. The fleet was gradually upgraded, and things ticked along until Richard George Rowland died on 22 January 1966 at the age of 61 when Colin was still only 16. He had left school four months earlier and had started working for Rediffusion, where his brother already worked.
Unlike his father, Colin could not start driving until he was 21 and until he was old enough he ran the business, taking the bookings and cleaning the coaches. His mother, who could not drive any vehicle, worked in a shop next door to the garage and also did the books. Richard had trained the shop owner to drive the coaches on a part time basis and when he was driving it fell to Colin to deliver the groceries. It remained a seasonal job and in the winter months, once he had his car licence, Colin did hearse and funeral work using cars hired from Skinners, driving a van for a wine merchant at Christmas.
‘I was very lucky,’ he recalled. ‘There was never any problem with the Ministry. We didn’t owe anything; all of the coaches were paid for. They just let us carry on, so we did. After a few years they called round and wanted the vehicles checked at M&D’s depot, but there were no problems. I used to do all the maintenance myself from the Bedford book. I had no training at all. As we went on Alan, a fitter from Coombs the Bedford agents helped us at evenings and weekends. We had a YRT that blew up in London at 5pm one night and at 7am the following morning it was picking workers up. We kept a stock of engines ready to go in.’
Colin turned 21 on 10 May 1970 and within the month had passed his PSV driving test, helped by the ability to take a coach out on his own to practice. His first revenue earning trip was not unambitious, taking a party to Longleat and back, a round trip of over 300 miles.
Things continued much as they had for a while but, ‘I wanted more coaches and Mum didn’t,’ as Colin recalled. One day in 1974 he was moaning to his friend John Goodwin, who worked for Coombs, which was also based in Western Road. He had known John since he was 17 and when he explained that he wanted to grow John said, ‘Why don’t we buy a minibus.’ The pair bought a two year old 12-seat low roof Transit from Epsom Coaches, running it under the Rambler Minicoaches name with ‘Keep on coaching’ across the back. Muriel did the accounts for both businesses and both grew.
After a while the accountant said it made more sense to combine the two operations which they did with Muriel, Colin and John each having an equal one third share thereafter. Under Colin, John and Muriel, the business grew gradually with a lot of hard work put in. Muriel died in 1998 having continued to have the telephone at night until near to the end.
Sadly, John was taken ill a year ago and has not yet been able to return to work. Unsurprisingly, after working together for so many years, Colin misses his business partner, despite having taken on staff to do his job. No criticism of the team was implied when he commented, ‘It’s not the same without him. It’s different. No matter how many people we have doing his job, they’re still not doing his job.’
It has always been a family business and Laura, one of Colin’s two daughters, works in the offices. She also has a PCV driving licence though she didn’t tell him she was taking it until she had passed. Colin separated amicably from his wife more than a decade ago and she still cleans the office. His partner for the past ten years has been Jacqueline McPherson, who had a good knowledge of the business having worked in the office for several years at one time. Her father used to drive for Colin’s father.
Over the years most types of work have been operated including regular stage carriage bus services, works contracts, National Express contracts and the company’s own tours, none of which are now undertaken. There are 15 daily school contracts, of which 14 are for East Sussex and one is for a private school. One of these is commercial, using a Volvo B7TL Plaxton President, but it only operates to carry school children. Colin is unlikely to go back into stage carriage work saying, ‘I’m not interested. I just want an easy life I should be retiring next month and we owe nobody anything.’ There has also been away from minibuses with 28 seats the smallest capacity now offered. ‘We went off 16s because every taxi operator in town has one or more,’ he said.
Six of the newest members of the fleet are occupied on work for tour companies of which Colin says, ‘it all makes money, not a fortune, but it all makes money.’ Contracts are held with tour operators including Trafalgar, Just Go and Grand UK. The rest of the workload is private hire. ‘We do most anything,’ he said, which covers the spectrum from rail replacement to continental touring. ‘You’ve got to have a mix of everything. The best tours we ever did were our own but we couldn’t compete. It got so that we couldn’t buy the hotels for what others were charging for their holidays.’
Colin told me that ‘private hire is up and down. The first three weeks of this year have been up on last year with February particularly good, helped by rail replacement work while the Hastings line was closed.’ Jackie smiled when he said this and added, ‘Colin wasn’t grumpy this half term because there were ten out on rail replacement instead of 15 people cleaning one coach.’
The operation ran from a variety of locations including premises in Calvert Road, Bexhill Road and North Street, the first one Colin remembers being beneath a florist’s shop at 80 Battle Road. They had to dig the floor out in order to be able to get the Bedford OBs in but when the first SB came along it just wouldn’t fit. ‘He couldn’t even get it in on wheels without tyres for the winter months, because he tried.’
The travel office was at 18 Western Road, St Leonards and in 1955 a two bay garage was rented over the road. This was within one of the depots of Skinners Coaches who sold their bus and coach operations to Maidstone & District in 1953 but continued running other vehicles until the mid to late 1970s. When they stopped all operations, Rambler took on the rest of the yard.
The company’s big opportunity came in 1980 when, at an 18+ meeting, Colin spoke to someone from the council who said that there might be somewhere available that the company could build a depot. ‘We had been looking for somewhere for years and I knew it was our only chance to have our own premises. I knew there was nothing else round here if you wanted to be near the town,’ he said. ‘It cost us £26,000 on a 100 year lease, to put in the infrastructure, build a garage and surface the yard. We probably borrowed £25,500 of that from the bank. It was the only time we had ever borrowed any money, apart from vehicle hire purchase. Previously we’d just earned enough to live on.’
The premises on Whitworth Road in St Leonards were christened Westridge Manor and have been home to the company ever since, though space is also rented in the yard next door. The offices in Western Road were retained until around 1990 when a new office facility was built at Whitworth Road and the other site closed.