Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter V

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475355Omnibuses and Cabs — Chapter VHenry Charles Moore

Chapter V

Some old omnibus names—Story of the "Royal Blues"—Omnibus racing—Complaints against conductors—Passengers' behaviour—The well-conducted conductor—The ill-conducted conductor—The "Equirotal Omnibus"

While Hancock's steam omnibuses were endeavouring to win public support, horse omnibuses were in a very flourishing condition, and their proprietors were opening new lines in all the chief parts of London.

In 1837 there were fourteen omnibuses running from Blackheath to Charing Cross; twenty-seven from Chelsea to Mile End Gate; forty-one from Piccadilly to Blackwall ; nineteen from Hampstead to Holborn, Charing Cross, and the Bank; seventeen from the Angel, Islington, to the Elephant and Castle; and twenty-five from Edgware Road (the spot where Sutherland Avenue now joins Maida Vale) to the Bank. There were also many minibuses running into the City from Putney, Kew, Richmond, Deptford, Greenwich, Lewisham, Holloway, Highbury, Hornsey, Highgate, Hackney, Homerton, Clapton, Enfield, Edmonton, Peckham, Brixton, Norwood, Kennington, Dulwich, Streatham, and elsewhere.

At that time it was the fashion to give each omnibus line a distinctive name, and people soon understood that a "Favorite" went to Islington, an "Eagle" to Pimlico, and so on. The chief lines were the "Favorites," the "Eagles," the "Wellingtons," the "King Williams," the "Napoleons," the "Victorias," the "Nelsons," the "Marlboroughs," the "Hopes," "Les Dames Blanches," the "Citizens," the "Emperors," the "Venuses," and the "Marquess of Westminsters." At the present day the "Atlases," the "Favorites," the "Paragons," the "Royal Blues," and the "Times," are the only omnibuses which have names.

The "Eagles" were green omnibuses, and ran in the "Compasses," at Pimlico, to Blackwall, viâ Picadilly. They belonged to a Mr. John Clark, and old 'busmen declare that one day, as an "Eagle" was passing Hyde Park Corner, Her Majesty Queen Victoria, then unmarried, overtook it, and by some means or other her long habit was caught by the handle of the open door. Clark, who, so the story runs, was acting as conductor on that occasion, released it instantly, and Her Majesty graciously thanked him for his promptitude. In commemoration of this incident, Clark had the omnibus painted blue, and substituted for the word "Eagle" on the panels, the words "Royal Blue." Moreover, he had a picture of Her Majesty on horseback painted on the panel of the door After a time he called all his omnibuses on that line "Royal Blues," but the original "Royal Blue" was the only one that bore a picture of the Queen.

But the first half of the above story is not correct. What really happened is as follows:—Clark was driving one of his omnibuses by Hyde Park Corner, when suddenly Her Majesty approached on horseback. He endeavoured to pull out of the way, but, as the road was partially blocked, it was not an easy thing to do. However, being an excellent whip, he succeeded, and the Queen, who had witnessed his efforts, most graciously bowed to him as she rode by.

For many years the picture of the Queen painted on the Royal Blue omnibus was one of the sights pointed out to visitors to London. Eventually, wishing to preserve the picture, Clark had it cut out of the omnibus door and framed, and it is now in the possession of his daughter.

The "Royal Blues," which were among the first omnibuses sold to the London General Omnibus Company, now run from Victoria to King's Cross viâ Piccadilly and Bond Street.

The "Favorites" were named after a Parisian line of omnibuses called Les Favorites. The drivers and conductors wore dark blue suits with brass buttons. These omnibuses had, as at present, the word "Favorite" painted in large letters along the panels, and an opposition proprietor imitated them as closely as he dared by having "Favor me" painted on the sides of his omnibus. But the most formidable rivals of the "Favorites" were the "Hopes," and the racing between these omnibuses became decidedly exciting. A "Favorite" and a "Hope" would start together from the corner opposite the Angel, and race madly down the City Road to the Bank. But the accidents which they caused in their wild career became so appallingly numerous that the Islington Vestry offered a reward to any one giving such information as would lead to the conviction of any driver. This action certainly checked the racing proclivities of the Islington omnibus drivers, but in other parts of London racing flourished for many years. Down the Haymarket from Coventry Street was a favourite racing-ground. Then, as now, there was a cab-rank in the centre of the road, and two omnibuses would race down, one each side of it. and frequently come into collision with each other at the end. Many passengers encouraged the coachmen to race, and when accidents occurred to the horses or omnibuses, frequently subscribed to pay for the damage.

