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Peter Stanton, Empress Coaches

January 18, 2012
by the gentle author

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

At James Hoyle & Sons, Iron Founderers

At James Ince & Sons, Umbrella Maker

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Iain Chambers permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Great article, amazing photos. It’s a building I admire everyday from the other side of the canal, but unfortunately it’s being allowed to decay, with an eye on knocking it down and replacing with a new development. It would be a real shame if that were to happen. (note the skeleton of new de luxe flats adjacent to empress coaches, built too close to the gasworks and mothballed for health and safety reasons!)

  2. Ben permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Fantastic article! I’m intrigued to see there is still a bombed site in London, I thought they were all long gone. Would be interesting to hear more about this site.

  3. Ruth permalink
    January 18, 2012

    I’ve gazed at that ivy-covered building on a few occasions when visiting a friend who lived for a time just on the other side of the canal. How nice to now know what’s behind the ivy!

  4. January 18, 2012

    I’m curious about the stone ‘signs’, dating 1871 and 1872, that are set into the brick wall.
    Exactly what are they ?
    They have an aura about them that harkens to even older than their dates. Love them !

  5. jan permalink
    January 18, 2012

    spooky. on my way back from collecting a parcel from emma street, i walked down that narrow path for the first time. great to have a bit of history attached to it. i love your website. just last week i was googling the name of a bag shop that i worked in on a sunday while i was still at school and saw a photo of a woman who had worked there for 30 years!

  6. jeannette permalink
    January 19, 2012

    gosh i love a ramble with a hideaway destination, thank you for the pix of the approach.

  7. Liz permalink
    March 8, 2012

    Would be interesting to know who built the lovely bow fronted building – was it a private house. Did it predate the canal?

  8. Lou permalink
    March 26, 2012

    I live there! in the beautiful bow cottage! :)

  9. March 26, 2012

    The ivy covered house was used in exterior shots as the “London safe house” in the latest Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie.

  10. cathay birch permalink
    April 16, 2012

    m y great aunt and my great grandmother lived in coach yard,hackney in 1871 along with their perants.is this the same place?if so what would they have lived in?regards cathay

  11. Joe Pitchfoer permalink
    August 23, 2012

    Looking at the pictures takes me back, it’s great to see Pete, Jason and what the F… happend to Mark lol. Passed my test with you and have never worked for any other coach compan, in my heart i still work for you. Jason, Blackpool do i have to say any more, great times. some name’s Bob Stevenson, Eddie Ainger, Fredie Betts,George Baxter, Jimmy Dent,Pat Pope. and me Joe Pitchford, I was (Kevin) back then, or as Trevor would call me K.P. took my dad’s name now call myself Joe. One day Pete i will call in to see you collect my bottle scotch, lol Empress a great time in my life. take care boy’s.

  12. Dean Woolf permalink
    September 4, 2012

    Great article. My dad worked there for quite a few years. I also recognise some of the names on Joe’s post that my dad used to mention.

    Good luck for the future Empress.

  13. John Chant permalink
    October 3, 2012

    I was delighted to find this article. Both my father and my uncle worked at the Empress whilst it was still a bus company. My dad painted the wooden destination boards which got turned round at the end of the journey to show the return route and my uncle Tom was chief mechanic. That was something I did not know until I visited the company several years ago. I have been pleased to let Tom’s grandchildren in Australia know that the story is here as their dad with his parents and siblings lived in the flat above the office for several years.

  14. Graeme Cook permalink
    January 13, 2013

    My cousin Tony alerted me to this as my late father, Alfie Cook, is in the group of coachdrivers. He is the young man at the back with the cap. Tony remembers going on a beano with him once and he drove the coach round and round a roundabout singing ‘Around the world I searched for you’ to the delight of the passengers, a sure way of increasing his tips! He also remembers coming home from school one day to find Dad’s coach outside and the house full of musicians from a Big Band drinking cups of tea. My Dad had been passing by and just called in!

  15. Thomas permalink
    July 23, 2014

    I lived in the flat, above the office for a while, I would come down the fire escape for work .
    I still do the odd day for Empress Coaches.
    It will be a sad day when Empress Coaches stops operating . The boys should take it on and carry the Empress name for the next Fifty Years….

  16. Bill Lear permalink
    August 1, 2014

    What a superb article. I drove for Peter & Trevor in 1974/75 mainly doing school contracts.
    The photos of the garage brought back some memories as it doesn’t appear to have changed in 40 years.
    I remember Peter’s standard “brake test” which was to wet the cobbles in the yard with a hose then drive the coach down the yard and stand on the brakes. If all 4 wheels locked up the brakes were OK.
    I’m so pleased to see that such a happy family company is still going.

  17. Paul Farrell permalink
    May 1, 2016

    WOW…This was a great article to find, as I have often searched for information on Empress Coaches. I worked for Peter and Trevor as a YTS trainee mechanic, mainly under the guidance of Bob Langley , after coming from Ireland in 1983. I remember also the drivers mentioned above especially George Baxter who was a character and of course ” Old Bill ” the yardman and Tony who dropped by now and again.
    I live in Canada now and I am still in the trade, but I always remind my apprentices how lucky they are now , as I started my career with an old coffee tin full of paraffin and a brush, lying on my back under an old Bedford.
    Thank you Peter , Trevor and Bob for the great start , and wish you and your family all the best.

  18. P rawlings permalink
    July 4, 2016

    Does anyone remember Patrick mcready or mccreanor . He was a mechanic for empress coaches in 1968

  19. October 15, 2016

    Hi Peter and Trevor..

    I hope this finds you both well.
    Love your web-site and see you have some beautiful new coaches.
    I sometimes think about the days when PGO was my steed.

  20. celt permalink
    December 1, 2016

    Wonderful post!
    What a beautiful, hidden area, such a nice building. It would be interesting to hear more of it’s history. Who built it? Who lived there?
    Any chance of an article on the last bombsite ?

  21. Alan Shields permalink
    January 20, 2017

    The Empress HQ appeared in “Silent Witness” on TV on Wed 18th Jan.
    An internet search brought me here to your blog.
    Many thanks for your great story about the history of Empress Coaches.
    I’ll have to visit the area one day.

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