Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter VII

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Omnibuses and Cabs by Henry Charles Moore
Chapter VII
Chapter VII
Compagnie Générale des Omnibus de Londres formed—The London General Omnibus Company starts work—Businesses purchased by the Company—It offers a prize of £100 for the best design of an omnibus—The knife-board omnibus introduced—Correspondence system tried—Packets of tickets sold—Yellow wheels—The L.G.O.C. becomes an English Limited Liability Company—The first board of directors—Present position of the Company—The Omnibus: a satire—The Omnibus: a play

In 1855 the most important event in the history of English omnibuses occurred, for on December 4 of that year a "Société, en Commandite" was established in Paris with the title of the "Compagnie Générale des Omnibus de Londres," for the purpose of running omnibuses in London and its suburbs. The directors of this Society, or Company, were sufficiently astute to refrain from making it known to the London public that the enterprise was a French one. They chose an English name for public use, and the earliest notices of their contemplated operations were headed the "London Omnibus Company." Apparently they were unaware that a company of that name had existed and come to a disappointing end, but doubtless this was intimated to them, for the name was changed speedily— before they started work— to the "London General Omnibus Company." Moreover, as the first managers of the company were well-known London omnibus proprietors, there was nothing to make the public suspect that the company was not an English one.

Monday, January 7, 1856, was the day selected by the London General Omnibus Company for taking over and beginning to work the old-established businesses which they had purchased. On that morning Wilson's Islington and Holloway "Favorites" came out of the yards with "London General Omnibus Company" painted on them. The company could not possibly have started work under more auspicious circumstances, for Mr. Wilson was the largest omnibus proprietor in London, and his vehicles, which were known all over the Metropolis, had the reputation of being exceedingly well conducted. The property which Wilson sold to the Company consisted of fifty omnibuses and five hundred horses, and his employees, numbering about one hundred and eighty men, passed into the service of the new Company. On the same day Mr Leonard Willing and his partners—the former the oldest omnibus proprietor in London—transferred to the Company the Stoke Newington, Kingsland and Dalston lines, consisting of twenty-two omnibuses, two hundred horses, and seventy men.

In a few days several other lines passed into the hands of the Company, making it the owner of one hundred and ninety-eight vehicles and nineteen hundred and forty horses, and the employer of six hundred and seventy men. Of the vehicles purchased seven were four-horse mails, five running to Woodford and two to Barnet. The Company had hoped to start work with five hundred omnibuses, but many of the well-established proprietors could not be persuaded to sell their businesses, and consequently the London General Omnibus Company had to be content, for a time, with three hundred.

The proprietors who did dispose of their businesses, and retired altogether from omnibus proprietorship were: Messrs. Bennet, Breach, Chancellor, Clark, Forge, Hartley, Hawtrey, Hinckley. Horne, Hunt, Johnson, Kerrison, Macnamara, Martin, Proome, Roads, Scale, Smith, Webb, Westropp, Williams, Willing, Wilson, and Woodford.

One of the Company's first concerns was to obtain an improved omnibus, and with that end in view the directors offered a prize of £100 for the best plan of one suited to their requirements. There were seventy-four competitors, and the results of their efforts were displayed, in February, 1856, at the Company's office, 454, Strand. The two best plans were sent in respectively by Mr. R. F. Miller and Mr. Wilson, but the judges, Messrs. George Godwin, Joseph Wright, and Charles Manby, were by no means pleased with the work submitted to them, and reported to the directors:—

"We have first to express our regret that although many of the propositions display considerable ingenuity and offer here and there improvements, we do not find any one design of supereminent merit, or calculated in it present shape to afford that increased amount of comfort and accommodation your company, with praiseworthy foresight, desires to give the public, and which, moreover, will doubtless be looked for at your hands.

"Inasmuch, however, as we are required to select one of the designs as the best of those submitted, considered with regard to your stipulations and wants, we beg leave to point out the design No. 64 sent in by Mr. Miller, of Hammersmith. Inquiry of Mr. Miller, and the examination of a full-sized omnibus built by him (after arriving at this determination) have shown us that if his intentions were more completely expressed in his drawing than is the case, the design would be more worthy of the premium.

"We must repeat that we find no design that we can recommend for adoption intact, or which, to speak truly, is worth the premium offered; but there are points about some of them which, being combined, would aid in producing what you and the public desire—a light, a commodious, and well-ventilated omnibus.

"George Godwin,  
"Joseph Wright,  
"Charles Manby." 

Mr. Miller was awarded the prize, but the directors, acting on the advice contained in the judges' report, had their new omnibuses built from a design which combined the best suggestions of several competitors.

