Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter XII

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Omnibuses and Cabs by Henry Charles Moore
Chapter XII
CHAPTER XII
Pirate omnibuses—Their history and tricks

Pirate omnibusmen—the pests of the streets of London—although not quite so numerous as once they were, continue, practically unchecked, to defraud ladies, children, foreigners and other unsuspecting persons whom they succeed in enticing into their travelling plunder-traps. The disreputable doings of these rascals have been the cause of a very large proportion of the complaints which have been made against omnibuses during the last seventy years.

One of the secrets of Shillibeer's early success was the care which he took to impress upon every man he employed the importance of politeness towards all passengers, and the seriousness with which he regarded any breach of that rule. But, in 1839, it was noticed that this high standard of politeness was not maintained by two or three conductors of the new omnibuses running from Paddington to tho Bank, viâ Oxford Street. They overcharged passengers, and met any protests with a torrent of abuse. Frequently, when females were in the omnibus, they brought their journey to an end before they reached their advertised destination, compelling the passengers to walk a considerable distance after paying their fares. Shillibeer was inundated with complaints, and at once took steps to make it known that the omnibuses referred to were not his property, although they bore his name and were painted and lettered in imitation of his vehicles. These were the first pirate omnibuses. To let the public know which really were his vehicles, Shillibeer at once had painted on them "Shillibeer's Original Omnibus." In a few days the same inscription appeared on some of the pirates with the word "not" preceding it in very small letters.

When Shillibeer started his ill-fated Greenwich omnibuses the pirates followed in his wake, and soon made their presence known by their impudent cheating and bullying of passengers. One night, in April, 1836, some people returning to London saw what they believed to be one of Shillibeer's omnibuses ready to start. They entered it and sat down to wait until it was full. Within a quarter of an hour all the seats were occupied. But even then the omnibus did not start, for the conductor, in the bullying manner of his class, demanded the fares before the journey began. The passengers, anxious to get home, produced their money and tendered the usual fare—a shilling each. With a volley of oaths the conductor declared that the fare that night was eighteenpence. The passengers refused to pay the extra sixpence and threatened to report the conductor to Shillibeer for extortion and foul language, if he did not start the omnibus at once.

"Right away, Charlie," the conductor shouted; but there was something in the way he uttered those three words which gave the coachman the tip what to do, for he drove off immediately, not towards London, but down a back street to a deserted part of Greenwich, where he pulled up.

Again the conductor demanded eighteenpence from each person, and some were disposed to pay it; but the people who were the first to enter the omnibus declined most emphatically to submit to the extortion, and prevailed upon their fellow-passengers to be equally firm. Soon some of them wished that they had not been so firm, for when the conductor found that he could not obtain more than the proper fare he bawled out, "It's no good, Charlie. Let 'em walk to London."

The coachman got down from his box, took out his horses and went off with them at a trot, the conductor following with the omnibus lamp in his hand. In great indignation the passengers quitted the dark omnibus and wended their way back to the main street, vowing to let Shillibeer have a full account of everything that had occurred. But when on the following day they called on Shillibeer in a body, and complained of the men's behaviour, they were met with the inquiry, "What was the number of the omnibus?"

"588," was the answer in chorus.

"Gentlemen, that is not one of my omnibuses," Shillibeer replied; but he experienced some difficulty in convincing the deputation that he spoke the truth. Some of his hearers were determined not to let the matter rest there, and when they had satisfied themselves that the omnibus in which they had had such an unpleasant experience was not a Shillibeer, they published abroad, on their own responsibility, that omnibus No. 588 was a pirate. Their caution against that particular omnibus brought forth a large number of warnings against other pirates, and the nefarious practices of the objectionable vehicles being proved beyond all doubt, the Government passed a second Omnibus Bill, compelling drivers and conductors to be licensed. But legislation did not succeed in checking to any great extent the fraudulent doings of the pirates.

