The Rise and Fall of the Diddlers

If you go to YouTube and search for “Trolleybuses Twickenham” — or find watch this — you will find yourself watching a remarkable film of the very first trolley bus in London making its first journey. The route it takes runs from Twickenham to Teddington along roads and past landmarks that are both familiar and alien. It is a journey through our own immediate past.

The first trolley bus in London pulled out of Fulwell depot, Teddington on May 16th 1931 opening the No. 4 route between Teddington and Twickenham. As it left the depot the District Inspector Charles Gilbert jumped aboard and paid 1 penny for the first ticket. The conductor was Charles Hadland and you can see him in the YouTube film selling tickets to passengers on the top deck. Mr Hadland was noted for his smart appearance…

“I used to be a shining example in those days… I spent two hours every day cleaning my uniform and had cuffs gleaming like patent leather and buttons twinkling like stars.”

They used to call the trolley buses “Diddlers” after the ‘diddle, diddle, diddle’ noise they made as they went along. There is still debate to this day about what caused the distinctive sound. Some say it was the vacuum pumps recharging the brakes, others suggest it came from the electric motors driving the bus. John Betjeman described the noise in one of his poems as…

the constant click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing.

At a casual glance the trolley buses looked just the same as the familiar red ‘double decker’ London motorbus. They had 6 wheels, an open rear entrance and were crewed by a driver and a conductor. The only difference was instead of a smoky diesel engine the trolleys were powered by electric motors linked to overhead cables by twin booms.

They were brought in to replace the old trams, which were reaching the end of their useful life — and they had many advantages. Running on rubber tyres rather than steel wheels and rails trolleybuses were a lot quieter than trams and offered more traction on steep hills. Because they were not restricted to a tramline set in the road they were able to swing on their booms around obstacles in the street like parked cars or roadworks. Occasionally the booms did become disconnected from their overhead wires but this was easily remedied by the conductor wielding a long pole that was carried under the bus. Finally they were pollution free and eco friendly. On the down side it must be said that they could not overtake each other, their overhead cables were unsightly and because they were so quiet in operation pedestrians occasionally found themselves falling under them!

When the management of London’s buses were taken over by London Transport in 1933 it was decided to replace all the existing trams with trolleybuses. By 1940 every tram in North London had been replaced except for the routes through the Kingsway tunnel to the Embankment. Local legend suggests that the carcases of some of the old trams are buried in a gravel pit that is now Redlees Park on the Twickenham Road in Isleworth.

Plans to carry out similar ‘tram to trolleybus’ conversion in South London were interrupted by the war. After the war South London tram routes converted directly to diesel engined motor buses.

By the early 1960’s it was decided to phase out the ageing trolleys and replace them with the new Routemaster motorbuses. They had automatic gearboxes, heaters on both decks and with an efficient diesel engine were much more flexible on London’s increasingly congested roads. The drivers liked them as well. As one commented…

“With the trolleys you had to worry about the road in front of you and what was happening to the cables overhead. With the new bus we just concentrate upon the road.”

The last trolleybus to see service in London pulled out of Fulwell Depot on 8th May 1962 and made its last run to Kingston and back. Standing on the platform at the back was the same ultra smart conductor, Charles Hadland, who had been standing there in 1931 when the first trolley made its run. As proud as he was to be there he confessed later that he would have preferred to have been at the front — driving!

— from Martyn Day