A brief history of the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company . . .

(from its formation in 1931 to full convergence with the National Bus Company in 1971)

Early beginnings . . .

The Eastern Counties Omnibus Company was registered on the 14th July 1931 to amalgamate four relatively small undertakings in East Anglia, all of which were subsidiary companies of Tilling and British Automobile Traction Ltd (BAT); its management hoped that the larger unit would result in increased efficiency and improved results.

The oldest constituent company was the Peterborough Electric Traction Company Ltd (PET), a subsidiary of the British Electric Traction Company Ltd (BET) registered on the 5th August 1902, and from May 1928, placed under Tilling and BAT control.

The second constituent was the Ortona Motor Company Limited of Cambridge, founded in August 1907. From 1914, the company had a BAT investment and was placed under Tilling and BAT control in May 1928.

The third and youngest constituent was the Eastern Counties Road Car Company Ltd (ECRC) of Ipswich, a Tilling subsidiary registered on the 30th August 1919 and placed under Tilling and BAT control in May 1928.

The fourth and largest constituent was the eastern operating area of United Automobile Services Ltd, founded in Lowestoft and registered on the 4th April 1912. A controlling interest in United was purchased jointly by the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Tilling and BAT in July 1929.

Negotiations for the formation of the new company (as yet un-named) were conducted between the United management and Mr J F Heaton for Tilling and BAT and a provisional agreement dated 28th May 1931 stated inter alia that "United shall sell (its eastern area assets) and a new company shall buy . . ." as at close of business on 30th September 1931. The provisional agreement was confirmed as the final agreement on 24th July 1931 and the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company Ltd (ECOC) was then in business with its head office established at 79, Thorpe Road, Norwich.

The agreements to transfer PET, Ortona and ECRC to Eastern Counties Omnibus Company were all dated 24th July 1931, but not registered until 23rd October 1931.

The final structure of ECOC at its formation was as follows:-

United Automobile Services Ltd - 43.2% . . . Tilling & British Automobile Traction Company Ltd - 27.6%

London & North Eastern Railway Company Ltd - 24.3% . . . London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company Ltd - 3.3%

Miscellaneous shareholders - 1.6%

The new company was valued at 672,069.00.

In addition to the transfer of vehicles, services and depots, the United coach factory at Laundry Lane, Lowestoft was also transferred, to become a division of ECOC.

The company pursued a policy of absorbing other operators, both large and small, within its area, acquiring no fewer than fifty businesses before WWII. The most notable of these was the Norwich Electric Tramways Company, in which ECOC acquired a controlling interest on 1st December 1933 and this resulted in the abandonment of the Norwich trams on 10th December 1935.

Express routes in the area had been mainly in the hands of other operators, but the purchase of Bush & Twiddy's 'East Anglian Highways' in 1932, Westminster Coaching Services Ltd, Pullman Lounge Coaches, Varsity Express Motors Ltd and Varsity Coaches Ltd in 1933, provided the framework for the subsequent ECOC express services.

The 534 omnibuses owned by ECOC at its formation were a varied collection, but comparatively modern. Early withdrawal and replacement by standardised vehicles was not economically feasible, so a programme of rehabilitation was undertaken. Single and double deck buses were rebodied and a few single deck chassis were rebodied as double deck vehicles. The diesel engine had firmly established itself in the bus industry by the mid 'thirties and showed considerable economies over the petrol engine. From 1936, the petrol engines in all but the older rebodied vehicles were progressively replaced by Gardner 4LW oil engines in most single deck chassis and by Gardner 5LW units in a few single deck and nearly all double deck chassis.

The coach factory with a workforce of 950, was producing one double deck and nine single deck bodies per week by 1936, both for ECOC and other operators. It was decided to separate the coachbuilding activities from the operating side of ECOC and so, on 1st July 1936, Eastern Counties Coachworks Ltd came into being, although it remained a wholly owned subsidiary of ECOC. Its name was simplified to Eastern Coach Works Ltd (ECW) in 1937. At about this time, Laundry Lane, Lowestoft was renamed Eastern Way.

Tilling and BAT was put into voluntary liquidation on 28th September 1942 and its property and assets were equally divided between two new companies - BET Omnibus Services and Tilling Motor Services Ltd. ECOC was allocated to Tilling Motor Services.

