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A History of the World looks at Ipswich's trolleybuses
A History of the World
By Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk


A ride through transport history

One of Ipswich's trolleybuses is aiming to make an appearance at a centenary in June 2011.

Ipswich Transport Museum has been restoring trolleybus no.2 at its Cobham Road site for 30 years.

Doncaster's trolleybus museum is celebrating 100 years of the vehicle which was introduced to the UK in 1911.

"We still have the next challenge which is to recreate the interior with seats," said Brian Dyes from Ipswich Transport Museum.

Trolleybuses were introduced by Ipswich Corporation (the local council) in 1923. The vehicles ran off overhead power cables, but they used the road rather than rail tracks.

Three trolleybuses were used in a pilot scheme and no.2 ran between the railway station and Cornhill along Princes Street.

A trolleybus in Ipswich
A trolleybus in action on Princes Street in Ipswich town centre

"After the First World War, Ipswich's tramcar tracks were 'life-expired' and they experimented with trolleybuses," said Peter Bannister, chairman of Ipswich Transport Museum.

"It was an advantage for Ipswich Corporation because they owned the power station and they owned all the overhead cables, so they could still sell themselves electricity to power their own vehicles."

The trolleybus was introduced across the whole town in 1926 and they ran until 1963.

At its peak in 1947, the trolleybus network covered 25 miles and had 80 operational vehicles. However, the original three vehicles with 30 seats were removed from service fairly quickly.

"Trolleybus no.2 was withdrawn in 1934 because it was an early vehicle and it was sold as a shed, but converted into a house," said Peter.

From the bus to your home

The story of trolleybus no.2 had indeed taken a bizarre turn. It became the home of two sisters at Flatford in the heart of John Constable's Suffolk - just a stone's throw from where he painted The Haywain and many other works.

The 'Misses Richardson' (as they were known) lived in the trolleybus for 40 years. They ran a tea-room at Flatford.

"Apparently they were the daughters of a military man who had very strict ideas and told them not to get married - and they never did," said Brian Dyes from Ipswich Transport Museum.

"He died and left them some money and land, but no home, and so in 1934 they were looking for somewhere to live."

Trolleybus no.2 at Flatford
The trolleybus before its removal from Flatford in the Dedham Vale

The trolleybus no.2 had been taken out of service so the sisters bought it and moved it to Flatford.

The driver's cab was turned into a kitchen and the decks were the main living area. One sister slept in the trolleybus while the other slept in a traditional gypsy caravan which was parked alongside.

"I suppose when they first moved in it was ideal," said Brian. "There wasn't the visitor numbers there are today, but by the 1970s, when they were much older, it was starting to get difficult.

"Imagine living in what was effectively a caravan with no insulation with just a thin piece of metal between you and the outside world.

"And then there are the difficulties of toilets and bathrooms and washing.

"They were hoping to move because the trolleybus had deteriorated over the years. Very generously they said if we drew up plans for a house to replace the trolleybus, then we could have the trolleybus.

"I saw one of the sisters about a year before they died and they still retained that sort of olde worlde atmosphere - a more genteel form of life.

"But they had been school teachers so they were aware of the modern world - they weren't recluses."

So in 1977 trolleybus no.2 was acquired by the museum. The exterior was restored by Ben Cooper Engineering of Claydon in 1981 with a replica base added in 1994.

It lives at the museum, which was originally the Priory Heath transport depot. You can still see the original switches which powered the local overhead power cables.

Brian Dyes at Ipswich Transport Museum
Brian Dyes is the archivist at Ipswich Transport Museum

Final restoration

The interior of trolleybus no.2 is empty. It's estimated it would cost £20-25,000 to fit wooden-framed leather seats.

The museum is hoping to have them fitted in time for the 100th anniversary of the vehicle which is being held at the Trolleybus Museum at Sandtoft near Doncaster.

"Whether we shall go the last step and fit motors to it so it can operate is far in the distant future, I think," said Brian.

Either way, it'll retain its status as the world's oldest known trolleybus still in existence.

Ipswich Transport Museum is on Cobham Road in east Ipswich and can be contacted on 01473 715666.

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