Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter III

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475110Omnibuses and Cabs — Chapter IIIHenry Charles Moore

Chapter III

Shillibeer runs omnibuses in opposition to a railway—Extraordinary action of the Stamp and Taxes Office—Shillibeer is ruined—He appeals to the Government for compensation—Government promises not fulfilled—Shillibeer becomes an undertaker

Shortly after dissolving partnership with Morton, Shillibeer relinquished his metropolitan business and began to run omnibuses from London to Greenwich and Woolwich, placing twenty vehicles on the road. It was a very bold step, considering that a railway from London to Greenwich had been decided upon; but there were many people who believed that the railway was doomed by his action. In fact, the following song, entitled "Shillibeer's Original Omnibus versus the Greenwich Railroad," which expressed that opinion, was sold extensively in the streets.

      "By a Joint-Stock Company taken in hand,
         A railroad from London to Greenwich is plann'd.
         But they're sure to be beat, 'tis most certainly clear,
         Their rival has got the start—George Shillibeer.

      "I will not for certainty vouch for the fact,
         But believe that he means to run over the Act
         Which Parliament pass'd at the end of last year,
         Now made null and void by the new Shillibeer.

        "His elegant omnis, which now throng the road,
         Up and down every hour most constantly load;
         Across all three bridges how gaily appear,
         The Original Omnibus—George Shillibeer.

        "These pleasure and comfort with safety combine,
         They will neither blow up nor explode like a mine;
         Those who ride on the rail-road might half die with fear—
         You can come to no harm in the safe Shillibeer.

        "How exceedingly elegant fitted, inside,
         With mahogany polished—soft cushions—beside
         Bright brass ventilators at each end appear,
         The latest improvements in the new Shillibeer.

        "Here no draughts of air cause a crick in the neck,
         Or huge bursting boiler blows all to a wreck,
         But as safe as at home you from all danger steer,
         While you travel abroad in the gay Shillibeer.

        "Then of the interior I safely may say
         There never was yet any carriage more gay,
         While the round-tire wheels make it plainly appear
         That there's none run so light as the smart Shillibeer.

        "His conductors are famous for being polite,
         Obliging and civil, they always act right,
         For if just complaint only comes to his ear,
         They are not long conductors for George Shillibeer.

       "It was meant that they all should wear dresses alike,
        But bad luck has prompted the tailors to strike.
        When they go to their work, his men will appear
       À la Française, Conducteur à Mons. Shillibeer.

      "Unlike the conductors by tailors opprest,
         His horses have all in harness been drest;
         The cattle are good, the men's orders are clear,
         Not to gallop or race—so says Shillibeer.

        "That the beauties of Greenwich and Deptford may ride
         In his elegant omni is the height of his pride—
         So the plan for a railroad must soon disappear
         While the public approve of the new Shillibeer."

But, unfortunately for Shillibeer, the plan for the Greenwich railway did not disappear. It was carried out, and when, in 1835, the railway was opened, the earnings of Shillibeer's omnibuses began to decrease ominously. For a time Shillibeer struggled on manfully, but the fight with the railway was an expensive one, and getting into arrears with his payments to the Stamp and Taxes Office, his omnibuses were seized and not permitted to be worked until the money was paid. This unreasonable action on the part of the Stamp Office was repeated three or four times, and the heavy expenses and hindrance to business caused thereby brought about Shillibeer's failure.

Acting on the advice of his many sympathisers, Shillibeer appealed, in 1838, to the Lords of the Treasury for compensation for the injustice done to him, with the result that, shortly after, he was offered the position of Assistant Registrar of Licenses, created by the Bill just passed for the better regulation of omnibuses in and near the Metropolis. This Act, the second one dealing with omnibuses, made it compulsory that the words "Metropolitan Stage Carriage," the Stamp Office number, and the number of passengers that each vehicle was licensed to carry should be painted in a conspicuous manner, both on the inside and outside of every omnibus. Drivers and conductors were compelled to wear numbered badges, so as to afford means of identification in case of misconduct. Licenses were not to be transferred or lent under a penalty of £5, and the omnibus proprietors were forbidden, under a penalty of £10, to allow any unlicensed person to act as driver or conductor, except in the case of sudden illness of the licensed man.