Some of the omnibus proprietors possessed very inferior stock, and the horses to be seen pulling their vehicles were a disgrace to London. A story is told of a coachman out of work who applied to one of these proprietors for a job.

"Ever driven a 'bus before?" the proprietor asked.

"Yes, sir. I drove a Kingsland 'bus."

"H'm. Discharged, I suppose."

"No, sir. I left because I wanted a change."

"How many accidents have you had?'

"None at all, sir." "Smart coachman! Have you let many horses down?"

"Never let one down, sir."

"Get out of my yard," shouted the proprietor, fiercely; "you're no good to me. I want a man who's had plenty of practice at getting horses up. Mine are always falling down."

About this time, the latter part of the thirties, omnibus conductors began to fall into disrepute. The chief complaints against them, apart from their ordinary rudeness to passengers, were that when they were wanted to stop the omnibus they were always busy talking to the coachman along the roof, and that they banged the doors too violently whenever a person entered or got out. Others complained of their shouting unnecessarily, and of standing at the door gazing in at the passengers, thereby preventing fresh air from coming in, and polluting the atmosphere with their foul breath. Moreover, the "cads", as the conductors where now called, were not at all careful to keep objectionable people out of their omnibuses, and one passenger, an old lady, had an exciting experience. She entered an omnibus, and the door was banged behind her in the usual nerveshattering way. "Right away, Bill!" the conductor shouted, and before the poor old lady had recovered from the shock of the door slamming, the omnibus started, and she was pitched into the far dark corner, and fell against some men sitting there, who answered her timid apologies with an outburst of the vilest language imaginable. The old lady, horrified at their abuse, began to rebuke them, but stopped short, terrified, when she discovered that her fellow-passengers were three villainous-looking convicts, chained together and in charge of a warder. She screamed to the conductor to stop the omnibus, but the conductor was, as usual, talking to the driver, and did not heed her cries. Then she opened the door to get out and, in her excitement, fell into the road. The conductor jumped down, picked her up, demanded the fare, and got it. "Right away, Bill!" he shouted, and the omnibus drove on, leaving the old lady, bruised and trembling, in the middle of the road.

While many people were complaining of the omnibus conductor's behaviour, a large number of regular riders declared that it was but little worse than that of many passengers, and in January, 1836, the Times, published the following guide to behaviour in omnibuses:—

Omnibus Law.

1. Keep your feet off the seats.

2. Do not get into a snug corner yourself, and then open the windows to admit a north-wester upon the neck of your neighbour.

3. Have your money ready when you desire to alight. If your time is not valuable, that of others may be.

4. Do not impose on the conductor the necessity of finding you change; he is not a banker.

5. Sit with your limbs straight, and do not let your legs describe an angle of forty-five, thereby occupying the room of two persons.

6. Do not spit upon the straw. You are not in a hog-sty, but in an omnibus, travelling in a country which boasts of its refinement.

7. Behave respectfully to females, and put not an unprotected lass to the blush because she cannot escape from your brutality.

8. If you bring a dog, let him be small and confined by a string.

9. Do not introduce large parcels; an omnibus is not a van.

10. Reserve bickerings and disputes for the open field. The sound of your own voice may be music to your own ears—not so, perhaps, to those of your companions.

11. If you will broach politics or religion, speak with moderation; all have an equal right to their opinions, and all have an equal right not to have them wantonly shocked.

12. Refrain from affectation and conceited airs. Remember you are riding a distance for sixpence which, if made in a hackney-coach, would cost you as many shillings; and that should your pride elevate you above plebeian accommodations, your purse should enable you to command aristocratic indulgences.

Excellent advice, undoubtedly, and some of it might be taken to heart, with good results, by hundreds of omnibus passengers of to-day.

As time passed, the behaviour of the conductors grew worse. This was due chiefly to the indifference of the omnibus proprietors. If their conductors paid in a certain amount daily, they were quite satisfied with them, and by no means thankful to passengers who complained of their misbehaviour. The omnibus proprietor of this period was a much lower class of man than George Shillibeer. In most cases he himself had been a driver or conductor, and, on becoming an employer, his chief anxiety was to prevent his men growing rich at his expense. Knowing from experience what an omnibus could earn in various seasons and weather, he took every precaution to guard against his men retaining as large a portion of the earnings as he himself had pocketed when a conductor. The men who paid daily the sum he demanded were the conductors he preferred, and these usually were the passenger-swindling, bullying specimens, and thoroughly deserved their name—"cads."

In January, 1841, the Times printed the following description of two classes of conductors :—

The Well-conducted conductor

1. Never bawls out "Bank—Bank—City—Bank!" because he knows that passengers are always as much on the look-out for him as he is for them, so that these loud and hideous shouts are quite unnecessary.

