Bristol Omnibus Company
The Bristol Omnibus Company is the former name of the dominant bus operator in Bristol
Bristol is a city, unitary authority area and ceremonial county in South West England, with an estimated population of 433,100 for the unitary authority in 2009, and a surrounding Larger Urban Zone with an estimated 1,070,000 residents in 2007...

, one of the oldest bus companies in the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

. The company once ran buses over a wide area of Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and neighbouring counties. The name was in operational use until 1985. At various times in its history, the company was also known as Bristol Tramways (long after it had ceased to operate trams), Bristol Blues (even after its buses were painted green) or plain Bristol.

From 1887 to 1957, the legal name of the company was Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company Ltd. From 1999 to 2003 its legal name was First Bristol Buses Ltd, and since 2003 it has been First Somerset & Avon
First Somerset & Avon
First Somerset & Avon Ltd provides bus services in Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Bath and West Wiltshire. It is part of First Group. First Somerset & Avon operates an extensive network of services in and around Bath, Bridgwater, Bristol, Taunton, Trowbridge, Wells, Weston-super-Mare and...


Early history

The Bristol Omnibus Company traces its origins to 1875, when the Bristol Tramways
Bristol Tramways
Bristol tramways were operated from 1875, when the Bristol Tramways Company was formed by Sir George White, until 1941 when a Luftwaffe bomb destroyed the power station.-History:...

 Company was formed by Sir George White
George White (businessman)
Sir George White, 1st Baronet was an English businessman and stockbroker based in Bristol. He was instrumental in the construction of the Bristol tramways and became a pioneer in the construction of electric tramways in England. In 1910 he formed, with his brother Samuel, the Bristol Aeroplane...

 to begin a horse-tram service from Upper Maudlin Street to Blackboy Hill. In 1887, the Bristol Tramways Company merged with the Bristol Cab Company to form a new company, Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company Ltd.

In 1887, the company began a horse-bus service to Clifton, and later started several more horse-bus services to complement the tramways.

In 1895, the company began to operate electric trams, and in 1906 introduced motor buses on the route between the city centre and Clifton
Clifton, Bristol
Clifton is a suburb of the City of Bristol in England, and the name of both one of the city's thirty-five council wards. The Clifton ward also includes the areas of Cliftonwood and Hotwells...

. Rapid expansion of its bus services followed, in both Bristol and the surrounding country areas. The company opened branches at Bath in 1909, at Weston-super-Mare
Weston-super-Mare is a seaside resort, town and civil parish in the unitary authority of North Somerset, which is within the ceremonial county of Somerset, England. It is located on the Bristol Channel coast, south west of Bristol, spanning the coast between the bounding high ground of Worlebury...

 in 1910, at Cheltenham
Cheltenham , also known as Cheltenham Spa, is a large spa town and borough in Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds in the South-West region of England. It is the home of the flagship race of British steeplechase horse racing, the Gold Cup, the main event of the Cheltenham Festival held...

 in 1912 and at Gloucester
Gloucester is a city, district and county town of Gloucestershire in the South West region of England. Gloucester lies close to the Welsh border, and on the River Severn, approximately north-east of Bristol, and south-southwest of Birmingham....

 in 1913. In 1912 the company also bought the Clifton Rocks Railway
Clifton Rocks Railway
The Clifton Rocks Railway was an underground funicular railway in Bristol, linking Clifton at the top to Hotwells and Bristol Harbour at the bottom of the Avon Gorge in a tunnel cut through the limestone cliffs. The upper station is close to Brunel's famous Clifton Suspension Bridge and is located...

, which closed in 1934. After the First World War more branches followed at Swindon
Swindon is a large town within the borough of Swindon and ceremonial county of Wiltshire, in South West England. It is midway between Bristol, west and Reading, east. London is east...

 (in 1921), Wells
Wells is a cathedral city and civil parish in the Mendip district of Somerset, England, on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills. Although the population recorded in the 2001 census is 10,406, it has had city status since 1205...

