Sunday History Photo / SA

Submitted: Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 08:11
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Sylvia Birdseye was born Sylvia Jessie Catherine Merrill near Port Augusta on 26 January 1902, the daughter of station-hand Charles De Witt Merrill and Elizabeth Ann. The Merrills were friends of the family of Alfred Birdseye, who had established South Australia’s first motor transport service, the Adelaide to Mannum bus. The Birdseye family moved to Adelaide in 1919, and two years later Sylvia followed them to work in the Birdseye office. She went on to drive Birdseye buses for over 40 years, becoming an almost legendary figure in rural South Australia.

Aged only 19, office work did not appeal much to Sylvia, and she soon learned alongside Alfred’s daughter Gladys to drive the Birdseye buses. When she finally obtained her licence to drive a passenger vehicle (around three years after she began to do so) she became the first woman in South Australia to gain a commercial driver’s licence.
Meanwhile, in 1923, Sylvia had married Alfred Birdseye’s son Sydney, who had been her first dancing partner in Port Augusta. Sydney also drove his father’s buses while studying automotive engineering. However, when Alfred sold the Adelaide to Mannum service in 1926, Sydney and Sylvia started a service from Adelaide to Port Augusta, which was extended to Port Lincoln in 1933, Streaky Bay in 1938 and eventually to Ceduna.

For many people living on the Eyre Peninsula, Sylvia’s bus runs were the only real way of connecting with Adelaide and the world at large. ‘The Birdseye’ brought with it mail, equipment and parts, as well as family, friends and visitors. The roads on the Eyre Peninsula, particularly in the early days, were often just horse tracks. They were extremely difficult to negotiate for buses, which before the Second World War were essentially standard motor cars with extended bodies to accommodate more passengers. Sylvia earned a reputation for driving skill, resourcefulness and toughness: wearing her signature overalls, she changed her own tyres, performed most of the maintenance and repairs on her buses, and negotiated even the toughest creek crossings and sand banks. Before crossing a creek with the bus, Sylvia would tie a rope around her waist and wade to the middle to ensure the crossing could be completed safely. Even the birth of her son and daughter, in 1926 and 1927 respectively, did not slow her down, and she often took the children along on her bus runs.

Throughout her long career, Sylvia Birdseye drove around 3000 kilometres a week. In addition to the challenges posed by the harsh driving conditions of the Eyre Peninsula, she had to tackle the hardships of the Great Depression and then of the Second World War. Rationing was a particular problem, since during the war period petrol, needed to fuel the bus, was strictly rationed. Nonetheless, the buses were modified to run on gas and Birdseye services continued running without interruptions.

Despite these difficulties, Sylvia remained committed to completing her bus runs. Her service was once famously bogged down for eight days near Whyalla, during the record floods of 1946, while on its way to Salt Creek. Food and other supplies had to be dropped by a light airplane, and when the food ran out Sylvia’s brother Bill, who was also on the bus, shot and butchered a sheep. After being towed to firm ground they were warned that conditions ahead were untenable and that the only option was to turn back. Unperturbed, Sylvia famously led her passengers in hacking a path through bush to Salt Creek.

Sylvia never ceased mourning the death of her husband Sydney in 1954, and eight years later, while preparing to set off for Port Lincoln, she suffered a stroke. She died the following day, on 9 August 1962. Her exploits are remembered to this day across the Eyre Peninsula, where several cairns and monuments commemorate her life as a pioneer of Australian motoring.
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Reply By: Duncanm - Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 09:06

Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 09:06
Another amazing story. Thanks

All your Sunday history stories would make a great book.


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Follow Up By: Life Member-Doug T NSW - Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 13:05

Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 13:05
G'day Duncan...have you been talking to my Daughter.. she told me this about 2 years

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Reply By: MUZBRY- Life member(Vic) - Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 09:09

Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 09:09
Gday Doug
I dont think a bus/coach driver knows what a wheel spanner is anymore. They certainly built them tough in the olden days.
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Reply By: Member - Andrew & Jen - Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 09:35

Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 09:35
Another excellent Sunday History Doug.
For your interest, in recognition of the high esteem Sylvia was held by the rural community to the north and west of Adelaide, the South Australian Highways Department (in its various guises) funds the Sylvia Birdseye Scholarship which seeks to increase the number of young women in civil engineering. This is administered by the University of South Australia.
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Reply By: Ron N - Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 10:56

Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 10:56
Another interesting history item, thanks Doug.

On a slightly different tangent, I often wonder about the fortitude of the passengers in the early days!
No air-con, dust galore, seats like park benches, massive truck-sized springs, no shock absorbers (well, maybe on the front on the later buses) - and constant bouncing and jarring that would shake your fillings out.
They must have been glad to get to their destination!

I often wonder how the women handled those early rigs. It took real muscle power to drive them.
No power steering, they were heavy as hell (I owned a early cabover Mack with no power steering, and I can tell you, I often had my feet on the dashboard hauling on that wheel!)

Clutches that need legs like an AFL footballer to push down on. Brakes about on a par.
Gearboxes that were 100% crash type and which needed precise RPM matching to get a smooth shift.

Once in town, you also had manual hand signal arms to operate, at the same time as you operated clutch and brakes and changed gears (remember the flying arms effort for that! That's where the old saying came from - like a one-armed wallpaper hanger in a high wind!).

It's good to see the ordinary everyday folk get recognition for their sterling work, in doing what appears to be mundane jobs - but which in reality were jobs that required skill sets that are never recognised in any awards or certificates - and which service, so many people relied on.

Cheers, Ron.
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Reply By: Allan B (Member, SunCoast) - Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 11:51

Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 11:51
Hi Doug,

You do revive memories for me. I had forgotten all about Birdseye buses until I read your Sunday History story today. It also reminded me of Pendle's Riverland Coaches, primarily between Adelaide and Renmark, with whom my father had a relationship.

You may also be interested in this photo of current 10 Union St Adelaide. Now a multi-story apartment building with a hamburger shop at street level. Ah, the passage of time!
Thanks for your weekly contributions Doug.

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Follow Up By: Life Member-Doug T NSW - Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 13:08

Sunday, Jun 05, 2016 at 13:08
Most interesting photo Allan, thanks, yeh times sure do change .
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Reply By: Life Member - Talawana - Monday, Jun 06, 2016 at 00:12

Monday, Jun 06, 2016 at 00:12
Many thanks again Doug for another interesting read.
Have a great week.
Cheers Marion
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