Barrie Hedges shares the story of family business Reliance Motor Services

PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 July 2020

Chaddleworth outing in the late 1930s (c) Thomas W W Knowles

Chaddleworth outing in the late 1930s (c) Thomas W W Knowles

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In the days before the motor car took over our lives, most people relied on the country bus. Barrie Hedges shares the story of family-owned business Reliance Motor Services, which served rural West Berkshire.

Barrie HedgesBarrie Hedges

Wind the clock back 100 years and you would find that, as Berkshire emerged from the devastating First World War, life in the Downland villages north of Newbury was very different to the chocolate box existence of today.

In a place like Brightwalton, there was no electricity. The water with which you made your night-time cocoa came from a well that often ran dry in summer. Sometimes the water had, of necessity, to come from Dunmore Pond. Winters in those days before central heating tended to be much colder –a big freeze sometimes lasted months.

In many ways, the village was much better served than today, with its own resident doctor plus a shop, post office, baker, blacksmith, carpenter-come-wheelwright, coal merchant and dressmaker. Most of the other jobs were on the farms, where men and horses provided all the power that was needed.

Generally, people looked inwards rather than outwards and rarely journeyed beyond their own parish boundaries. They wanted little that their own largely self-sufficient community couldn’t provide. If they did, there was always the local carrier to fetch things like prescriptions, shoes, clothes and other fine goods from the wider range 
of shops in Newbury.

Reliance Motor Services coverReliance Motor Services cover

“The Brightwalton carrier at that time was my grandfather, 28-year-old George Hedges,” says author Barrie Hedges. “Freshly returned from service in France, he had taken on the carrier business that ran via Lilley, Catmore, North Heath, Winterbourne, Boxford and Bagnor to Newbury. It was a round that his father, James, had bought from a neighbouring carrier two years earlier. James was really the local woodman and had no plans to change direction; he simply wanted to give George and his young schoolmistress wife, Lizzie, 
a future.”

It was, however, a time of massive change, adds Barrie, and George’s war experience told him that the future lay not in horses but in motorised transport, and in giving local people the chance to travel to better paid jobs and to enjoy the freedom that had suddenly been given back to them. Days out at the south coast suddenly looked very appealing to a generation with expanding horizons and great expectations.

It was the dawn of a very different era for country villages – one in which the country bus would be at the very heart of a new way of living.

The story of how George went on to establish Reliance Motor Services as the bus operator serving Brightwalton and a clutch of other villages is now told in a book Barrie has written with his school days friend David Wilder.

Chaddleworth outing in the late 1930s (c) Thomas W W KnowlesChaddleworth outing in the late 1930s (c) Thomas W W Knowles

“We set out to tell a story not just of a bus company but of a whole fascinating tranche of Berkshire’s social history,” says Barrie. “It was from David that the original momentum to tell the Reliance story came. He loved the company dearly right the way through its existence. He came and talked to a Hedges family gathering four years ago and astonished us all with the extent of his knowledge of every bus the company ever owned and every twist and turn along its path. As someone who has spent his working life writing, I soon shared his long-held view that there was a book waiting to happen.”

David has only recently retired after 50 years as a senior manager in the bus industry, most recently with Newbury & District. “I remember the sound of the Reliance service bus passing our home at Chaddleworth before I could even walk,” he says. “Very soon I knew that my future lay in the bus industry.”

He relates in the book the ‘treat’ of visiting the Reliance depot at Brightwalton as a child while recovering from debilitating bouts of asthma. He tells also of a trip to London for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 (the whole village went in a Reliance convoy). “I was very small but vividly recall a dream on the way home built around the musical sound of the gearbox, the gentle roar from the petrol engine, the smell of hot petrol and oil and the slightly rough feel of the green moquette seats,” he says. “I was hooked for life!”

Fleet No 47 (c) David Wilder/Thomas W.W. KnowlesFleet No 47 (c) David Wilder/Thomas W.W. Knowles

While David contributed his encyclopaedic knowledge of Reliance and the industry, Barrie tackled the family and social history of the time and discovered much about his family that he hadn’t known previously, most especially his grandfather as not just a pioneer but was someone who worked tirelessly for the communities in both Brightwalton and Chaddleworth.

“In my childhood, Brightwalton was extraordinarily vibrant for a small village. It had both Reliance and the equally successful haulage firm Sayers Transport Services within 100 yards, both growing businesses that ran large vehicles on narrow country lanes. When both moved away in the 1960s and 1970s, the village changed beyond measure, lost many of its jobs and later faced losing its school,” says Barrie.

“My grandfather had stood back from Reliance in the late 1940s to make way for his three elder sons – Alan as managing director, Colin looking after logistics and planning, and Gordon, my father, with responsibility for engineering. Together, they made a formidable team that carried Reliance through years of rapid expansion.”

The company gave up its country bus licences in 1966 and moved increasingly towards private hire, excursions and express services. It had also by that time moved its headquarters from Brightwalton to much larger premises in Boundary Road, Newbury, where it was widely recognised as one of the best-run independent bus companies 
in the UK.

The company was still flying high in the 1980s, but with the directors constantly fearing nationalisation and with retirement beckoning, the decision was finally taken to close its doors at the end of 1985 and sell the vehicles and premises.

Barrie and David’s book has 150 photos and draws on the memories of drivers, conductresses, engineers and others who simply knew Reliance or travelled with it. “It relies in particular on members of my family, notably my cousin, Gordon Hedges, son of Alan, who was the only member of my generation to have actually worked for it long term and who made a massive contribution in later years,” says Barrie.

“The book also gave me a reason to re-visit Brightwalton to re-evaluate my childhood village in its de-industrialised state. My verdict? It is much changed, but still very buoyant in new ways.”

Reliance Motor Services: The Story of a Family-Owned Independent Bus Company by David Wilder and Barrie Hedges is published by Pen & Sword and can be ordered from pen-and-sword.co.uk (£30, but is currently on offer at £24).

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