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Lisburn Bus Services In The 1920S And'30S

D. B. McNeill
The Violet, owned by James Crothers and Alexander Dugan. The Violet Bus Service was also set up in 1924. (Photograph courtesy of Lisburn Museum).

During the 1920s, over twenty separate bus owners provided public transport in the Lisburn area. Some of these were prosperous shop keepers who regarded the running of buses as a logical development of their businesses; others were posting masters and haulage contractors of long standing, who had moved cautiously from horses to internal combustion engines; and some were men with little financial backing, who had been able to scrape together sufficient money for the payment of the first instalment for the purchase of a bus. All three categories contributed to the ever growing number of buses, thereby adding their quotas to the cut throat competition which prevailed on the roads during part of the inter-war years.

Initially, all a potential bus owner had to do was to acquire a bus and obtain licenses for it and its driver from his local authority. Once this was done, he was at liberty to operate where and when he liked within Northern Ireland, provided he observed the rules about speed limits1and overcrowding. The latter were regarded as mere hazards and the majority of bus owners made frequent appearances m magistrates' courts, to answer charges of fast driving and overcrowding. Indeed, one proprietor, a most respected member of the community, was proud of the fact that he had been fined for overcrowding during his first week as a bus operator. Another, who frequently drove his own buses, used to boast that he had appeared in every magistrate's court between Belfast and Dublin, to answer charges of exceeding the speed limit.

This early free-for-all, however, was soon to be severely restricted by the passing of the Motor Vehicles (Traffic and Regulation) N.1. Act by the Northern Ireland Parliament in November 1926. Under this, the licensing of public service vehicles was transferred to the Northern Ireland Ministry of Home Affairs, with effect from 27 August 1928. Drivers and vehicles still had to be licensed but fares were now controlled at a basic rate of twelve miles for five pence. Conductors had also to be licensed and the routes over which the buses operated, together with their time schedules, had to be submitted for government approval. However, these last two provisions were of considerable benefit to those already in the business for, once an owner had been authorized to operate a specific route and his timetable approved, no one else was permitted to run buses on the same route, so long as the licensed operator continued to provide a satisfactory service.

Staff of the Belfast Omnimbus Company outside the company's office in Castle Street, Lisburn. sometime during the early Thirties. (Photograph courtesy of Lisburn Museum).

In the two years between the passing and implementation of the 1926 Act, several of the principal operators in Antrim and Down began to merge, and in April 1927, formed a consortium known as the Belfast Omnibus Company [B. O. C.].2 This new organization expanded rapidly and within eight years, became the largest road passenger operator in Northern Ireland, with a fleet of about two hundred buses. However, during the latter part of this period, the Northern Ireland  government began to take serious notice of the unbridled competition between all forms of public transport in the Six Counties. Accordingly, on the advice of Sir Felix J. C. Pole, 3 it decided to rationalize public transport in the province and in 1935, set up a statutory body known as the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board [N. I. R. T. B.]. This was the first step towards rationalization. On 1 October 1935, the Board began to take over the passenger and freight services operating on the roads of Northern Ireland. Its first acquisition was the passenger service provided by five of the leading bus operators. By 1 January 1936, it had got possession of over sixty bus companies and had become the owner of a fleet of over seven hundred buses. Twelve years later, the N. I .R. T. B. was itself taken over by the Ulster Transport Authority, which was set up by the government of Northern Ireland on 1 October 1948. Today, this body, through its subsidiary companies Ulsterbus and Citybus, has a near monopoly of all passenger road transport services in Northern Ireland.

The first mechanically propelled bus service to operate in Ireland was started by the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway in April 1902, when it stationed two Thornycroft 14-seater steam omnibuses at Greenisland.4 However, their metal tyres cut up the roads so badly that within five years, they were withdrawn and replaced by horse drawn long cars. Shortly after this, on 25 October 1907, a petrol driven motor bus began to run between Newtownards and Portaferry. This service - now Ulsterbus Route No. 10 - is still in operation and is the oldest bus service in Ireland. The Portaferry bus was closely followed by a motor charabanc, which provided a summer service between Bangor and Donaghadee. In 1912, an all-year motor bus began to run between Derry and Moville. However, the introduction of new services was curtailed during the First World War but shortly after the Armistice, bus services began to develop rapidly throughout the British Isles and by 1924, three operators had already started to provide services in the Lisburn area.

