Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company (Midland Red) 1905-1981

The origins of the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company Limited are rooted in some of the early omnibus services that operated in Birmingham.

John Smith was an early entrepreneur, operating the first horse omnibus between Snow Hill and Bristol Road Toll Gate, in 1834.

Individuals provided most of the horse omnibuses, although early companies, such as the Birmingham Omnibus Conveyance Company and the Midland Omnibus Company flourished and died in the early part of the century.

On the 1st August 1895, the omnibus services operated by Freeman (whose service ran from New Street to Pershore Road), Sumner Brothers (High Street to Shirley) and Twist and Young (John Bright Street to Balsall Heath), were amalgamated under the banner of the Birmingham and District Omnibus Company Limited.

In October 1896 the omnibus services of R.W. Brown, G. and W. Coldicutt, J. Jeanes, F. Thompson, H. Tye (who was trading as the Handsworth Bus Company), and C. Winkett, were acquired, promoted by a financier, one Claude Tebbitt, and, along with the Birmingham and District Omnibus Company, they formed the basis of the Birmingham General Omnibus Company Limited.

On the 4th March 1897 the new company acquired the business of Mr. C. Lane, Small Heath, who subsequently took over as Managing Director. The Company at this time had around 70 omnibuses and over 500 horses, however, it was not a financial success and in 1899 the Official Receiver was called in.

On the 27th September 1899 the British Electric Traction Company (who were busily acquiring every company in the Birmingham area they could lay their hands on), purchased the assets from the Receiver.

Still trading as the Birmingham General Omnibus Company, an order for new omnibuses was placed with Birch Brothers, of London, in 1900. In order that the omnibuses should stand out, it was requested that they be painted a bright red.

On the 1st January 1902, the Birmingham General Omnibus Company came under the control of the Omnibus Department of the Birmingham and Midland Tramways Company Limited.

In June 1902, the BET acquired the City of Birmingham Tramways Company, which operated 45 horse buses in addition to a number of tramcars. The omnibuses were put in the charge of Mr. Power who was already responsible for the omnibuses operated by the Birmingham General Omnibus Company.

Early in 1903, the Birmingham Motor Express Company was formed. Initially, a few trips daily were operated between Birmingham Town Hall and the Plough and Harrow Hotel, with the view to establishing a regular service, but although application was made to run buses within the City of Birmingham, a regular service did not materialise.

However, in December 1903, the Company increased its capital and purchased six Milnes-Daimler double-deck buses, registered O264-269.

It was intended to operate between New Street and Hagley Road, but by April 1904 only three of the new vehicles were in service, sufficient to provide a 20-minute service between the Grammar School and the Bear Hotel, Bearwood.

The remaining buses arrived over the next few weeks, and, after a successful period, further buses were ordered.

In order to attract new capital to the business the directors of the Birmingham Motor Express Company registered a new company, the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company Limited, on the 26th November 1904.

However, the general public could not be persuaded to invest substantial amounts in the new company and the BET eventually acquired the majority shareholding.

On the 1st June 1905 the horse omnibus departments of the Birmingham General Omnibus Company and the City of Birmingham Tramways Company, along with the Birmingham Motor Express Company were sold to the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company.

Up until the 31st July 1905 the acquired services were operated by the Birmingham Motor Express Company but on the 1st August 1905, the BMMO commenced operations in its own right.

The initial motorbus fleet consisted of nineteen double-deck buses from the former Birmingham Motor Express Company, a mixture of chassis makes, including Milnes-Daimler, Thorneycroft, Dourkopp and Wolseley, and four, double-deck Dourkopp’s from the City of Birmingham Tramways Company.

The reliability of the early motorbuses was poor and in view of the constant breakdowns and licensing problems, the BMMO decided to replace all the motorbuses with horse omnibuses from the 5th October 1907.

At that time, the Birmingham Watch Committee imposed a condition on the issue of omnibus licences to the effect that no omnibuses should run on tramway routes.

As Birmingham Corporation proceeded apace to develop its tramway network, any existing omnibus services supplying the same route had to be withdrawn. The BMMO’s operations were thus confined to areas were there were no tramways (principally the ex-Birmingham Motor Express Hagley Road and Harborne routes).