In 1857 further improvements were made in the construction of omnibuses, the most important being the placing of five more seats on the roof, thereby making accommodation for fourteen outside passengers. These seats were placed on the near side, and made the "knife-board" omnibus, which has now almost entirely disappeared from London streets, but may be found passing the eventide of its existence in sleepy country towns and populous watering-places.

Before the London General Omnibus Company was a year old it introduced the system of "correspondence," which in Paris had proved profitable to the proprietors and convenient to the public. It was the Company's idea that a passenger might be able to travel from any part of London to another for sixpence. The passenger would get into the omnibus starting from the neighbourhood in which he resided and ride in it until another of the Company's omnibuses, going in the direction he wished to travel, crossed the road, when he would change into it. By that arrangement people were able to ride from Bow to Hammersmith or from Starch Green to Peckham for sixpence—a tremendous ride for the price, and cheaper than it is at the present day.

The London General Omnibus Company was now increasing rapidly, by purchase and by starting new lines, the number of its omnibuses, and in November, 1857, when the "correspondence" system was at its height, it possessed five hundred and ninety-five on the roads. For these omnibuses, with horses, harness, and good will, the Company paid £400,000—nearly £700 per omnibus. With an increased number of omnibuses the advantages of "corresponding" became greater, and upwards of four thousand people daily showed their appreciation of the system by "corresponding" at the Company's offices opened for that purpose in Oxford Circus, Cheapside and Bishopsgate. "The system is only in its infancy," the directors declared at that period, and promised that it would be improved greatly. Difficulties, however, arose in the working of the system, which, after a time, was discontinued never to be tried again.

While the London General Omnibus Company was giving the "correspondence" system a trial, it was making other attempts win the favour of the public. On the first day of 1857 it began the sale of packets of omnibus tickets, allowing a reduction of ten per cent, on every purchase of £1, and so greatly was this innovation appreciated that on the inauguration day ten thousand tickets were sold at the Company's Strand office alone. Later the sales increased considerably, and many linen-drapers in a large way of business purchased thousands of tickets at a time, and retailed them to their customers at a reduced rate. To ladies whose purchases reached a certain sum they presented tickets free of charge.

Evidently the directors found, after a time, that the practice of selling tickets was not sufficiently remunerative, for it was discontinued. The directors were astute men of business, and while they neglected nothing that would conduce to the efficiency of their service and the comfort of their patrons, they made a number of alterations which reduced to a considerable extent the working expenses of their omnibuses. One of these alterations caused a complete revolution in the colour of omnibus wheels. When the Company started work, omnibus wheels were painted the same colour as the body of the vehicles, and consequently it was necessary to keep a stock of red, blue, green, brown, white, yellow, chocolate wheels. The directors, however, soon came to the conclusion that if all wheels were painted one colour it would not be necessary to keep so large a stock in reserve. Therefore they had wheels of all omnibuses painted yellow, and the other proprietors, seeing the convenience and saving to be derived from such an arrangement, followed their example, and to-day nearly everyday omnibus in London, with the exception of those belonging to the railway companies, has yellow wheels.

In the autumn 1858 it was decided convert the "Compagnie Générale des Omnibuses de Londres" into an English Limited Liability Company, and for that purpose the French Society was dissolved and the London General Omnibus Company, Limited started to take over its property, good will, existing engagements and liabilities. The latter was registered on November 16, 1858, as a Limited Liability Company, with a nominal capital of £700,000, divided into 175,000 shares of £4 each. The head office of the Company was, of course, in London—454, Strand—but a branch office was opened in Paris, where French shareholders could obtain any information which they required, and where a duplicate transfer-book was kept for the registering of transfers of shares held in France. The number of directors was to be not more than twelve nor less than nine, and at least four of them were to be Frenchmen. The first Board of Directors of the London General Omnibus Company, Limited, was constituted as follows :—

Anthony Nicholas Armani, Esq.
M. Felix Carteret.
Edwin Chadwick, Esq., C.B.
William Halliday Cos way, Esq.
William Stratford Dugdale, Esq.
M. le Comte de Lantivy.
Arthur Macnamara, Esq.
William Sheldon, Esq.
Reginald Thornton, Esq.
M. François Frederic Toché.
M. Antoine Vacossin.
James Willing, Esq.

In his early days Mr. Willing was a man of many businesses. Among other things he was the owner of several toll-gates, the proprietor of many omnibuses, and an advertising contractor. One day he would be found standing at a toll-gate, collecting money from passing vehicles, and the following one he would be seen driving an omnibus. While acting as a 'bus driver he was able to keep a sharp eye on his advertising business, and was frequently annoyed to see that his bills. which were being posted as he drove Citywards, were covered by other people's bills when he returned an hour or two later. To put a stop to that annoyance he started the protected hoardings, which are now so numerous throughout the land.

