Thirty years ago if you wanted to get around the Six Towns then most people hopped on the tried and trusted buses mainly operated by Potteries Motor Traction (PMT).
In the early Eighties, there were nowhere near as many cars on the road and public transport was the lifeblood of the local economy.
Buses ferrying workers to major employers such as Shelton Bar, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and the pits were crammed from 7am.
Hanley bus station – that huge, dirty, decaying carbuncle which is set for demolition – was a hive of activity as the main terminus for the Potteries.
My nan wouldn’t buy her bloomer loaves from anywhere else other than the bakery in the underpass where other businesses such as a dry cleaners, chemist and bookies were thriving.
This was a place Ray Newton knew very well.
In August of 1980 he passed his driving test not in a little car like the rest of us – but behind the wheel of a PMT bus.
Ray had begun his career on the buses on May 6, 1968, when – as a 21-year-old – he had swapped his job as a stores clerk for a firm in Newcastle for the better paid job of a conductor PMT operating out of its Clough Street depot.
Ray, aged 64, of Bentilee, said: “I started on a basic wage of £13 nine shillings – which was a big jump for me. And we could work overtime to earn some more.
“It was a great job and I really enjoyed it. There was wonderful camaraderie on the buses and the drivers became good mates – a big part of your life. As well as collecting the fairs, the conductor was responsible for ensuring the buses stuck to the timetable and arrived on time. It was an important job.
“Back then people were more friendly, polite and courteous. Lads would give up their seats for a lady if the bus was full and the drivers and conductors were treated with respect by customers.”
Ray’s working life came to a crossroads in August 1980 as conductors were being phased out in favour of single-operative vehicles.
He opted to re-train as a driver and during the interview we worked out that he must have ferried yours truly to Sixth Form College, Fenton, and home again to Sneyd Green in the late Eighties.
Long before that, however, Ray had to pass his driving test.
He said: “It was terrifying, to be honest. My knees were knocking the first time I sat behind the wheel of a bus. I only had a provisional licence at the time and so I passed my test on a bus which I suppose is quite unusual.
“By the following year (1981) there were no conductors on PMT buses and the drivers were doing it all and so I had to learn to take the fares as well as getting my head around the mechanics of driving a big vehicle.”
Ray has no doubt why the number of people using the buses across North Staffordshire has fallen in recent years.
He said: “It’s the local economy. We just don’t have the companies and workplaces we had back then. Workers would fill our buses.
“It was standing room only at certain times of the day. They just aren’t there anymore.”
And the biggest change he has seen over the years?
Ray said: “Definitely the switch from a manual gearbox to an automatic. That was a really big deal for all of the drivers and totally changed the job.”
Of course, you can’t work on the buses with the public for forty-odd years and not have a few stories.
Ray has seen it all – including one elderly passenger he picked up near Cobridge Traffic Lights expiring in his seat.
But one story which still tickles Ray is from his time as a conductor in the seventies.
He laughed: “Our bus came to a stop in Highfield Road, Blurton, and I told one of our passengers – a blind man – I would get off and help him cross the road. Just as we got to the other side I heard the ‘ding-ding’ of the bell on the bus and off she went. The driver drove off without me.
“Some comedian had obviously seen what I was doing and pretended to be me, rung the bell, and left me stranded. To be fair, the driver did come back for me. Eventually.”
On May 5, Ray will finish his shift at First Bus, hand in his keys at the depot in Adderley Green, and head off to a well-deserved retirement – just one day shy of 44 years on the buses.
He’s had a long and distinguished career and admits he has enjoyed it.
So how will he fill his retirement?
Ray said: “I love making things. Doll’s house furniture and the like. That’ll keep me busy.”
With seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, three great grandchildren (and another on the way) he won’t be short of takers for those hand-made toys.
Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia