Canberra, Federal Capital of Australia, was in 1923 a city under construction. The population of the area was about 2,000 and included many building workers living in camps and “tent cities”. Four daily workers’ trains commenced running from Queanbeyan NSW to Canberra on 15 January 1923, over a railway opened to goods traffic on 23 May 1914.

The first two buses were Dodge Charabancs (Photo “DCT collection”)

The railway had been intended to form the nucleus of a “city” railway, and was laid over a temporary bridge when originally opened to goods traffic, crossing the Molonglo River, and extended as far as the present day City Centre. The plan was to extend this railway to Yass when the City developed. In 1922, however, a flood had swept away the rails over the Causeway Flats, and demolished the railway bridge over the river entirely. As a result, the railway was “temporarily” terminated at Eastlake (present day Kingston, which is still the rail head).

To link up with these workers’ trains, the Department of Works brought two Graham Dodge open-tyre charabanc buses to Canberra, from either Sydney or Melbourne, and commenced a transport service for workers who had to travel a distance of more than one mile. These buses had open side and hoods, and seated 25 passengers each. They became C94 and C166 or were already so registered when they arrived in Canberra.

During the day, the Dodges commenced a (free) school service to Telopea Park School, for as far away as the Cotter River, 15 miles distant, and were then employed in transporting Government workmen from worksite to worksite or worksite to camp.

To control development in Canberra, an authority called the Federal Capital Commission was brought into existence on 1 January 1925, and empowered to run many and varied enterprises into the Capital. Among its statutory functions were the construction, maintenance and operation of tramways. It was also interested in a Government pig farm, a brickyard, and in the actioning of leases around the City area. With the developing buildings, the PCC inherited the 2 Dodge buses.

A third Dodge (new) was purchased by the Commission in May 1925 and this vehicle joined the other two in transportation of workmen and school children.

On 23 February 1925 Mrs Adelaide Peecher of Queanbeyan commenced a workers bus from Queanbeyan to the building site of Parliament House, using a 20 passenger Chevrolet bus, to be followed soon after by RF Tetley, on a similar route.

The first local bus service for the general public in Canberra was commenced by Mrs Helen Barton, a former Sydney haulage contractor, in July 1925. This service linked the two areas being occupied – Ainslie and Eastlake – and included a service to the only available shopping centre, Queanbeyan. There was, at this time, only one permanent trading business in Canberra and this had only just opened on 2 July 1925. Upon commencement of her service, Mrs Barton had sought and received official approval of the Federal Capital Commission for her venture. The Barton Fleet originally consisted of one Vulcan bus. A second Vulcan was purchased on 17 May 1926.

In August 1926, the Commission amplified its own bus operations. On 12 June 1926 it employed “Several smart youths, 17-19 years of age” and commenced training them as bus conductors. Four AEC Renown Syd Wood bodied half-cabs were purchased and a City Omnibus Service was commenced, as Eastlake by the time had a shopping centre.

With fares about half those charged by Mrs Barton, this original bus service from Ainslie to Eastlake made no attempt to debar passengers other than commission employees, and soon introduced night trip and all-day service on Saturdays. A Sunday service was provided from 9 October 1927. The next step after beginning the bus service was to restrict Mrs Barton’s service from carrying local Canberra passengers, making her service the Queanbeyan-Canberra link only from then on.

The Commission’s first fatal bus accident occurred on Sunday 21 November 1926 when three buses were loaned out to the drivers to attend a picnic at the Cotter River. On the return trip, Dodge C94 got into difficulties on a bend on the red clay road, after leaving most of its passengers in Queanbeyan. The rear wheels of the bus skidded, causing the driver to lose control. The bus overturned killing one passenger – the driver survived.

A fifth AEC Renown Syd Wood Bodied 26 seater was added to the fleet in December 1926 and the original model Dodges, C94 and C166 were sold in March 1927, leaving the five AECs to carry on the City service, with the 1925 Dodge as a School Bus.

