When a Pulhams’ coach passes by, you may just see that it carries an inscription celebrating the fact that the company commenced operation in 1880. What it does not say is that this makes it not only by far the oldest-established coach business in Gloucestershire, but probably one of the top five in the whole country in terms of years of loyal service.
So Pulhams have been running luxury coaches for around 135 years? Well, not quite. After all, while the rolling Cotswold landscape may not have changed much over that time, almost every aspect of life, and certainly transportation, has undergone such transformation as would have been unimaginable in the middle years of the Victorian era.
William Pulham had been born into a farming family and brought up in the small and still delightfully unspoilt village of Naunton. To an extent farms could operate in isolation, with crops and livestock being sold or bartered within the local community. But to become more successful other outlets needed to be established and alternative sources of supply exploited. Local markets such as that in Stow-on-the-Wold were major centres of trading activity for the local farming communities, but the bigger the town, the bigger the market – and the more opportunities for more lucrative deals. Thus Cheltenham was an even more important centre for those living in what were then rather remote communities. The issue in these pre-motorisation days was that of how to get there. The packhorse or horse-drawn cart offered partial solutions although with “roads” still being rough and muddy tracks, this was not an easy option, and protracted travel time was not helpful for those trying to make a living off the land.
One of the few people in the area to see a business opportunity here was William. And so in 1880, his home at Sunnyside became the base for a carrier’s cart. This covered 4-wheel wagon was hauled by two horses, who must have struggled with the return journey up the hills from Cheltenham, to which it trundled at first just once each week. The cart would carry all manner of produce and small livestock, along with a handful of villagers anxious to hone their haggling skills in the town. Regular customers would be met at the gates of their farms or cottages.
The following year, 1881, the rail line opened between Cheltenham and Kingham, with stations at Notgrove, Bourton and Stow. However, many farms were quite a few miles from their nearest railhead and transport to the station could be as problematic as the whole journey to Cheltenham. Cost was also an issue and the train had little impact on William’s venture.
While farming remained William’s main occupation, his cart survived as an important part of the local scene – seemingly right through to the 1920s. It is believed that by 1885 he was providing a weekly direct service from Bourton to Cheltenham. A few others in the area also introduced similar services, such as Alexander Miles from nearby Lower Guiting, while Mrs Fluck of Notgrove later introduced a pony and trap service to link her village with the railway station of the same name, but inconveniently located some way distant.
The knock-on effects of the Great War were to change so many aspects of daily life forever. Having been exposed to foreign service, albeit in the most dreadful of circumstances, those local men sufficiently fortunate to return home were in many cases no longer content with an isolated life. Thousands of motor vehicles had been built for military use, and were now available at affordable costs, particularly to those with a military gratuity. The Cotswold farming community therefore began to find an increasing number of motor trucks in their midst, along with a smattering of people who had quickly learned how to drive and repair these contraptions while serving King and Country. This increased usage of such new-fangled machines, also placed an obligation on local councils to begin a programme of upgrading roads to a more appropriate standard.
William must have realized that there was now a threat to his horse drawn cart, and on the basis of, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” in 1924 he invested in a Model T Ford. It is not entirely clear what sort of body this carried, but it seems that it continued the tradition of carrying both passengers and goods to Cheltenham on market days.
Many of these imaginative machines, often using war-surplus chassis, were similarly deployed across the country during the 1920s; their construction was often primitive, undoubtedly unsafe by today’s standards, and with quite aggressive competition in some areas. In order to overcome the perceived dangers of this new industry, the 1930 Road Traffic Act introduced new legislation to control who could operate over what routes, and also to lay down strict controls over the design and construction of the vehicles to be used.
William however was well prepared for all of this. In 1927 he had been asked to provide daily transport so that pupils from the large rural area could attend Northleach Grammar School. The school had re-opened that year after a period of closure due to the agricultural depression. It is thought that two buses were required each day, and to meet this exciting new commitment two new 14-seat Chevrolets were purchased. Pulham’s Coaches were on the road. The business was at this time trading as W E Pulhams & Sons; the sons were Frederick and William, who for convenience we will refer to as Bill. These new vehicles met all of the 1930 requirements and William immediately secured the licence for the service between Naunton and Cheltenham. In 1934 an additional licence was acquired allowing journeys to run on from Naunton to Moreton in Marsh via Bourton and Stow. Four coaches were then in use. Eighty years later the service from Moreton to Cheltenham remains a mainstay of Pulhams’ operations.
In 1935 William Pulham died. Fred and Bill between them were now responsible for the family farm and the modest bus operation. During the 1930s Rissington Aerodrome was being developed and this was seen as an important opportunity. In 1937 a service was introduced between the airfield and Bourton, and a through service to Cheltenham began a year later. At the same time Fred acquired Oxpens farmyard in Station Road, Bourton and built a new maintenance garage there for the coaches.
Provision of bus services during the war years was even more important than at other times, with petrol rationing restricting the usage of what few private cars were owned in the area, and with rail services liable to disruption. Pulhams were allocated three new buses by the Ministry of War Transport in recognition of their contribution to the transport network. At the end of the war, the fleet stood at 8 buses.
In 1947 Fred moved his family to Brookside, a house (now the Kingsbridge public house) he had bought in the centre of this world-famous village.
