Charabancs were a familiar sight in Nunney until the 1950s. The village itself had regular charabanc outings too.
Charabancs revolutionised the way in which ordinary families enjoyed a rare break from the routine of rural life.
The UK had no Bank Holidays until 1871, while paid holidays were not introduced until 1938. So only rich people had both spare time and transport to enjoy day trips.
For everyone else the annual village fair or fete was as close to a holiday as they usually came.
The Victorians were great believers in the health benefits of fresh air and sea water. Once Bank Holidays and later paid holidays were introduced, day trips to the seaside became commonplace for the working population.
Employers organised annual ‘work outings’ to the seaside or the countryside for their staff.
These day trips were originally made in horse-drawn coaches, called charabancs, which were usually open-topped. The name derives from the French char à bancs (“carriage with wooden benches”), the vehicle having originated in France in the early 19th century.
During the first half of the 20th century the term charabanc was also used for early motor coaches. The early charabancs has solid rubber tires, which must have made for uncomfortable travelling – particularly on poor roads and through cobbled towns and villages.
It was only in the 1930s that the charabancs evolved into somewhat more comfortable motor coaches.
Many companies published brochures to promote their network and tours. Charabancs were not just used for annual outings, but also to take football teams to matches, choirs to competitions and even school runs.
This summer the National Motor Museum Trust in Beaulieu was awarded £97,200 of Lottery funding to explore how the First World War led to a revolution in leisure motoring.
Entitled Caravans and Charabancs – Leisure Motoring After the First World War, the project will take two years to complete and will preserve historic photographs and postcards of charabancs which took the British public on affordable escapes.
Angela Wells, the curator of The Caravan Club Collection, explained:
“As the war ended, those that returned home often did so with new ambitions and a bonus in their back pocket. Many were introduced to motor vehicles on the battlefield, and some were inspired to put their new-found skills to good use in peacetime.”
“Ex-war vehicles and surplus parts were sold off by the government at knock-down prices. These became the building blocks of charabancs and trailer caravans, which fulfilled the demand for leisure journeys into the next decade.”
Many of these vehicles were used as regular haulage lorries during the week and converted on a Friday night to take fee-paying passengers on day trips – sometimes using old church pews as seats.
Daytrippers from Torquay arrive by charabanc to visit the picturesque village of Cockington. This extract was originally filmed in 1925/6 and was digitally restored by the BFI National Archive.
Although the vehicle has not been common on the roads since the 1920s, a few signs survive from the era; a notable example at Wookey Hole in Somerset warns that the road to the neighbouring village of Easton is unsuitable for charabancs.
The speed limits were quite different in those days too. Bill Richards, a motor driver from Bristol, for example, was summoned for driving a charabanc at a speed of more than 12 miles an hour on the new Bath Road at Woolverton on 25 July 1925. Because he had been caught driving a charabanc “to the danger of the public” five days earlier he was fined £5 and had his licence endorsed.
Charabancs to Nunney
During most of the height of popularity of the charabanc trips Nunney had a problem. Although it was on the route for many of the tours from Bath via Frome to Longleat and back, the castle was not accessible to the public since the collapse of the northwest wall on Christmas Day 1910. Stabilising and preserving the rest of it would not be completed for another 25 years, in 1935.
A typical charabanc trip to Nunney was described in a report in the Bath Chronicle in 1925. The Bath branch of the National Union of Women Teachers went on an annual outing for the first time.
A party of 34 chartered a White Line charabanc for a drive to Nunney, Stourhead and Shearwater.
“In spite of the rain at the outset the day proved most enjoyable. On arrival at Nunney, after the reading of brief notes on the history of the castle by one of the members, the party dispersed to visit the church (where the ancient tombs of the Delamere family aroused great interest) and to walk round the castle, which, unfortunately, they found themselves unable to enter owing to its unsafe condition. Re-entering the charabanc, they then proceeded through the beautiful countryside to Stourhead, the estate of Sir Henry Hoare.”
In July 1929 between 50 and 60 members of the Bristol Society of Antiquarians made a tour of Frome and surrounding villages on a Saturday afternoon.
“This fortress was found to be in process of careful repair by the Office of Works for the sake of preservation. Meanwhile visitors are warned that they approach the 8-feet walls at their own risk, for their is still much loose stonework to be secured.”
“The Rector (the Rev. J.W. Clough) kindly responded to an unexpected call, unlocked the church, and told the visitors many interesting and some amusing things about its history and its charities.”
A long-distance journey by car was a relatively new concept, with none of the amenities en route now taken for granted. The visit to a petrol station shows smoking on the forecourt: no health and safety issues back then!
Visiting charabancs were not much of a goldmine for the towns and villages they passed through; lunch often consisted of packed sandwiches brought along for the journey.
Roadside inns were expected to be open at all times, but landlords sold few pints to charabanc passengers. Lower profits on tea and cake often meant that they reluctantly welcomed an unexpected horde of daytrippers.
The George at Nunney, however, clearly did have the facilities to deal with large groups. Although the inn was much smaller at the time (the current arch on the left was still a neighbouring house, the space on the right still a bakery, the hotel had only three rooms plus two function rooms in a wooden building at the back), a report in the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of Wednesday 22 August 1923 said:
“About 70 members of the Taunton Field Club and Conversazione held an enjoyable excursion to Longleat, the residence of the Marquis of Bath, on Thursday. Leaving Taunton at 9.50am, a run of an hour and 20 minutes brought the party to Glastonbury. A short stay was made at Wells, where members took an opportunity of seeing the clock strike.”
