Leeds Engine:Histories: Bus Makers

A Brief History of Bus Making in Leeds

All | Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co | Charles H Roe | Clough, Smith & Company Limited | Greenwood & Batley | Mann's Patent Steam Cart & Wagon Co | Optare | Railless Electric Traction Company | Switch Mobility | Wilks and Meade | Yorkshire Patent Steam Wagon Co | Rebuilt In Leeds

Having made its mark in the construction of railway engines and road traction engines, it was perhaps logical that Leeds should progress to the construction of buses. The bus manufacturing industry has always been more spread out geographically than that relating to railways, the result being that only a handful of firms would exist in any one area, but it is perhaps telling that of the handful of British bus manufacturers that remain, one is still based in the Leeds area.
A few of the manufacturers that appear elsewhere on this site dabbled in bus production and other firms around the city produced buses on a small scale. Leeds was at the forefront of the development of the trolleybus with Railless Electric Traction Co operating at premises in the Balm Road area of Hunslet, close to many of the city's renown engine makers. R.E.T employee Charles Henry Roe went on to form his own firm on Balm Road but his business quickly outgrew the site.
The most successful, well known and long lived of the Leeds bus manufacturers was undoubtedly Charles H Roe Limited. The Roe works in Crossgates bodied Leyland buses until its demise in 1984 as a result of problems within British Leyland. Revived as Optare the following year the company went on to produce buses at the works until a move to nearby Sherburn In Elmet in 2011. After a number of changes of ownership the firm became part of Indian company and Leyland's former partners on the subcontinent; Ashok-Leyland. The company continues to innovate bus designs and develop electrical propulsion as those early firms had done a century before.

Railless Electric Traction Company/R.E.T. Company
The Railless Electric Traction Company was established in London in 1909 with the intention of introducing the "trackless tram" (later better known as the trolleybus) to the UK, following the successful introduction of the type on the continent and abortive attempts by various councils to introduce this form of transport for their own use.
At some point prior to 1911, an office and works was established at Balm Road, Leeds, presumably to encourage business in the north of England. The Railless Company bought the UK licence for the Max Scheimann system of current collection, which used two wires (negative and positive) from which the vehicle collected power by means of two booms (poles) attached to its roof.
Most of the early UK trolleybus systems were ordered from Railless, who designed the overhead equipment and vehicles. The actual construction of vehicles was sub- contracted in three parts; chassis, bodywork and electrical equipment, these were then delivered separately to Leeds where they were assembled into complete vehicles before being delivered to the customer, usually being towed to their destination. Thus a vehicle listed as a Railless product was in fact the work of several other firms, for example the first trolleybuses delivered to Bradford Corporation (which were also the first to be delivered in the UK) were built by Alldays and Onions of Birmingham (Chassis), Hurst Nelson of Motherwell (bodies) and Dick, Kerr of Preston (electrical equipment).

Above - One of 10 single-deck trolleybuses built in 1915 by RET Construction Co. Ltd., Leeds, for the Bloemfontein Municipality, South Africa. Regular service started in January 1916. (Photo - Wikimedia Commons)
The outbreak of World War 1 adversely affected the development of the trolleybus as much of the equipment used in the early vehicles was of German design and/or manufacture and thus fell foul of trading with the enemy laws. As a result of this and other problems, and despite undertaking some war work, Railless Electric Traction went into receivership in 1916. The other problems included the apparent disinterest of the company in what would now be called "after sales service", as evidenced by the approach of Bradford Corporation in 1913. They were seeking replacement of their first trolleybuses, supplied in 1911, following reliability issues. The Corporation wanted a quote for new vehicles which would take into account a part- exchange figure for the two old buses and also a discount equivalent to the amount that the Corporation had spent on repairs over the two year period. Railless declined the Corporation's request and so the business went elsewhere.
The company was eventually purchased from the receivers by Short Brothers of Rochester, Kent and relaunched as either Railless Ltd. or R.E.T. Company Ltd, depending on which source you read. The Leeds office was retained and employed one Mr Charles Roe, who left in 1917 to set up his own business, Charles H. Roe. Shortly after this, the Railless works was apparently requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corp, presumably for the production of aircraft parts; if this is correct it was returned soon after the end of the war.
As well as trolleybus and related infrastructure design work, the company also designed and possibly built van and lorry bodies. The Railless trolleybuses used a tram-style hand operated controller, which the driver was expected to use whilst also steering the vehicle. Some also had a brake handle (as found on a tram), whilst others featured a more conventional foot pedal brake. After WW1, other manufacturers became active in the trolleybus market using foot pedals for acceleration and braking and thus making the Railless vehicles seem antiquated and cumbersome. The resulting reduction in market share would eventually cause Short Brothers to pull out of Trolleybus manufacturing.
Despite evidence that the Leeds site was active by 1911, it was 1921 before it appeared in the Trade Directories, former employee Charles H. Roe having first appeared in the publication the year before. By this stage the company was listed as the Railless Electric Traction Construction Co. Ltd, and it appeared as such in the directories for 1922, 1923-4 and 1924-5. It appears that the Leeds site closed in 1924, as it is not listed in the 1925 directory. Railless itself was wound up in 1926, as Short Brothers decided to concentrate on more lucrative areas of its business. Incidentally Short Brothers are still active in the Aircraft market and will be well known to any RAF personnel who have trained in a "Tucano" aircraft.