The first buses to operate in the Lisburn district belonged to the Spence Auto Service, owned by Alexander Spence and James McCrea, who were also proprietors of well-established retail businesses in Dromore. On Wednesday 10 December 1923, their first bus, the Ulster Queen, set off from Market Square, Dromore at 0.9.30 hours and arrived at the Black Man in Belfast two hours later.5 At first, two round trips were made daily but, with the arrival of the Northern Queen three months later, the frequency was increased to five round trips on weekdays and two on Sundays. In December 1924, some of the runs were extended to the War Memorial in Banbridge.6

The Ulster Queen was a solid tyred 36-seater AEC., [Associated Equipment Company], the body of which had been built by E. J. Partridge of Dromore. Its interior was considerably more comfortable than that of its contemporaries, with its passengers being accommodated in individual bucket seats. Indeed, one press account described its interior as 'an hotel lounge on wheels.' All seven buses (six A.E.C. and a Lancia) owned by the company were painted in a bluish purple livery and were named after various types of Queens. Its smallest, the first bus in the district with pneumatic tyres, was appropriately named Wee Queen. However, the Spence buses had soon to face serious competition on the road between Dromore and Belfast, so fares were slashed. Eventually, one could travel the seventeen miles to the city for two pence ha'pennny on weekdays, with workmen travelling free on Sundays. Spence and McCrea provided a most efficient service and their advertisements were certainly not stereotyped. One advert r carried the heading, `The Ulster Queen and the Northern Queen, the Aristocrats of Busdom,' while others contained jingles such as

At any point, without much fuss,
A hand put out, will stop the bus

The next bus service in the district was started by William Jellie, a man of substance, who owned a garage and several other business undertakings in Lisburn. In 1923, he acquired a 40-sealer motor charabang,8 which he hired to private parties. In the middle of the following year, he formed the Classic Bus Service. This company, from its commencement, provided a minimum of ten round trips on weekdays between Lisburn and Belfast, the eight mile journey being timed to take about half an hour. Within a year, some of the trips had been extended to Armagh and the frequency of the service to Belfast had been increased considerably.

One of his competitors for the Belfast traffic was the Violet Bus Service. This was started by James Crothers and Alexander Dugan, both of whom came from the Lisburn area. They obtained their first bus in 1924, a 35-Seater Mandate),, the body of which had been built by E. J. Pantridge of Dromore, at a cost of £400. Its exterior was painted  violet and its windows were hung with violet curtains, the idea for the company name and its colour scheme being the suggestion of Mrs. Crothers, a gifted artist, who had just painted a bunch of violets when her husband asked her to think of a name for his and Alexander Dugan's new bus. The company's first service was between Dromara and Belfast, via Lisburn, but after a short time, its main effort was concentrated on the road between Lisburn and Belfast. During the summer of 1926, it provided twenty-eight round trips on weekdays, with fourteen on Sundays. Its first bus left Lisburn at 07.30 hours in the morning and its last left Belfast at 22.30 hours.

Despite the fierce rivalry between their bus crews, the proprietors of the Classic, Violet and Spence services were on very friendly terms with one another. They were also fully aware that unbridled competition on the roads would, in the end, be detrimental both to their interests and to those of the general public. Accordingly, in the winter of 1925-6, James McCrea of the Spence Auto Service made the initial move for a merger of the major bus operators in Antrim and Down. Following on from this, the three Lisburn operators (Spence and McCrea, William Jellie and Crothers and Dugan) combined with several others to form the Belfast Omnibus Company .9 James McCrea became its first general manager and, eight years later, was appointed to a similar position in the N.I.R.T.B. Unfortunately, he died shortly after taking up the position. William Jellie, of the Classic buses, became a Director of B.O.C. and James Crothers (of the Violet Bus Service) gave up his hardware business, to work full time for the company. He later became traffic superintendent of the N.I.R.T.B. In this latter capacity, he supervised the wartime evacuation of Belfast, during which thousands of people were moved out of the city within the space of a few hours. He was killed in January 1945, the result of a road accident when on duty in the vicinity of Antrim.10

Five other operators from the Lisburn district11 also became members of the B.O.C. in 1927. The first was Henry Courtney who owned three Lancia buses named Britannia's Pride, Erin's Pride and Ulster's Pride. These provided an extensive service between Lisburn and Belfast, via Hillhall. At the time of transferring to the B.O.C., Courtney was experiencing severe competition from the Cosy Bus Service, owned by Maxwell and McClean of Hillhall. 12 These latter owned two buses with which they provided fourteen round trips over the nine mile Hillhall route between Lisburn and Belfast. However, they lacked the financial resources to survive and went out of business in September 1928.

