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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 12 - The Van

Geoff Mattingley

From the 1920s operators of furniture vans in Victoria would install basic seating in their vehicles to carry passengers on excursions at week-ends. In 1934 the Transport Regulation Board made this arrangement subject to a special licence, with conditions such as annual inspection of the vehicle and a requirement to obtain a permit for travel more than 50 miles (80 kilometres) from Melbourne. There was a large market for such services for football club trips, Sunday School picnics and school excursions; at one time there were 480 'picnic vans' licensed in Victoria, more than the number of tour buses. It was not uncommon for 20-30 vans to be used for a combined Sunday School picnic in the fifties. From the sixties, the increased availability of modern buses (or coaches) and their greater comfort saw the business decline. There was also some pressure on the Transport Regulation Board from bus and coach operators, who pointed out the inferior safety of vans, with their bench seating and wood-framed, open-backed bodies. Most operators let their licences lapse, and today there are only two left, both held by Norm White of Footscray.

Bogged van on the Murray Valley Highway, Christmas 1947.
Bogged van on the Murray Valley Highway, Christmas 1947.
Melbourne Bushwalkers collection

In 1946 the Club first used the services of J. Gronow, a furniture-removal firm based in St Kilda. At this time there were limited Sunday train services, and few people had cars. Vans were ideal for bushwalkers, as their spartan accommodation was resistant to muddy boots, wet passengers and heavy rucksacks. Most vans had no windows, and the back was only half closed by a tailboard - a tarpaulin kept out the rain but not the dust.

The van, which was then being used by the Club, at Anglesea.
The van, which was then being used by the Club, at Anglesea. At the
time it was the largest furniture van in Victoria. 1956.
Denis Barson collection

In 1952 a young man called Denis Barson started his first job as a driver with Gronow's. He soon began driving for picnics and excursions, including Melbourne Bushwalkers' trips. This led to an association that still continues today - Denis drove for Club trips for a total of 37 years, and remains a life member.

Gronow's vans were used for weekend walks as well as day walks, and during the sixties and seventies there would sometimes be two vans in use at the same time, one for the weekend walk and one for the day. If the programmed trips were suitable, one van could be used for both: returning to Melbourne after dropping off the weekend walkers on Friday, taking out the day walkers on Sunday morning, then picking up both groups for the return journey on Sunday evening.

By the mid-seventies the Club would occasionally use a real bus for weekend or longer trips involving extended travel distances, such as to Wyperfeld, relying on a full passenger load to offset the extra cost. By this time weekend trips using private car transport were well established. Hired mini-buses were another form of transport used, but someone had to drive them. In 1977-78 the Club's project to walk the Victorian section of the Alpine Track in eight stages was made possible only by using mini-buses driven by volunteer Club members who did not actually go on the walk.

In February 1979 the Gronow family sold the business to another furniture-removal firm. The new owner had no desire to continue with the passenger business, and relinquished the licences. There had been no prior warning of the sale, and the Club had to organise alternative transport at short notice. Another operator was engaged from the few still holding passenger licences. His van was older than the ones we had been used to from Gronow's, and in May 1979 suffered a total brake failure on the Maroondah Highway at Croydon, with a full load of passengers on the way to a day walk. Luckily no one was hurt, but this operator was not used again. Buses were used for some day walks, but were expensive and did not give as good a service. Problems were encountered with bus drivers who had no experience of bushwalkers' requirements, such as waiting for the last of the party to arrive before returning to Melbourne. Drivers who smoked were a source of concern.

Wet walkers in a van.
Wet walkers in a van. Left to right: Robin Mitchell, Margaret Thompson, unknown, Marion Siseman (nee Houston), Darrell Sullivan, Sue Mitchell, circa 1963.
Bob Steel collection

Another operator used was Jack Baxter, who in late 1979 came to the rescue with two brand new vans, unique in that they were designed with passenger- rather than furniture-carrying as their principal purpose, even though they were still registered as furniture vans. Comparatively comfortable, they were initially driven by Jack himself, but we were glad to see Denis back again as a part-time employee of Jack's, driving for our Sunday walks For the next four years Jack's vans were regularly used by the Club, with occasional use of buses for long trips.

In mid-1984 Jack became ill and decided to retire from business and dispose of his vans. Jim Hedstrom, a Club member who regularly attended day walks, was very concerned at the possible permanent loss of van transport and negotiated with Jack an arrangement whereby one of the vans would be offered to the Club at a very reasonable price of S14,000. Jim initially proposed that the Club borrow $10,000 to purchase the van, and that with a levy of $1 per person per walk, plus an additional $1 per trip levy on visitors, the loan could be paid off over three years, after allowing for maintenance costs and other expenses. Denis would he employed by the Club as driver. Jim pointed out that the use of van transport was what made our Club unique. Compared to car transport as used by most other clubs, travelling as a group made for good social contact. Buses could not provide the same environment with their forward-facing seats, as well as being more expensive. By this time, there was only one other van passenger licence-holder remaining - Norm White, and he was committed to YHA bushwalkers.