With the new motor ordinance in the Federal Capital Territory in 1927 as detailed in the HCVA Newssheet No 23 Page 6, the 5 AEC Renown buses were registered as CO1 to CO5 and the Dodge became CO6. CO, of course, stood for Commonwealth Omnibus.

Intercity Coaches Ltd. commenced their “Fageol Parlour Coach Service” from Sydney to Canberra in January 1927 stepping up to a short lived six day a week basis in March 1927. With a journey time of ten hours, this service was to employ heated “Fageol” buses during the winter, and traveled via Queanbeyan and Bungendore, as the direct route via Collector was not to open until early 1931. In July 1927, Intercity Coaches was able to clip nearly an hour off its journey time when a tortuous detour of 18 miles at Paddy’s River north of Goulburn was eliminated by the re-opening of the “Main Southern Road”. This service, which ceased in 1928, was not to be accident-free either, as a car passenger was killed on 11 December 1927 in Brisbane Avenue, Canberra, after a collision with the Intercity Fageol Coach.

The big turning point in Canberra’s development occurred on 9 May 1927 when the Federal Parliament was opened for the first time at the Capital. Immediately following this event, Government departments commenced to be transferred from Melbourne, and Canberra’s population trebled in the next few months.

Just as a matter of interest, the Duke of York, who performed the Parliament House opening ceremony, traveled to Canberra by train from Sydney with his entourage. The disruption of traffic caused by the visitors suspended the City Omnibus Service for two days, on 9 and 10 May.

This same month, retail business commenced operating at the Civic Centre, and Mrs Barton commenced her personally supervised “Tours of the Territory”. Waiting seats were provided at fifteen points on the Ainslie to Eastlake route on 15 July 1927.

The Federal Capital Commission at this time consisted of three appointed commissioners. During May 1927 the Commissioners arrived at the view that conducting a bus service was no part of their function, as it took their attention off other development matters (such as the pig farm) as a private enterprise was conducting most bus services in other Capital cities of Australia. Realising that quick expansion was needed if an adequate bus service was to be given, the commissioners decided to call tenders from Private Enterprises for the take-over of their existing buses and for the conducting of future bus services. These tenders were called on 22 July 1927.

The Commissioners considered, at the time of calling for tenders for the City Bus Service, that two routes should be provided immediately. Terminal points for each route were Ainslie and Eastlake, with intermediate points differing for each route. Both would travel via the City Centre. A franchise of ten years was suggested to the renderers. On 23 August 1927, the Chief Commissioner, Sir John Butters, was able to announce that several tenders had been received, that they would be considered without delay, and that the successful tenderer would be in possession of the service by the end of the year.

After consideration of the tenders received, it was revealed that three tenders had been considered, and an opportunity given to each tenderer to submit a revision. Each quoted fares that are, to quote Sir John Butters, “quite unsatisfactory”, as were the subsidies required of the commission. As a result, the commission had decided to run the service itself, and to implement an adequate service for the conveyance of the public.

One of the tenders had been prepared by Mr E.L. Holmes, a Sydney salesman with connections to the motor trade, in conjunction with Mrs Barton, proprietress of the Queanbeyan service, who had motor agencies herself. After hearing the Commission’s decision, Mr Holmes made further approaches, and was given the opportunity to revise the tender again. By early October, he had convinced the Commission that his tender was “Worthy of consideration”, resulting in the Commission agreeing to the proposal put forward in the name of the Canberra Bus and Cab Co Ltd, to run 12 buses at a base headway of thirty minutes, on a ten year franchise, to be subsidised at reducing rates over four years. The new Company was to taken over not later than 5 December 1927.

The proposal involved the taking over of the Commission’s existing five AEC buses, and the provision of others on a temporary basis, until twelve new buses could be provided. All terms of the tender were not known publicly at first. Soon it leaked out that Mrs Barton had severed connection with the proposal on being informed that Mr Holmes’ own investment was to consist of 5,000 pounds in shares, to be paid to him by the Company for his rights, title and interest in the contract, and that no Sydney motor house was backing the proposal financially.

