From a pony and trap to popstars bus firm’s success story

Date: Friday 18th January 2008

A FAMILY bus firm that began with a pony and trap during World War I and which is situated in England’s highest village now transports international music stars all over Europe.

However, despite its celebrity clients, Wright Bros. (Coaches) Limited maintains its dedication to the local services it provides from its base at Nenthead, near Alston, which sits 1,500ft above sea level.

Wright Bros. was started in a loose form in the early 1900s with a pony and trap run by Mary Wright during the First World War. Mary’s husband, Ned, was unusual in the Nenthead area in that he was not connected to the mines but was a gamekeeper for an absentee landowner.

He and Mary had five sons and five daughters and during World War I Ned and two of his sons, Tom and Jimmy, joined the forces. Ned went into the Royal Flying Corps and Tom eventually into the Tank Corps.

During this period there was no method of communication between Nenthead and Alston, which was both the market town and railhead, and to ensure Mary had a regular income Tom bought a pony and trap which she used to run a service to connect with the trains.

Before the war Tom had worked in a coal mine at Newcastle, but he left the Army with a great knowledge of mechanical engineering, and used part of his officer’s gratuity to buy a model T Ford, with which he and Jimmy continued the taxi service started by his mother.

At first the business was firmly established as a taxi firm but after a short time Jimmy left to join the Majestic bus service at Ebchester. In 1924 Tom was joined by two other brothers, George and John, and a 14-seat Ford was purchased in order to start a regular service from Nenthead to Alston.

In 1925 Wright Bros. bought a Guy which had been converted from a lorry to a bus and started a service from Hexham to Penrith via Alston. The route was 44 miles along some of the toughest main roads in England, including the Alpine-style zig-zag into the West Allen Valley and the crossing of Hartside at 1,889ft the highest ‘A’ road pass in England.

At this early stage the business faced competition from a firm called Ridleys which first established the full Newcastle to Keswick service. However, Wright Bros. bought it out in 1926 and upgraded it to a daily operation throughout the year.

In 1926 a service was started down the West Allen Valley to Carrshield and Hexham, while contracts were also secured to carry the miners of Alston Moor to the mining areas of Haltwhistle.

Following a number of attempts to expand the business, Tom Wright began a service from Penrith to Wigton in 1929 and then extended it to Silloth, and as a result the firm was running buses almost from coast to coast. However, the problem of providing such a service so far from base meant defeat and the route was sold two years later.

In 1938 Tom Wright left the company after some dissension, buying the Nenthead Hotel and a local small anthracite mine. The two remaining brothers, John and George, formed the present limited company but Tom retained an interest in the firm and was instrumental in persuading the family to continue the business following the deaths of John and George.

Shortly before the Second World War Joe Rutherford joined Wright Bros. and he went on to become secretary and traffic manager before becoming an executive co-director alongside Clive Wright, son of John.

During the war express services were withdrawn and stage service mileage had to be cut by half. While long-distance services were not meant to operate, the Newcastle to Keswick route has always been licensed as a stage service.

EVACUEES

While the firm was theoretically not supposed to carry through passengers, the pressures to do so were great because pupils attending Tyneside schools had been evacuated to Penrith and Keswick. Therefore passengers were carried to and from Alston, and rebookings were made there.

The cut in stage mileage was also easily overcome. Until the war all operations were centred on Nenthead, resulting in considerable empty mileage. Therefore a garage was acquired at Newburn and, by basing some vehicles there, mileage was cut by half without affecting the public services.

In the early 1930s Wright Bros. had opened a booking office at Marlborough Crescent, the Newcastle bus station, and this was later bought by one of the daughters, Frances Wright, who turned it into a confectioners and booking office. A Newcastle base is still maintained by the firm today; now in Bulcher it supports the Easter to September daily Keswick service.

By the end of World War II Wright Bros. had a fleet of 27 vehicles and employed 53 staff. In addition to the public services it did a considerable amount of private hire and contract work for Alston Foundry and mines and schools near Alston and in Newcastle.

George Wright died in 1956 and his shares were taken over by Frances Reed (nee Wright). Day to day running of the business fell to Joe Rutherford and John Wright and by 1960 the fleet had been cut to 15 coaches.

Following the deat in 1964 of John Wright, his shares were distributed between his children, including his son, Clive, whose sons Gary and Ian now own the business.

The brothers both now live in Alston, although Gary in particular spends long periods away from home with the touring buses. Ian, aged 42, is married to Suzanne and they have two daughters. Gary, aged 46, is married to Brenda and has two children aged 21 and 17.

In 1985 the rural company moved into a new venture when it began operating sleeper coaches for rock and pop groups, with the first being or a Spear of Destiny tour to the Rhine Valley. Since then it has transported road crew for the Michael Jackson “Bad” tour, Beyonce, Pink Floyd, Tom Jones, Bruce Springstein and a host of other international names.

At one point the business had four converted tour buses at a cost of around £250,0000 each, but now operates just two. Last year the firm was contracted for the Kerrang! and NME tours as well as travelling to the Ukraine with George Michael.

The firm’s coaches are also in their second season of transporting the Newcastle Eagles basketball team and Whitley Warriors ice hockey team all over the country. They have been used by the Tynedale Rugby Club, based at Hexham, for 12 years.

Since the turn of the millennium there have been a number of changes, as the operation has been affected by cutbacks in the amount of subsidies given to bus providers. Cumbria County Council is conducting a survey at the moment and there is talk of the long-established Newcastle service, which has run since the late-1920s, being cut.

Ian Wright said: “What the council is saying is that anybody from Alston who wants to go anywhere can go to Carlisle, but they don’t need to go to Newcastle or Hexham.

“We are strongly affiliated with Hexham and Newcastle because we are so close to the county border, but the council is saying there’s a bus service to Carlisle by ourselves and Stagecoach.

“It says people can get to Carlisle and then across to Newcastle and Hexham, but if that service goes then there’s a great chance the Newcastle to Keswick service will not be able to continue to be run in July, August and September.”

Wright Bros. also does a lot of work for the Robin Hood activity centre, near Slaggyford. This and long distance runs abroad help make up for some of the losses of school and public service contracts.

One of the major issues facing the firm is trying to get planning permission to knock down the garage at Central Garage, Nenthead, and build a new one.

It bought the old smelt mill when all mining finally ceased for only £200, but the building is dilapidated and in desperate need of upgrading.

Ian said: “With the garage being the old washing mine for the lead mines it’s classed as being built on contaminated land, so they are saying the land needs to be remediated. But a few years ago there was houses built over the road in a spoil heap.

“It’s probably one of the least contaminated areas because everything was moved off here once it was processed and on to spoil heaps. We feel bureaucracy is standing in the way of progress. We want to improve the site in the village because it’s become an eyesore and because of the way it’s built it’s virtually impossible to repair.”

He added that if the firm could not get permission, then it would have to consider relocating the business to Newcastle. That would be a real shame for Nenthead because Wright Bros. was the main employer in the village and currently employed around 20 staff on a year-round basis.

“If we weren’t here then the number of buses would be reduced. That would affect Cumbria County Council’s budget because it would have to send school buses from greater distances.

“There’s a lot of important reasons why the buses should be encouraged to be allowed to develop and encouraged to stay here,” said Ian.

The company is looking to spend around £100,000 on a new garage which would house the coaches and provide space for mechanical work, thus beginning another chapter in its long-running story.