Stewart & Sons Coaches

The Stewart family are one of the oldest private bus operators in Australia. Although their Bundaberg operation commenced during October 1948, the family’s involvement in buses extends back even earlier to Cairns in North Queensland, where Matthew Wray Stewart purchased the ‘Wattle Bus Service’ from Mr Angus Alexander McDonald on 1 November 1936. The one-bus operation ran from Abbott Street to Edge Hill and serviced Digger, Sheridan and Lake Streets. The operation was based at 267 Sheridan Street, Cairns. Hourly services were provided to the picture theatre on Saturday nights, along with church services on Sundays. The 24-passenger International bus inherited with the service was swiftly replaced by a new 27-passenger Maple Leaf during 1937. The bodywork for this vehicle was constructed by Watt Bros in Brisbane. In September 1937, the service was sold to Mr Winton Charles Watkins as Matthew returned to contract building.

In 1937, Matthew Stewart purchased this new Maple Leaf chassis with 27-passenger body built by Watt Bros in Brisbane. Photo: Stewart Family Collection

The family remained in Cairns until March 1942 when they relocated to Brisbane, due to the imminent threat of a Japanese invasion during World War II. Upon their arrival, Matthew secured employment at Evans Deakin building railcars, while eldest son Ray undertook an apprenticeship watchmaking, and youngest Les remained in school. In September 1942, the Stewarts bought back into buses with the purchase of the Yeronga Park (Ipswich Road) to Oxley Meatworks run from Mr E. Parker. This service provided pivotal access for residents living between the Ipswich and South Coast rail lines, and was operated by a 1934 Dodge with 25-passenger Watt Bros bodywork. In March 1944, the service was sold to Mr J.J. Lyons as Matthew became a shipwright for Norman Wright at Bulimba. It was here that Matthew aided the allied war effort by assisting in the construction of a replica Dutch East Indies vessel known as the ‘Bintang Siam’. This spy-ship was used to carry secret agents and pick up valuable intelligence on enemy-fleet data in the East Indies. After the end of the war, Matthew had contemplated purchasing the Tarragindi Bus Service from Mr Thomas Findlay, but was deterred by the inevitable compulsory acquisition by the Brisbane City Council.

In 1948, the Stewarts received word that Bundaberg bus proprietor, Mr Frank Jorgensen, was keen to sell his six-bus operation. After inspecting the business, the Stewarts decided to purchase the operation effective 8 October 1948. The business primarily transported workers from Bundaberg into outlaying towns of South Kolan and Elliot Heads. Five buses ran to South Kolan for cane cutters, field workers, mill workers and shift workers, while the sixth bus operated a combined shoppers and workers service to Elliot Heads. The vehicles were regularly used after hours for services to the picture theatre and to midnight dances. The depot was located at 54 Targo Street, opposite the Gateway Hotel. The fleet inherited from Jorgensen were all petrol-engine vehicles and consisted of three Internationals, a Ford V8, a Maple Leaf/Chevrolet and an Austin. Almost immediately after taking over from Jorgensen, the Stewarts realised the need for a backup vehicle. This resulted in the purchase of a 1938 Chevrolet from the Western Toowoomba Bus Service, which brought the fleet to seven. This was soon followed by the acquisition of a 1944 International KS5 from the Brisbane City Council auction on 14 December 1948.

One of six buses purchased from Frank Jorgensen on 8 October 1948 was this 1940 International D400 with Watt Bros body. Photo: Stewart Family Collection
Another vehicle inherited from Jorgensen was this Chevrolet/Maple Leaf with a body that is believed to have originated from Ipswich. Photo: Stewart Family Collection
The newest bus in the fleet was this 1948 Charles Hope bodied International KB5. Photo: Stewart Family Collection

On 2 February 1949, the trading name of ‘Stewart and Sons’ was officially registered which reflected equal ownership of the business by Matthew and Evelyn and their sons, Ray and Les. After inheriting a completely wooden-bodied fleet from Jorgensen, the Stewarts soon realised that metal-frame bodies were more suitable to unsealed roads. As the nearest body builders were in Brisbane or Rockhampton, the Stewarts decided to manufacture their own body on the ex-BCC International KS5 during 1951. This job was undertaken single handedly by Ray at the local blacksmith. Following on from the success of this prototype, a second hand International truck chassis was purchased and retrofitted with another body built by Ray during early 1952. These early bodies were badged ‘R.E.L.M.’ – an acronym representing each member of the Stewart family: Ray, Evelyn, Les and Matthew. Later that year, Les was approached by a Mr Loshe of Kingaroy who had admired how well the Stewart-built body handled running on corrugated roads. As a result, Mr Loshe placed an order with the Stewarts for the construction of a steel-frame body on Ford chassis. This was the start of a successful body building operation which would continue for three decades.

Pictured at the front is the ex-Brisbane City Council International KS5 that Ray Stewart manufactured a new steel-frame body on during 1951. Photo: Stewart Family Collection

In the early 1950s, a new service catering for shoppers and school students commenced operation to Moore Park, north of Bundaberg. This service unavoidably ceased in approximately 1955 when significant flooding completely disrupted operation. By 1956, another three Stewart-built bodies on Commer and International chassis were introduced to the fleet as replacements for the last of the Jorgensen vehicles. During the bodying of these vehicles, Les closely studied his brother Ray’s construction methods so that he could take over all body building from this time onwards. In January 1959, Mr D.W. Loshe (whose brother had purchased a bus from the Stewarts six years earlier) re-started the passenger service to Moore Park. This continued until December 1963 when Mr Loshe surrendered his licence, at which time the service was tendered by the Transport Department and won by Stewart & Sons.

