Single-deck centenary run

12 November 2012

Page last updated 21 February 2013


In the 19th century, London’s horse bus proprietors soon discovered the benefits of carrying passengers ‘on top’, with much of the impetus credited to the Great Exhibition of 1851. With competition from the trams, the improved economics led to the double-deck bus becoming the standard design. For the LGOC, if not elsewhere, this was carried through into the motor bus era and all early designs were double-deckers.  It remained LGOC and London Transport policy to use double-deck buses wherever possible, until the dramatic changes in the 1960s.


London's first single-deck motor bus route (as distinct from routes in the country around London) was route 69 through Blackwall Tunnel, introduced on 12 November 1912.  It was soon renumbered 108 and later split to form the 108 and 208.  To mark the centenary, RF486 and RTL453 ran over the routes on Monday 12 November 2012.  This page tells the story; see also the photo gallery.


The Rose & Crown, Plumstead, after it closed, but before rebuilding.

Photo © Ewan Munro.


Route 69

New route 69 ran from Plumstead Orchard Road, Rose & Crown, via Woolwich and Tunnel Avenue to Poplar Blackwall Tunnel.  It was operated by single-deck motor buses and replaced a Tilling horse bus route through the tunnel, which had opened in 1897.   The Metropolitan Police were not prepared to allow double-deck buses in the tunnel, so a single-deck version of the B-type was developed.


The route lasted only seven months in this form, as in the meantime, new route 53 had been introduced from Plumstead to central London along the same route as far as Woolwich Road, and the 69 was shortened in June 1913 to run from the Ship & Billet to Poplar.  The 53 from central London still terminates at Plumstead Orchard Road, although it now runs into the new Plumstead garage to lay over.


A B-type on route 69 enters the southern entrance of the Blackwall Tunnel.

Photo © London Transport Museum


Route 108

Nine months later (29 Mar 14, four months before the outbreak of war), route 69 was extended at both ends and renumbered 108 - full history here and here.  The new 108 ran from Bow to Blackheath, but this was short-lived, as the outbreak of war led to changed priorities and the route was shortened back to that covered by the 69. 


It was 1922 before the route was extended again, this time to Clapton Pond in the north and Lee Green in the south, via Homerton, Hackney Wick, Old Ford, Bromley by Bow, Poplar, East Greenwich and Blackheath.  The full route ran as 108A., with the Poplar Blackwall Tunnel to Greenwich Ship & Billet route still numbered 108.  The following year, the 108A beyond Blackheath was changed to run to Lewisham, and then Forest Hill.


The 108 was operated by Athol Street garage, Poplar (C), but when it was extended in 1922, their B-types were joined by new S-type single-deckers from Dalston garage (D).  By 1924, the Bs from Athol Street had been all been replaced by Ss.


It is November 1923, and new S882 is running the 108 - at the time the short version

of the route, between Woolwich Road and Poplar.  It is operated by Athol Street

garage (C).  Photo © London Transport Museum


Route 108C

In 1924, when the new Metropolitan Police numbering regime was introduced under Chief Constable Bassom, the Clapton Pond to Forest Hill route (being the longest extent of various workings) was renumbered 108.  As usual under the Bassom system, the public was to be confused by a range of short workings, using suffix letters, which changed at least four times over the next 10 years. 


One of these changes took place when the Wick Lane canal bridge was closed in 1926-27, and the route was split to run 108C Clapton Pond to Victoria Park Wick Lane Canal Bridge and 108D Victoria Park Wick Lane Canal Bridge to Forest Hill Station.  When these numbers were no longer needed, 108C became a short working from Clapton Pond to Poplar Blackwall Tunnel, used when the tunnel was closed for a few months.


The next and most important change came immediately afterwards, again courtesy of the Metropolitan Police.  The 108 was heavily used through the tunnel and discussions commenced with the police regarding double-deck operation.  These led in 1927 to the prototype 'tunnel' NS, lower than usual and with a specially curved roof and curved enclosed rear end.  NS2050, which ran alongside the Ss over that summer, was a success and led to the construction of 24 similar buses.


But the NSs could not run under the low bridges in Bow or Hackney Wick, so the route was split on 19 October 1927, whence we have two histories – the single-deck 108D from Clapton Pond to Bromley by Bow and the double-deck 108B from Bromley by Bow to Forest Hill.  The 108C was now a short working of the 108B, running from Greenwich Tunnel Avenue to Bromley by Bow; the 108 through route no longer operated.


