JAMES BUSES and
THE CENTRAL GARAGE
Though the days are now gone when most people travelled by bus and rail, it wasn't all that long ago, and many can still remember a time when private cars were a rarity, owned only by the well-off and professional classes. The 1960s probably marked the turning point, if there was one, when car ownership became common, as the change was a gradual process that has no discernible beginning. It was in this decade, too, that most of the railway branch lines were lopped off from the national rail network by the 'Beeching' cuts of Harold Macmillan's Conservative government — Richard, later Lord, Beeching being the Chairman of British Railways responsible for the closure programme after his notorious report of 1963.
Advertisement for John James & Sons published in the National Eisteddfod booklet when it was held in Ammanford in 1922. Note that they did funerals as well, and 'up-to-date' ones at that.
The closure of the Pantyffynnon to Brynamman branch line along the Amman Valley had actually pre-dated Beeching, as this was closed to passenger traffic in August 1958, remaining open only to coal traffic for the few mines that remained in the area. The Llandeilo to Carmarthen branch was closed in 1963 and the Brynamman to Swansea branch line along the nearby Swansea Valley had been abruptly closed even earlier, in 1950, just two years after nationalisation of the rail network. (For a brief history, with photographs, of the Amman Valley's railway stations from that era, click on the 'Photographs' button and there are three pages of photographs under 'Railway Stations').
The many small, usually family owned, bus companies started to disappear from the scene at about the same time, and car ownership grew exponentially throughout the subsequent decades. As a result, those of us who travel by public transport in rural areas today are as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth, as indeed is public transport itself.
So, if you linger awhile gentle reader, if only for nostalgia's sake, we'll chart the history of Ammanford's major bus company during these changing times — one John James and Sons, known to many as James the Garage, James the Buses or, to older folk, as James Mews.
But to begin at the beginning: in 1880, Mr John James started a business from a property in College Street, known as The Mews. It all started with salt being sold from a horse and cart and then branched out, within a very short period of time, to hiring out horse traps and brakes, taking goods and passengers from village to village. By 1912 the mechanically-propelled vehicle, the omnibus (the name was soon shortened to bus), was introduced, the decision probably influenced by his three sons — Percy, Angus and Linsay — who had by now joined the business.
By 1912 John James had acquired their first charabancs for use as private-hire vehicles. But it was in 1919 that the bus company proper started with a regular bus service in the Amman valley. Gradually the services built up and extended to Aberystwyth, Burry Port, Llanelly, Pontardulais, Neath, Tai'rgwaith,Brynamman and Swansea. At its peak services also operated from their garage at Ystalyfera to Neath, Rhiwfawr and Varteg.
During its lifetime James Buses had taken over four other companies: D Jones and Sons, Brynteg; Vernon Davies, Garnswllt; Jones Brothers, Brynamman; and Cambrian Motors, Clydach.
The firm was operated as a family business until 1950 when it was sold to the British Electric Transport Group but Mr Angus James, managing director of the family-run company, continued to act as general manager.
As well as being the managing director of John James and Sons, Mr Angus James was one of the founders of Ammanford Conservative Club, initially situated across the road from his garage. At this time there were probably fewer Conservative voters in the mining town of Ammanford than there were miners in Buckingham Palace but the club stayed open for a generation, heavily dependent on Labour-voting drinkers for much of its income.
A Stranger Calls ...
Not everyone, however, responded so positively to the business opportunities offered by the new mode of transport, or horseless carriage, as it was rather vividly described on its first appearance. The following story is remembered by Saron miner D Brin Daniel (19101992)
Fred Evans, or Fred y Sar (the Carpenter) to his work mates, was in his time without doubt a master craftsman coachbuilder, wheelwright, painter and varnisher. Along with this were his other trade of carpenter, builder of farm implements such as carts, gambos and other public demands on his trade during the pre-motor car era.
..... Fred Evans was among the most prosperous businessmen in the Amman Valley with his workshop and stores on a section of land behind where the Beynon Garages now stand at the junction of Florence Road and Llandybie Road, at Tirydail, Ammanford. Here at his workshop he employed as many as thirty workmen, craftsmen and labourers as the work demanded. A big employer for such a town as Ammanford during this period.
..... Notwithstanding this prosperity Fred Evans ended his days as a slag picker on Park Screens, a coal preparation plant for the Park and Saron Collieries.
..... How could such a tragedy happen to such a man? The following episode is a factual account of the story Fred Evans related to me when he confided to me the reasons for his downfall.
..... During, the 193040s, I was working on Park Screens along with Fred Evans and some thirty others ..... One day Fred went on to relate his personal experiences as a businessman.
..... During the late 1800s and early 1900s Fred Evans was building up his business. In a short time he was well established at his yard at Florence Road. The business had prospered into one of the largest within the Amman Valley with a reputation for good work among his customers, from the local farmers to the middle, and upper classes whose carriages, traps and other implements he built, and kept in repair.