On 22 January 1953, the Stewarts completed this body on a former International KS5 truck chassis. Photo: Stewart Family Collection
On 8 August 1956, the Stewarts completed this 51-passenger body on Commer Avenger chassis. Photo: John Masterston
NNP-352 was one of two 1940 Charles Hope bodied Albion Valkyries purchased from the Brisbane City Council during June 1960. Photo: John Masterston
The sixth vehicle built for the Stewart’s fleet was this 49-seat AEC Reliance 470, built during 1961. Photo: Ian Lynas

As patronage on their workers services to South Kolan and Elliot Heads declined due to private car transport, the Queensland Government timely invited the Stewarts to commence school services to these towns with free travel provided to primary students who lived more than two miles, and secondary students who lived more than three miles from their nearest schools. Passenger services to South Kolan and Elliot Heads still operated in between of school times where patronage warranted accordingly. In 1964, Les imported three second hand chassis from Lancashire in England for bodying into the Stewart & Sons fleet. These vehicles, comprising two AECs and one Leyland, were stalwart fleet members for over 20 years.

NXN-229, an AEC Regal IV, was one of three second hand chassis purchased from England and fitted with a Stewart & Sons body during 1964. Photo: Ian Lynas
PNX-875 was an AEC Monarch with 52-passenger coach body built by Stewart & Sons during 1969. Photo: John Masterston
Another two vehicles built by Stewart & Sons were OAK-428, a 1972 body on AEC Ranger chassis, and PSZ-242, a 1971 body on an AEC Reliance 505. Photo: Ian Lynas
Pictured in this line up shot (left to right) are: 190-PJX, a Leyland Royal Tiger/Stewart, OAK-428, an AEC Ranger/Stewart, and 034-PQI, a Leyland Royal Tiger Worldmaster/Clyde. Photo: Ian Lynas
One of five vehicles purchased from the Brisbane City Council was this Charles Hope bodied AEC Regal III, formerly BCC No. 94. Photo: Ian Lynas

The family business welcomed its third generation during 1974 as Les was joined by his son Graham, who commenced a body building apprenticeship at the age of 16. Population growth during the 1970s resulted in the Elliot Heads school run being split into three services, with new runs servicing nearby Coral Cove and Innes Park. Equal ownership of the business transferred over to Ray and Les after the loss of their mother Evelyn in the 1970s, and then their father Matthew in 1986. In January 1988, the Stewarts constructed their last bus body largely due to a decline in orders due to the availability of relatively modern, second hand vehicles from New South Wales. In total, Stewart & Sons constructed 100 buses for operators throughout Queensland during a 37 year period. In 1988, Graham’s wife Julie became the first female Stewart to work in the business as she assumed an administration role in the day-to-day operations.

Built in 1975 was this 53-passenger AEC Mandator school bus which operated for over 20 years. Photo: Ian Lynas
The second last vehicle built by Stewart & Sons was this MAN SR280 coach which had front and rear moulds supplied by MAN. Photo: Nick Wilson
The very last vehicle built by Stewart & Sons was a re-body on three-axle RFW chassis which previously carried a Custom Coaches body. Photo: Tony Winstone

During the 1990s, a new school run to Tantitha Lagoon, on the north side of the river, commenced at the request of Bundaberg North High School. A number of second hand vehicles were added to the fleet during this period, including an Austral Tourmaster from the Deluxe auction, along with three ex-Canberra MAN SL200s from Haidley’s Coaches of Warwick. The coach fleet was rejuvenated with the delivery of a new MAN 22.360 from Coach Design during September 1995. Articulated buses were operated for the first time during 1999, as a Volvo B10ML and MAN SG192 were purchased for populated school services. By the end of that year, the family business was split into two as Ray moved to his own facility to continue his successful steel fabrication and crane hire business which operated under the name of ‘Stewart and Sons Steel’.

One of three ex-Canberra MAN SL200s purchased from Haidley’s Coaches of Warwick during December 1995. Photo: Ian Lynas

The Stewarts welcomed their fourth generation in the business during 2002 as Graham and Julie’s son Ryan commenced a body building apprenticeship. Urban services were fleetingly operated between school times up to this period, before Queensland Transport introduced a permanent service from Moore Park to Elliot Heads during August 2005. A total of nine new MAN school buses, largely with Northcoast bodies, were purchased between 2005 and 2010. A Mercedes Benz LO815 low floor was purchased from Custom Coaches in 2006 to work the ‘Village to Town’ service which has grown in patronage ever since the introduction of QConnect in June 2008. On 16 July 2012, the Childers to Bundaberg private school service was acquired from Garry Griffith. As of 2019, the business operates 11 school runs, a fleet of 17 vehicles, and employs 25 people.

Long-standing proprietor Les Stewart continued to work in the family business shortly before his passing on 30 July 2019, at the age of 91.

This Mercedes Benz LO815 low floor was bought from Custom Coaches during 2006 to operate the Moore Park to Elliot Heads service. Photo: Matt Browne
The last of six Northcoast bodied MANs purchased between 2005 and 2010 is (21) 687-MXL. Photo: Nick Wilson
In March 2013, the Stewarts took delivery of this new Coach Design bodied MAN 18.360. Photo: Nick Wilson