In 1912 another attempt to introduce motorbuses to Birmingham was made. This time three petrol-electric Tilling-Stevens double-deckers, (O8200-8202), were chosen and put into service in May 1912, one on each route, supplemented by horse buses.

By the end of 1912 the Company had thirteen similar vehicles in service. Further buses followed in 1913 and by June of that year, motorbuses were running on all the Company’s routes, only 17 horse buses remained.

The livery chosen was the red specified by the Birmingham General Omnibus Company in 1900, with black mudguards and silver roof.

Although, initially, the buses carried the magnet emblem of the BET, the fleetname MIDLAND in gold, black-shaded letters soon superseded this. Thus the Midland ‘Red’ nickname was coined.

In September 1913, Birmingham Corporation opened tramway routes along Hagley Road, and under the conditions imposed by the Watch Committee, the BMMO was obliged to withdraw its motorbuses from that route. At this juncture the Company became aware that it was going to be extremely difficult to expand its network of services within the city.

Birmingham Corporation already had plans to consolidate the operation of buses and trams within the city and, in February 1914, the Company and the Corporation signed an agreement, which permitted the Company to operate services into the city from places outside the city boundaries, subject to protective fares being charged.

As a consequence, the leasehold on the Tennant Street garage plus 30 vehicles was transferred to Birmingham Corporation and the BMMO moved to Bearwood, from where the Company pioneered countrywide bus services radiating from Birmingham.

The first such service commenced on 24th December 1913, to Walsall, quickly followed in 1914 by additional routes.

The standard vehicle used by BMMO was the petrol-electric bus, in which a large electric motor propelled the vehicle drawing on the electricity provided by a dynamo coupled to the petrol engine.

Fortunately for the Company, when vehicles were being commandeered for the First World War from 1914, the War Office were not in favour of these vehicles for war use and so the BMMO fleet remained intact.

This was not the case for many of the other operators, such as the BET-owned Worcestershire Motor Transport, whose vehicles, being of the more orthodox design, were requisitioned. The BMMO took over operation of these and other services during the war.

In February 1918, the BMMO took over operation of the North Warwickshire Motor Omnibus and Traction Company Limited, also a BET subsidiary, which had services in the Tamworth, Atherstone and Nuneaton areas, although it continued to operate as a separate entity until 1947.

This was added to the local Malvern services of W. and B. Woodyatt and C. L. Wells of Kingswinford already purchased.

After the war, further agreements concerning areas of operation were concluded with Walsall (1919), Coventry (1920), and Wolverhampton (1920) Corporations and premises were acquired at Coventry, Hereford, Stafford, Wolverhampton and Banbury.

New premises were constructed at Bromsgrove, Shrewsbury, Nuneaton and Leamington and a workshop was built in Carlyle Road, Edgbaston on a site purchased from the Daimler Company.

The first long-distance coach service (from Birmingham to Weston-super-Mare) was inaugurated on 7th May 1921, followed closely by a similar service to Llandudno on 6th June.

This was the year that saw the BMMO considering a lighter and livelier vehicle than the petrol-electric to compete with a number of small independents operating within BMMO territory.

Experiments with Garford, Ford and Tilling-Stevens vehicles culminated in the Chief Engineer (Mr. Wyndham Shire) recommending the construction of vehicles to the BMMO’s own specifications.

In 1922 the Company commenced services between Leicester and Coalville, Nuneaton and Coventry, for which purpose premises at Frog Island were rented.

Leicester was destined to become one of the BMMO’s most prosperous areas, despite considerable opposition, not least from Leicester Corporation Transport.

In 1927 a new 100-bus garage was built there, followed in 1937 by another of similar size and finally, in 1957 the Wigston depot was opened, providing accommodation for another 65 buses.

Production of the Company’s own vehicles started in 1923, the chassis being signified by the initials SOS, generally accepted as standing for ‘Shire’s Own Specifications’, a practice which continued up until 1940.

In 1926 Worcester Corporation decided to acquire the BET-owned tramways within the city boundary and at the same time sought powers to operate motorbuses.