Another local operator who sold out to the B.O.C. in 1927 was G. Gillespie, who ran the Lisnagarvey Queen between Ravernet. Sprucefield and Belfast for about a year, before merging. Likewise in 1927, Scott and McGregor's Wee McGregor was transferred to the B.O.C., after being in service between Dromara and Belfast for a few months. Another short lived service taken over in the same year was that belonging to Buchanan and Cunningham, whose Rosevale bus plied between Broomhedge and Belfast. The last local buses taken over in 1927 were those owned by Mrs. Elizabeth Martin, who had not only run buses between Belfast and Ballynahinch but had competed against the trams for traffic within the city boundaries and later, provided four round trips between Drumbo and Belfast. This particular service was transferred to the B.O.C. at the end of 1927.13

The B.O.C. made no local acquisitions in the Lisburn district during 1928 and 1929. In the latter year, however, it purchased the good will of a service between Dromara and Belfast via Lisburn, that starred by E. & F. Spence of Hillsborough in May 1928 to undercut the B.O.C.'s fares. (The Spences were unable to provide a reliable service, so the Ministry of Home Affairs cancelled their operating licence, which was subsequently acquired by the B.O.C.)14 In 1931, the services worked by Thomas Morgan and Mrs. Martha Chambers were also taken over. The former owned the Duchess Bus Service, which operated two 20-water buses (a Reo and a Thornycroft) between Donaghcloney and Belfast, some of the routes going via the Maze, others through Hillsborough and Hatfield. 15 The Chambers service had been started by Thomas McKee of Lambeg and transferred to Samuel Chambers (also of Lambeg) in the mid 1920s. The service was operated by a 20-sealer Reo which initially ran between Lisburn and Ballyskeagh, a route which was later extended to Belfast. Chambers died in January 1931, after which his widow continued to operate the bus for a few months, until it was sold to the B.O.C., with the good will of the route, for £120. 16

During the B.O.C.'s eight years as an omnibus operator in the Lisburn area (that is, from 1927 to 1935), the restrictions placed on the company by the 1926 Act hindered it from starting up new routes. It was nonetheless, permitted to inaugurate a service between Lisburn and Downpatrick, via Ballynahinch,17 in June 1931. This received such poor support, however, that it was closed down about a year later.

During the early 1930s, nearly every bus working in the Lisburn area belonged to either the B.O.C., to H.M.S. Catherwood (one of the most outstanding bus operators in the North of Ireland, who began his association with road passenger transport in 1925) or to the Great Northern Railway, which begun purchasing road services in 1929. However, a few small operators still managed to retain their independence until their absorption by the N.I.R.T.B. in 1935. One such was the Windsor Bus Service which had been started by Robert Patterson of Belfast in 1927, with a service of four round trips between Belfast and Aghalee, via Lisburn and Ballinderry. 18 A year later, Patterson abandoned this route and switched his buses to compete against the trams in Belfast. This ended when he was forced to withdraw his buses because of a change in the city by-laws. Thereafter, he opened a service between Belfast and Stonyford via Pond Park, with a connecting service between the latter and Lisburn. 19

Another independent operator was the Woodburn Bus Service, which started between Lisburn and Belfast via Suffolk and Stockman's Lane in 1929. During the next six years, the company changed ownership four times.20 Its original owners were A. S. Baird and H. W. Weir of the International Bus Service, who sold the business to George Dow of Belfast. The next owner was Robert Patterson of the Windsor Bus Service, who continued to operate the firm until the N.I.R.T.B. take-over, when its five buses (four Denis and an A.E.C.) changed ownership for the last time.