 (in 1922) and Coleford
Coleford, Gloucestershire
Coleford is a small market town in Gloucestershire, England in the west of the Forest of Dean with a population of 8,351 . It is situated some four miles east of the Welsh border, and is close to the Wye Valley, a popular walking and canoeing area...

 (in 1924).

The company was not satisfied with the performance of the first buses it bought, and in 1908 began the manufacture of its own buses. The company soon began to sell its buses to other operators. For 75 years, Bristol buses
Bristol Commercial Vehicles
Bristol Commercial Vehicles was a vehicle manufacturer of in Bristol, England. Most production was of buses but trucks and railbus chassis were also built....

 were widely used in the United Kingdom, and were also exported to many countries.

In 1928, the company acquired control of another Bristol company, Greyhound Motors
Greyhound Motors
Greyhound Motors, or Bristol Greyhound, was a coach company formed in February 1921 to operate motor coaches from its base in Bristol, England.-History:...

, which had started the first long distance coach service between Bristol and London in 1925. The company continued to operate its coach services under the Greyhound name until 1972.

In 1929, the White family sold its controlling interest to the Great Western Railway
Great Western Railway
The Great Western Railway was a British railway company that linked London with the south-west and west of England and most of Wales. It was founded in 1833, received its enabling Act of Parliament in 1835 and ran its first trains in 1838...

, but by 1932 the railway sold its interest to the Western National Omnibus Company
Western National
Western National was a bus operating company in South West England from 1929 to the 1990s.-Early history:Western National Omnibus Company Ltd started in 1929 as a joint venture between the Great Western Railway and the National Omnibus & Transport Company...

, half owned by the GWR and half by the Tilling Group. In 1932 the railway transferred some of its bus services
GWR road motor services
The Great Western Railway road motor services operated from 1903 to 1933, both as a feeder to their train services, and as a cheaper alternative to building new railways in rural areas...

 to the company, in the Swindon and Weston-super-Mare areas and the service between Cheltenham and Oxford.

In 1930, the company sold its taxicab operations, which it had run since 1887, first with horses and from 1910 with motors.

Outside Bristol the company had operated a mostly rural bus network, but in 1936 the company took over the city bus services in Gloucester and later that year took over the two companies operating trams and buses in the city of Bath.

In Bristol the Corporation had the power to purchase the Bristol tramways. The option was never exercised, but led in 1937 to the formation of Bristol Joint Services, a joint undertaking between the company and the Corporation which controlled Bristol's city buses (and initially also its trams) until 1978.

In 1941, the last of Bristol's trams ceased operation, and from then on the company only operated buses and coaches - although it kept the Bristol Tramways name for some years.


After the Second World War, the new Attlee
Clement Attlee
Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee, KG, OM, CH, PC, FRS was a British Labour politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951, and as the Leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955...

 government took steps to nationalise much of the country's transport industry. As a result, in 1948, the Tilling Group sold its bus interests to the government, and Bristol Tramways became a state-owned company, under the control of the British Transport Commission
British Transport Commission
The British Transport Commission was created by Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government as a part of its nationalisation programme, to oversee railways, canals and road freight transport in Great Britain...

. Its chassis-building operation proved especially useful and, with the nationalisation of Eastern Coach Works
Eastern Coach Works
Eastern Coach Works Ltd was a bus and railbus body building company based in Lowestoft, England.-History:The company can trace its roots back to 1912, when United Automobile Services was founded in the town to run bus services. United began a coach building business at the Lowestoft site in 1920...

 of Lowestoft
Lowestoft is a town in the English county of Suffolk. The town is on the North Sea coast and is the most easterly point of the United Kingdom. It is north-east of London, north-east of Ipswich and south-east of Norwich...

, enabled complete buses, coaches (and even some lorry tractor-units for British Road Services and two railbuses for British Railways) to be built solely for the State sector.

