Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter XI

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474668Omnibuses and Cabs — Chapter XIHenry Charles Moore


"Jumpers"—"Spots"—Some curious passengers—Conductors and coachmen—The Rothschild Christmas-boxes—Mr. Morris Abrahams and the Omnibus Men's Superannuation Fund—Horses—Cost of omnibuses—Night in an omnibus yard.

It is said, frequently, that omnibus companies and proprietors have received little or no benefit from the introduction of the ticket system because of the expense connected with the working of it, but that is a very great mistake. The London General Omnibus Company saves £100,000 a year by it, and the other companies and associations have just as much cause for satisfaction. But it must be confessed that at the outset the ticket system was more or less a farce, the conductors omitting openly to give tickets and being encouraged in their breach of duty by the lower class of riders. Some conductors flung away their rolls of tickets and declared that they had been stolen. Others placed them under the omnibus wheels to be crushed, and then pretended that the damage done was the result of an accident. Some of the more reckless spirits bragged that they had given the tickets to their children to play with.

The polite inspectors—called by the men "jumpers"—came into existence with the introduction of tickets, and for some time there was a considerable amount of excitement about their work, for, while conductors did not trouble to conceal from passengers the fact that they were not doing their duty, they seemed to consider it a personal insult that an inspector should board their omnibuses to see if passengers had been given tickets. Some conductors assaulted the unwelcome inspectors, but the police-court magistrates soon proved to them that it was a very unprofitable step to take, and, in course of time, the men who wished to retain their posts settled down to issuing tickets in a proper fashion, and to regarding with comparative calmness the sudden appearance of an inspector on their step.

"We have to punch tickets in the dark, one conductor declared indignantly to a passenger, "and then a 'jumper' comes up with an electric to see that we've punched them in the right section." "Perhaps they'll fix electric lights on top of the 'buses before long," the passenger said consolingly.

"Hope they won't, guv'nor," the conductor answered hurriedly. "Shouldn't get any more two-shilling pieces for pennies if they did."

Ticket-inspectors are known to all Londoners, but few people are aware that the omnibus companies have also private inspectors, whose duty it is to ride about in their omnibuses, as ordinary passengers, for the purpose of noting and reporting anything that affects their interests adversely. These people, who are called "spots" and "wrong'uns" by the 'busmen, are not beloved by conductors and coachmen, for the simple reason that they never know when they have one on their omnibus. The man in evening dress who enters the omnibus in the Strand after the theatres have closed may be one; so too, may be the man with a bag of workman's tools who rides up to town by the first omnibus. The daintily dressed young lady who enters at Peter Robinson's or William Whiteley's may, from her seat in the corner, be regarding the conductor with an interest which is not born of admiration, and the palpably retired officer who gets in at Piccadilly may be earning a welcome addition to his income by watching 'busmen's manœuvres. But it must be very embarrassing to these "spots" as they sit, unobtrusively, in the omnibus to see facing them, as an advertisement of Sapolio, Lady Macbeth's exhortation, "Out, out, damned spot!"

Private inspectors are by no means a modern addition to the staff of an omnibus company. Shillibeer, as stated in Chapter II., employed them a few weeks after he placed the first English omnibuses on the road, and succeeding omnibus proprietors followed his example. The duties of these early inspectors were not very arduous, for, as there were only shilling and sixpenny fares, known as "longs" and "shorts," and but two outside seats, it was a simple matter to check the amount received by a conductor during a journey. The defalcations of conductors were, by the means of these inspectors, kept from being extensive, but when omnibuses had been in existence about fifteen years one of the largest proprietors received reports from his "spot" which he could not understand. The "spot" would state that a certain omnibus, on a certain journey, had carried, say, twelve "longs" and sixteen "shorts," but the conductor would pay in the fares of fourteen "longs" and seventeen or eighteen "shorts." To unravel this mystery the proprietor persuaded a relation, who unknown to the 'busmen, to ride in a certain omnibus on the same journey as his "spot," and check who was really right. This man's reports agreed with the "spot's." Both declared that the conductor had collected less money than he paid in. The amateur "spot" then rode two journeys in that omnibus when the professional man was not there, and on those occasions it was found that the conductor paid in only about three-quarters of the money he received. Eventually the conductor was arrested for fraud, and confessed how he had been working his omnibus. He had bribed the proprietor's clerk to tell him who the "spot" was, and where he could be seen. As soon as he had received that information, and taken a good look at the man, he felt that he was safe from being detected in his fraud. Whenever the "spot" rode in his omnibus, he paid in more than he received, relying upon getting back the extra money, and a good bit more, on the journeys when the "spot" was not present. Why he did not remain satisfied with simply paying in the exact amount he took on every occasion that the "spot" rode in his omnibus is a question that occurs to every one who hears the story. In all probability he considered himself a very smart fellow, and it is the fate of people possessed of an exaggerated idea of their own cleverness to make some silly blunder which proves that, after all, they are but fools.