In addition to the services just mentioned, three other small operators also worked in the area but went out of business before the formation of the N.I.R.T.B., (in 1935). One was the already-mentioned Cosy Bus Service of Maxwell and McClean. The others were Ernest Gregory of Hillhall21 and Mrs. Sarah Cummin of Slatfield Hall, Bleary 22 The former had a small Gifford bus which he used for private hire and to provide a somewhat intermittent and short lived service on the main road between Lisburn and Belfast in 1928. Mrs. Cummin began running her 24-neater Thornycroft, named Master McGrath, between Lurgan and Belfast in 1925. The following year, she augmented her fleet by the addition of a 32-sealer A.E.C., called Welcome. By all accounts, she was a most remarkable woman. Her crews appear to have been equally remarkable, one of her drivers (H. Megarell) reputedly having driven from Lurgan to Belfast in twenty-five minutes! On numerous occasions, her two daughters were even pressed into service, as conductors!23 Neither her buses nor her services appear on the register of 1928, so it seems likely that by 27 August of that year (the date by which buses and their routes had to be registered, under the 1926 Act), the business had closed.

Over the past two hundred years, the road between Lisburn and Belfast has been one of the busiest in the North of Ireland. In the days immediately before the opening of the railway in 1839, there were at least six stage coaches passing daily through Lisburn, on their way to Belfast, and about a dozen long-cars and jaunting cars plied for local traffic along the same stretch. The coaches and many of the car owners were put out of business by the railway, with the result that by the 1880s, there were only a few horse-drawn cars on the road, compared with the twenty trains running daily in each direction. The frequency of the latter was doubled in the early 1900s, to discourage Belfast Corporation from extending its tramway system from Balmoral to Dunmurry. The tram extension never materialised but the railway had soon to face another threat from the roads-that of motor buses.

By the 1930s, bus services were operating well over one hundred round trips daily, compared with sixty daily trains provided by the railway. Today, there are about fifty train services and double this number of bus services over the same route. However, whereas in the early 1930s, there was cut throat competition between road and rail operators, today all the road and rail services are provided by the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, through its subsidiary companies, Northern Ireland Railways and Ulsterbus.


1. The speed limit, for buses were originally 12 mph for vehicles with solid tyres and 20 mph for those with         pneumatic tyres. This latter was increased to 25 mph in June 1930, and by 1939, was raised to 30 mph in Northern Ireland and 35 mph in the Irish Free State.
2. The B.O.C. was incorporated on 23 April 1927, with its registered office being in Moorgate, London. It began operating on 14 June of the same year. In 1931, it disposed of its interests in the counties of Antrim and Derry to the Northern Counties Committee of the London Midland and Scottish Railway, after which it confined its activities mainly within an area and south of a line between Newry, Armagh and Belfast.
3. Sir Felix J. C. Pole had been General Manager of the Great Western Railway in England. Many of the recommendations in his report were included in the Northern Ireland Transport Act of 1935. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the majority of passenger and freight road services in Northern Ireland had been transferred to the N.I.R.T.B. See Felix J. C. Pole, Transport Conditions in Northern Ireland, HMSO 1934, Card 160.
4.     These steam buses were the first railway owned mechanically propelled passenger road vehicles in the British Isles. 
5.     Dromore Weekly Times. 8 December 1923. 
6.     Ibid_ 21 November 1924.
7.     [bid., 22 March 1924.
8.     Ibid., 3 February 1923; Lisburn Standard. 23 May 1925.
9.     P.R.O.N.I., DEV 4/19, DEV 7/114, UTA 12/CGA/149.
10.  Presbyterian Herald, March 1945.
11. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 4/19, DEV 7/114, UTA 12/CGA/149.
12. P.R.O.N.1., DEV 7/318.
13. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/122, 7/144; UTA 12/CGA/154.
14. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/234.
15. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/117, 7/317.
16. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/239, 7/240, 7/318.
17. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/232.
18. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/1611, 7/362
19. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/378.
20. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/268.
21. P.R.O.N.I., DEV 7/364.
22. Lurgan Mail, 15 September 1967.
23.  Ibid., 4 August 1967.

General References

Much useful background information is contained in the humourous bi-monthly magazine Belfast Topics, which was published in the mid 1920, In 1927 and 1928, it was used by some of the leading bus owners to wage a humorous vendetta against the authorities. There is a file of the magazine in Belfast Central Library.