..... One morning a stranger called at the Yard Office asking to see Fred. This person introduced himself as a representative of Ford Motor Cars, and that he had been advised to seek Fred's views on the possibility of Fred becoming the local agent for the Ford Company. During the discussion the Ford representative stated that with the introduction of the motor car on the road, horse transport was on the way out and short lived. This Fred could not accept as in his view horses had served man throughout the ages and would continue to do so for ages to come. So Fred refused this glorious offer.
..... About half a mile from Fred Evans' workshop, another person named David Jones had a similar business on a much smaller scale, in fact almost a one-man establishment. The Ford agent, after his failure to convince Fred on the future of the motor car and the effects on road transport, left Fred Evans and visited David Jones making him the offer of agency which David Jones accepted. Within a few years the motor car trade increased and the demand for Fred Evans' product diminished. This situation with the falling in his trade caused Fred quite a problem and worry which eventually led to alcoholism and a decline in his business, and finally bankruptcy.
..... Fred now entered the ranks of the wage labourer when the Amalgamated Anthracite Collieries Ltd employed him at Park and Saron Colliery as a carpenter. Fred, however, considered himself one of the elite among workmen, a tradesman. However, with the closure of Park Colliery during 1932, Fred's standard was again lowered to the status of a sawyer whose work consisted of the rough sawing of timber for use at the colliery. The final move for Fred was when the Colliery Company stopped this process at Saron Colliery moving all this work to Pantyffynnon Colliery. Fred, owing to his age and lack of call for his trade at the colliery, was now demoted to a slag picker on Park Screens where he ended his working days.
(D Brin Daniel, Saron miner. The full version of this story can be found in 'The Miner's Tale' in the 'People' section of this web site.)
But back to our story of John James and Sons. One of the sons, Angus, decided to seek a more adventurous life and parted with the family concern, taking up an appointment in the Colonial Service in Kenya. He returned in the early 1920s to become the secretary of the Company, by now a growing commercial venture.
As the popularity of the mode of travelling by omnibus grew, so did the number of operators, and with practically no restrictions or controls anyone could ply for passengers. Rivalry between companies became so intense, and reached such a competitive state, that it was not uncommon to find vehicles (and even their crews) returning to their depots, battle scarred, after skirmishes on the highway.
By 1924, Messrs. J. James & Sons, had a fleet of 12 buses on the road. Other operators were: Messrs. Rees Williams, who had 10 buses operating in the area; Messrs. Phillip Bros with 2; the Great Western Railways had 17; M.M.T. of Llandeilo had 3; and the South Wales Transport Company had 4.
Although it was necessary under the Local Government (Emergency Provisions) Act of 1916 for the County Council to hold a Register of 'wagonettes for hire on routes' on County roads, it was not a very effective means of control and the whole system appeared to be rather farcical with applications accepted as a matter of routine. Records show that in 1930 there were 17 separate omnibus companies operating in the Ammanford area, so the situation must have been particularly desperate. In a traffic census carried out at this period, it was stated that:
..... "About 800 times a day, a motor omnibus passes over the square".
It was obvious that something had to be done to exercise some control over the buses. The Ammanford Urban District Council, along with adjoining authorities, held several meetings in an attempt to bring about some semblance of order. It was a mammoth task, given the complexity of the timetables and routes, which was complicated even further by the vested interests of the various companies seeking prime operating times. The idea was correct, but with limited resources, in reality it was extremely difficult to oversee and impose even a semblance of order.
It was not until the introduction of the Road Traffic Act of 1930, when Local Authorities were given the power to enforce and control omnibuses in the form of licenses, that order was finally imposed. From that period on any form of expansion meant taking over or buying out an existing concern, along with its licence. In 1930, Messrs. J. James & Sons were successful in the purchase of William Davies Express Service operating out of Clydach, and in later years Brynteg Motors and M.M.T. were acquired.
Messrs. J. James & Sons became a Limited Company in 1931, with Mr John James and his three sons as directors, and Mr Angus James taking lead role as General Manager.
College Street 1913 showing John James Mews (top right) which became the James Bus garage in 1933.
In 1933, major improvements were carried out at The Mews, or by now more familiarly known as the Central Garage, to modernise its facilities. No doubt some can recall the attractive neon sign over the main garage entrance into College Street, with the outline replica of a double-decker bus, complete with flashing wheel spokes to simulate perpetual motion.
An industrial dispute over the recognition of a trade union at the company arose in 1935, turning to ugly scenes which eventually led to the reading of the riot act, following damage to the property by demonstrators. Missiles were thrown at the entrance doors and in the scuffle that ensued the neon display was badly damaged, and some protesters were arrested, to appear in the local magistrates court for unlawful behavior. (For a detailed account of this dispute, see 'The 1935 Ammanford Bus Strike' and 'The Pick and Shovel: The creation of a Working Men's Club' in the 'History' section of this web site.)
The Company soon grew into one of the most important bus operators in the area. The Central Garages were yet again to be enlarged when, in 1936, the former Pooles Cinema in Margaret Street was purchased, thus enabling the construction of an 'in and out' arrangement of entrances, with buses entering at Margaret Street and leaving via College Street.