The first real check they received came, a few years later, from the proprietors of respectably-conducted omnibuses, whose vehicles were imitated just as Shillibeer's had been. These proprietors were now in a position to assert themselves, having just formed themselves into Associations. The associated proprietors started a crusade against pirates, and subjected them daily to a rigorous course of "nursing," which is not such a harmless performance as it sounds, consisting as it does of two omnibuses working together to prevent a third from making a profitable journey. One of the Association's omnibuses would keep just in front of the pirate, and the other close behind it, with the result that, there being three omnibuses where one would have been sufficient, none of them earned enough to pay expenses. The Associations were quite prepared to lose money, and when the pirates understood this they changed their tactics quickly. Whenever a pirate found it was going to be "nursed," it would turn off the main road and wander about the back streets until its "nurses" had gone on. Then it would make another start in a clear road. To render that proceeding profitless, the Associations told off an omnibus to follow each pirate wherever it went. The result was that two omnibuses, sometimes empty, sometimes carrying mixed loads of amused, frightened, and indignant passengers, were frequently to be seen careering along quiet back streets with scarcely a yard dividing them. This state of things had existed for a few weeks, when a pirate owner heard something which caused him considerable uneasiness, and prompted him to keep a close watch on his men. The following morning he witnessed his omnibus begin its daily struggle, and eventually disappear down a side street closely followed by its "nurse." He then walked to a quiet little inn some three miles away, arriving there in time to discover the rival 'busmen enjoying themselves at a friendly game of skittles while their omnibuses stood empty in the road.

On one occasion a pirate scored off its opponents in a novel way. Having made several ineffectual attempts to obtain passengers, it started off into the country, followed by its "nurse." When they had travelled some miles the driver of the respectable omnibus was surprised by seeing a gate suddenly closed in front of his horses, preventing him from following the pirate. At the same moment a gate clanged behind him, and, looking round, he discovered that he had been trapped. He had, in fact, followed the pirate on to its proprietor's little farm. "'Ere you are, and 'ere you'll stay," the pirate owner declared, with many oaths; while the pirate driver, with taunting shouts of laughter, whipped up his horses and started back to town. The farmer omnibus-proprietor made no attempt to detain the Association's men, but its omnibus and horses he held prisoners until the following morning, releasing them one hour after his own omnibus had started out.

In 1855 the London General Omnibus Company came into existence, and had been established but a very short time when the pirates were repainted and lettered in close imitation of its omnibuses. They have continued to imitate them, but not always with impunity, ever since, and many thousands of people have entered pirates firmly believing they were the Company's vehicles. Nine or ten years ago the pirates' audacity in imitating the general appearance of the London General omnibuses was at its height, and certainly the imitations of their decoration and lettering were excellent enough to deceive all but the very wary. Unable to paint "London General Omnibus Company. Limited," on their panels, they had in its place some inscription which might, at a glance, be taken for it The favourite one was "London General Post Office, Lothbury."

There, are also many pirates who lure passengers into their omnibuses by having them painted to resemble the London Road Car Company's vehicles.

The pirate is naturally of a roving disposition, and by no means restricts itself to one route: a "Kilburn" may be seen at Blackwall, or a "Bayswater" at Bethnal Green. But Oxford Circus is the place best loved by pirates, and any day of the week they can be seen walking to and fro, ready to begin their journey as soon as they see a number of ladies waiting on the pavement.

During shopping hours pirates are continually running to and from Oxford Circus, but it is interesting to notice that the name of their destination very rarely appears on them. "Regent Circus" is put up instead, and the public having doubts as to which really is Regent Circus, the pirates obtain passengers for both Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, and turn them out at whichever they like. It is a great pity that the local authorities do not have the name Regent Circus, which is still displayed at Oxford Circus, removed, for it affords the pirate-omnibus men an excuse for painting on their vehicles a destination which is misleading. The Oxford Street shopkeepers should, in the interests of their customers, see to this, and, remembering that the police stated in court a few years ago that one, at least, of the pirate omnibuses which frequented Oxford Circus was worked in collusion with pickpockets, insist upon a closer watch being kept on the pests.