At the present time there are only two French directors of the London General Omnibus Company, the number of shareholders resident in France having decreased to seven hundred. The office in Paris is still maintained. The number of English shareholders is seventeen hundred.

From the day that the London General Omnibus Company became an English concern, it has enjoyed almost unbroken prosperity. During the half-year ending June 30, 1901, 101,109,572 passengers were carried by it 1373 omnibuses, which ran 15,965,602 miles. The number of horses which it possessed was 16,714. The oats, maize, beans, and peas consumed by the company's horses in six months weighed 25,299 tons.

The Company builds its own omnibuses at its works at Highbury. Its stables are dotted all over London, and some of the newly erected ones are enormous places. Those at Dollis Hill, which accommodate over six hundred horses, are at present surrounded by fields, and so far away from public-houses and other delights of London civilization, that the 'busmen, in disgust, have named it "Klondyke."

From "Klondyke" and many other omnibus stables, a large number of horses have been sent to the seat of war in South Africa. Some time ago the Government made an an arrangement with various omnibus companies for the purchase of a certain number of horses in time of war. For each horse the Government pays, in time of peace, 10s. per annum. The average price paid for each horse claimed for active service was £60. The horses taken were well seasoned and accustomed to hard work. The sudden requisitioning of many hundreds of their best animals caused the various omnibus companies considerable inconvenience. The daily journey of many of their omnibuses were reduced in number, and coachmen and conductors were consequently unable to earn their usual wages.

Richmond Conveyance Company omnibus

Two years after the formation of the London General Omnibus Company there were about 1200 omnibuses in London, only a small proportion of which worked on Sundays. On the majority of roads they ran on week-days at intervals of five minutes, the fares being, in most cases, from twopence to ninepence. Many of the omnibus lines in existence at that time have been altered or curtailed in consequence of railway competition. Among these are the following long-distance routes:— Stratford and Oxford Street, Brentford and St. Paul's, Greenwich and Charing Cross, Richmond, Kew and Bank, Finchley and Bank, Angel and Hampton Court. The Richmond Conveyance Company had some excellent omnibuses, which ran from Richmond to the Bank, viâ Mortlake, Barnes, Hammersmith, and Piccadilly. They were built by Mr. H. Gray of Blackfriars.

Richmond Conveyance Company omnibus, end view.

In the early sixties it began to be recognized that, for men, the best way to see London was from the top of an omnibus. An anonymous poet published, in 1865, a satire on life seen from an omnibus roof. It was entitled "The Omnibus." Here are a few lines from it—

          "August four-wheeler! Rolling Paradise!
           Thou Juggernaut to dawdling men and mice!
           Thou blissful refuge to the footsore cit!
           Thou boast of science and inventive wit!
           To thee, in pride careering o'er the stones,
           The homeward labourer drags his weary bones.
           The burdened porter, staggering on the road,
           Climbs up thy hulk and there forgets his load.

           For thee the merchant his dull desk forsakes,
           And leaves Cornhill to night, and thieves, and rakes.
           The lover finds thee pensioner of bliss,—
           By thee he speeds to reap the promised kiss.
           On thy 'outside,' no muff can plead his qualms,
           And us forbid to colour our meerschaums;
           Thy rampants hold we by an ancient lease,
           And there unchallenged, smoke the pipe of peace.
           All hail! thou kindest gift of human sense!
           Thou envy of the wretch—who lacks three-pence!
           All hail! thou huge, earth-born leviathan!
           Thou rattling, rambling, two-horse caravan!
           Thou dry-land ship, breasting in scorn the waves
           Of traffic's whirlpool that round Cheapside raves
           Behind thee, competition lies,
           And jealousy but breathes a curse and dies.
           Poor Francis Train just hissed at thee his spite,
           Then, with his 'Tramways' sank in endless night;
           And jobbing railways, near thy presence found,
           Smitten with shame, hide, fuming 'Under-ground.'
           Though trampled curs may curse thee with a bark,
           And godless cabmen call thee—'Noah's Ark;'
           Majestic vehicle! much slandered friend,
           To lowest Tophet we their libels send,
           And chaunt thy praises to the City's end.
           An eighth world-wonder thine arrival bodes,
           Thou greatest, best, Colossus of our roads."

Some years prior to the publication of the above satire, a farcical comedy, entitled "The Omnibus," had been produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. A man and his wife, seeking rural quietude, take a house in a charming suburb, only to find that omnibuses run to it from London. Nearly every omnibus brings them a load of visitors, who drive the poor man to distraction.