A brief history of an unique vehicle by Ion Castro of the Hastings Trolleybus Restoration Group.
On the first of April 1928 Hastings was in the forefront of transport technology, the ageing fleet of tramcars on their worn out track was being replaced with trolleybuses; these electrically powered vehicles were freed from the constraint of rails and ran, quietly and efficiently on pneumatic tyres, just like ‘ordinary’ internal combustion engined buses but without the noise, vibration and fumes. Trolleybuses drew their power from wires suspended above the road carrying 500 volts DC.
At the time, the fleet of 50 single deck and 8 open-top trolleybuses (built on the Guy BTX6 three axle chassis with both rear axles powered) was one of the largest in the country but what made the fleet unique was the 8 open-toppers, no other town in the whole world had purpose-built open top double deck trolleybuses (the closest that any other town got was Bournemouth chopping the top off a few of theirs in the mid 1950’s).
By 1939 replacement of the trolleybus fleet with more modern vehicles was being planned and the first closed-top double deck AEC’s were being delivered by 1940. The population of Hastings was falling because of the possibility of it being an invasion site so many of the single deckers saw further service by going north to places like Nottingham, Mexborough and Derby. The old double deckers, considered by many to be old fashioned-looking when delivered new, were unceremoniously scrapped during 1939 / 40 with exception of DY4965 and retained as a works car, the seats upstairs and down were ripped out, the lower deck filled with traction batteries and a small stepped gantry fitted on top so that the vehicle could be used for overhead line repairs. A spring-loaded towing eye was fitted under the rear platform and is still there.
After the war this unique vehicle languished at the back of Bulverhythe Tram Depot (which is still there as Coleman’s soft-drinks depot on Bexhill Road, St.Leonards) and was faced with an uncertain future until Hastings Tramways decided to revive the pre-war tradition of decking out vehicles with lights to celebrate special events – in this case the Coronation of our present Queen, and so, with seats restored and the ‘bus painted in a ‘Royal Maroon’ and cream livery and proudly proclaiming that it was 25 years old this unique vehicle re-entered service carrying a placard above the cab proclaiming the new Queen, this was later replaced with a life-size cut-out of the Conqueror and in typical Hastings fashion the vehicle was unofficially renamed “Happy Harold” rather than any allusion to William!
The open-topper proved to be an enormous success and was in service right up to the end of the system in mid 1959 and even headed the final procession carrying dignitaries, under the wires over the route to Bexhill and back for the final time. Maidstone and District Motor Services, who had owned Hastings Tramways since 1935 decided that, since the ‘bus was such a popular attraction it should have life after electricity and a brand-new Commer TS3 diesel engine and gearbox were fitted in time for the ‘bus to re-enter service in the 1960 season and it continued to run up and down the seafront until 1968 when, following a small fire in the lower deck, it was withdrawn from service and stored.
By 1975 Maidstone and District and the M&D and East Kent Bus Club had restored the ‘bus to near-original condition (apart from the diesel engine) and the vehicle was seen on occasional outings as far afield as Windsor in 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
In 1980 Hastings Borough Council acquired the vehicle for £1000 to ensure its survival and it appeared at rallies promoting Hastings Tourism. Disaster followed the hurricane in October 1987 when the roof of the shed housing the bus was blown in, taking Harold’s upper deck with it. The Hastings Trolleybus Restoration Group was formed and they, with specialist help from the Borough Council’s direct labour departments spent 1600 hours working on the vehicle leading up to its re-launch in 1989.
1999 saw the failure of one of the rear axles and new bronze crown wheel was cast, machined and fitted and an MOT obtained. 2002 saw more major work on the entire braking system – the alloy covers for the brake assister had corroded through and the diaphragms had perished. Tom Bewick of Bewick Engineering in Hastings rebuilt the whole Westinghouse air brake system, and obtained brand new diaphragms from Westinghouse in the US who still had some in stock! The front brake alloy backplates had both cracked and the brake shoes (alloy on the front and three per side) had also fractured so these were replaced. By 2005 the Commer compressor, inaccessibly mounted on the side of the TS3 diesel unit and tucked into the inside of the Guy chassis member, gave up after only 45 years’ service. Impossible to remove without removing the engine it was replaced by an all-electric 24volt self-contained state-of-the-art compressor sourced from the US and fitted under the driver’s seat. A successful class 5 MOT followed in time for Hastings Week in October 2006.
Happy Harold was still making occasional outings in 2007 – in March as a grandstand for the Hastings Half Marathon and on the May Day Holiday he mingled with the thousands of bikers that descend on the town and of course he starred at our 15th annual meeting / rally in Hastings on May 20th. Sadly, all is not well, ominous and expensive-sounding rumblings are coming from underneath so Harold made his last outing on June 16th to the Mayor’s Charity Fair in Alexandra Park in Hastings. Repairs are in hand and we are aiming to have this incredible old vehicle back on the road for his 80th birthday on April 1st.
When you see “Happy Harold” try to imagine it in its heyday, before the noisy diesel engine was fitted – silent, energy efficient and non-polluting, using no energy at all whilst standing still and even producing electricity through its regenerative braking and then remember it was built 80 years ago and ask your self, have we really made any progress at all with public transport.
There’s more information about Happy Harold and other Hastings trolleybuses on the group’s web site – www.1066.net/trolley and don’t forget the annual meeting on the Oval in Hastings on May 18th 2008.
Hastings Town February 2008
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