In the summer many pirates run to Kew Gardens on Sundays, and the exorbitant fares they charge—they collect them on alighting—spoil the day's pleasure of many a poorly-paid clerk. Some pirates run on to Hampton Court, and a trick of theirs on these occasions should always be borne in mind. When one of them gets well beyond Richmond, and all fares have been paid—they collect them on these vehicles soon after crossing Richmond Bridge—a horse is supposed to fall lame, and the coachman declares, with many expressions of regret, that he cannot go any further. The passengers are wondering what they shall do, when another pirate omnibus comes along. The driver of the first omnibus calls out to the driver of the second, "You'll take these ladies and gentlemen on for me, won't you, Jack?" Jack answers in the affirmative, and the passengers change into his omnibus, quite believing that it belongs to the same proprietor as the other. It generally does, but, nevertheless, when they have driven on another mile or two, the conductor comes round for fares, and, in spite of indignant protests, they have to pay. By that time the first omnibus is back at Richmond picking up fares London. In the evening it will make a journey on a different road. Two or three bullies always ride on the long-distance pirate omnibuses, and their fellow-travellers, as a rule, have not the slightest suspicion that they are not ordinary passengers. Of course they pay the second fare without a murmur, and if any other passenger does not follow their example they express great astonishment that any one could be so mean as to attempt to swindle a poor 'bus conductor. Generally that contemptuous speech has the desired effect—the passenger submits to being cheated. But sometimes a man is smart enough to guess that the indignant passengers are friends of the conductor, and is rash enough to say so. If he looks the kind of man that can be frightened, the bullies discard their rôle of being disinterested passengers, and join the conductor in swearing at him and threatening him alternately with personal violence and the police. Frequently those threats cause the passenger and his friends to pay up without any further complaints; but sometimes the bullies meet with a surprise—the passengers threaten them. Now, the pirate conductor, although frequently a big beery-faced fellow, is usually a cowardly cur, and his dislike of a thrashing is exceeded only by his abhorrence of police courts and magistrates. Therefore in changes his tone, and requests the passengers to get out if they will not pay; and naturally they oblige him.

Decoy women are another speciality of pirate omnibuses starting for a long Sunday run into the country. Showily dressed, these women take their seats on top of the omnibus at its starting place with the idea of giving an air of respectability to the vehicle. If the omnibus fills up quickly they pretend to remember that they have left something at home—their money perhaps—and must of course go back for it; but, if it does not fill, they go for the ride.

A few pirates cater on Sunday mornings for the lowest of the lower classes by running a few miles out to some suburban public-house. There are no restrictions as to behaviour in these omnibuses. A passenger may smoke, spit and swear, inside or out, to his heart's content. Moreover, he may take in with him dogs, ferrets, rats, birdcages and beer. The conductor smokes a clay pipe and talks, with the air of an authority, of sporting matters. Several passengers offer him drinks from their private bottles. He accepts them all, and yet never forgets to collect the fares inside before going on top.

A few years ago I gave the following answer, to the oft-repeated question, "How can you tell a pirate?" "No pirates issue tickets; therefore, before entering an omnibus, see if the conductor has a ticket-punch or roll of tickets. If he has you may enter his 'bus assured that it belongs to one of the London Companies or Associations. It is not, however, suggested that every omnibus which does not issue tickets is a pirate, for Messrs. Balls Brothers' Brixton omnibuses,[1] and a few others, are exceptions."

Unfortunately, the pirate conductors read my advice, and some of them quickly rendered it nugatory by wearing punches and holding packets of tickets in their hands so that every one might see them. The punches differed, however, in appearance from those used by the Company and Associations.

A similar dodge was very common among pirates immediately after the great strike, when the ticket system was in its infancy and conductors of the various companies carried rolls of paper tickets. The pirate conductors provided themselves with ticket-rolls, but once passengers were safe in their omnibus they never in troubled to tear off and issue the tickets. One old lady, deceived by a pirate's appearance, entered it, in the belief that it was one of the London General's omnibuses, and ensconced herself comfortably in the far corner. After a time the conductor entered, collected her fare and returned to the door without giving her a ticket. For a few moments the old lady eyed him sorrowfully. Then she said in a tone of gentle reproof, "Conductor, you haven't given me a ticket."

"Want a ticket, lady?" the conductor replied cheerfully. "'Ere you are, then; take a bloomin' yard of 'em," and tearing off a long string of tickets dropped it in coils in the astonished passenger's lap.

But the favourite reply of pirate conductors when asked for a ticket is, "We don't have to give tickets. We're honest men on these 'buses."

In conclusion, I would point out that the London General, the Road Car, and the other Companies and Associations described in Chapter VI., between them cover the whole of London, and there is, therefore, not the slightest necessity for any one to enter a pirate. All the would-be passenger has to do is to refrain from placing the slightest reliance on the colour of the omnibus, but to see that it bears on the panels the name of one of the Companies or Associations which I have mentioned.

Visitors to London should take note of the fact that Christmas Eve is the day on which pirates reap a big harvest.

  1. Messrs. Balls Brothers adopted the ticket system on August 26, 1901.