A vanished part of Ammanford: The Gentral Garage (at top), Ammanford Primary School (middle) and the Palace Cinema (bottom). An open-air bus concourse and the Co-operative Stores now stand in their place. Also vanished is the Cross Inn on Ammanford Square (bottom left)
In 1962 the South Wales Transport Company made a very substantial offer which the directors could hardly resist, resulting in the sale of the old family business and the company was now absorbed into a much larger conglomerate. The takeover was compled on September 1st 1962 after 82 years of operating public transport in the area, initially with horse-drawn vehicles and from 1912 with the newly-invented internal combustion engine. On Sundays, mails and passenges were transported from the Amman valley to Pantyffynnon railway station where they boarded the train for all points beyond.
It is remarkable how the pattern of life had changed over a relatively short period of time; the post-wars years saw the growth of the private motor car, now accessible to most householders, which transformed the demand for public transport, bus and rail. With the dwindling number of passengers the inescapable financial consequences were to follow, reducing the fleets of buses and the closure of unprofitable routes. In 1971, a major rationalisation of the South Wales Transport Company lead to the closure of the Ammanford Depot. Now only a much reduced number of bus routes operated from the Central Garage, whose own days were also numbered.
During the same period the other bus companies operating from Ammanford also disappeared through a combination of closure and mergers. The Western Welsh Company had originally started its life as an omnibus company owned by the Great Western Railway, with its garage in Station Road next to Tirydail (now Ammanford) railway station. In 1929 a restructuring created the Western Welsh Bus Company which moved in 1944 from its ramshackle Station Road garage to the custom build premise in Tirydail Lane opposite Tirydail House (later renamed 'Cartref'). The old Western Welsh premises were eventually recycled into the Regal Ballroom in 1951 (see the essay entitled 'The Regal Ballroom' in the 'History' section of this web site).
The Tirydail Lane garage of Western Welsh closed in 1966 but in 1967 became a Ministry of Transport testing centre for heavy goods vehicles, still in use to this day.
West Wales Buses of Tycroes absorbed Rees Williams Buses of Llandeilo, to be taken over in their turn by South Wales Transport in the 1990s. It didn't stop there, and within a few short years South Wales Transport itself disappeared into the nationwide bus company First Cymru who now run most of the bus traffic of South Wales.
In 1978, the Borough of Dinefwr acquired the Central Garage site for the establishment of a central bus terminus, and within months all the buildings were demolished, including the original house — The Mews — to create the present day open-air Ammanford bus concourse, reducing yet another part of the town's history to just a memory.
SOME EARLY MOTORING FACTS
Whilst on the subject of motoring, some interesting facts are:
Year Event January 1900 The dawn of the century saw the first car to be owned by a resident of the Town, Dr David Rees Price of 'The Laurels', Wind Street. It was an American manufactured vehicle known as a 'White Steam Surrey', controlled by a tiller steering with a two-cylinder steam engine located under the floor. It was very economical on water, covering 100 miles on a full tank. It was a four seater, registration number BX 88. It is said that a trip in this vehicle was a frightful experience, from noise, dust and smell, notwithstanding the problem of stoking the boiler at regular intervals. It also caused considerable discomfort to owners of horse-driven carriages, stampeding the animals. 1905 The first speed limit (10 m.p.h) was imposed by the Ammanford Urban District Council on all roads in the Town; how it was enforced is not known, as the police at that time only had pedal cycles. May 1907 Mr Ernie Hewlett, (Managing Director of the Ammanford Colliery Co Ltd.) of Wernoleu, owned the first petrol driven car in the locality —a 16.20 h.p. Clement Talbot side-entrance car, painted carmine, registration number BX 74. September 1912 The first public transport conveyance vehicle registered by John James, 'The Mews', College Street, a 20 h.p. Ford, registration number BX 234, designed to carry 20 passengers. John James acquires his first charabancs for use as private hire vehicles - James the Buses. January 1914 Mr Owen Phillips, 'The Royal Stores', Quay Street, registered a 14/16 h.p. Darracq commercial van —painted green, black, and white —registration BX 355, for delivery of bread February 1914 A two seater, 9.45 h.p. 'Stellite' cycle car, registration BX 360, was registered by Mr. Henry Lewis of 'The Great Western Hotel', Station Road. 1919 John James starts regular bus services up the Amman Valley. 1921 This was reputed the date of the first lady to hold a driving licence in the town —Miss Nancy Davies, daughter of John Davies, Commerce House, Quay Street. She had expert tuition from Jack, of David Jones & Sons, the first garage in Ammanford, who was to become her husband. 1930 The first automatic electric traffic control system — 'robot lights' — to be installed in the county was erected on Ammanford square in 1930. The installation was carried out, (as an experiment), on a recommendation of the chief constable, Mr W. Picton Phillips. The electricity cost to operate the equipment was suggested as being in the region of £20.00 per annum, but the Ammanford Urban District Council (who at that time administered the Electricity undertaking) disputed the calculations and charged £30.00 per annum.
'AMMANFORD: Origin of Street Names & Notable Historical Records' by W T H Locksmith, pages 6974. Published in 2000 by Carmarthenshire County Council as a part of the Millennium celebrations.
South Wales Guardian, 26th July 1962.
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010