The First Motor Bus in Yorkshire

Below is an extract from the small booklet First Bus in Yorkshire by Philip Lingard (1975) It covers the text on pages 5-7, 10-12 and the first two paragraphs of page13. If you wish to read the full story of Ezra Laycock’s very successful business, until its sale in 1976, then the above book is still available online ISBN 0 902844 28 8.

If you would like to see more pictures of Ezra’s vehicles then have a look in the Gallery at the Transport section.

The coming of the railways ended much of the isolation of the Yorkshire Dales during the mid-19th Century, but it was not until the first horse buses arrived, fifty years later, that numerous outlying villages became readily accessible. One such community was Cowling, in South Craven, which is situated on the road between Cross Hills and Colne. One hundred years ago, this now busy thoroughfare was little more than an ill-drained cart track, frequented only by the occasional horse and wary pedestrians.

During the 1880s the village postman was a Mr Ezra Laycock. Every day he walked to the mail delivery limit in Cross Hills and returned the three miles up the valley, carrying all the letters and parcels for delivery in Cowling. Like most Yorkshiremen of his day, Ezra Laycock was a very shrewd, broad-spoken man, who rarely missed an opportunity to better himself. In 1890, after much persuasion, he purchased his father-in-law’s business as village coal merchant. The regular visits to Kildwick Railway Station had always made carriage of general merchandise for the villagers a profitable side-line, so on the acquisition of the horse and cart, Ezra combined his three jobs in one; Kildwick and Cross Hills being adjoining villages.

For some years, a number of Cowling’s inhabitants, compelled to find employment outside the village, had either to walk, or share the horse and trap, which one of them owned, to reach the station. Ezra had always given lifts to any villager he had encountered struggling to or from Kildwick and so it was mooted that the horse and trap, which stood idle at the station all day, awaiting the return of its occupants, be placed at his disposal. Ezra readily accepted the offer and the business expanded, diversifying into marriage and funeral transport at the same time. In 1895, sufficient passenger traffic was carried to warrant the purchase of a waggonette, whilst in recognition of the volume of business generated in Cowling, the Midland Railway Company appointed Ezra Laycock as their parcel agent in the village. Over the ensuing decade, the business continued to grow until, at one time, the stables housed twelve horses and several gigs and waggonettes, one of which seated over 20 passengers. In the morning and evening, even this capacity was insufficient and boys going to or from Glusburn School had to ride on the tail-board, or be “whipped behind” as it was known.

However, Ezra had been so successful that he attracted competitors, who, debarred from carrying parcels for the railway under the agency scheme, started vying for passengers between Cowling and Kildwick. True to character, Ezra was prepared to use any means to combat the newcomers, but despite buying faster and faster horses to speed his passengers to their destinations, his custom waned and he was forced to sell most of his waggonettes.

Whilst running a group of businessmen to Kildwick Station to catch the Bradford train, Ezra first heard of the motor buses that a London operator was experimenting with. Believing this to be the answer to his rivals, he went into partnership with a mechanically-minded man from Skipton – a Mr Stephenson. Early in 1905, Ezra and his eldest son, Rennie, who was only 15, embarked on a remarkable expedition by Edwardian standards, travelling to London in search of a motor bus. The two walked the streets of London for three days, seeing nothing more modern than hosts of double-deck horse-drawn buses. Following a tip that there were some motorised vehicles in Brighton, they bought a half-day excursion ticket to that Sussex resort. As they returned to the railway station, exhausted and disappointed after a fruitless search, they caught a glimpse of a motor bus passing the end of the street. The two Yorkshiremen could only stay a few moments longer, but what they had seen had convinced Ezra that the solution to his problems was at hand.

