Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter IX

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475363Omnibuses and Cabs — Chapter IXHenry Charles Moore


A new Company—The London and District Omnibus Company, Limited—The London Road Car Company, Limited—Its first omnibuses—The garden seats—The flag and its meaning—Foreigners' idea of it—The ticket system—The great strike—The London Co-operative Omnibus Company—Mr. Jenkins and advertisements—The Street Traffic Bill—Outside lamps

In May, 1878, several influential City men came to the conclusion that there was an opening in London for a new omnibus company, and, believing that the venture would be very profitable, they decided to start one. Remembering, perhaps, where Shillibeer and the London General Omnibus Company received their inspiration, the promoters deputed one of their number to visit Paris, to inspect the omnibuses at work in that city and to take particular notice of the new vehicles being displayed at the Exhibition by the Paris Omnibus Company. After a stay at Paris, this gentleman proceeded to other Continental capitals, and made himself acquainted with the latest improvements in the omnibuses at work in those cities. On his return to London, with a stock of useful ideas, the formation of the new London company was proceeded with at once. The prospectus was drawn up, Memorandum and Articles of Association were prepared, a Board was formed, and everything was proceeding satisfactorily, when quarrels broke out among the proposed Directors. One of them was the owner of a patent omnibus, and proprietorship invested it, in his eyes, with an excellence and superiority over all other omnibuses which his colleagues could not perceive. They refused his request to make his patent omnibus the vehicle of the new company, and that was the cause of the first quarrel. The second, which followed it closely, was also of a personal nature, one man being convinced that he was the best qualified of the Board to become Managing Director, while the others expressed quite a contrary opinion. The result of these quarrels was that the scheme for a new London omnibus company was withdrawn, and not brought forward again until two years had elapsed. Everything went smoothly at the second attempt, and on August 3, 1880, the London and District Company, Limited. was incorporated under the Companies Act, with a capital of £200,000, divided into 20,000 shares of £10 each. On April 7, 1881, the name of the Company was changed to the London Road Car Company, Limited. Six days later the Company began work in a very modest way with three omnibuses, which ran between Hammersmith and Victoria. These omnibuses, all drawn by three horses, were very different from those which the Company now possesses, and in appearance were rather ungainly. The front wheels were very small, and the back ones large. There was no door, or staircase, at the back of the omnibus, and all passengers had to get on the vehicle just behind the coachman. It was found, however, that many accidents occurred to passengers whilst entering and alighting, and, consequently, an alteration was decided upon. The omnibus was turned right about, the back being made the front. The old wheels, which had a crank action, were removed, and ordinary ones substituted. The coachman was promoted to a seat on top of the omnibus, but the door remained unaltered. The steps were considerably improved.

The Company now possesses 455 omnibuses, or "cars," as it prefers to call them, and a stud of 5206 horses, not including those used in the Jobbing Department.

The London Road Car Company's first omnibus

In the matter of outside accommodation for passengers, the improved omnibuses of the London Road Car Company were far in advance of those belonging to all other companies and proprietors. In place of the ordinary uncomfortable longitudinal seats, which so frequently led to squabbles between people sitting back to back, the London Road Car Company had the now common and popular garden seats. It was an innovation which met with unqualified approval from the public. To ladies it was a boon which they had never even expected, so accustomed were they to being relegated to the inside of omnibuses. To clamber to the top of the knife-board omnibuses was an impossibility with most of them, and the athletic few who did not find the task an arduous one were rewarded by being considered exceedingly unladylike. In fact, until the London Road Car Company started work, it was an unusual sight to see a female on the top of an omnibus. But now, when the weather is fine, few ladies ride inside if there be room for them on the roof. Truly, the fair sex should be very grateful to the London Road Car Company. Pickpockets, certainly, were deeply indebted to it, for the backs of the garden seats were open, and afforded them special facilities for the exploration of ladies' pockets. After a time this defect was altered.

The popularity of the garden-seat omnibuses did not benefit the London Road Car Company alone, for other companies and proprietors, following its example, built all their new omnibuses with similar seats and staircases. Many of their knife-board omnibuses-too new to be discarded-were converted into the popular style of vehicle. Some of these converted omnibuses were, it must be confessed, a ghastly failure, for, although there was no fault to be found with the staircase, the arrangement on the roof was not only inconvenient, but highly dangerous. The gangway was raised, sometimes almost to a level with the outside rail, and passengers had to be very careful, in stepping down from it to take their seats, that they were not pitched head-first into the road. Fortunately, the worst specimens of these converted omnibuses have long since disappeared from the London streets.

It is surprising that garden-seat omnibuses were not introduced into London long before the Road Car Company was formed, as they had been in some Continental cities for thirty years.