Incorporation of the Club, which had been completed the previous year, gave the Club a legal existence and allowed it to own property and borrow money. The Transport Regulation Board did not wish to see the passenger licence transferred to a new owner, but we were able to register the vehicle as a private omnibus. This allowed us to carry Club members and visitors, but we could not charge fares. To ensure that walks' income continued, fares would be replaced by a walks' charge; in other words, walkers would pay for going on the walk, not for the transport. There were many other issues to be settled, such as garaging, cleaning and maintenance.

A well-attended half-yearly general meeting in August 1984 resolved to purchase the van from Jack, generously assisted by Jim Hedstrom who personally financed the purchase until the Club could arrange a loan. There was some urgency, as Jack's health was deteriorating - he died shortly after the arrangements were completed. The Committee appointed a transport Subcommittee (Tony Stapley and Jim) and walks' charges were increased.

There was some concern expressed that the payment of interest on a loan would cost the Club too much, and Art Terry proposed that all members be levied $37 so that the purchase could be made outright. Against this proposal, it was pointed out that more than half the Club's members were not active, and that asking them to pay a levy might result in their not renewing their memberships, thus giving the Club real financial problems. An alternative proposal by Jim involved his acting as guarantor for the Club to operate a trading bank account with overdraft facility, which would be used as the normal operating account. Interest charges would then depend on the amount of overdraft, which would vary through the year. This idea was accepted by the Committee and commenced operation in November 1984, in lieu of a loan. Concern was still being expressed about the likely cost of interest payments, and at the Annual General Meeting in February 1985, a motion to impose a levy on members was defeated. The first year's experience quickly showed that, in practice, the account balance stayed in credit for most of the year, thus incurring minimal interest charges.

Ownership and operation of the van quickly became routine, with Denis providing reliable driving and cleaning. Maintenance costs were higher than expected, with modifications being required several times over the next few years. For example, in early 1986 the service brake (foot brake) failed during a trip to Powelltown. Luckily, there was no risk to passengers, even though the handbrake proved to be inadequate in an emergency. The failure was due to accumulation of water in the braking system, caused by the van only being used once a week. After much discussion by the Committee, an emergency braking system was fitted, using components from a later model chassis. Jim Hedstrom played a major role in arranging for this work to be done, as well as for a consulting engineer to test and report on the new brake. Jim continued to take an interest in the van's operation and maintenance, as well as regularly attending day walks, until his sudden death in October 1987.

By early 1989 the overdraft facility, having been rarely used, was discontinued to avoid paying the fixed bank charges associated with it.

When Denis retired from driving in late 1989, a replacement driver had to be found at short notice, and John Dupuy took over. A full-time driver with Peninsula Bus Lines, he was able to obtain buses from his employer at short notice on occasions when the Club van suffered a breakdown. Walkers could not fail to notice how a modern bus or coach was much more comfortable than the van and how much more quickly they got to and from a walk.

Unexpected van maintenance costs of $8000 in the first half of 1991 prompted the Committee to consider alternatives, and a Walk Transport Subcommittee was set up. Among the issues to he considered were:

The Subcommittee requested quotes from nine bus operators for regular Sunday trips averaging 250 kilometres, and after examining the quotes, looked at three in detail, including visiting the operator's premises. The eventual recommendation was that a one-month's trial be carried out, using a Peninsula Bus Lines bus for all day walks, to determine members' and visitors' reactions. If the results were favourable, then a 12-month fixed-price contract would be entered into, and the van sold. The trials with a hired bus came to a head when after much heated discussion, a motion was put to members at the Annual General Meeting of 26 February 1992: 'That the Club retains and operates the van until a serious breakdown occurs which is uneconomic to repair and then alternative arrangements be made by the committee'. This motion was carried. An Extraordinary General Meeting was called and held on 29 April. The motion 'That the Club sell the Bedford van and that a chartered bus be used for Sunday walks' was narrowly carried. This wasn't quite the end of the story however, as sufficient members gathered together for a last stand and called for yet another Extraordinary General Meeting. This was held on 10 June when the motion 'That the Club retain and use the Bedford van for Sunday walks' was soundly defeated. The van was then sold a few days later for $9000, thus ending this chapter of the Club's history.

The seven years' experience of owning and operating its own transport made the Melbourne Bushwalkers unique among Victorian bushwalking clubs, and enabled it to succeed in its aim of maintaining the character and atmosphere of day walks. The Committee's decision to change to bus transport rather than waiting until they were forced to change in a hurry, brought to an end an era that will be fondly remembered by all those who have ever been on a van trip with the Club.

The van after being sold by the Club.
The van after being sold by the Club. The picture has been symbolically surrounded with black by Jean Giese.
Commercial photo for Bill Slattery's Motors

The author acknowledges assistance in the preparation of this article from Denis Barson, and Norm and Pat White.