The new regime resulted in some rationalisation of the company's area of operations. Two other companies, Red & White
Red & White Services
Red & White Services was a bus company operating in south east Wales and Gloucestershire, England between 1929 and 1978.Red & White evolved into Red & White United Transport Ltd, formed in 1937, which owned bus and road freight companies in the United Kingdom and southern Africa...

 and Western National
Western National
Western National was a bus operating company in South West England from 1929 to the 1990s.-Early history:Western National Omnibus Company Ltd started in 1929 as a joint venture between the Great Western Railway and the National Omnibus & Transport Company...

, both also now state-owned, ran buses in the Stroud
Stroud, Gloucestershire
Stroud is a market town and civil parish in the county of Gloucestershire, England. It is the main town in Stroud District.Situated below the western escarpment of the Cotswold Hills at the meeting point of the Five Valleys, the town is noted for its steep streets and cafe culture...

 area of Gloucestershire, and those operations were transferred to Bristol Tramways in 1950. The company was also given control of Cheltenham District Traction, originally a Red & White operation, which ran local bus services in Cheltenham. In return, Bristol Tramways gave up its bus operations in the Forest of Dean
Forest of Dean
The Forest of Dean is a geographical, historical and cultural region in the western part of the county of Gloucestershire, England. The forest is a roughly triangular plateau bounded by the River Wye to the west and north, the River Severn to the south, and the City of Gloucester to the east.The...


The 1950s were the peak years of the company's operations. It ran over 1,200 buses in an area stretching from Hereford to Salisbury and from Oxford to Bridgwater. From 1950 (when the company acquired the independent Dundry
Dundry is a village and civil parish, situated on Dundry Hill in the northern part of the Mendip Hills, between Bristol and the Chew Valley Lake, in the English county of Somerset. The parish includes the hamlets of Maiden Head and East Dundry...

 Pioneer), until 1966 (when the Severn Bridge
Severn Bridge
The Severn Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the River Severn between South Gloucestershire, just north of Bristol, England, and Monmouthshire in South Wales, via Beachley, a peninsula between the River Severn and River Wye estuary. It is the original Severn road crossing between England and...

 opened and Red & White started routes to Bristol), the company had a total monopoly of bus operations in Bristol, Bath, North Somerset and much of Gloucestershire. Until 1955, the company continued to manufacture buses, but the manufacturing operations were then separated into another company, Bristol Commercial Vehicles
Bristol Commercial Vehicles
Bristol Commercial Vehicles was a vehicle manufacturer of in Bristol, England. Most production was of buses but trucks and railbus chassis were also built....

 Ltd. In 1957, Bristol Tramways finally recognised reality and changed its name to the Bristol Omnibus Company Ltd. The company opened a new bus station at Marlborough Street, Bristol in 1958, and Bath bus station
Bath Bus Station
Bath bus station serves as part of an integrated transport interchange for the city of Bath, Somerset, England.The Manvers Street bus station opened in 1958 and operated until 2009 when it was replaced by the new bus station in Dorchester Street as part of the Southgate regeneration...

 at Manvers Street, Bath in the same year.

In 1963, the company attracted national attention when its operation of a colour bar
Racial segregation
Racial segregation is the separation of humans into racial groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a public toilet, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home...

, denying employment to non-white bus crews resulted in a 60 day boycott
Bristol Bus Boycott, 1963
The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ Black or Asian bus crews in Bristol, England. In common with other British cities there was widespread discrimination in housing and employment at that time against "coloureds." Led by youth worker...

, led by youth worker Paul Stephenson
Paul Stephenson (civil rights campaigner)
Paul Stephenson, born Rochford, Essex , is a community worker, activist and long time campaigner for civil rights for the British African-Caribbean community in Bristol. As a young social worker, in 1963 Stephenson led a boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company, protesting against its refusal to...

. After a bitter campaign the company finally climbed down and started to employ black and Asian crews in September of that year.