At the outset of its career, the London Road Car Company adopted, as a distinctive sign, the diminutive Union Jack which flies at the fore of all its omnibuses. This flag was intended, also, to intimate to the public that the Company was floated with British capital, but, as very few Londoners were aware of the French origin of the London General Omnibus Company, the hint was not generally understood. Strangely enough, this appeal to the patriotism of Englishmen, has resulted in the Company receiving a large amount of support from foreigners visiting London. They imagine that the Union Jack is a sign that the omnibuses are State-subsidised vehicles, and, to avoid falling into the hands of the dreaded pirates—for the London pirates' notoriety has reached the chief Continental cities—they will ride in no omnibus which does not carry a flag. Sometimes they stand for a long while looking for an omnibus with the Union Jack flying, to discover, eventually, that there are no Road Car omnibuses on that route. One French lady stood at Marble Arch for more than half an hour before a policeman could convince her that no "'bus with a flag" ran to what she called Crick-le-Wood.

The London Road Car Company's flags have on several occasions been utilised for arousing the enthusiasm of London crowds. On Sunday, September 24, 1899, a few unpatriotic Englishmen desecrated the plinth of Nelson's Column by expressing therefrom sympathy with Great Britain's enemies. The reception accorded to them was, naturally, very hostile, and while the excitement, was at its height, a Road Car omnibus passed slowly through the crowd. A passenger, riding on top of the omnibus, no sooner discovered the meaning of the angry shouts, than he pulled the flagstaff from its socket, and waved aloft the little Union Jack. Loud cheers greeted his action, and the pro-Boer orators were taught speedily that Londoners had a healthy objection to their foolish, un-English ravings.

A Road Car Company omnibus, 1901.

Another innovation of the London Road Car Company was the ticket system, which, although it had been in use on trams for many years, had not, hitherto, been tried on omnibuses. Tickets had certainly been issued on the omnibuses belonging to the Metropolitan Railway, which ran from Portland Road Station to Piccadilly Circus, but it was on a different system entirely. The Metropolitan Railway omnibuses of those days were not like those in use at the present day. They were larger, and the inside was divided into two compartments, the first-class being the portion near the horses. The compartments were separated by a curtain. These omnibuses were patronised chiefly by people residing in the suburbs, tickets being issued at the Metropolitan Railway stations to carry passengers through by train and 'bus to Piccadilly Circus. The conductor collected the railway tickets on the omnibus, and issued other tickets to passengers who had not come by train. These omnibuses were drawn by three horses harnessed abreast. At the present day, almost the only ommnibuses drawn by three horses abreast are the red "Favorites"—big, ungainly things, which run from Highgate and Islington to the City. They carry nearly fifty passengers, but, in consequence of their size, are not allowed to be in the City after 10 a.m.

A Metropolitan Railway "Umbrella" omnibus

The ticket system having worked successfully on the London Road Car Company's omnibuses, the London General Omnibus Company, and the companies and proprietors working in conjunction with it, announced, at the beginning of May, 1891, their intention of adopting it—a decision which created the greatest indignation among their conductors and coachmen, whose incomes had for many years been greatly in excess of the value of their services. Scores of conductors have declared since, that in those days they made frequently as much as eight or ten shillings a day beyond their wages, and that, too, after they had paid their coachman his share of the plunder. The companies and proprietors were well aware that the men had been in the habit of keeping back a portion of the daily earnings, but it is doubtful whether they knew the extent to which the practice had grown, for 'busmen, before the strike, were too cautious to talk of what they earned. It was only years after that they began to speak regretfully, and yet with pride, of the prosperous days which preceded the introduction of the ticket system. However, the companies and proprietors promised the men an increase in their wages, to atone for the pilferings which had been winked at. But the additional money promised—two shillings a day—did not make the men's income anything like as large as that to which they were accustomed, and, in their wrath, they vowed to strike. On the night of Saturday, May 6, 1891, after the majority of omnibuses had finished running, large meetings of 'busmen were held in various parts of London, and, amidst intense enthusiasm, the men pledged themselves not to return to work until their grievance had been satisfied. The following morning the strike began all over London, the Road Car men, who were scarcely interested in the matter, seeing that they had used tickets for years, ceasing work also. Some men remained loyal to their employers, but their efforts to take out their omnibuses were frustrated by the angry mobs of strikers gathered around the stable gates. Day after day the strike dragged on, and for a week the London streets looked quite unfamiliar—devoid of the omnibuses which lend so much life to them. Pirates, of course, did not cease work, but they were comparatively few in number, and were scarcely noticed. Every day the pirates contributed to the strike fund, conscious that the longer the strike lasted, the more profitable it would be for them. It did not, however, last nearly so long as they had hoped, for, on Sunday, May 14, the majority of the men returned to work—and to begin issuing tickets.

But the men who did not go back to work decided to start a Company of their own. It was called the London Co-operative Omnibus Company, and all the conductors, coachmen, and horsekeepers employed by it were to be shareholders in the venture. It started operations with one omnibus, which created a little sensation in the streets by having a broom fixed conspicuously at its fore. This broom was a public intimation of the new Company's intention to sweep the London General, the Road Car and other companies and associations off the roads. But, in spite of its boldness, the London Co-operative Omnibus Company did not prosper. That single omnibus never had a companion. and, after a brief career, it disappeared from the roads, and was bought, it is rumoured, by one of the big companies it was intended to smash.

