Sylvia Birdseye becomes a legendary driver of early South Australian country bus services

A plaque on Eyre Peninsula honouring bus driver and operator Sylvia Birdseye's service to the region. Below: the Birdseye vehicles fleet in 1926.
Images courtesy Monuments Australia and State Library of South Australia

Legendary South Australian bus driver Sylvia Birdseye introduced a vital overland mail and passenger service between Eyre Peninsula and Adelaide in 1928 and drove about four million miles during 43 years behind the wheel.

Born near Port Augusta as daughter of stationhand Charles De Witt Merrill and his wife Elizabeth. Her parents were friends of the family of Alfred Birdseye, who’d started South Australia’s first bus service: Adelaide to Mannum.

When the Birdseyes moved to Adelaide in 1919, Sylvia, aged 19, followed them to work in the Birdseye office. She soon learned, along with Alfred Birdseye’s daughter Gladys, to drive Birdseye buses. After three years, she became the first woman in South Australia to gain a commercial driver’s licence.

In 1923, Sylvia married Alfred Birdseye’s son Sydney, who drove his father’s buses while studying automotive engineering. When Alfred sold the Adelaide to Mannum service in 1926, Sydney and Sylvia started a service from Adelaide to Port Augusta, extended to Port Lincoln in 1933, Streaky Bay in 1938 and eventually Ceduna.

For many on Eyre Peninsula, Sylvia’s bus runs were the only real link with the outside. Early Eyre Peninsula roads were often just horse tracks. Buses before World War II were standard motor cars with extended bodies.

Sylvia Birdseye earned repute for driving skill and toughness: wearing overalls, she changed her own tyres, did most bus maintenance and repairs, and negotiated even the toughest creek crossings and sand banks.

The birth of her son and daughter, in 1926 and 1927, didn’t slow her down and she often took the children along on her bus runs. She drove around 3000 kilometres a week, tackling floods and the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II.

Sylvia never ceased mourning the death of her husband Sydney in 1954, and eight years later, preparing to set off for Port Lincoln, she suffered a fatal stroke.

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