The 1960s and 1970s were years of declining bus usage, and the company struggled to make profits in the face of rising costs and falling revenues. Successive governments changed the structure of the state-owned bus sector: in 1962, the company was passed to the state-owned Transport Holding Company
Transport Holding Company
The Transport Holding Company was a British Government owned company created by the Transport Act 1962 to administer a range of state-owned transport, travel and engineering companies that were previously managed by the British Transport Commission ; it came into existence on 1 January...

, then in 1969 to the state-owned National Bus Company. In 1970, the operations of Western National in the Trowbridge
Trowbridge is the county town of Wiltshire, England, situated on the River Biss in the west of the county, approximately 12 miles southeast of Bath, Somerset....

 area were transferred to Bristol Omnibus.


In 1980, the new Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990...

 government embarked on a programme of deregulation
Bus deregulation
Bus deregulation in Great Britain came into force on 26 October 1986, as part of the Transport Act 1985.The 'Buses' White Paper was the basis of the Transport Act 1985, which provided for the deregulation of local bus services in the whole of the United Kingdom except for Northern Ireland and...

 and privatisation of bus services. In 1983 the National Bus Company divided Bristol Omnibus into two companies, a new company (Cheltenham and Gloucester Omnibus Company) for the operations at Gloucester, Cheltenham, Stroud and Swindon, and the original company with two operating units, one branded Citybus in the city of Bristol and one branded Bristol Country Bus for the remaining services (in the Bristol country area, Bath, Somerset and western Wiltshire). In 1985 Bristol Country Bus was rebranded Badgerline, and in 1986 the Bristol Country operations were transferred to a new company, Badgerline Ltd, which was sold to its management later that year. Also in 1986, the Cheltenham & Gloucester Omnibus Company was sold to its management, who in 1993 sold it to Stagecoach
Stagecoach Group
Stagecoach Group plc is an international transport group operating buses, trains, trams, express coaches and ferries. The group was founded in 1980 by the current chairman, Sir Brian Souter, his sister, Ann Gloag, and her former husband Robin...


The stub of the original company, now confined to city services in and around Bristol, traded under the name 'City Line' from 1985. In September 1987 the company was sold to Midland Red West, another privatised bus company which had been bought by its management the year before.

Subsequent history

In April 1988 Midland Red West was itself sold to Badgerline. In 1995 the Badgerline group merged with Grampian Regional Transport to form First Bus, so that Bristol Omnibus Company became a subsidiary of First Bus, later FirstGroup.

The Bristol Omnibus name had fallen out of operational use for some time, and First Bus increasingly imposed its 'First' identity on its subsidiaries. Bristol Omnibus Company eventually changed its legal name to First Bristol Buses Ltd in 1999. The company changed its name again to First Somerset & Avon
First Somerset & Avon
First Somerset & Avon Ltd provides bus services in Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Bath and West Wiltshire. It is part of First Group. First Somerset & Avon operates an extensive network of services in and around Bath, Bridgwater, Bristol, Taunton, Trowbridge, Wells, Weston-super-Mare and...

 Ltd in 2003, and is now the First company operating in the Bristol country area, Bath and Somerset, but it remains the same legal entity incorporated on 1 October 1887.

See also

  • Buses in Bristol
    Buses in Bristol
    Buses in Bristol are the main form of public transport in Bristol, England. Most bus services are operated by First Bristol within the city, and First Somerset & Avon from the city to surrounding areas. Wessex Connect has a growing number of mainly council supported services...

  • List of bus operators of the United Kingdom
  • Open top buses in Weston-super-Mare
    Open top buses in Weston-super-Mare
    Open top buses in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, were introduced in 1950 and have run along the sea front every summer since. The current route runs from Weston-super-Mare railway station to Sand Bay and is operated by First Somerset and Avon....


  • Hulin, P (1974) Bristol's Buses Published by the author
  • Curtis, C and Walker, M (2007) Bristol Omnibus Services: The Green Years Millstream Books ISBN 978-0-948975-80-6
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