Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter IV

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Omnibuses and Cabs by Henry Charles Moore
Chapter IV
Chapter IV
Introduction of steam omnibuses—The "Autopsy," the "Era" and the "Automaton"—Steam omnibuses a failure.

Some years before Shillibeer introduced omnibuses into England, a number of experienced engineers had devoted themselves to the invention of steam carriages, and so satisfied were they with their achievements that they felt justified in predicting that horse-drawn vehicles were doomed. Once more, however, we see the truth of the saying that threatened institutions live long, for the elimination of the horse is still an event of the distant future. Sir Charles Dance, Dr. Church, Colonel Maceroni, Messrs. Frazer, Goldsworthy Gurney, Hancock, Heaton, Maudsley, Ogle, Redmond, John Scott Russell, Squire, and Summers were the leading men interested in the building of steam carriages, but few of them produced vehicles which are deserving of being remembered. Mr. (afterwards Sir) Goldsworthy Gurney was the first to invent a steam carriage that ran with anything like success. His "Improved Steam Carriage"—an ordinary barouche drawn by an engine instead of horses—accomplished some very creditable journeys, including a run from London to Bath and back at the rate of fifteen miles an hour.

The "Autopsy" steam omnibus

The first real steam omnibuses, the "Era" and "Autopsy," were invented by Walter Hancock, of Stratford, and placed on the London roads in 1833. Hancock had invented steam carriages before Shillibeer's omnibuses wore introduced, but the "Autopsy" and the "Era" were the first which he constructed with the idea of entering into competition with the popular horse-drawn vehicles. The "Era" was the better omnibus of the two, and the most flattering things were said and predicted of it. Enthusiasts declared that the omnibuses of the "Era" type would enable passengers to be carried at a cheaper rate and greater speed than by Shillibeer's vehicles.

The "ERA" steam omnibus

The "Era" ran from Paddington to the Bank, the same route as the horse-drawn omnibuses, and carried fourteen passengers, the fare being sixpence all the way. It travelled at the rate of ten miles an hour, and consumed from 8 to 12 lbs. of coke, and 100 lbs. of water per mile. But, in spite of what the enthusiasts of the day wrote, the "Era" was by no means a success, for it broke down continually, and frequently a considerable time elapsed before it could resume the journey. Our grandfathers, who took life more leisurely than we, did not appear to be greatly annoyed at these collapses. An hour's delay in reaching their destination was of little consequence to those who could afford to live in the suburbs, and as the steam omnibuses—when they did run—were guided easily and escaped collisions, they were perfectly satisfied, assuring themselves that in a few years, at the most, some means would be found for making the vehicles stop only when required. Moreover, they were a novelty, and as such were patronised for a time. Unfortunately for Hancock, the eccentricities of the "Autopsy" and "Era" increased as the months went on, although the two vehicles continued to run after all the steam omnibuses by other makers had been taken off the roads. Nevertheless, Hancock was not dispirited, and in July, 1835, started his last, and best, steam omnibus—the "Automaton." This was a larger vehicle than his previous ones, being built to carry twenty-two passengers, and to travel at an average speed of thirteen miles an hour. On its trial trip to Romford and back, it did not, however, succeed in attaining a better average than eleven miles an hour. Certainly faster travelling was not desirable in London streets, but on one occasion the "Automaton" was driven at full speed along the Bow Road, and covered a mile at the rate of twenty-one miles an hour. And that record run was the more remarkable as, when it was made, the omnibus carried twenty passengers.

Mr. Hancock was delighted with the working of the "Automaton", and, on the strength of its performance, forgot all his previous failures and wrote light-heartedly: "Years of practice have now put all doubts of the economy, safety, and superiority of steam travelling on common roads at rest, when compared with horse travelling; and I have now in preparation calculations founded upon actual practice, which, when published, will prove that steam locomotion on common roads is not unworthy the attention of the capitalist, though the reverse has been disseminated rather widely of late by parties who do not desire that this branch of improvement should prosper against the interests of themselves."

The "parties" referred to were the London horse-drawn omnibus proprietors, who, according to the steam omnibus owners, indulged in various tricks for making their rivals' vehicles come to grief. Their chief offence was said to be covering the roads with loose stones some inches deep, a proceeding well calculated to injure the steam omnibuses. Unfortunately for the steam omnibus people's story, there is no explanation given of how it was that their rivals were permitted to interfere with the public roads. But how the rumour arose is easily explained. The inventors of steam carriages had proclaimed loudly that their vehicles would not wear out the road as quickly as ordinary carriages, for they had wide tyres and, of course, no horses' hoofs. But, before long, the local authorities came to the conclusion that the reverse was the case—that the steam carriages damaged the roads much more quickly than horse-drawn ones did—and grew anxious to put a stop to the increase of such vehicles. Gloucester had shown them in 1831 how that could be done. A steam carriage ran between Gloucester and Cheltenham twice a day for three months, but when the local authorities discovered that it was cutting up the roads, they came to the conclusion that strong measures would have to be adopted to put an end to the nuisance. So they strewed with loose stones nearly two feet deep the road which the horseless vehicle traversed, and in trying to pass over this obstruction the steam carriage was disabled.

Other towns in England and Scotland hastened to follow the example of Gloucester, and in a few months the number of steam carriages in Great Britain was reduced considerably. Then Parliament passed a sheaf of local Turnpike Bills, imposing exceedingly heavy tolls upon steam carriages, with the result that soon all such vehicles had ceased to run in the provinces.

But no such thing as strewing the roads with loose stones was ever adopted in London, and Hancock's omnibuses had as fair a trail as any reasonable being could desire. The "Automaton," the best steam omnibus ever built, was, unmistakably a failure, although Hancock, by publishing some statistics of its first five months at work, gave people the impression that it was a great success. In the 712 journeys which it made it carried 12,761 passengers — not a remarkable number, considering that it ran under favourable circumstances. That is to say, that when it was found that the interest in the "Automaton" was waning on one route, it was put immediately to another. The majority of journeys were from the City to Islington and back, but on some days the omnibus ran to Paddington, and on others to Stratford. One morning, on its way to the Bank, it came into collision with a waggon at Aldgate, and Hancock, in his report ofits performances, declared that to be the only accident worth mentioning. Apparently occasional break-downs did not count.

The "Automaton steam omnibus

But the public's patronage of the "Automaton" grew less as time went on. People soon found that riding in horse omnibuses was far more enjoyable. Moverover, they discovered that they were much more reliable, the falling of a horse and a minute or two's delay caused thereby, being the worst that ever happened to them. The "Automaton" however, could not even be relied upon to start when desired.

In spite of loss of patronage, the "Automaton," dragged on its existence until 1840, when the Turnpike Acts were enforced in London, and gave Hancock the opportunity of discontinuing his steam omnibus and posing as an ill-used man.

And so came to an end the first attempt to run horseless omnibuses in London.