Internal Website Links
List of buses and trolleybuses bodied by Leeds City Transport
List of Wilks & Meade bodied buses

External Website Links
Leeds Transport Historical Society
Dewsbury Bus Museum
Crich Tramway Village
Bus Lists on the Web
Wikipedia article on R.E.T. (in German)
North East Check
Archive images on Leodis.net Search Results for 'Roe'

Keith A. Jenkinson, The History of Optare, Amberley Publishing 2020 ISBN 978-1-4456-9694-2. Soper, J Dipl. Arch, Dipl. T. P.; Leeds Transport Volumes 1- 5. Leeds Transport Historical Society 1985, 1996, 2003, 2007 and 2011 respectively.
Postlethwaite, Harry; Super Prestige 16; Rossendale Transport. Venture publications 2007.
Allen, David. W; Super Prestige 6; West Riding 1. Venture publications 2004.
Brown, Stewart. J; Buses Yearbook 1992 and Buses Yearbook 1997. Ian Allan 1991 and 1996 respectively.
King, J. S; Bradford Corporation Trolleybuses. Venture publications 1994.
Klapper, Charles; The Golden Age of Tramways. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1961.
Reading, S. J; The Derwent Valley Light Railway, Locomotion papers number 37, editions 1 and 3. Oakwood Press 1967 and 1978 respectively.
Hartley, Kenneth. E & Frost, Howard. M; The Spurn Head Railway. Industrial Railway Society 1988.
Unknown; Industrial Locomotives 1982. Industrial Railway Society 1982.
Buses magazine, various.
Bus Fayre magazine, various.
Old Ordnance Survey Maps, The Godfrey Edition. Hunslet 1905.
PSV Circle fleet history PB22, Kingston Upon Hull City Transport. PSV Circle/Omnibus Society 1987.
Trade Directories held in Leeds City Libraries reference library, with thanks to the staff.
Pease, John. The History of Mann's Patent Steam Cart & Wagon Company, Landmark Collector's Library 2005.
Berry, Michael; Leeds Trams and Buses. Amberley Publishing 2013.
Buckley, Richard; Trams & Trolleybuses in Doncaster. Wharncliffe Books 2003.
Kennedy, Mark; Streets of Belfast. Ian Allan 2003.
Miller, Patrick; Provincial- The Gosport & Fareham Story. The Transport Publishing Company 1981.
Otter, Patrick; Yorkshire Airfields in the Second World War. Countryside books 1998.
Twidale, Graham H. E.; Leeds in the Age of the Tram, 1950- 59. Silver Link Publishing 1991 and 2003.
Wells, Malcolm; Kingston Upon Hull Trolleybuses. Trolleybooks 1996.
Roger Davies and Stephen Barber; Glory Days - Wallace Arnold. Amberley Publishing 2019, ISBN 978-1-4456-9463-4
Malcolm Wells and Paul Morfitt, Hull Corporation Buses, Amberley Publishing 2017, ISBN 978-1-4456-6754-6.

This article was produced by Martin Latus