In 1949 Fred and Bill formed the limited company which survives to this day: Pulham & Sons (Coaches) Ltd; the Registered Office was Brookside, although Naunton also remained in use as a secondary garage for some years thereafter. The company was also able to offer a car repair service from Oxpens, and this became known as Station Road Garage. The same site was also used to store and distribute Silcock’s well-known animal feeds to local farms; thus at that time coaches were still only a part of the family’s business portfolio
The country in general was experiencing a travel boom in the 1950s, as a result of the “feel good” factor which followed the dark years of war; many operators were upgrading their coach fleets and offering imaginative tours and excursion programmes. Pulhams however were going through a short-term financial crisis; in the 1950s Bill decided to withdraw from the company and concentrate on his first love, farming. The cost of buying out Bill’s share of the business meant that Fred needed to concentrate his limited resources on his existing activities. In order to reduce costs, he sold Brookside and converted a stable block at Oxpens for use as his family home. Thus Station Road became both the registered office and main base for the company, a situation which continued until 2013. By 1960 however Bill had rejoined his brother and with that reinvestment in the company, Fred was able to purchase from the Lord of the Manor a large field opposite the Station Road premises; this was to be developed by Pulhams as a petrol service station and public car park, ideally placed to cater for the rapidly increasing number of tourists attracted to the village. In 1966 Bill took over the filling station and car park; when he died in 1971 it was sold to John Hackling, another highly successful Bourton businessman, who still owns it today.
At the start of the 1960s there were 10 coaches in the Pulham family fleet.
The 1960s saw a strengthening of the Cheltenham services by the purchase of the licence of Kearsey’s Coaches of Cheltenham for the route between Moreton, Stow and Cheltenham. In 1968 two coaches and the Guiting to Cheltenham service were acquired from Miles’ Coaches of Guiting Power, who, as noted above, had also started as a carrier operation in the 1880s. While the closure of the Cheltenham to Kingham rail line in 1962 brought a small amount of extra custom to Pulham’s services, this was more than offset by the increasing volume of car ownership.
Fred and Bill had both died as the 1970s got underway and their interests were taken on by their sons Roger and David respectively. This was however another difficult time as a consequence of the death duties to be paid on the estates of the two brothers, hence the decision to sell the petrol station and car park. The new partners brought a new approach to the business; a policy of buying a new coach each year was adopted, and diesel-engined coaches quickly replaced the petrol-engined fleet. Early in 1964 a 52-seater coach was acquired, soon after the regulations had been relaxed to allow these longer vehicles. By the end of the 1960s, the fleet was enjoying a much more modern profile and had increased to 14 vehicles. Although the Naunton premises had been sold, two vehicles continued to be parked in that village until the 1970s, and one vehicle was out-parked for many years at Guiting in order to cater for the service starting in that village. Previously a number of secondhand coaches had never been repainted into the company’s red and cream colour scheme, originally adopted by William, but all now conformed – including the occasional double-deckers. The first of these had appeared in 1949 and were particularly useful on the busy Saturday services into Cheltenham.
The 1970s saw a general consolidation and the quality of the fleet was further upgraded by a shift to vehicles of Leyland manufacture; these heavy weight vehicles, mainly 53 seaters, were better suited to the healthy service loadings and to the motorway age. The latter was relevant not only to private hire activities, but also to the work now regularly being undertaken at busy times for the Cheltenham-based Associated Motorways network of express services.
With the deregulation of coach services in the 1980s, continental excursions became regular events. Among the other highlights of the decade was the major purchase in 1982 of the 9-coach business of Luxury Coaches of Stow. This company was owned by the Fluck family, referred to earlier as having started life with a pony and trap. Luxury had also operated services into Cheltenham and further consolidation was now possible. Pulhams continued to use Luxury’s small Stow garage for several years. Services to Moreton’s Tuesday market, a popular attraction throughout a wide area, required up to ten vehicles during the summer months in the 1980s and 1990s, although its popularity has since declined. By the end of the century, some 20 coaches were in the fleet.
2000 saw the premature death of David Pulham. His son Andrew succeeded him in the business, thus introducing the fourth generation of the Pulham family into the business’s formal management structure. The equally sudden demise of Barry’s Coaches of Moreton-in-Marsh a year later brought additional contract work to the company.
Roger Pulham decided that it was time to retire in 2008, a tough decision when he had in effect been born into the business and spent the previous 45 years building up the company and repositioning it from that of a local service provider to one able to compete with some of the best in the industry. As a minority stake holder Andy needed to take a tough decision as to how to deal with this situation. He decided to bite the bullet, and with his wife Kathryn as his business partner, they were able to acquire Roger’s share of the business.
Paradoxically, despite the economic crises facing the country during the first decade of the new century, Pulham’s Coaches have seen perhaps their most successful period to date. Private hire work is now regularly undertaken for corporate clients in addition to the traditional local customers, and Pulham’s reputation is such that several national tours operators now sub-contract work to the company. The local service network was further expanded in 2006 when Gloucestershire County Council awarded Pulhams a contract for operation of the Moreton-Cirencester-Kemble service (requiring two buses each weekday), and at the end of 2010 an imaginative response to a re-tendering exercise saw the company strengthen its position in the provision of school contract operations in an area ranging from Chipping Campden to Cirencester. Subsequently incursions into Oxfordshire for both school contracts and local service work have presented new challenges which the company has taken in its stride. Gloucestershire too has placed more work with Pulham’s who now operates to such diverse places as Gloucester, Gotherington (Gloucestershire), Swindon (Wiltshire) and Witney (Oxfordshire) six days per week.
At the beginning of 2011 the fleet boasted 33 vehicles. Just four years later that figure has doubled. While some of the increase is attributable to mid-life vehicles being acquired for school contract activities, an impressive investment has been made in new vehicles, both service buses and luxury touring coaches. A striking new depot and office block was commissioned on the Business Park in Bourton and occupied in 2013. This is a far cry from that original horse drawn cart of 135 years earlier, but one thing remains the same: the business sees its primary responsibility as providing an exemplary service to the local community.
Text credited to Colin Martin