Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

Devon General

Preserving the Legacy of the Devon General Bus Company

with Paul Jenkins on Thursday, 11 May 2023

Paul Jenkins very kindly provided his talk as a Word document with permission to copy and paste passages for this write-up, so the words are mostly his and many thanks are due to him for his generosity in this regard.

Our speaker is a Trustee and Treasurer of the Devon General Omnibus Trust (DGOT) and started his talk by giving some information about himself. He said he had been a bus enthusiast since his schooldays and was fortunate to have a 40 year career in the bus industry with the final 10 years spent as Managing Director of Thamesdown Transport, the council-owned bus company in Swindon. Following the sale of Thamesdown to the Go-Ahead group in 2017 Paul took the opportunity of early retirement. He was born in Exminster, brought up in Kent, and came back to Devon in 1974 to go to Exeter University and after graduation joined the National Bus Company as a senior management trainee. His first job after training was to be posted to the Western National head office in Exeter and in 1982 moved out into the field as deputy to the area traffic superintendents for Exeter (Sid Edworthy) and Torbay (Jack Jarvis). Following posts at various companies and then Thamesdown, retirement meant that he was able to buy an old Devon General bus.

Paul proceeded to talk about the Trust’s collection [which the DGOT website lists as being from 1952, 1953, 1957, 1964 and 1965]. Their first acquisition was 503 RUO back in 2013 and it is at last now in the final stages of restoration. VDV 798 was gifted to the Trust by Phil Platt before his untimely death in 2016, so as a tribute to him the restoration of this bus was prioritised and it saw its rally debut in 2021. ETT 995 was purchased in 2021 following a funding appeal, and came to the Trust fully restored. NTT 661 and VDV 817 were both purchased in restored condition from Phil Platt’s estate in 2017 after a funding appeal. Paul owns CTT 513C having bought it from Phil Platt’s estate and placed it on long term loan to the Trust.

As a charity it is crucial to get the buses out and about so that people can see and travel on them at running days, local events and country shows. Nostalgia plays a big part and provides many happy memories for people who were able to visit holiday destinations by train and coach in the days before mass car ownership and then using the local transport to visit destinations along the coast and trips to Dartmoor.

Paul proceeded to give a history of the company based on published work of Devon General’s historians such as Leslie Folkard, Colin Morris, and Roy Sambourne. The focus for this talk was on the years from Devon General’s formation in 1919 up to when it was absorbed by Western National in 1971 and subsequent re-formations into different companies. Devon General operated in South and East Devon, focused on Exeter and Torbay, but also running north up to Tiverton, east to Axminster, south to Kingswear and west to Okehampton. Surrounded by the Western National and Southern National companies, Devon General had joint routes with them outside its area to Minehead, Weymouth and Plymouth. These routes were shown on the 1954 route map.

Paul outlined localised public passenger transport that had existed in Exeter prior to 1919 such as horse-drawn trams to and from railway stations and routes as far as Mount Pleasant and Livery Dole and some horse-drawn bus services which were added to nearby villages. This was all taken over by Exeter Corporation in 1904 and replaced by electric trams in 1905. Paul also spoke about similar services which operated in Torbay and elsewhere in Devon. Against this background the Devon General Omnibus & Touring Company came into being — not through the efforts of some local entrepreneur, but as a business set up in South East London on 22 May 1919. Its directors included a commercial traveller, a fruit grower, a retired ironmonger and an accountant. Chaired by Charles Mill, it was his son, John Stuart Mill, who was appointed General Manager and tasked with setting up and running the company in Devon. His grandson, Andrew Mill, is now a patron of the Devon General Society.

Paul went into detail describing the different types of buses, makes, bodies, chassis, livery, and the famous Sea Dogs names they were given such as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir John Hawkins. He also outlined the different routes that were launched.

In 1921, Devon General opened its first depot at Blackboy Road in Exeter and small depots in Exmouth and at Kingsteignton, just outside Newton Abbot. Unfortunately, the company was getting into financial difficulties and had to take out a mortgage on some of these properties. Given its difficulties, Devon General turned down an approach from Exeter City Council to purchase the city’s tram system. In February 1921, the company was converted into a public company to attract more shareholders. Matters came to a head at the April board meeting, and both Charles Mill and John Stuart Mill resigned. New directors took over under the chairmanship of respected bus pioneer Walter Flaxman French and extra buses were acquired. However, the company was feeling the pinch from competition by the now-larger Torquay Tramways Company and from other smaller firms. In 1922 the expanding National Omnibus & Transport Company took a stake in Devon General, but matters were overtaken by an offer from Torquay Tramways to purchase the company or £36,000, which was accepted in June 1922.

The end of the 1920s saw the start of a big fleet renewal programme with ten Leyland Lion buses and six Leyland Lioness coaches arriving in 1928, and from 1929 the first of a modern generation of vehicles arrived with the delivery of six Leyland Tiger TS2 coaches. In Exeter, the growing number of services was giving terminus problems around the Theatre Royal stop in New North Road. In 1930, Devon General opened a bus station at Paul Street on land leased from the City Council. An existing building was adapted to provide waiting rooms, and enquiry, left luggage, and parcels offices. The City Council retained the cleared site at the lower end of Paul Street for use as a car park and a coach station. After the war the bus station was extended by incorporating the car park alongside. By the 1950s Paul Street was no longer adequate for the number of services using it, and the increasing sizes of the buses themselves, and it was eventually replaced in 1964 with a new bus and coach station in Paris Street [and replaced again in very recent years with a new bus station on another part of the site].

Much of Paul’s talk concerned the different styles of vehicles which were added to the fleet over time the take-over of other companies — Grey Cars which was transferred to Greenslades Tours in 1971, Fleet Cars and Comfy Cars, changes in livery colours, different braking systems, single deckers, double-deckers, open rear access buses and those with closing doors, along with the myriad changes taking place at other depots all over Devon as well as Exeter. After 1971 Devon General in effect became the Exeter and Torbay area of Western National. The final chapter came in 1979 with the news that all future Devon General repaints would be in the leaf green livery used by Western National.

To close off this brief description from Paul’s extensive history a quote from the website: “The aim of the Trust is to advance the education of the public in the history of public road transport and in particular the history of the Devon General Omnibus and Touring Company and its successors. DGOT is a member of the National Association of Road Transport Museums.” An appeal from Paul is that “we welcome donations via our website!

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