SERVICE 251      1927 - 2000

by Chris Stewart


The Westcliff, Eastern National and later Thamesway route 251 was directly descended from a service started on 27 May 1927 by A H Young, trading as “The Empress Bus” and running from Wood Green to Southend, terminating opposite the Kursaal.  A limited company, New Empress Saloons Ltd, was formed in July 1928, and later that year the City Motor Omnibus Co Ltd bought a two-thirds share in it. Although the New Empress name was retained, vehicles were painted in the livery of City, who bought the remaining  shares in the company in 1932.

The route was extended by City to Camden Town and later Kentish Town, where a purpose-built garage and coach station opened at Leighton Road in December 1929. At the same time City began operating on an increased frequency to counter competition from Westcliff’s service to Wood Green which began in July 1928, as an extension of their Southend to Wickford service. Within a year, however, the two services were co-ordinated, and following the acquisition of its London operations in 1934, City bought out Westcliff’s share.

This also gave City its first use of 725/7 Lordship Lane, London N22 (better known as Wood Green depot), the company having previously bought a garage at Tylers Avenue, Southend in 1930;  these became the route’s termini for very many years. The re-styled City Coach Company also built a new Head Office and depot at Brentwood in 1938., having acquired a number of operators in the area during 1936.  Buses on the Southend to London service 1 continued to work through to Kentish Town until 1942, some through workings being resumed in February 1946 until the section beyond Wood Green was finally abandoned on 1 October 1947.

There were a number of changes over the years involving operations via Crays Hill and Ramsden Heath, too many to mention here, but perhaps of greater operating significance was Blue Brick Bridge in Shotgate. A large number of double-deckers were delivered to City from 1947 onwards, but despite most of them having lowbridge (sunken gangway) bodies they could still not pass under this bridge. As a result the route was revised to run non-stop via Rettendon Turnpike and continued to do so until June 1961, when lowering of the road at Shotgate enabled double-deckers to take up their original route again; single-deckers continued to link Wickford with Shotgate during the intervening period (with some through workings to London in 1952-3), and indeed these short workings on the 251 persisted until the introduction of service 250 in June 1965.

With the acquisition of City by Westcliff in 1952, the wheel had turned full circle back to 1928. The ex City vehicles gradually gained Westcliff livery (two were in fact painted red, but the rest became green), the last being repainted from brown and cream in 1955. The same year, the parent Eastern National absorbed Westcliff, and with it the Wood Green to Southend (Tylers Avenue) service which had been given route number 251, although this was never displayed on buses in the Westcliff era; from City days to the 1980’s it was better known to its crews as the ‘Main Road’.

City’s famous pre-War 6-wheel single-decker Leyland Tigers (the LT class) and later twin-steer Gnus, the semi-automatic Daimler CVD6’s and variously-bodied Leyland PD1’s were joined in 1952 by FJN201-6, the PD2’s ordered by City and delivered to Westcliff. Former Hicks all-Leyland PD1’s MNO193/4 were allocated to Brentwood from 1953-55, gaining ‘City’ fleetnames as did some of Eastern National’s ECW-bodied Leyland PD1’s (MPU44-52) which joined them from other depots on the 251. In 1954, a Bristol Lodekka (XVX27, complete with Westcliff fleetnames) was allocated to Tyler’s Avenue (nominally allocated code TA), which was maintained separately from the main Southend (SD) depot just for the 251 - a tradition which outlived Tyler’s Avenue itself, at least on paper.

LD’s began to appear on the route in greater numbers throughout the 1950’s, a number of them carrying painted advertisements for the service on the between decks panels. Some of the Leyland PD1’s moved to Braintree in 1955, a further ten went away in 1956-9 for conversion to open-top, mainly at Southend, and the City Daimlers also moved to other depots (including Hadleigh, Southend and Canvey). In 1959 the use of flat-floor 70-seat LDL prototype 1541 (236LNO) gave an indication of what was to follow in 1960 when the first of the company’s FLF’s (the 80-99TVX batch) were allocated to the route.  By 1962, the only City vehicles left on the 251 were the six FJN’s at Brentwood; LD’s continued to interwork with FLF’s although by the late 1960’s the FLF’s had gained a virtual monopoly of normal through workings.  

Major service changes of 19 April 1964 had a considerable impact on the 251, which was split into two with every other journey operating via Basildon and Benfleet as a 151 giving a peak hour frequency of six buses an hour on the common section (later reduced to four an hour all day). At the end of July 1964, the former City Southend depot at Tyler’s Avenue was finally closed and the terminus transferred to Seaway coach park until Central Bus Station took its place.

The last new batch of vehicles allocated to the Wood Green services were the semi-automatic 31’ long FLF6LX’s of 1967/68; from 7 January 1968 the route in Tottenham was revised and at the same time the former 30 from Chelmsford to Bow (incorporating as it did part of Hillman’s service) became the 351 to Wood Green, sharing a common section of road to Brentwood. Hence FLF6LX’s for the Wood Green services were allocated to Basildon, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Hadleigh, Southend and Wood Green (WG) depots; Canvey gained them as well when the 151 was diverted there on 4 April 1971.   