Shillibeer had been led to believe that he would receive the appointment of Registrar of Licences, and was, therefore, greatly disappointed when the Assistant Registrarship was offered him. He declined it, and renewed his applications to the Lords of the Treasury for compensation for the loss he had suffered through the almost criminal stupidity of the Stamp and Taxes Office. At length their Lordships appointed their Financial Secretary, Mr. Gordon, to inquire into his case, and that gentleman's investigation of the facts proved to their complete satisfaction that Shillibeer had been cruelly wronged by the Stamp and Taxes Office. Thereupon, they promised Shillibeer that he should receive a Government appointment, or a sum of money, that would compensate him for the loss he had suffered. Mr. Gordon was then instructed to apply to the Marquis of Normanby and the Right Hon. Henry Labouchere, the heads of two Government departments, to appoint Shillibeer Inspector-General of Public Carriages, or to give him an appointment on the Railway Department at the Board of Trade. Unfortunately both of these applications were unsuccessful. Mr. Gordon then applied for and obtained for Shillibeer the promise of one of the twenty-five appointments of Receiver-General of County Courts, which were just then being established. But once again Shillibeer was doomed to disappointment. Mr. Gordon resigned his position of Secretary to the Lords of the Treasury, but, before ceasing his duties, he told Shillibeer that, if the Miscellaneous Estimates for the year had not been made up, his name would have been placed in them for a grant of £5000. Moreover, he promised to impress upon his successor the necessity of seeing that Shillibeer received his appointment and grant. He received neither. His claims were not disputed, but unjustly ignored.

At last Shillibeer came to the conclusion that it was useless to place reliance in Government promises. He, therefore, started business as an undertaker, in premises adjoining Bunhill Fields Burial-ground, and the following advertisement appeared continually in the daily papers and elsewhere:—

"Aux Étrangers. Pompes.

"Funèbres sur le systeme de la Compagnie Générale des Inhumations et Pompes Funèbres à Paris. Shillibeer's, City Road, near Finsbury Square, où l'on parle Français. Every description of funerals, from the most costly to the most humble, performed much lower than any other funeral establishment. Catholic fittings from Paris. Gentlemen's funerals from 10 guineas. Tradesmen's and artisans', £8, £6, and £4."

In a few years Shillibeer was well known as an undertaker, and gave evidence before the Board of Health on the subject of the scheme for extramural sepulture. But his success as an undertaker, which must have been very gratifying to him after losing many thousands of pounds as an omnibus proprietor, robbed him of posthumous fame by preventing his name becoming as much a household word as is Hansom's. For several years after his pecuniary interest in omnibuses had ceased the vehicles which he had introduced into England were called "Shillibeers" more frequently than "Omnibuses," but as soon as his "Shillibeer Funeral Coaches" became well advertised, people did not like to say that they were going for a ride in a Shillibeer, in case they might be misunderstood. So the word "Shillibeer," which would in time have superseded "Omnibus," and been spelt with a small "s," was discarded, and is now almost forgotten.

Shillibeer was also associated with Mr. G. A. Thrupp, the author of "The History of the Art of Coachbuilding," Mr. John Peters, Mr. Robson, and Mr. Lewis Leslie in efforts to obtain a reduction of the heavy taxes on carriages. Mr. Thrupp has described Shillibeer to me as a big, energetic man, with a florid complexion, and brisk both in his movements and his speech.

Shillibeer died at Brighton on August 22, 1866, aged sixty-nine, and it is not to our credit that we have done nothing to perpetuate the memory of one to whom we owe as delightful a form of cheap riding as could be desired.