The history of Route 68

The history of seafront buses in Southend

By Richard Delahoy April 2021

A brief history of seafront buses in Southend
Trips along Southend seafront in open top vehicles can be traced back to the years immediately before the First World War, when the town’s tramway system was extended from the Kursaal eastwards along the Esplanade to Thorpe Bay Corner.  Open-topped trams ran there until 1938 and special open-sided single deck trams provided summer circular tours, travelling back to Southend along the tree-lined Boulevards.  The first buses on the Western Esplanade from the Pier to Chalkwell started in 1924, initially with small open-sided single deckers.  Later the service was extended to Leigh and larger single deckers were used, with opening roofs and advertised as the ‘Grand 7 Mile Marine Tour’.  Then in 1937 the first open topped double deckers were introduced by Westcliff Motor Services.
After the end of the Second World War, the service from The Pier to Chalkwell and Leigh restarted in 1947 and from 1949 again featured open top double deckers.  By the following year the whole service was being run with open top double deckers and in 1955 they were extended along the seafront through to Shoebury.  From 1956 Southend Corporation joined in the operations with Eastern National, who had taken over from Westcliff Motor Services.
The services then settled down to a regular pattern of operation as routes 67 & 68, starting at Thames Drive in Leigh and running to Southchurch and Shoebury.  Later some buses were diverted instead to Eastwood (Kent Elms Corner).  Buses ran every 10 minutes, starting in May or June and continuing through the summer until September, with a special evening service in October for Southend’s famous illuminations.  In the low season buses ran between the Kursaal and Leigh only, whilst in the high summer buses ran the full route through to Southchurch and Shoebury. From the late 1960s the frequency was reduced to every 15 minutes.
By the early 1980s the services were in decline and were reduced to just one route, Leigh to Shoebury, serving Old Leigh for the first time.  From the late 1980s the service only continued as a result of subsidies from Essex County Council and Southend Borough Council, running just once an hour, with buses from Southend Transport or Eastern National.  Stephensons Coaches took over in 1993 and ran the service every summer for twelve years, latterly as part of the City Sightseeing brand.
2005 was the first year that no open top buses ran on Southend seafront, and apart from some limited services in 2006 and 2012, it was not until 2017 that open toppers were once again to be seen delighting residents and visitors alike.  Ensign Bus took over the operation in 2020 and made an instant success of it.