The BMMO had been operating in the Worcester area since the First World War and, after protracted negotiations with the city council, agreement was reached whereby the BMMO operated all bus services within the city on behalf of the Corporation.

The agreement was for a period of 21 years from June 1928 and it gave the Corporation the entitlement to the net receipts from the BMMO mileage within the city boundary.

The policy of gradual replacement of the Black Country, BET-owned electric tramways by BMMO buses took place in this period, partially accelerated by the intense competition from other operators, which necessitated the BMMO Company operating over the tramway routes in response.

Up until this time the BMMO had avoided operating in competition with their parent company’s tramways, but now the increased mileage warranted the opening of new garages at Stourbridge, Dudley, Brierley Hill (a former tram depot), Oldbury and Cradley Heath.

The Burton and Ashby Light Railway ceased operations in February 1926 and the Kidderminster to Stourport tramway was abandoned in November 1928; BMMO buses replaced both.

Following the abandonment of many tramways, agreement had to be reached with the local authority over the operation of motorbuses, which, in many cases was based on the Worcester agreement of 1928.

An Act of Parliament in 1928 gave the Railway Companies the powers to operate motorbuses in their own right, however, rather than take part in fierce competition they decided to acquire a financial interest in the majority of existing omnibus companies.

Consequently, on 24th April 1930 the Great Western Railway and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway companies purchased fifty per-cent of the issued share capital of the BMMO.

The few bus services already operated in the Black Country by the Great Western Railway were merged with the BMMO services between 1930 and 1932. Six days later, on the 30th April, the BMMO purchased Black and White Motorways of Cheltenham, which had established a number of long-distance routes.

As a result, the ‘Associated Motorways’ was formed on 1st July 1934 to combine the long-distance routes of a number of operators in a ‘pool’ arrangement, the agreement being to operate these services as a joint network.

The Road Traffic Acts of 1930-1934 introduced a framework to control the operation of motorbuses and to regulate their design, construction and use. From this time the BMMO take-over of smaller independent companies increased.

It was now easier to purchase the licences of these operators than to waste time and effort in competing for the business, and in the period from 1931-1939 more than 150 small businesses were acquired.

Co-ordination of services between larger operators now made business sense and the first joint service, with West Bromwich Corporation, between West Bromwich and Bearwood commenced on 6th April 1935.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the BMMO fleet stood at 1309 vehicles and operated from 30 depots. With such a large fleet the BMMO operated throughout the war years under great difficulty.

Petrol was rationed and around 200 services had to be cancelled and a further 700 were curtailed. All long-distance services were suspended. Many BMMO buses were commandeered and the BMMO production line ceased operation, whilst part of the company’s depots at Bromsgrove, Hinckley and Shrewsbury were turned over to the war effort.

Replacement buses, which barely accounted for those requisitioned, were standard utility types of various makes.

The early postwar years saw the gradual restoration of services cut during war time, whilst the postwar housing boom saw an increase in the frequency and number of services needed.

A major rebuilding programme was carried out to cater for the increase in fleet strength which necessitated completely new garages at Ludlow, Birmingham (Sheepcote Street), Malvern, Lichfield, Leamington, Wigston, Nuneaton and Wolverhampton.

In addition modifications to garages at Sutton Coldfield, Banbury, Wellington, Bearwood, Evesham, Shrewsbury, Hereford, Bromsgrove, Tamworth, Stourbridge, Dudley, Kidderminster, Stafford, Hartshill and Rugby were made.

The workshops at Carlyle Road were completely rebuilt to cope with major overhauls at a rate of 1000 per annum.

Continuing rising costs and the levy on fuel oil increased by successive Chancellors of the Exchequer compelled the BMMO to increase fares for the first time in its history in 1951, subsequently further rises were needed to cope with ever increasing costs and dwindling passenger numbers.

Passenger numbers peaked in the mid-fifties close to 500 million, but the increase in private motoring and the loss of evening leisure traffic to the television caused passenger numbers to drop.

One important development was the introduction, in 1959, of the ‘Midland Red Motorway Express’. With the new M1 motorway still under construction, the BMMO, with considerable foresight, applied for road service licences to operate a fast express service to London from Birmingham via the new motorway.

