Heritage: The tragedy of a 1920s bus company and the heroic actions of an employee

A postcard view of the bus garage entrance, North Street c1926

A postcard view of the bus garage entrance, North Street c1926 - Credit: Collection of Andy Grant

In the 1920s independent bus companies offered routes in Havering. Historian Andy Grant explores the history of Capitol, a bus company with a tragic past.

During the 1920s a number of independent bus companies offered services in the local area, being exempt from the regulations imposed by the London Traffic Act which only covered the London Metropolitan area.

These buses were often referred to as "pirates", undercutting the fares and poaching passengers from the larger General and National Omnibus companies.

On August 31, 1926 Richard Arthur Voss joined existing bus proprietor Christopher Roberts, setting up partnership Romford District Motor Services based at the Star Garage on the Eastern Avenue, near the corner of Mawney Road.

Mr Roberts predominantly handled administrative work while the more experienced Mr Voss undertook the day-to-day operational aspects of the company.

Although the company had considered the viability of a route from Noak Hill to Ongar, it was thought unlikely to yield a profit and discounted. However, Mr Voss suspected a service from Romford to Chipping Ongar would be a lucrative proposition and left the partnership on February 28, 1929 to form his own company.

He was paid £350 for his share in the business, with which he set up a new company named Capitol Road Transport Ltd at 29 South Street, Romford, with garaging facilities behind the London Co-operative store.

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By June 13, 1929, licences had been obtained from Romford Rural District Council to operate two 14-seater Metcalfe-bodied Chevrolet LQs running between the Romford terminus in Rainham Road and the Kings Head, Ongar.

Two 32-seater Metcalfe-bodied Tillings-Stevens buses were added to the fleet on August 24, 1929, operating a route between Romford and Abridge.

From May 29, 1930 the company varied the route schedules of its four red and grey liveried buses, offering a service from Romford Station to the Cock, Epping.

However, the 14-seaters were by now proving to be inadequate for the growing demand, so they were replaced by two 26-seater Tillings-Stevens buses in January 1931.

The company had also acquired a detached garage at the rear of the Romford Ice and Cold Storage Ltd., Church Lane, accessed from an entrance in North Street.

A map showing the location of the Capitol bus garage

A map showing the location of the Capitol bus garage - Credit: Collection of Andy Grant

Voss’s assumptions proved to be correct and the future of Capitol looked assured.

Unfortunately, a terrible tragedy struck the company.

William George Godsave, 20, and Alfred John Vine, 19, had started their usual night shift at 10pm on Saturday, July 11, 1931.

Their job was to clean the buses and to fill them with oil, petrol and water, ready for service the following morning. Around 5.30am on Sunday, Mr Godsave was cleaning a private car while Mr Vine was working in a pit underneath a bus, emptying the petrol tank into a bucket.

Suddenly, there was an explosion; Mr Godsave got out of the car he was cleaning to witness flames erupting from the pit.

Mr Vine was struggling to get out from the pit and Mr Godsave rushed over to pull him clear, managing to grasp his arm and raise him to the pit edge, but his own jacket caught alight and he was beaten back by flames and fumes.

The commotion had alerted two men working in the ice factory and the fire brigade were summoned.

Although they arrived quickly, they were unable to save Mr Vine and the garage soon became an inferno, burning out completely. Two buses which were inside were destroyed.

At the inquest, Mr Godsave testified that he did not smoke and he’d never seen Mr Vine smoking. Mr Voss added that there were instructions that no employees should smoke whilst at work.

It could not be ascertained how the fire had started. Mr Godsave was commended for his heroic effort trying to save his colleague.

Although two buses survived the conflagration, Capitol subsequently ceased to operate under Mr Voss’s management.

General subsequently purchased the two surviving Capitol buses and the goodwill of the company. The services previously run by Capitol routes ultimately became routes G6 (later LRT route 250A) to Ongar and G7 (later LRT route 250) to Epping.