The Omnibus Society, in collaboration with the P.S.V. Circle, has produced very complete lists of the buses which were acquired by the N.I.R.T.B. and C.I.E., together with outline histories of the two organisations. The publications can be obtained from P.S.V. Circle, 10 May Close, Chessington, Surrey KT9 2AP and me as follows: Coras lompair Eireann, publication no. 2, 1965; Ulster Transport Authority, publication no. 5, 1972.

The 1926 Road Traffic Act (ICI.) required all operators to register their buses and routes by a specified date, 27 August 1928. The Northern Ireland Ministry of Home Affairs opened files for every operator and every route. These are now held in the Public Record Office, Northern Ireland. The majority of the files are fisted under DEV 4/ and DEV 7/.

In 1971, the late J. A. McClelland began to collect material for a history of bus services in Ulster. Much of his material is stored in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum archive.

  D. B. McNeill, T.D., Ph.D., was Senior Lecturer in Physics at Southampton University from 1938 to 1971 and served as Chairman of the Ulster Museum Board of Trustees for a number of years. Among his publications (which include books on physics) are Irish Passenger Steamship Services and Great Southern and Western Railway (co-author).

Motor bus operators in Lisburn District

Company Proprietor Formed Disposal Date Principal route in Lisburn District
Balmoral B.S. McAfee, C. 1925 BOC 1927 Belfast-Lurgan
Belfast Omnibus Co. Belfast Omnibus Co. 1927 NIRTB 1935 County Down
Catherwood, H.M.S. Catherwood, H.M.S. 1925 NIRTB 1935 Newry
Chambers, Mrs. M. Chambers, Mrs. M. 1928 BOC 1931 Ballyskeagh, Lisburn
Classic, B. S. Jellie, W. 1924 BOC 1927 Lisburn
Cosy, M. S. Maxwell & McClean 1926 closed 1928 Hillhall, Lisburn
Courtney, H. Courtney, H. 1927 BOC 1927 Hillhall, Lisburn
Criterion, B.S. ----------- 1925 BOC 1927 Armagh
Crory, D. A. Crory, D. A. 1923 BOC 1927 Rathfriland
Cummin, Mrs. H. Contain, Mrs. H. 1925 closed 1928 Lurgan
Duchess, B. S. Morgan, T. 1926 BOC 1931 Donaghcloney
Eclipse, M. S. Winter, J. 1927 GNR 1929 Omagh
Frontier, B.S. Poots & Dunlop 1924 BOC 1927 Newry
Great Northern Railway Great Northern Railway 1929 NIRTB 1935 Lurgan
Gregory, E. Gregory, E. 1928 closed 1928 Lisburn
International B.S. Weir & Baird 1927 Catherwood, H.M.S. 1929 Newry
Irwin, J. & R. Irwin, J. & R. 1926 GNR 1929 Litigant
Lisnagarvey Queen Gillespie, G. 1926 BOC 1927 Ravernet, Spruccfield
Martin, Mrs. E. Martin, Mrs. E. 1926 BOC 1927 Drumbo
Northern Ireland Road
Transport Board
Northern Ireland Road
Transport Board
1935 UTA 1948 Northern Ireland
Renown Lewis & Smith 1926 GNR 1930 Markethill
Repulse McAlinden & McSherry 1927 GNR 1930 Aghalee-Lurgan
Rosevale Buchanan & Cunningham  1927 BOC 1927 Belfast-Broomhedge
Spence, A. S. Spence & McCrea 1923 BOC 1927 Dromore
Spence, E. & F. Spence, E. & F. 1928 BOC 1929 Dromara
Ulster Transport Authority Ulster Transport Authority 1948 Ulsterbus 1967 Northern Ireland
Ulsterbus Northern Ireland Transport Holding Co. 1967 active ------ Northern Ireland
Violet B.S. Crothers & Dugan 1924 BOC 1927 Lisburn
Wee McGregor McGregor & Scott 1927 BOC 1927 Dromara
Windsor Patterson, R. 1927 NIRTB 1935 Aghalee
Woodburn Weir & Baird 1926 NIRTB 1935 Suffolk, Lisburn