Since the service was planned to be non-stop and high speeds were envisaged a special coach was needed for the purpose. The BMMO already had a vehicle, the C5, which almost met the specifications, it was only necessary to fit a turbo-charger to the engine, incorporate a new gearbox with overdrive and the vehicle was ready.

The addition of a toilet compartment completed the specification and the ‘new’ coach was ready for the motorway. The service was inaugurated on 2nd November 1959, the same day as the new M1 was opened.

Further high-speed routes were introduced as more motorways opened up, including services to Coventry and Worcester.

In 1961 the BMMO leased land from Birmingham Corporation for a period of 99 years, in order to construct a new bus station. Facilities were provided for the overnight parking of buses, along with fuelling, washing and some maintenance. The bus station was opened on 1st November 1963.

The BMMO has had a continual battle to procure sufficient staff to man its services since the beginning of the Second World War.

The problem was perceived to be the shortage of suitable accommodation in the immediate postwar period and so the Company purchased premises in Leamington, Sutton Coldfield and Dudley to be used as staff hostels.

By the mid-1960’s, however, the staff shortage had become acute. There was also a shortage of engineering staff to maintain and overhaul BMMO vehicles and the work was often contracted out.

This resulted in the decision to cease production of BMMO vehicles in favour of commercially produced buses, the final BMMO bus coming off the production line in 1970.

The fifty per cent holding in the BMMO purchased in 1930 by the Great Western and the London, Midland and Scottish Railways, had, by this time, passed, through nationalisation, into the Governments’ hands.

In 1967, the Transport Holding Company (who held the shares on the Government’s behalf) made an offer for the bus interests of the BET, which was subsequently accepted and on 14th March 1968 the BMMO came under the control of the Transport Holding Company.

The arrangement was short lived, however, since on 1st January 1969, the National Bus Company was created and the BMMO became a subsidiary.

Later in 1969 the creation of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive brought an element of uncertainty into the running of services within the PTE’s operating area. It had been charged with co-ordinating all the bus and rail services within the newly created West Midlands county boundaries.

After protracted negotiations on the possible integration of services it was decided that the only solution was for the PTE to purchase all of the BMMO’s services operating entirely within the new county.

On the 3rd December 1973, 413 vehicles, 6 depots and a number of staff, were transferred to the PTE. In recognition of the fact that the ‘Birmingham’ part of the BMMO name had been largely removed from the company’s territory, the name was officially changed to the Midland Red Omnibus Company Limited in March 1974.

Faced with these losses, the Midland Red Company looked to strengthen operations elsewhere and in the same period took over the services of Cooper, Green Bus, Hoggins and Harper Brothers.

In each case Midland Red acquired vehicles which were integrated into the fleet, whilst the Harper Brothers garage was used for a number of years.

In 1976 services were improved in the new town area of Redditch under the Reddibus fleetname, whilst the rural areas of Worcestershire suffered the brunt of the cuts and the garage at Malvern closed on 1st October 1976.

In 1977, however, the Midland Red Company opened a new garage at Cannock, to replace the Cradley Heath garage and the former Harper Brothers depot at Heath Hayes.

Confronted with the ever-increasing rate of inflation, the Company introduced its Viable Network Project, later renamed the Market Analysis Project.

Each of the Company’s operating areas was closely examined to determine travel patterns and requirements, and a revised network of services, covering the majority of passengers’ travelling requirements, whilst using fewer vehicles, was designed.

The guiding principle was that each garage should be financially self-supporting. By 1981, the Midland Red Company had been divided neatly into small operating groups, and, in February 1981, it was announced that the Company was to be split into five separate operating units.

As a result, the Midland Red Omnibus Company as such ceased to trade on the 5th September 1981 and passed, like so much of our transport heritage, into history.

In producing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
A History of the Midland Red (RC Anderson, David & Charles, 1984); Midland Red – Glory Days, (Mike Greenwood, Ian Allan, 1998); PSV Circle Fleet Histories 2PD2, PD2B  (1972, 1964).