War breaks out . . .

WWII started on the 3rd September 1939, and by October 1942, supplies of petrol and diesel fuel were very scarce. The Ministry of War Transport gave instructions to the London Passenger Transport Board and 57 provincial operators, each of whom had more than 150 buses, to convert 10% of their fleet for producer gas operation. This situation had been foreseen by the chairman of Tilling Motor Services, Sir J Frederick Heaton, and he was well ahead with his group of companies. Development work on a producer gas unit mounted on a trailer was carried out by the Eastern National Omnibus Company Ltd (ENOC) at Chelmsford and they turned over the entire fleet at Maldon depot to gas operation on 1st May 1941. Clacton (ENOC) and Cromer (ECOC) garages were similarly converted in 1942 and together with Grays (LPTB) were used to demonstrate gas buses to other operators. By March 1943, ECOC had 26 gas buses and by the end of the year they expected to have 81 running. All of the buses converted to run on gas had petrol engines, since it was very difficult to persuade a diesel engine to function satisfactorily. In the middle of September 1944, the effects of U-boats on shipping had considerably lessened and crude oil supplies improved, so the Ministry authorised the bus industry to abandon the use of gas buses with immediate effect, much to the relief of all concerned.

Peace once more . . .

Once the war was over, ECOC settled down to a vehicle purchasing programme which was basically similar to that of any other Tilling group company, although it opted for 4 and 5 cylinder diesel engines as opposed to 5 and 6 cylinder engines by most companies. The vehicle rehabilitation scheme, suspended for the duration of the war, was restarted on a limited scale to cover the period when new chassis were in short supply. The only pre war vehicles rebodied were Leyland TD2s in 1949. Other vehicles rebodied were the wartime Bristol Ks and some post war Bristol Ls, which had entered service with secondhand bodies.

The emergence of the British Transport Commission . . .

The British Transport Commission (BTC) was set up under the terms of the Transport Act (1947) and on 1st January 1948, entered into ownership and control of a large part of inland transport. Its Railway Executive managed the former main line railway companies, including their interests in the bus companies in which they had purchased shares. Since the BTC already held considerable shareholdings in most of the Tilling companies, it made tentative enquiries about the possibility of purchasing Tilling Motor Services from the Tilling group. Sir J Frederick Heaton negotiated for Tillings and the agreement to sell to the BTC was signed on the 5th November 1948, but back dated with effect from 1st January 1948. Hence ECOC and ECW passed completely into public ownership and ECW ceased to be a subsidiary of ECOC.

In late 1948, the BTC set up the Road Transport Executive, whose main function appears to have been the setting up of British Road Services (BRS) for freight, but also managed the road transport interests. Following the purchase of the Scottish Motor Traction Company road transport interests in March 1949, the Commission formed a Road Passenger Executive. After a change of government in 1951, a review of the 1947 Transport Act was undertaken and by a further Transport Act (1953), the BTC was established as the direct management organisation and its subsidiary Road Passenger Executive was abolished.

More legislation appeared on the statute book with the passing of the Transport Act (1962), which abolished the BTC and formed a Transport Holding Company to look after road and bus interests.

The emergence of the National Bus Company and the dreaded Leyland National . . .

A further Transport Act (1968) resulted in the setting up of the National Bus Company (NBC) on the 1st January 1969, under whose control came all of the Transport Holding Company's subsidiaries, including ECOC. The formation of the National Bus Company heralded many changes in the bus industry. Outwardly, to the travelling public, standardised liveries became the norm to present a corporate NBC image and not so obviously, a start was made on vehicle standardisation. In July 1969, British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) jointly formed the Leyland National Company Ltd to produce a new range of single deck buses. In 1970, control of this company passed to Bus Manufacturers (Holdings) Ltd, a company jointly owned by NBC and BLMC and the first bus duly appeared in prototype form in October 1970 as the Leyland National. The beginning of the end!!!

Operators acquired by ECOC between 1931 and 1971

(History of ECOC courtesy of the PSV Circle and is reproduced from the Eastern Counties Fleet History 2PF1 published by them in 1981)

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