The London Transport No 82 buses ran on the Rotherhithe docklands route in South East London – Downtown as it was known locally. I travelled on these buses from my home in Rotherhithe, through Rotherhithe Tunnel to school in Stepney for several years between 1959 and 1966.
These red double decker’s and their crews provided sterling service on a difficult route.
They could be delayed for a variety of reasons, one of the many docklands bridges on the route being raised, traffic congestion or problems in the Rotherhithe Tunnel itself.
This route ran from St Marychurch Street along the old Rotherhithe Street, Redriff Road to Surrey Docks Station (Now Surrey Quays). It then ran along Lower Road and through the Rotherhithe Tunnel terminating at Stepney East Station under the big railway bridge in Limehouse, Stepney.
Here the crew would go for a cup of tea at a local café. The 82 Bus was the only service that ran through the Surrey Commercial Docks. At this time the buses were AEC RTL types, standard buses with only minor adaptations, like re-enforced tyres, for driving through the narrow tunnel.
The bus drivers had to be very good. Imagine driving a double-decker bus through a single bore tunnel that has two-way traffic with tight 120⁰ bends at each end! (Local legend has it that these bends were put in to avoid horses bolting when they saw the light at the end of the tunnel).
During the journey through the tunnel, I remember the smell of hot rubber being drawn in through the open passenger doorway at the rear from the tyres continually rubbing against the kerbstones in the tunnel. Now there are heavy vehicle restrictions and the tunnel bores cannot accommodate any buses due to there being a 6’ 6” width limit and 2 metre height limit
The RTLs were introduced on the Sunday service in October 1950. In October 1953 they were introduced on the Saturday service and October 1954 to the daily service. They operated out of Atholl Street Garage until 1961 when it closed and then transferred to Poplar Garage.
Before the introduction of the RTLS two batches of double deck buses (NS and STL types) were specifically built for use in the Rotherhithe (route No.82) and Blackwall (route No.108) Tunnels, with specially shaped roofs to improve clearance on the corners.
These gave sterling service especially during World War Il when Rotherhithe and the docks were heavily bombed by the German Air Force. As a matter of interest, in 1933 Route 82 (Limehouse — Rotherhithe Odessa Street) declared a 6-minute frequency on Mondays to Fridays and a 10-minute weekend service.
The journey time for the route was just 19 minutes. I would board the bus each school day morning at the southern entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. There was a pub there with a bus stop in front of it before the current roundabout was put in. Sometimes the bus would be late, delayed by one of the swing bridges on the route being lifted to allow shipping through, a 'Bridger' as we called it.
When this happened we would walk through the tunnel to Stepney. Not a task I would like to undertake now, at that time, the stairs around the two big ventilator shafts were open to the public. These led from the Tunnel to the surface.
Quite often, if the bus slowed sufficiently at the bend, I would hop off and use the stairs as a shortcut home. This was a really dangerous practice. In those days, all buses had a conductor as well as a driver.
A school friend of mine was once chastised by a conductor for his bad manners. He was eating a sandwich, in public, on the bus!. We treated the bus with respect. The conductor ruled with a firm hand. We never felt the need to damage or vandalise the bus as seems common today.
The No.82 route was withdrawn in October 1968. It was replaced by a new flat fare route, the P2 to South Bermondsey, which left the tunnel without a service. This was then subsequently replaced in 1978 by the P5 that ran from Peckham via Bermondsey and Surrey Docks Station (Surrey Quays) on to New Cross.
Closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks in the 1970s led to the remodelling of the Rotherhithe peninsula road network. Salter Road was built and Rotherhithe Street redeveloped. This reshaped the local bus network.
Route P14 was introduced by Kentish Bus running around the Isle of Dogs finishing at Limehouse, then through the tunnel
The Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Society would like to thank Ian Armstrong and Mike Harris for the images used in this article.
For more information please visit their amazing websites
Ian Armstrong - www.londonbuses.co.uk
Mike Harris - www.busmap.co.uk