Charabancs & Omnibuses

For thousands of years man had depended on draft animals such as horses, oxen, etc. to provide the motive power for wagons and carts used to move people, goods and raw materials. The early years of the 19th century saw the development of steam engines for use in road vehicles and railway locomotives but in the latter years of the 19thcentury the development of the internal combustion engine by  Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz made its use in road vehicles a practical proposition.

Privately owned cars driven by petrol or diesel powered engines were a rarity and generally were a source of amazement or amusement at the start of the 20th century with steam powered vehicles being the norm. In small towns like Portrush even these vehicles would have been very unusual and the horse was still relied upon.

War is always a time of great development and innovation as each side tries to outdo the other in terms of technology and weapons. The First World War saw a very rapid development of cars and lorries with internal combustion engines and when it ended the military was left with hundreds of thousands of surplus lorries which they sold off cheaply. Many of these would be converted into charabancs – early motor coaches, usually open-topped with benched seats arranged in rows, looking forward, commonly used for large parties, whether as public conveyances or for excursions. It was especially popular for sight-seeing or “works outings” to the country or the seaside, organised by businesses once a year.

The name derives from the French char à bancs (“carriage with wooden benches”), the horse-drawn version having originated in France in the early 19th century. The name was commonly mispronounced “sharra-bang”. Around the same time Motor Omnibuses made their first appearance. These were similar in that they had rows of forward facing seats but were fully enclosed, on the lower decks at least, and were arranged with a single entry/exit point and central passageways to allow access and egress. In their early forms they tended to have a smaller passenger carrying capacity than charabancs but as they were developed they soon overtook and displaced charabancs as the preferred mode of public road transport.

Early photographs of Portrush include private motor cars, charabancs and motor omnibuses. Public omnibus or bus as the name was commonly shortened to, services between towns soon became available with firms such as Henry’s of Portstewart and Catherwood’s of Belfast operating routes, sometimes in direct competition with each other. Bus companies also operated short tours based in Portrush. Tours to Donegal, the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, the Glens of Antrim and many other places were popular.

In 1948 the government nationalised all public transport bringing road and rail services under one organisation – The Ulster Transport Authority (UTA). By 1950 the UTA had constructed a new modern bus depot on land next to Kerr Street with provision for scheduled services and tours. An information kiosk was installed on the main platform. A few years later they added shelter for waiting passengers by constructing roofs and windbreaks on the existing main platforms: the kiosk was replaced by a small concrete office under the roof.

During the 1970’s some private transport initiatives were permitted with firms being able to take on routes and provide a public bus service. One such company was Coastal Bus Service which operated on local routes for several years. The latter years of the last century saw a great decline in demand for buses and the bus depot moved to a much smaller site on Dunluce Avenue. The former site became part of a grand plan by the local council who developed it as an amphitheatre and seated area.