The Village Bus Remembered - John Dengate & Son Ltd, Beckley, East Sussex
Barry M Jones

Still fondly remembered by long established local families in the Rye, Hastings and Hawkhurst area for their much loved, asthmatic primrose and green liveried Bedford 0Bs, John Dengate & Son Ltd of Beckley epitomised the friendly, family-run village bus service, running in all weathers come what may while valiantly fending of the mighty Maidstone & District in their endeavour to obliterate all competition.

This delightful David vs Goliath story begins in the 1890s with John Dengate and his brothers running flour-mills and bakeries in Northiam and Battle. Around 1906 the young John, then based in Battle, began using his new Darracq baker's van to take his family on regular weekend family visits to Northiam. He soon realised the potential in offering a taxi service to and from the now busy Kent & East Sussex light railway at Northiam station, with it's London connections. By 1908 he had moved to Beckley where he now established himself as a taxi business.

During the Great War, the larger local houses were turned into convalescent homes for returning servicemen, so trade was brisk but, on his demobilisation John's son Johnny saw the greater potential in a local carrier-cum-bus service, running alongside their growing taxi trade. Using an ex-WD Napier, they would stop at houses and shops on the way, collecting shopping lists and the occasional passenger. On reaching Hastings the driver would fulfil the orders, collect frozen meat for local butchers, and deliver on the homeward journey arriving home, sometime, that evening. Encouraged by a growing trade, the Dengate Brothers' bus operations duly began in 1919 with a charabanc and a saloon bodied Napier, complete with electric interior lighting, and, now with a hand-operated petrol pump, their Beckley depot slowly developed into a local garage!

Dengates served Northiam, Beckley, Rye, Udimore, Westfield and Hastings but although competition later came from the Maidstone & District, local families much preferred the more gentlemanly, friendly, reliable service provided by Dengates, especially as in the deep winter snows Dengates always ran, while the M&D's quite indifferent crews preferred to stay in the garage. However, the M&D had begun buying-out other local operators with whom Dengates had worked amicably, such as the Bennett of Tenterden 'The Times' and The Weald of Kent (who ran between Rye and Hawkhurst and offered a London service). With Dengates expanding into Hawkhurst in 1931 (with its onward connections to Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone) in competition with the Weald of Kent, the new Traffic Commissioners intervened to moderate the service and make each accept other's return tickets. The two companies then ran in cheerful harmony but, much to the M&D's chagrin in gaining control of the Weald of Kent in 1935, they were ordered to accept Dengate's cheaper return tickets!

Dengates also expanded their services into Battle and Robertsbridge to serve the weekly market, but these soon proved unprofitable and were abandoned. Even the Hawkhurst service only survived as a limited extension of their Rye service in the leaner post-war years.

The war was a busy time carrying many serviceman stationed locally, fending off marauding Luftwaffe attacks and attempts by the British army to commandeer their Dennis bus! Spare parts were scarce, but much Boy Scout's ingenuity kept the fleet running.

The 1950s were Dengate's busiest period but, with the rapid move towards private cars, post-Suez, revenue fell dramatically and in the 1960s Dengates were forced to buy ever more second-hand Bedfords and tired old double-deckers for the new schools services.

Finally in 1967, with Johnny in ill- health and profits dwindling, what had once been the largest independent bus operator in East Sussex was sold to local taxi and coach operators, the Davie brothers of Rye, with Pam Dengate staying on to look after the faithful Dengate bus operations, now with a modern fleet, new livery and based at Rye: it however wasn't the same.

The M&D had tried, and failed, more than once to force John Dengate & Son Ltd off the road but as each plan for their very necessary expansion was presented by the Davie brothers, they were opposed by the M&D (and the later over-powerful National Bus Company) leading to the Dengate bus operations finally being sold to the M&D in 1974 at which the story effectively ends.

The author has lived in Beckley most of his life and knew most of the family and staff. The book has been written from interviews and personal experience and also presents a potted history of Beckley, of other local operators, and records an oft forgotten country-life. It contains photographs of every Dengate bus, diligently captured by the Dengate family, most timetables and examples of most tickets, along with a comprehensive fleet list. This is often regarded as one of the most comprehensive of all bus company histories yet written.

First published in 1986, this 4th edition (updated in 2012) is in A4 soft-back, 150 pages, 200+ B&W illustrations and is ONLY available direct from the author (ignore what Amazon says!) at £17.00 + £2.50 p&p UK.

Image description
Image description

Outside the Beckley garage (C)

(Model not for sale!)