Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bartrums Road Services

The Nitram Road.
____ It was the Autumn of 1979 when I had a job interview with Philip Bartrum at Great Blakenham, just north of Ipswich in Suffolk. Bartrums of Diss were expanding and had bought-out E.W.List of Debenham. The major reason for the takeover was to acquire the ICI fertilizer distribution contract and the warehouse facility at Great Blakenham. E.W.List had a fleet of ten trucks but had enough work for thirty; Bartrums was their biggest sub-contractor who now wanted the well-paying work direct. All the E.W.List drivers took a redundancy pay-out rather than work for Bartrums; so here I was along with a dozen more hopeful drivers looking for a start.

____  Leonard Bartrum started his road haulage company in 1929 and although it was nationalised in 1949 and became part of British Road Services; he bought back the company and ran it until 1966 when he handed over the reigns to his three sons; Philip, Roger and Roy. Their main customers were Colman's; the mustard people, Howard; farm machinery, Boot's the Chemist, the British Sugar Corporation. They also carried bulk flour and malt as well as loads for numerous smaller customers. The ICI work was important as it gave the company loads to bring back to East Anglia from the three fertilizer plants at Billingham, Teeside, Heysham in Lancashire and Avonmouth in the South-West.

____ At twenty-five years old; I was far from the youngest of the new team based at the four-bay warehouse in Lodge Lane, Gt. Blakenham. Mr Bartrum seemed to have deliberately picked the youngsters; although we had to drive the old E.W.List lorries which were Volvo F88s and MAN 16.280s. I was given a MAN which proudly displayed "Truck of the Year" across the top of the windshield. ALT 31 S was an impressive truck; 280 bhp and a double-bunk sleeper but with a 13 speed Eaton-Fuller gearbox; column-change. Half an hour up the road on my first trip; I pulled a muscle in by left shoulder due to difficulties with the un-synchronised gears and the strange position of the gear lever. But once I had mastered cog-box it soon became the best truck I had driven; up to that point in my career.

____ The out-going work of E.W.List was mainly for Vicon; the Dutch farm machinery manufacturer. A typical load on a 40 foot flat-deck trailer would be fifty fertilizer spreaders for a dozen drops. The destinations could be any where in England and Wales. Delivering the spreaders and returning to base with a load of fertilizer would take a week. I loved this type of work and Bartrums were happy to have a driver who didn't mind how many nights-out they had. The Lake District and the West Country were my favorites but I soon began to like the loads to North Wales; once I overcame my aversion to the Welsh speaking locals.

____ I made some good friends with the other drivers and we became a tight-knit group when all the old E.W.List trucks were replaced by a brand new fleet of 1626 Mercedes Benz tractor units. Our new trucks incensed the loyal long-serving drivers at Bartrums' Eye depot on the Norfolk/Suffolk border; many of whom were driving old Volvo F86s. Their resentment of the Great Blakenham drivers never relented in all the years I was there. Plus of course; there was the old Norfolk/ Suffolk; Norwich City/ Ipswich Town rivalry.

260 horse power - 32 tonnes gross vehicle weight.

____ One of the outstanding differences between my old employer, BRS, and Bartrums was driver attitude. At the union dominated BRS; drivers would doing anything to get out of doing work and everything to make things awkward for the management. At Bartrums; the drivers showed tremendous loyalty and would do anything for the young master; a.k.a. Philip Bartrum. He had started as a driver, roping and sheeting in all weathers  and had earned the respect of the long-serving core of drivers. The company paid better than most and driver turn-over was low. The workforce was hard-working and competent; although there was a drinking culture and trouble-making side. The A1, Great North Road, was their playground; Newark, night-out central. I was always OK with the Norfolk drivers if it was one-on-one; but when they were team-handed they were a handful. Mr. Smith, the despatcher at Eye was always getting complaints about his "Cowboys"
 "Cowboys? I wish they were cowboys. Give me cowboys any day. They're all animals; nothing short of animals." was his legendary reply.

20 tonnes of ICI Nitram fertilizer tarped and fly-sheeted.

____ Nitrate fertilizer was big business at the time and the ICI plant at Billingham, Teeside, was sending thousands of tonnes of Nitram south to pastures of East Anglia. The problems of drinking water contamination had yet to surface and every farmer liberally used the snow-white granules in their bright blue plastic bags. Farm deliveries were common and forklift trucks were rare; hand-ball was the name of the game. My hands were a mass of hard-skin ridges and splits from all the roping and sheeting; add wet nitrate fertilizer to the cuts and it brought tears to your eyes.

Not the biggest of cabs but it did have two beds.

____The 1626 Merc was a reliable work-horse, if a little under-powered; it plodded along for two years before being replaced by a Volvo F7, lighter and more lively. In all, I did about three years at Bartrums, leaving to go across the water in search of adventure. The money wasn't better and I don't think I've had a better employer than Bartrums. I've good memories of zig-zagging across the country, driving new roads every day, in search of Vicon farm machinery dealers. In 2006, when I came to Canada, I needed a reference from a company where I had done roping and sheeting so I wrote to Bartrums. They wrote back to say they remembered me and wished me luck. Good to see that they are still going strong.


  1. really interesting this , read this whilst at Cannock services! ::)


  2. Great reading Chris, it amazes me that memory of yours! (Among other things lol) A good start for your next book while your laid up. Memoirs of a Young Trucker, Life on the Highway.

  3. Chris this was wonderful to read & brought back a few memories.Philip is my father & now happily retired,the company is now run by the third generation of Shaun,Stephen & myself.I am looking to add & history section to our new website soon so if you have any more photos etc please let me know