Thus, Laycock and Stephenson of Cowling contacted Messrs Milnes-Daimler and Co., to place an order for one single-deck vehicle. The origins of the supplier were difficult to trace because many manufacturers embodied Daimler in their title, it being as synonymous with the internal combustion engine as Hoover is with vacuum-cleaners today. This particular company was formed as a result of an agreement in November 1902 between G. F. Milnes and Co., of Hadley, Shropshire, a famous manufacturer of trams, horse-buses and railway rolling stock and the Daimler Motoren-Gesellschaft, in Germany, to construct motor vehicles for the United Kingdom. It was in no way related to the famous Daimler Co. in Coventry, which is now a subsidiary of British Leyland. (1975)

A privileged party of eighteen, including Mr & Mrs Laycock and Mr & Mrs W. Stephenson, travelled to London where the body was being built for the vehicle. Three days after their arrival the bus was completed and the eighteen hardy travellers embarked on what was to become the longest journey

made by motorbus in England up to that date. The story is told by Mr Frank Driver who, on the golden anniversary of the occasion, was interviewed by the Yorkshire Evening Post, whose management has generously permitted me to re-produce the conversation: –

“I was a weaving overlooker in Cowling at the time and a comedian and a minstrel at local concerts. Ezra asked me along so I could do a bit of entertaining for the party during the nights we were in lodgings.

“We stayed at Lavender Hill, London, and each morning went along to watch the bus being finished. When it was ready, we had a test of hill-climbing at Brighton, because Ezra knew that what was good enough for flat country might not be any good for our hills at home.

“We watched the bus go up the hill alright and Ezra said to me, `That’ll do for me Frank. We’ll have t’bus’.

“It was the first time I’d been to Brighton so I asked him if we were going to stay a bit and have a look around. Ezra said, `We’re not, lad. Business is business. Let’s get back to Cowling’.

“We started on the Thursday afternoon at five o’clock and stayed the night at Hitchin, 35 miles away in Hertfordshire. Next day we went up the Great North Road and at every place we passed through, the folks were lining the streets, shouting and waving. They had never seen a motor bus before.

“We only had one spot of trouble. That was at Doncaster, where the bush on one wheel got a bit hot and a policeman came and said it was making a bit of a stink. But he’d never seen a motorbus before, either, so he didn’t know what to do about it.

“We stayed the night at Doncaster and we went on to Bradford, where we registered the bus. Then it was off home to Cowling. They gave us a grand welcome that Saturday afternoon. The whole village turned out.”

The arrival at Kildwick coincided with the departure of a horse-drawn service, so in order to afford his regular clientele their first motorised ride to Cowling, the two vehicles exchanged loads. The horses raced ahead, warning the village of the impending home coming of Ezra’s bus. As it turned into the stables, the entire population of 1,000 were there, shouting, cheering and waving, welcoming their new bus in a manner befitting Royalty.

By modern standards the “Monster”, as it became known, was extremely primitive, containing numerous technical defects, but fortunately, most of these could be rectified fairly quickly when the vehicle broke down. The body was constructed entirely of wood and afforded no protection from the elements to the driver and little to the passengers, but as the horse buses offered similar were no complaints. The vehicle stood 2ft l0ins from the ground with solid tyres on wheels of 32ins diameter at the front and 42ins diameter at the rear. Overall length was 19ft ll ins and the width only 6ft 6ins. The engine is quoted as being of 30 hp – usually fitted to double-deckers, with a 20 hp unit being standard in the single-deck. Obviously, Ezra had taken the Pennines into consideration! There were no sparking plugs in the engine, as a method employing low tension ignition, utilising a spark in the cylinders to explode the petrol vapour, was used. The petrol was carried at the rear of the chassis, some exhaust gas being diverted to the tank to create enough pressure to raise the fuel to the carburettor. There were three levers for changing gear and final drive was achieved by means of a cast iron circular rack, bolted to the rear wheels. All in all, the “Monster” was something of a mechanical wonder for 1905.

