In the genes

It’s always interesting hearing the stories of people who worked on Routemasters as drivers or conductors in London, decades ago. Andrew Johnstone did both.

He chanced upon our base in the north of Edinburgh while looking to buy a car from the nearby dealer. The next thing he knew, he was back in the cab for the first time in about 30 years, driving around the yard. “The doorway feels a lot narrower now,” he said. “How do I get down? I think I used to just jump out!”

The Red Bus/Andrew Johnstone

Buses are in Andrew’s blood. “My mother worked as a conductress in Alexander Fife’s Aberhill garage from 1959 to 1964 and I used to go Perth and back with her as a wee boy.

“Once, when I was in stuck in double English at Buckhaven High on a Friday afternoon, I saw the very first of the brand new Bristol Lodekka FLFs out the window – my bus home. That woke me up, I can tell you!

“In 1972 I moved to London and started as a conductor at Bow garage on route 25. I was only 18. Then I was based at Walthamstow garage – I lived in the area – and moved back to Bow, where I worked on the 8, 25 and 10. In 1978 I went to Hackney garage and conducted on the 30.”

It turned out that Andrew features in an excellent BBC Arena documentary, Little Platform, Big Stage, which looks at five decades of London bus conductors – he represents the 1970s, with an actor playing his younger self. The film was made in 2006 and you can see a clip here.

“In the early 70s being a conductor was a good job, and there was loads of overtime. But it has to be said, some conductors were damned lazy… there was one particular father & daughter/driver & conductor team who were notorious!”

Andrew got his PSV licence in 1978, at first driving the same 30 route that he used to conduct, all the way from Hackney Wick in east London to Roehampton in the south-west. “In September 1979 I moved to Poplar garage, which was a fantastic place. It was a huge shed but small operationally, so it was very friendly, and very international.

“Some buses were beautiful to drive and some were terrible. I swear the bad ones sometimes followed you around from garage to garage!

“In those days the union was strong. Your shift was 7 hrs 36mins – anything over was time and three quarters, I think. So if you were on a diversion you could make good money!”

Conductors had to deal with every kind of situation. Often they would get to know regulars on a route, becoming “like counsellors”, Andrew says.

Once a female West Indian conductor, Mrs Fowlin, got terrible racist abuse from a visiting South African mother and daughter who had tried to underpay. “She said in a wonderfully calm way: ‘madam, this is London, not Johannesburg, and you have to pay the correct fare or leave the bus.’ They had the cheek to write in and complain but I made sure we stood right behind her.

“But with the public and staff, good people far outweighed the horrible people.”

As a conductor Andrew would always let nurses from Barts hospital travel free. He recoils at the memory of a mother and small child waiting in the cold for almost an hour for the bus to turn up. “There was no way she was paying either.

“Some of the older conductors were brilliant. Dolly was tiny and gentle but she was so witty with the putdowns. Someone exposed himself on the top deck and she said: if that’s all you’ve got, I’d put it away!”

Later Andrew applied for higher grade training, becoming an inspector, then garage inspector. He was assistant manager at Victoria, in charge of route 11. “I still did the odd drive on the 11s myself. What better way to find out how things were on a route than to drive it?”

Sometimes he also took the wheel on the 9 from Mortlake to Liverpool Street and the 19 from Finsbury Park to Clapham Junction. Finally, Andrew was promoted to operating manager at Putney.

He can still rattle off every single garage on the alphabetical code. It’s not as simple as you might think – for instance, Willesden is AC.

Andrew lived in London for 30 years until 2002, followed by stints in Hampshire, Hong Kong and Sydney. These days he is settled back in Fife, at the start of the route.

— Sam Phipps