Shillibeer, George (DNB00)

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SHILLIBEER, GEORGE (1797–1866), promoter of omnibuses, was born in Tottenham Court Road in 1797. He entered the navy, but did not remain long in the service, quitting it as midshipman. He then went to a firm in Long Acre to be taught coach-building, and after a time started business on his own account in Paris. In 1825 M. Lafitte, the banker and promoter of omnibuses in Paris, commissioned Shillibeer to build two omnibuses on an improved plan. While building these vehicles Shillibeer resolved to introduce omnibuses into London. He sold his Paris business, proceeded to England, and on 3 April 1829 announced in a printed memorial to John Thornton, chairman of the board of stamps, that he was building two omnibuses to run on the Paddington road. The word ‘omnibus,’ which had been in use in France for a few years, was in this document employed in England for the first time. On Saturday, 4 July 1829, Shillibeer's two omnibuses first plied for hire in London. They ran from the Yorkshire Stingo, Paddington, along the New Road to the Bank of England, the fare being one shilling. Each omnibus was drawn by three bays, harnessed abreast, and carried twenty-two passengers, all inside. In less than nine months Shillibeer had twelve omnibuses running in various parts of London. In 1832 William Morton, a Southwell innkeeper, entered into partnership with Shillibeer. The partnership was dissolved by mutual consent in January 1834, Morton taking the New Road omnibuses as his share. He mismanaged them, sold them at a considerable loss, gave way to drink, and committed suicide. At the inquest Shillibeer was accused of having defrauded Morton over the partnership, but the charge was proved to be unfounded. In 1833 omnibus drivers and conductors were compelled by act of parliament to take out licenses. Shillibeer was offered the position of assistant registrar of licenses, but declined it, as he had been led to expect the registrarship. At the commencement of 1834 he relinquished his metropolitan business and commenced running omnibuses from London to Greenwich and Woolwich, placing twenty vehicles on the road. The following year the Greenwich railway was opened, and Shillibeer soon felt the effects of such formidable competition. He fell in arrears with his payments to the stamp and taxes office, which seized his vehicles until the debt was paid. This incident was frequently repeated, and at length Shillibeer was ruined. In 1840 the lords of treasury inquired into Shillibeer's case, and, after convincing themselves that he had been treated unjustly, promised him a public appointment and a grant of 5,000l. But a change of government rendered these promises nugatory. After his failure Shillibeer's pecuniary interest in omnibuses ceased. Subsequently his enterprise was developed by others; in January 1856 the London General Omnibus Company was formed, and thenceforth omnibuses were one of the chief means of locomotion in London and the large towns of Great Britain. Shillibeer became in his later years an undertaker in the City Road; he invented a patent funeral coach, and considerably reduced the price of funerals. He gave evidence before the board of health on the question of extramural sepulture. He died at Brighton on 22 Aug. 1866.

[Private information; Ludgate Magazine, February 1897; Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.]

H. C. M.