Coaches have been a central part of the Pratt family's life since the late Harry Pratt, father of the current owner of County Coaches, Arthur Pratt, established one of Essex's first motor coach companies in the 1920s.
Harry who died in Jan 1982, started in Rayleigh with a 14 seater bus whose noisy 27 horse power engine struggled to get a load up a steep hill, in the days of pirate buses when operators rarely had a licence to either drive or operate a public vehicle. He eventually got a bus driver's licence at the age of 20 by claiming he was 21: no one bothered to check. Then a farm labourer Harry and his friend thought they could make a few pounds at a time when there were few buses, and even fewer cars.
Operating as Rayleigh and Pitsea Motor Services the partners operated from Pitsea to Southend, ferrying workers to and from the EKCO radio works in Southend, one of the county's biggest employers. In those days workers used to hail a bus like we now hail a London Cab.
Unfortunately Harry's bus company was short lived. When bus services were regularised in 1934 Rayleigh and Pitsea Motor Services missed out. The company went bankrupt and in 1934 Harry was forced to get a job in Brentwood with City Bus Company, which operated a London to Southend route, as well as local services. A couple of years later the family move to Brentwood so Harry would not have to cycle so far to work. The three boys Arthur, Kenneth and Albert were educated at Coptfold Road School and later at Brentwood Senior School.
Harry drove with City Bus Co until 1952 when the company was taken over by the Westcliff Bus Co. He refused to continue working for the larger company, because it had originally caused Harry's bankruptcy. Apart from a short break on the railways Harry remained in the the bus industry as a driver with Eastern National Bus Company until the 1960s. He encouraged Arthur to get a coach driver's licence but Arthur wasn't that keen to follow in his father's footsteps, despite being apprenticed as a mechanic at the City Bus Co.
It was in the 1950s that Arthur and his youngest brother Albert, after completing their national service stint, were drawn into the industry. Albert, on completion of his National Service training, wanted to get onto the buses, but only as an owner-driver. Arthur, meanwhile, had to give up motor maintenance in the City Bus Co garages (on the site where the Sainsbury's superstore now stands), because of dermatitis which persisted even when he later began working in a bakery (he says “grease or flour, were an equal nuisance”). He was also a page boy at the Odeon Cinema where the Baytree centre now stands, before becoming an electricity linesman.
Lacking the funds to finance a coach service, Albert bought a coal round, with Arthur putting up part of the cash. Within months their weekly coal deliveries to house-holders was so successful that Arthur gave up his linesman job and joined his brother full time. Unfortunately, when a hot summer arrived coal demand dried up. Making a virtue out of their misfortune the brothers bought a clapped out coach, they spent three months bringing it up to public vehicle standards.
With the help of a friend, the late Norman Tiffin of Tiffin's Coaches who ran a small coach company in the Ongar Road, the two brothers began to take bookings, starting with the overflow from Tiffin's. The first lesson the brothers learned was to be reliable: Arthur said “When you run a coach company you can't afford breakdowns, so when I wasn't driving, I was constantly under the bonnet. For years the business ran on a shoestring, having no depot they parked overnight where they could, with neighbours and police being generally tolerant, provided parking lights were left on. In the early 1960's one of the coal drivers, took up an offer to become a third partner.
In 1971 the coal and coach business, trading as Pratt's Fuels and County Coaches, bought out Kelvedon Hatch based Brentwood Coaches.
In 1973, after losing key school bus contracts in a cut price war, nine of its 13 coaches had to be sold off. Also its three coal lorries were pensioned off in the face of clean air laws and gas and electricity taking over from coal. The 1973 crunch was exacerbated by the loss of hire work from the Brentwood and Warley football team and the closure of West Ham Speedway whose supporters always booked County Coaches. The same year the brothers, with expanding families, felt that it would be a good time to split the businesses, Pratts Fuels to one partner Brentwood Coaches to another, while Arthur carried on with County Coaches. From this he learned, not to put all of his eggs in one basket.
In the 1970's the next generation joined the company.
In 1981, de-regulation gave us the opportunity to arrange our own day excursions and holiday tours, and in that year we arranged seven 2-8 day holiday breaks and 24 day excursions. As many people belonged to various clubs and societies who regularly hired coaches, the day excursion programme was mainly on Sundays when the clubs didn't go out, and by the end of the decade we had 55 day excursions on various days of the week.
During the 1990s the business continued to expand until it was necessary to find extra premises and in 1997 a site was found at Kelvedon Hatch. Our day excursion brochure continued to expand with the addition of theatre trips and Sunday lunches, and as trends have changed, so has our brochure.
In 2001 our small family business was getting too big and we felt we where in danger of losing the personal touch and so decided to cut the fleet. Now with his children and grandchildren working for him, Arthur has taken a back seat of this happy family firm.
In 2011, with the grandchildren having made their own way in the world, we made the decision to stop our Excursion programme. So in December we had our final excursions and moved our office to our coach depot in Hutton.
In 2014, after three years of once again operating school contracts and private hire only, we made the decision to retire. Not wishing for the Company to be sold out of the family, the fleet was sold and we retired the business at the end of the year.