Twice in my life I have felt very close to my grandfather. The first occasion was on a bright day in the late summer of 1933; old and very ill, but optimistic as always, he was wheeled out into his Warwickshire garden to sit for a while in the sun with his legs supported on a low table. I myself, at the age of two, was installed close beside him; but understanding very well that Ganga, as I called him, was sitting precisely as a gentleman should, I too called for a stool to support my legs. And that was when my aunt, the photographer, arrived to preserve the scene for ever.
The second occasion… but no let me tell the story properly. William Davidson, to give Ganga his proper name, spent his first working years as a practical engineer in County Durham, securing pit props and trolleys in the coal mines around Bishop Auckland. Together with his parents and brothers he lived out of town at High Grange and it was from such villages as this or Coundon or Howden-le-Wear that people made their way on foot or by horse trap over to the mines or down to the Station at Bishop Auckland where the trains steamed majestically off to Durham or Weardale. Tiring at length of life in the mines, William set himself up as Bishop Auckland’s first professional photographer. But once an engineer, always an engineer, and when in 1896 the North-Eastern Daily Gazette made it known that two Englishmen had secured a licence from Germany’s Gottlieb Daimler to use his name in constructing cars at a disused cotton mill in Coventry, William saw his chance. By 1898, Daimler was preparing to build multi-passenger wagonettes and within months William, together with a number of his brothers and a mining colleague, took a decision: they would offer motorised road passenger transport for the first time. As William’s fiancee Mary Ann Wheater recorded in her diary: “W.D. got Motor Car, August 1899.”
When the car, conveying the partners, arrived triumphantly in Bishop Auckland, with a smartly attired Daimler chauffeur in charge of the steering handle, and William seated beside him, one of William’s photographers was on the spot to record the scene. The Urban Council, after lengthy discussion and apparently with some reluctance, duly granted a hackney carriage licence to the driver of a motor vehicle – and the deed was done. When William and Mary Ann were married in 1900, the car was at hand to convey them proudly to the church. But it was day-to-day business that mattered. Although, as one newspaper subsequently put it, “horses shied and old ladies fled shrieking at its approach,” the car soon found its place with the local people. A nearby carriage builder somehow increased the seating capacity: after that, cramming 16 passengers inside and with brother George collecting fares at twopence a time, the service proved comfortably profitable. On one successful route between the local villages, the horse-drawn traps melted away within weeks. There were also excursions over the Pennines and down to the coast and five-minute joyrides around fairgrounds.
For the brave pioneers, the end, alas, came all too soon when a group of young men in Howden for whom there had been no room on a late evening trip, laid a barrier of stones across the road just beyond a sharp bend; early next morning, the motor car crashed into them and the steering was wrecked.
William, now with a wife and a young family to support, had in the meantime sought pastures new, moving south to set up a coal business in Warwickshire. So what happened to the motor bus? No-one seems to know for certain, but it seems to have been reacquired by the Daimler people; it was restored and then exhibited around the country as an historical item. It was still on show in the ‘thirties – and then it somehow faded away; I, at least, and several others, have so far sought it in vain.
But if you care to look in our garage today you will find something that, after hearing this tale, you might have come to expect. Not a Daimler, I confess, but an early Henry Royce car of my grandfather’s time. When I sit at the wheel I can sometimes feel that he is there beside me once more, perhaps with brother George, in the back, l collecting fares at twopence a time. Then off we go, up and down the country lanes.
Ganga would have loved it.