Route 108D

The 108D continued between Clapton Pond and Bromley by Bow, operated by Dalston with Ss and (from 1930) Ks, then in 1931 both were replaced by new LT Scooters. 


In 1934, the service ran every 5 minutes during the week, 3½ minutes on Saturdays and 4 minutes on Sundays.  Whilst the 1927 bus map showed the 108D separate from the 108B, by 1933 this distinction had been dropped and the whole route was described only as '108'.  Timetables did not show route suffixes, so it was only by careful study of first and last times that it became clear that there was no through running, but each bus met its counterpart at Bromley by Bow, where they arrived together, waited 3 minutes then left together.  No mention is made in the timetables of through fares until 1936, probably because of restrictions on space rather than not being offered.


In the 1934 renumbering, the 108D became the 208.


Route 208

The route was becoming ever busier – especially on Saturdays.  In 1936, the 208 was the first route on which the new 37-seat Qs were introduced, working jointly with Scooters on the route until the introduction of RFs in 1952/3.


As usual, Scooter LT1031 is overheating (or at least overheating the driver) and the bonnet side is open.  The scene is Clapton Pond in 1949.

Photo © Alan Cross


Following the introduction of RFs to sister weekday route 208A in October 1952, the new buses made weekend appearances on the 208.  The route was the last to operate Scooters, albeit as unscheduled replacements, and in January 1953, two new RFs were delivered in advance of the remainder of the 208 allocation to enable the last Scooters to be retired on 31 January.  The remainder of the RF allocation arrived the following month, replacing the Qs.


The first RF delivered for the 208A in October 1952, RF303 is already looking rather battered by life in the East End whilst still relatively new.  It is on route 208 at Clapton Pond.

Photo © Alan Cross


The 208 lasted as long as the crew-operated RFs, being replaced by new buses on new route S2 in April 1970.


Route 108B

Back in 1927, delivery of the new tunnel NSs to Athol Street garage was completed in December, from when the route through the tunnel was double-deck operated until one-man Merlins arrived in 1970.


The 108B switched its southern destination in 1930 from Forest Hill to Crystal Palace, so the route ran from Bromley by Bow Seven Stars via Poplar, Blackwall Tunnel, East Greenwich, Blackheath, Lewisham, Catford and Sydenham.


A tunnel NS entering the southern entrance of the Blackwall Tunnel.

Photo © London Transport Museum


Route 108

In the renumbering in 1934, the route became the plain 108, and three years later, the 10-year old NSs were withdrawn and replaced by specially-built tunnel STLs.


These continued to be required until the police relented in 1951, permitting standard buses, although these still carried strengthened tyres because of the constant rubbing against the kerb.  On the LT Museum site, a former Poplar driver recalls how the tyres were used to full effect: 'We were equipped with special tyres which had a wall indicator pattern round the wall of the tyre. When the pattern wore down (when the indentations wore almost smooth) the tyre was turned round.  When BOTH walls were worn the tyre would be fitted to the offside wheels, as the tread would still be in good condition.'


Ian Smith reports that the 108 route number became so well associated with the Blackwall Tunnel in local folklore that there was a saying "Watch out, here comes a 108" if someone yawned widely!


Standard STLs operated briefly, before being replaced by RTLs during 1953, still working from Athol Street garage and again with strengthened tyres.  These continued to work the 108 and 108A until the garage closed in 1961, when the operation moved down the road to Poplar garage (PR) - which had put the first Routemasters to work when converted from a trolleybus depot in 1959. 


Following the opening of the new southbound tunnel in 1967, the old tunnel was closed for the raising of the roadway to provide a wider carriageway, thus removing for ever double-deckers from the old tunnel, and doing away with the requirement for strengthened tyres.  The RTLs themselves lasted until 6 Sep 68, when the Reshaping Plan swept away RTLs from east London.  They were replaced briefly on the 108/A by RTs, but with re-opening of the rebuilt tunnel for northbound working due in spring 1969, the 108 was equipped with new one-man operated Merlin single-deckers (and the 108A withdrawn from north of the river) from 26 Oct 68.  Route 108 has been single-deck operated ever since; for more recent history, see the London Bus Routes site.


RTL424 passes under the southern gateway to the tunnel, which still spans the northbound road, in May 1967, three months before the southbound tunnel opened.  The mix of old and new traffic signs has now been replaced and double-deckers can no longer use the one-way northbound tunnel.

Photo © London Transport Museum