After a while, you start noticing old transport buildings, even when they’re no longer in their original use. There you are, walking down the street, when you notice out of the corner of your eye something that looks transport-y. And most of the time, when you research it later, you find out that the building has indeed had a transport-related earlier life. So it is with this week’s building. It’s still being used in a transport-related way, as a car garage. This is 25 Montague Place, Brighton.
On consideration, it quickly becomes apparent that car maintenance can’t have been its original use. It’s clearly too old. The shaped parapet gable at the peak of the main (western) elevation, and the Venetian window (three parts with an arch over the central section) suggest a building which predates its current use. In fact, it is 110 years old, or maybe 109, having been constructed in 1908/09. The glazed brick plinth at the bottom of the frontage is another neat touch that you wouldn’t get on a younger building of this sort. Although most of the building is constructed from brown bricks, red ones are used to dress the windows and the window sills are moulded; real attention to detail. It was designed by prolific local architecture practice Clayton & Black.
This is, in fact, one of Britain’s earliest and best-preserved surviving bus depots, dating back to the early years of the omnibus. It’s so important in telling the story of the history of public transport that it was Grade II listed by statutory heritage organisation Historic England in 2015. It is very little altered from its original appearance, and is a rare survivor of the days before the diesel engine became the ubiquitous power source for buses. And 25 Montague Place was built not for just for any kind of omnibus, but for electric buses.
Brighton, Hove and Preston United Omnibus Co Ltd (a distant ancestor of today’s Brighton & Hove Buses) introduced petrol powered buses to Brighton in 1903, but found itself on the receiving end of residents’ complaints about noise. Nothing changes, by the way: we used to get regular complaints from residents about noisy idling buses when I worked at Surrey County Council. Brighton, Hove and Preston United’s response was to purchase four electric buses, which entered service in 1909. The electric buses were based, maintained, and had their batteries recharged, at 25 Montague Place. The garage’s fleet was subsequently expanded in 1910 through the acquisition of 12 secondhand electric buses from the London Electrobus Company, which had recently folded.
It was the London Electrobus Company which had put into service Britain’s first fleet of electric buses, with a 20-bus operation which began in 1907. Though the buses were smaller and lighter than today’s equivalents, their batteries didn’t last for the entire the day, but they could be quickly and easily swapped for fresh ones in the middle of the day, in-between services. The technology might have seen further development and adoption had not the company’s actual – but hidden – purpose been the execution of a scandalous financial scam (as The Economist explains here). As it was, the fraud was exposed and the company folded. London’s early experiment with electric buses came to an untimely end.
At that time, you could find road vehicles powered by horses, steam, batteries and early internal combustion engines, and it wasn’t entirely clear which would win the technological battle, except that horses and their associated dung were clearly on the way to being replaced by something better. Just as today, the commercial vehicle sector can prove decisive in the choice of which technologies are adopted more widely across road vehicles. That’s why there’s so much development being put into electric buses today, and why electric buses are facing challenges from hybrid, hydrogen and gas-powered buses, as it becomes increasingly clear that diesel engine technology is a dead end and companies jockey to establish themselves as key suppliers of its replacement.
It is fascinating to speculate on what might have happened if the London Electrobus Company had been primarily a bus company, rather than the front for a con-job, and whether battery vehicle technology might have developed more quickly and to an extent that it saw off the challenge from internal combustion engines. After all, internal combustion engines suffered then from the same problems they suffer now: they are noisy, produce exhaust emissions at source (both of which are terrible characteristics in urban areas), and are highly inefficient converters of fuel to energy. It’s not the only time that an inferior technology has won a battle for supremacy; as the great VHS versus Betamax rivalry for dominance of the home video recording market demonstrated.
Brighton’s fleet of electric buses lasted until 1916 when Brighton, Hove and Preston United was taken over by Thomas Tilling, which replaced the electric buses with internal combustion engine buses. By that time it was clear that the internal combustion engine was to be the successful technology for powering the majority of buses, along with most other road vehicles. Amidst the noise pollution caused by widespread adoption of the internal combustion engine after the First World War, a few more buses powered by their own engines would have made very little difference. Luckily for Brighton, along with a few fortunate others, it also enjoyed for many years quiet and powerful trolleybuses on several of its bus routes.
Brighton’s trolleybuses stopped running in the 1960, but at long last electric buses are making a comeback in the city (and elsewhere in the UK too).
— The Big Lemon (@thebiglemon) May 10, 2017
In summer last year, local independent bus operator The Big Lemon was awarded £500,000 from the Department for Transport’s Low Emission Bus Scheme to buy three electric buses to add to the two it already has. The city’s largest operator, Brighton & Hove Buses, has also trialled electric buses on some of its routes. At long last, the legacy of 25 Montague Place is beginning to come good.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Historic England’s listing citation for 25 Montague Place, here
What is it That Roareth Thus? The Economist article on London Electrobus, published 10th July 2007, here [limited access]
…and anything else linked to in the text above.