Certainly, the locals had little but praise for the bus for, despite dire prophecies of lack of support and ceaseless mechanical failure, from equestrian-minded rivals, Ezra’s bus was in such heavy demand by private hire parties that it was over a month before it made its first advertised stage service run. It was even loaned to the Local Authority at Yeadon for a week, for use on the very hilly access roads to the village. The seven days were too short for the curious villagers, the bus coming through with shining colours! One journey on the Feast Sunday of July 1905 was to Nelson, where the police had to clear a route through the dense crowds which had gathered. Wherever it travelled, crowds hurried to catch a glimpse of it, children and even dogs being held aloft to gain a better view, such was the attraction of Ezra’s bus.

By September, the novelty had worn thin and the Milnes-Daimler reverted to toiling its way between Kildwick and Cowling as intended, with occasional journeys over the county border to Laneshaw Bridge, the tramway terminus for Colne. The uniqueness also vanished quickly as, in the Autumn of 1905, the Silsden Motor Bus Company Ltd. took delivery of a motor vehicle, heralded by the Silsden Brass Band, which played it up the road to the village. In 1906, they were joined by Mr C. Chapman of Grassington, who began the replacement of his horse-drawn mail buses between Skipton and Upper Wharfedale by motor vehicles. However, neither Chapman’s nor the Silsden Motor Bus Co. survived into the thirties as the former was taken over by the rapidly expanding West Yorkshire Road Car Co. Ltd., and the latter went bankrupt.

Thus, the gamble by Laycock and Stephenson had succeeded. The “Monster” was not without flaw, clutch-slip being the most common ailment and frequently the passengers were delayed thirty minutes as the driver knelt under his vehicle putting fuller’s earth, or sand, into the offending clutch. However, even this was insufficient to deter willing customers and the business entered a new era of prosperity and security.

The Summer of 1905 must have been unusually hot, as a second body was built for the Milnes-Daimler, the first being deemed too enclosed, but as it was entirely open, both front and rear, it is hard to see why. The second body, constructed by Laycock and Stephenson, broke new ground by including 25 forward facing seats, gently inclined from front to rear, as opposed to the 18 inward facing seats fitted previously. The passengers enjoyed clear views on all sides, only the rear being enclosed. However, during inclement weather, protection was afforded by the canvas roof and drop-roll side curtains. A similar design was being used by Leyland for their first motor buses. Later developments in 1907 were the provision of a windscreen and the abandonment of braking on the surface of the tyres – as in horse vehicle practice – in favour of brake shoes acting against the inner rims of the rear wheels. From photographic evidence it appears that the first body was retained for Winter use, to be replaced by the second m Summer. This was common practice in those days, when haulage firms built charabanc bodies to fit to their lorries in Summer. Numerous bus companies, both large and small, originated in this manner.

On 17th February 1906, a second Milnes-Daimler was delivered, which dwarfed even the first “Monster”. Seating 49, three passengers were carried on a bench next to the driver, five sat in a smoking compartment immediately behind (a similar arrangement was the open rear platform on the first body of the single decker), 16 in the remainder of the lower saloon and 25 on the wholly-exposed upper deck. A local wag claimed that more people alighted from the vehicle on one occasion than could fit into the first Keighley cinema. As

Traffic Regulations were few in those days, the bus worked to overcapacity and apparently did so in safety. Again, Ezra was pioneering, as this was claimed to be amongst the first half-dozen motorised double-deckers ever built.

This second vehicle was more difficult to obtain, as the three largest London companies were buying every motorbus produced for the British market. At the end of 1905 there were only twenty such vehicles in London, but in 1908, when the London General Omnibus Co. merged with its two largest rivals, there were 1,066. Ezra was now able to employ a driver and conductor to man his first two vehicles, which worked between Kildwick and Cowling for over 14 years.

There were other claimants to have the first motor bus in Yorkshire but Philip Lingard, who also wrote eight other books on transport, considered Ezra’s to be the first.

Ezra’s house can still be seen on Flood Root, Keighley Road, Cowling with the blocked-up arch to the stable next door. A bungalow further up the road was the site of his first garage, whilst Laycock Fields, opposite, is built on the site of his second and named in Ezra’s honour.