“Nunney was reached via Shepton Mallet, lunch being partaken of at the George Inn club room. Ruins of the Edwardian Castle were visited, and here Mr St. George Gray gave a short address. The church was also inspected, and Mr Gray gave an explanation of three interesting effigies. A pleasant drive through Horningham brought the party to their objective – Longleat House and Park.”
The other establishments in the village at the time were the Theobald Arms at Nunney Catch and the Crown Inn in the Market Place, which did not have adequate facilities for groups. The Crown also had a reputation as a drinkers’ pub, with the landlord losing his licence in 1916 and 1926 after problem drinking – not quite the place for a cup of tea.
Bolton Wanderers celebrated their 1924 FA Cup win with a charabanc tour of the town.
Charabancs could be a nuisance too. Welsh licensing laws forbade pubs from opening on a Sunday, so large groups descended on nearby towns in the Forest of Dean.
According to a report in the Gloucester Journal of Saturday 15 July 1950:
“The trouble is the ‘evening only’ trippers who descend on the Forest towns – usually in a string of charabancs – almost like locusts, mostly – it has been said – to obtain the drinks that are forbidden them a few miles to the west.”
“That they should come the Foresters do not mind. Indeed, a little neighbourly call is very welcome, but in a few coach parties there is that small fraction which succeeds in giving the whole party and trippers in general a bad name.”
“Frequently on Sunday evenings the people of Lydney and other nearby towns and villages are ‘entertained’ to impromptu choir practices by folk who have had far too much to drink and whose voices too often lack the melodious quality which fondly imagine is theirs.”
Closer to home some attractions positive shunned charabanc crowds.
“Though the Manor of Iford is but six miles south of Bath, very few Bathonians ever visit it; which is perhaps just as well, for at present Mr Peto admits visitors to the Italian Gardens, but would not be included to continue this unrestricted admission if charabancs found their way to Iford and the Gardens became a rendezvous of trippers.” (Bath Chronicle, Saturday 11 July 1931)
Charabancs for Nunney villagers
Nunney too had an annual day out. Here’s a report from the Nunney Parish Magazine of August 1912, although it is not clear whether this party travelled in a charabanc or a brake – the horse-drawn version:
“On Saturday, July 27th, the Choir [the Nunney Delamere Choir, ed.] went their outing to Weymouth – and a splendid day it was. Some other friends joined us, and so made up a goodly party. Weymouth was at its best, shall we suppose, in honour of our visit? Certainly an enormous fleet was gathered there, which had just come in from manoeuvres.”
“Portland Bay was crowded out, and three of the big ships lay by night in front of Weymouth beach. An excellent dinner and tea was served at George’s Restaurant, and as we left Weymouth, about 8.30, the rain began to come down in torrents, and unfortunately didn’t cease until after we arrived back in Nunney, about 11.30pm.”
Rain was a nuisance for travellers on the predominantly open-topped charabancs. If it rained, you either unsuccessfully tried to put up an umbrella or – more often – you got wet. For charabanc tour operators too rain could make or break a business over an Easter Holiday.
Regular outings from Nunney continued for most of the first half of the 20th century. Rob Carr grew up in Nunney in the 1950s. When we recently interviewed him, he recalled:
“Communal social events were fairly minimal, limited to an annual village fête and occasional coach outings to the coast, usually Weymouth, Swanage or Bournemouth, but sometimes Lyme Regis or Sidmouth. They were long hauls in 1940s/50s Crown Tours ‘charas’.”
Crown Tours was owned by Fred Higson, who had his garage opposite what used to be The Weaver public house on The Butts in Frome. The Higsons lived in Fulwell House in Nunney, the large house next to the entry to Donkey Lane.
Rob Carr said:
“I delivered their papers too! I can’t remember the parents, but the active son in the business was Fred. He often drove the school buses and must have done some of the village seaside outings.”
“His brother Max was an RAF fighter pilot. I think he once ‘buzzed’ Nunney in a Hawker Hunter, but my memory may not be spot on. It could have been a Spitfire! I think there was also a sister called Jennifer. Writer/actor/comedian Charlie Higson of The Fast Show gives his birthplace as Frome, so there may be a family connection.”
After Fred Higson’s death, Crown Tours was taken over by Fields of Paulton in 1982. Philip Tudgay, Higson’s second in command at Crown Tours, became transport manager for DT Coaches.
Trips to the seaside continued to be popular throughout the 1950s. After the first motorway was opened in 1958, day trips further afield quickly became an option and the seaside and countryside gradually lost out to London and other major cities.
In the 1960s seaside towns became notorious for violent clashes between so-called Mods and Rockers; the sharp-suited scooter-crazy Mods and leather-clad motorbike-riding Rockers briefly created havoc in places like Brighton, Margate and Clacton.
The real rot for seaside trips set in in the 1970s, when seaside resorts failed to invest in their upkeep and families had the freedom to go elsewhere in their own car. At the same time air travel expanded and became more affordable. It is only in recent years that some of the resorts are slowly beginning to climb out of a deep hole.
Although replica charabancs are still used here and there in themeparks, seaside towns and other attractions, there is only one full-size charabanc in the UK which is licensed to carry passengers. It usually only operates in the Midlands, but we dream of bringing it to Nunney one day to recreate a village outing as previous generations have enjoyed. Wouldn’t that be something… sigh!