The FLF6LX’s became synonymous with the 151/251, on the latter until the closure of WG depot on 13 June 1981 and the introduction of one-man operated VRT’s on the reduced Walthamstow to Southend service. Occasional oddities could still be expected - including one memorable journey on an FLF coach from Romford to Shenfield in the late 1960’s -  and older FLF’s (including Ty-phoo Tea advert 2790) continued to appear until quite late on.

As a reminder of how intense the service during this era, in 1974 there were 25 vehicles diagrammed for the Weekday 151/251 which had a 15-minute frequency over the Wood Green to Billericay section. The earliest buses out were at 05.47 simultaneously from Southend on the 251 and Wood Green on the 151; even on Sundays there was a 23.38  into Wood Green (251) and an 00.25 into Canvey (151). Very few of the vehicle workings returned the buses to their home depot the same day, most being part of a pool. One man operated vehicles first appeared in 1977, with one VRT working, and from then until 1981 it was not unheard of to see both crew-operated and omo VRT’s, RE’s and Leyland Nationals.

The 351 was cut back to Romford in April 1971 but continued to work through to Wood Green on Sundays until February 1973, whilst the 151 was withdrawn beyond Romford in June 1976 and by 1981 was operating only from Basildon to Canvey; the 251, though, survived another 10 years operating from Walthamstow to Southend (by now Central Bus Station) via Brentwood until another major round of changes affected it in 1991. The Sunday service was withdrawn and tendered, from 6 September 1991 the Brentwood to Southend section was withdrawn apart from a couple of peak hour workings to Great Burstead or Wickford, and four months later (28 October 1991) it was extended from Brentwood to Basildon (with odd journeys to Wickford). Finally from 28 June 1997 it was re-routed from Gidea Park to Basildon via the Arterial (the old 2 route) and consequently no longer served Brentwood. By now, the section beyond Romford had been diverted via Chadwell Heath and Goodmayes instead of the traditional route from North Street to the Eastern Avenue; the Billericay to Brentwood section became part of the 551.

The 251 family had some other short-lived members, including the X51 Southend to Oxford Circus which operated from Deregulation in 1986; and, much later, the one return trip each day in Summer 1998 operated by Volvo coach 616 (N616APU) from Walthamstow to Southend via Brentwood as service 250. There were also Southend Transport Fleetlines on both the 151 to Romford and 251 to Wickford at Christmas times in the 1970’s (as mentioned in more detail in Richard Delahoy’s book). 

When W-registered VRT’s were introduced new to the 251 in 1981, few would have expected a similar age VRT and Y-registered Olympians to still be working on it nearly 20 years later.  Newer Olympians came and went, and dwindling passenger numbers brought ever smaller vehicles onto the route culminating in Mercedes minibuses. For some time, though, there was one Monday to Friday double-deck working (a Bristol VRT until ex Keighley & District Leyland Olympians were acquired in 1999) on the 251 which operated ‘dead’ from Brentwood off a schools duty to start from Gallows Corner, regularly 4026 (FUM485Y) in the last few months. This bus appropriately worked the very last 251 from Walthamstow to Basildon (due out at 19.22 but somewhat late as a result of traffic, as well as photographers) on Saturday 6 May 2000; by kind arrangement of First Thamesway, the last day of this famous route was marked by the running of two double-deckers (4026/30: FUM485/500Y) whilst  Bristol VRT 3109 (UAR599W) worked the last 551 at 18.50 from Walthamstow (having also been the last bus to leave Brentwood showing ‘251’ on Friday 5 May, 4026 regaining its usual duty later in the day).  

With the withdrawal of the 251, the old route along Eastern Avenue is served by First Thamesway only on Sundays and Bank Holidays with the 2A from Basildon to Walthamstow, although this has much more in common with the old 400 especially being a limited stop service. The Sunday Brentwood to Southend 222, now run by NIBS (Nelson) midibuses also covers the former 251 at the eastern end. Sadly the tradition of the 9.25pm on Sunday evenings from Southend to London, by which City guaranteed to get you home provided that you were in the queue before departure time no matter how many vehicles they had to call up, is never to be repeated. Old soldiers never die, though, and from 8 May 2000 the 551 (itself curtailed to Romford) was revised to run on a more direct route between Gallows Corner and Romford (although via Gidea Park station) and renumbered 751, at least keeping alive the spirit of the ‘City’ route over most of the Billericay to Romford section.


In conclusion, those enthusiasts present on the last run are grateful to Mr Chris McCormick and the staff of First Thamesway for the operation of double-deckers on the last day, and to the driver of the final journey for co-operating so readily with a number of photo stops en route.  Information for this article has come from a number of sources, notably Frank Simpson, the Essex Bus Enthusiasts Group and from publications by the Omnibus Society, PSV Circle and ENEG/EBEG, as well as former City and Eastern National employees, all of which are gratefully acknowledged.. Any errors are, however, entirely my own. Finally one must pay tribute to the staff and crews  of the various companies who maintained the busy 251 over 73 years .


© Chris Stewart/EBEG May 2000.