Mr Holmes then acquired four Bean truck chassis and 2 White bus Chassis and ordered new bus bodies be built thereon by Smith and Waddington, Sydney. He also stated that he was negotiating to buy the Queanbeyan route for his Canberra Bus and Cab Co Ltd but willingness to sell was denied by Mrs Barton at a hearing of a Joint Committee of Public Accounts enquiry into transport (not necessarily bus) costs.

The Monday morning arrived, with no sign of Mr Holmes securing better terms from the FCC so the Commission canceled the contract, deciding on 6 December 1927 to proceed on the assumption that it would be running the bus service indefinitely. Tenders were immediately called, closing 19 December 1927 for the supply of four small 17 passenger units, of the “pay as you enter” type, with a condition that early delivery was important.

On 16 January 1928, four small 17 passenger Bean Buses arrived in Canberra for display to the Commission, on the understanding that they would be purchased if suitable. Those were none other than Holmes’ 4 Beans sent to Canberra by Dalgety’s, As built; they were four wheel buses, with comparatively light axles and springing. The Commission agreed to buy the 4 Beans, subject to modifications being carried out to them, including the fitting of the dual wheels to the rear. These modifications were carried out, enabling the first two to enter service on 20 February 1927, and the other two later the same month. Registration numbers were CO7 and CO10.

The working of these small buses would make a story in itself. They went on the road one-man operated and with a strict prohibition on the driver accepting more than the seventeen seated passengers. A new one-hour timetable commenced on 1 March 1928 with the Beans working in with the AEC Renowns – at least four of the Renowns – CO5 had caught fire near the Canberra GPO on 17 January 1928 on a Saturday night picture trip, and was temporarily out of service with a damaged engine house.

In December 1927, the southern FCC bus terminus, Eastlake, and the railway station, were renamed Kingston.

1928 saw more Commonwealth Departments transferred to Canberra, more people to be carried on the buses and more complaints from the passengers. The buses carried no destination signs – a parochial habit still indulged in by some of our Country bus operators, and were described at a Joint Parliamentary Committee of public accounts, referred to before as “the laughing stock of the place”. “irregular” and “overcrowded”

Improvements, however, had commenced. The off-peak half hourly service was operating, using two variations of the Ainslie to Kingston route, a closer check was made on running times, plans were in hand for the provision of ten bus shelter sheds, and tenders closing on 5 May 1928 were called for the supply of two 29/31 passenger buses.

These two buses when delivered were to be “historic commercials” themselves, being the then latest product of the Associated Daimler Co, similar to the AECs operated, but seating 31 passengers. The Associated Daimler Co was a temporary fusion, from 1926 until 1929, of the bus interests of the AEC and Daimler companies in England. These particular ADCs were fitted with neat leather upholstery, and had changeable destination boards. After a trial run on 11 August 1928, they entered service on 13 August 1928 as CO11 and CO12, and preparations were made to expand the service.

On 27 August 1928, a new system of running was introduced, using four routes numbered 1 to 5, and all travelling between the Canberra Railway Station at Kingston and Corroboree Crescent, Ainslie. The route variations were as follows:

Route 1 The Capital Theatre, Griffith, Arthur Circle, Westlake, Acton, Doonkuna Street and Hotel Ainslie

Route 2 via Griffith, Hotel Wellington, Post Office, Hotel Canberra, Doonkuna Street and Hotel Ainslie

Route 3 via Wentworth Avenue, Hotel Kurrajong, Post Office then as per Route 2

Route 4 via Wentworth Avenue, Brisbane Avenue, Hotel Kurrajong and then as per Route 1

The numbers only were shown as route indicators on the front of the buses, terminal destinations being shown on side-boards.

Further reading:

This page was last updated on 28 April 2021

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