Shortly after the strike a clergyman, named Jenkins, who had gained considerable notoriety by, among other eccentricities, persistently refusing to show his ticket to tramway inspectors, turned his attention to omnibuses. But as omnibus inspectors have not the power to compel a passenger to show his ticket, Mr. Jenkins was able to enjoy himself with impunity. However, after many quarrels with 'busmen about various trivial matters, he hit, eventually, upon a real grievance. On nearly all omnibuses a long narrow board bearing some advertisement, such as "To Swan and Edgar’s," was fixed, outside, across the middle of the side windows. Mr Jenkins, declared, with truth, that the boards obstructed the view of passengers inside the omnibus, and thereby frequently caused them to be carried beyond the place where they wished to alight. On the same grounds he denounced the transparent advertisements stuck on the side and front windows. His complaint was warmly supported by the public, and the objectionable boards, together with the advertisements on the front windows, were ordered to be removed. The front window advertisements had been abolished but a very short time when the police authorities compelled the proprietors to block up those windows by placing on them the route the omnibus travelled. Consequently the state of affairs, as far as the front windows were concerned, was worse than before. These route-bills have since been reduced in size.

While Mr. Jenkins was denouncing omnibus tickets, inspectors and advertisements, a quarrel occurred between the London General Omnibus Company and the Camden Town Omnibus Association. The London General Omnibus Company had become a member of this old-established association many years previously by purchasing the stock and "times" of retiring members, and worked amicably with its fellow proprietors until about 1896, when a difference of opinion arose concerning an extension of a line of omnibuses. The Company severed its connection with the Association, and at once started working in opposition to it by taking omnibuses from the Finsbury Park and London Bridge route and running them on the Camden Town road. This rivalry was continued for several weeks, but eventually the dispute was settled and the Company rejoined the Association. Had the quarrel been protracted the other associations would, in all probability, have sided with the Camden Town body, and Londoners would have witnessed an exciting, although perhaps not very edifying, struggle.

The Camden Town omnibus fight was followed quickly by a more prolonged one on the Putney road. A new line of omnibuses was started by the Era Association — which was formed by certain proprietors not working in conjunction with any of the companies or associations from Fulham to Charing Cross, viâ West Kensington. Each of these omnibuses carried, at first, a red flag, fixed by the side of the coachman, bearing the inscription "No Monopoly." As their fares were considerably cheaper than those of other omnibuses, the London General Omnibus Company and the Road Car Company's men began to oppose them, and some very amusing scenes were witnessed in the Brompton Road and Piccadilly. The Era Association made a stout fight and started omnibuses from Putney to Charing Cross at the exceedingly low price of twopence for the whole distance. For a time these omnibuses scarcely ever made a journey without being full inside and out, but when the two companies lowered their fares to those of the Era there was a great falling off in the number of the latter's passengers. That was, of course, natural, for when the fares were the same in all omnibuses there was no reason for a thrifty person to wait until an "Era" came along. After a protracted struggle the London General Omnibus Company, the Road Car Company, and the Era raised their fares.

The Era Omnibus Association, which still has some omnibuses on the roads, deserves credit for having placed a list of fares outside their vehicles so that would-be passengers could see, before entering, how much they would have to pay. They did so, of course, to show that their fares were lower than those of the two companies, but, nevertheless, it was an innovation which might well be followed by all omnibuses companies and proprietors. If omnibuses were compelled to have a list of fares displayed on the nearside panel it would be a great convenience to the public, and would, moreover, do much towards putting an end to "pirates." At present visitors to London do not know until they have entered an omnibus how much they will be charged. If they sit near the doorway they have to trust to the conductor—for they cannot read the fares—and if it be a pirate omnibus they will assuredly be overcharged.

Early in 1899 the Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley brought in a Bill for the better regulation of the street traffic of London, which proposed to confer upon the police the power to relieve the congested thoroughfares by diverting omnibuses from them. The Bill was a very unpopular one, and Metropolitan members of the House of Commons were bombarded with letters from their constituents urging them to vote against it. In June Sir J. Blundell Maple, M.P., presented to the Home Secretary a petition signed by over one hundred thousand regular riders praying that the Street Traffic Bill, then before Parliament, should be altered to preclude the possibility of omnibuses being diverted from the main thoroughfares. Many thousands of signatures were received too late to be included in the monster petition, which was presented in the form of a huge volume. This unpopular Bill was withdrawn and, on October 14, as a compliment to Sir J. Blundell Maple, who had worked hard to obtain such a result, the 'busmen displayed his racing colours on their whips and bell-cords. These favours they exhibited for three days.

In July of the same year the London County Council issued an order that on and after September 1, every omnibus should carry an outside front lamp on the offside. Red, green, blue, and yellow lamps had for many years been displayed by omnibuses running to the more distant suburbs, but these had to be changed for white ones. When September 1 arrived, very few of the omnibuses were provided with the necessary lamps, the demand for which was greater than the supply. Some days' grace was allowed, and eventually every omnibus carried an outside lamp.