Peter Stanton, Empress Coaches
One of the corners of the East End that intrigues me most is at the boundary of Bethnal Green and Hackney, where a narrow path bordered by crumbling old brick walls leads up from the Hackney Rd to the junction of Mare St and the Regent’s canal. Cutting through at an angle to the grid of streets, it has the air of a field track that was there before the roads and the railway. Looming overhead against the skyline is a tall ruinous structure with the square proportions of a medieval castle, London’s last unreconstructed bomb site, left to decay since an incendiary hit in World War II. Beyond this, you pass under the glistening railway arches to arrive at the canal where, to your left, a vista opens up with majestic gasometers reaching up the sky and a quaint old building with bay-fronted windows entirely overgrown with ivy, cowering beneath. This is the headquarters of Empress Coaches.
Yesterday there was ice on the canal, which made me all the more grateful for the generous welcome extended by Peter Stanton, third generation of the Stanton family at the coach yard and still operating from the extravagantly derelict premises purchased by his grandfather.
Edward Thomas Stanton was an enterprising bus driver who bought his bus in 1923 and created a fleet operating from a yard in Shrubland Rd, London Fields, whence he initiated several familiar bus routes – including the No 8 pictured above on the office wall – journeys that became part of the perception of the city for generations of Londoners. In 1927, he bought the property here in Corbridge Crescent but when the buses were nationalised in 1933, he made £35,000 from the sale of the fleet, permitting him to retire and hand over to his son Edward George Stanton, changing the business from buses to coaches at the same time. “It was a bloody fortune then!” declared Peter, his grandson still presiding with jocularity over the vestiges of this empire today. Outside the fleet of coaches in their immaculate cream paintwork, adorned with understated traditional signwriting sat dignified and perfect as swans amidst the oily filth of the garage, ready to glide out over the cobbles and onto the East End streets.“A coach yard within two miles of the City of London, it will never happen again,” declared Peter in wonder at the arcane beauty of his inheritance.
“My father came here at sixteen with his sister Ivy who did all the accounts,” he explained, sitting proudly among framed black and white photographs that trace the evolving design of coaches through the last century. At first, the bodies of the vehicles were removed in the Winter to convert to flat trucks out of season and these early examples resemble extended horsedrawn coaches but, as the century wore on, heroically streamlined vehicles took over. And the story of Empress Coaches itself became interwoven with the history of the twentieth century when they were requisitioned during World War II to drive personnel around airfields in Norfolk, while the staff that remained in London took refuge in the repair pit in the coach yard as a bomb shelter during the blitz.
“My father didn’t encourage me to come into the business,” admitted Peter, who joined in 1960, “But after being brought up around coaches and coming up here every Saturday morning with your dad, it gets into your blood and I could think of nothing else but going into it. I started off at the bottom, I was crawling under the coaches greasing them up. I was a mechanic for twenty-two years but then me and my brother Trevor bought out the company from the rest of the family, and the two of us took it over.”
“In those days, people didn’t go on holidays, they had a day out to the sea on a coach. And they had what they called “beanos,” pub and work excursions going to Margate or Southend and stopping at a pub on the way back and arriving back around midnight. Those pubs used to lose their local trade because people didn’t want to go into a bar filled with a lot of drunken East Enders. They were very rowdy and the girls were as bad as the boys.” revealed Peter, able to take amusement now at this safe distance and pulling a face to indicate that there is little he has not seen on the buses. “Put it like this, I used to say that when you took a coachload of girls out on a beano and their boyfriends and husbands came to pick them up at one o’clock – if they knew what I knew these girls had been up to they wouldn’t be so welcoming. In other words, they were not so innocent in those days as people thought they were. But the police were the worst, they went bloody barmy and they did things they would nick anybody else for doing!”
“When I first started there were six beanos every Saturday in the Summer but in the whole of the last year we only did two.” he admitted with a private twinge of disappointment. As the beanos decreased in the sixties, Empress Coaches were called upon by the military for troop movements. “We used to do the Trooping of the Colour, we drove the troops from Caterham Barracks with a police escort. It was the time of the IRA and they had to check all the bins along the way and have a guy with a jammer sitting in the front of the bus, so if there was a remote-controlled bomb it wouldn’t go off. They told us, ‘Whatever you do, drive on. Even if you hit someone.’ There’d be twenty of our coaches full of soldiers plus an escort.”
These are now the twilight years at Empress Coaches, after the family sold the business and are simply employed to keep it ticking over, which explains why little maintenance is undertaken. Yet the textures of more than eighty years of use recall the presence of all those who passed through and imbue the place with a rare charmed atmosphere. I was not the first to recognise the appeal of its patina, as I discovered when Peter reeled off the list of film crews that had been there, most notably “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” who wallpapered his office with the gold wallpaper you see in the top picture. “We’ve had Michael Caine here,” he boasted, “Gary Oldman, Ray Winstone and Dennis Waterman too.”
“After I spent fifty-two years of my life here, I’ve got be here.” Peter assured to me, biting into a sandwich and chewing thoughfully,“It’s more than likely this place will be redeveloped before too long and that will be the end of it, but in the meantime – I’m just trying to keep this show on the road!”
Edward Thomas Stanton, the enterprising bus driver who invented the number eight bus route.
Edward George Stanton in his leather bus driver’s coat.
Brothers Peter and Trevor Stanton.
Mark Stanton, Trevor’s son.
Jason Stanton, Peter’s son.
Between the coaches.
A forgotten corner of the yard.
Empress Coaches, the office entrance.
Corbridge Crescent, with the canal to the right.
A narrow path leading from the Hackney Rd to the junction of Mare St and the Regent’s canal.
London’s last unreconstructed bomb site.
You may also like to read about two nearby industries