2. Never bangs the omnibus door after he has let a passenger in or out, but makes it a rule to shut it as quietly as possible.

3. Always takes care that there are two check strings or straps running along the roof of the omnibus, on the inside, and communicating with the arms of the driver by two large wooden or other rings which are easily slipped on and off.

4. Is careful also to have a direction conspicuously placed inside the omnibus, announcing to the passengers that if they wish to be set down on the right hand they will pull the right-hand check-string or strap, and if they wish to be set down on the left hand they will pull the left-hand check-string. By this arrangement the passenger is set down exactly where he wishes to be, and all the bawling is prevented.

5. Never stands at the omnibus door staring in upon the passengers, but sits down upon the seat provided for him outside. In this way he knows that he gains a double advantage: he is saved the fatigue of standing during a whole journey, and by looking backwards as the driver looks forwards, persons who wish to ride are more easily seen than if the driver and conductor are both looking the same way.

6. Never allows the driver to go on till the passengers are safely seated, and always directs him to pull up close either to the right or left hand of the street or road.

The Ill-conducted Conductor

1. Always bawl out "Bank—Bank—City—Bank—Bank—Bank—City—City—Bank—Bank—Bank!" by which disgusting noise his own lungs are injured, the public peace is disturbed, and not any advantage gained.

2. Always bangs the door violently that if you are sitting next the door you are likely to be deafened for life.

3. Never provides any check-string, but compels the passengers who want to be set down to use their sticks, canes, and umbrellas, and loud shouts into the bargain, thereby creating a most intolerable nuisance.

4. Always takes up and sets down his passengers in the middle of the street; by which rudeness they are sometimes bespattered with mud and always exposed to danger.

5. Always stands at the door of the omnibus staring in upon the passengers, particularly after he has been eating his dinner of beef-steak, strong onions, and stale beer; and generally has some cad or other crony standing and talking with him. The air that would otherwise circulate through the omnibus, in the way of ventilation is obstructed and poisoned.

6. Always bawls out "All right!" before the passengers have taken their seats, by which gross carelessness great inconvenience and even danger are often occasioned.

But it was not only of the drivers and conductors that the public complained. The officials at the inquiry offices stationed at the starting-point of each line, were denounced as being utterly unfitted for the positions they occupied. All were rude, and most of them possessed but little intelligence. One afternoon, about twenty minutes past four, a gentleman entered the omnibus office at the George and Blue Boar, Holborn and inquired of the clerk whether omnibuses started from there to a certain railway-station.

"Yes," was the reply.

"At what hours?"

"One hour before each train."

"Then I'm just in time to catch the 5.30 one."

"It's all down in writing on that there board."

The traveller turned to the board, and, finding the 5.30 train entered upon it, went out into the street to await the arrival of the omnibus. But after pacing up and down for a quarter of an hour, and seeing no sign of a conveyance, he returned to the office and enquired when it would arrive.

"It's gone," the official said.

"Then it didn't start from here," the traveller declared. "I've been waiting outside since twenty past four."

"What train do you want to catch?"

"The half-past five, to be sure. I told you so."

"Oh, we ain't got no omnibus to catch that train."

"But man, you said that you had one to each train."

"I told you it was all down in writing on that there board, and you ought to have seen for yourself there ain't no omnibus for the half-past five."

The traveller again turned to the hoard, and glaring at it, declared angrily, "There's nothing of the kind state here!"

The official pointed to a small cross against the 5.30 train and said triumphantly, "'This here mark means there ain't no omnibus." "Well, how was I to know that?"

"Most gentlemen, when they sees it, asks me what the deuce it means, and I tells them."

"But what do the others do?"

The clerk did not condescend to answer, but took out his pocket-knife and busied himself in peeling an apple.

While the public was busily denouncing the behaviour of 'busmen, a quaint vehicle, named the "equirotal omnibus," was placed on the streets. The inventor, Mr. W. B. Adams, maintained that all vehicles should have four large wheels, instead of two large and two small, and his omnibus was constructed on that principle. It was built in two parts, which were joined together in the middle by a flexible leather passage, to enable it to turn easily. "It will turn with facility in the narrowest streets, without impeding the passage along the interior," Mr. Adams declared, "as the flexible sides move in a circle. With this omnibus two horses will do the work of three; there will be great facility of access and egress; perfect command over the horses; increased ease to the passengers; greater head-room and more perfect ventilation; greater general durability and absence of the usual rattling noise, accompanied by entire safety against overturning."

In spite of Mr. Adams's recommendation, the "equirotal omnibus" did not become popular, and had but a short career.

Adam's equirotal omnibus
Adam's equirotal omnibus