In the forties and fifties several well-dressed women "spots" were employed by the omnibus proprietors, and when a conductor suspected any lady passenger of being one, he generally communicated his suspicion to the coachman, with the result that when she wished to alight, the coachman would pull up in the muddiest part of the road, so that she would be compelled to get her boots and skirt dirty. More often than not it was a perfectly innocent lady whom the conductor left stranded in the centre of a crowded, muddy street. These mistakes are still very common. Conductors are always on the look out for "spots," and every day hundreds of innocent passengers are suspected of being private inspectors because they happen, perhaps unconsciously, to watch the conductor punching tickets or to glance at his badge number. Although inspectors are, naturally enough very strongly disliked by 'busmen, they are a great protection to them. There are always a few cantankerous, cross-grained people riding in omnibuses somewhere in London who abuse conductors with scarcely any reason, and threaten, when they have aggravated them into retort, to report them for impertinence. And sometimes they do report the man, but if a "spot" happens to be in the omnibus he sends to his employers a full account of all that occurred. He does not forget to mention the provocation the conductor received, a point which people who write letters of complaint have a curious knack of overlooking.

Sometimes conductors get very strange people in their omnibuses. One night, a year or two ago, a "Favorite" started from Victoria Station with three inside passengers, two of whom were women. Suddenly the woman sitting by the door pointed at the one at the other end of the omnibus and exclaimed dramatically :—

"That woman has stolen my purse."

"She hasn't been near you," the conductor declared; but the woman repeats the accusation in a louder tone.

The accused woman remained very calm, and it was not until the charge against her began to get monotonous through repetition that she told the conductor to stop the omnibus and call a policeman. The conductor did so.

"That woman has stolen my purse," the passenger at the door shouted when the policeman arrived.

The policeman looked from one to the other, and then said :—

" Why, there's your purse in your lap."

" Yes, I know," the accuser admitted.

" Then, what do you mean by sayin' that lady stole it?"

" I did it out of kindness, constable. The lady has got the hiccoughs, and I wanted to give her a start."

To be accused of having the hiccoughs seemed to annoy the woman in the corner far more than the charge of theft did, and she appealed, excitedly, to the male passenger to say whether or not she had the hiccoughs. He answered boldly that there was not the slightest ground for such an accusation.

"But she was going to have them," the woman by the door declared, an assertion which so astonished the policeman that he felt prompt action was imperative.

"Out you come," he said sharply, and assisted her to make her exit with alacrity.

At times the eccentricity of some passengers takes very objectionable forms. Quite recently a well-dressed little woman jumped into an omnibus in Fleet Street, pulled a man out of his seat and sat in it herself, poked her umbrella into another man's eye. swore horribly at everybody present for about half a minute, then suddenly got up, jumped out without paying, and disappeared down a street. The man whose eye was injured had to hurry to Charing Cross Hospital.

On another occasion a sane-looking man, sitting on top of an omnibus, suddenly started throwing pennies at the silk hats of passers-by and spitting contemptuously at female pedestrians. Before his fellow-passengers had made up their minds whether to pitch him off the omnibus or give him into custody, he walked quietly down the steps and alighted.

Many passengers leave strange things in omnibuses, but I have heard of only one man who went away without his clothes. A conductor looking round his omnibus at the end of his day's work, kicked against a heap of clothes lying on the roof. While examining the articles by the light of his lamp he heard a noise above him, and, looking up, beheld a man, stark naked, climbing into the loft. The poor fellow had gone mad.

But of all the eccentric characters known to 'busmen, the most harmless and the most amusing is the respectable-looking little man with a black beard who runs in front of omnibuses, excitedly waving a long stick above his head. He is about forty years of age, dressed generally in black clothes, and sometimes carries a pair of gloves in his hand. He singles out an omnibus, gives a friendly shout to the coachman, darts in front of the horses, and leads the way through the streets, coming occasionally to the side of the omnibus to give passengers an opportunity to throw money to him. He delights in long runs and usually sticks to the omnibus he takes up with until it reaches the end of its journey. He has been known to run with an omnibus from Queen's Road, Bayswater, through the city, to Burdett Road, E. and then to run back with


An eccentric person, well known to 'busmen in one part of London is a gentleman who stands, almost every night at certain corners where omnibuses stop and gives a searching look at each one as it comes up. When he started that practice, ten to fifteen years ago, the 'busmen thought that he was some omnibus official, but they soon discovered that he was not. Who or what he has been looking for all these years neither 'busmen, policemen, nor any one else, know. Sometimes conductors say to him, "Coming our way, sir?" Whereupon he answers sharply. "Take your departure." Usually he allows about one hundred omnibuses to pass before he enters one, but sometimes he lets the last go by and then walks home.

Omnibus conductors are, on the whole, a very respectable and intelligent class of men, and this is scarcely to be wondered at, for their pay, after one year's service, is six shillings a day. These wages cause hundreds of clerks and shopmen to resign their positions and become conductors. Many men who have been in business for themselves, but failed to earn a good living, are to be seen wearing the conductor's badge and punch. The army, it is pleasing to be able to say, is very well represented—largely by ex-noncommissioned officers. They do not wear their medals on their waistcoats, because they know that to be the practice of old soldiers in straitened circumstances, and also, alas! of rascally impostors who have never worn the Queen's uniform. If the conductors had uniforms, as the tram-men have, they would wear their medals.

The dissipated down-at-heel gentleman, of the type which sometimes drives a cab, never becomes an omnibus conductor, for the very good reason that no company or proprietor would employ him. But the unfortunate gentleman often does. An Oxford graduate was the conductor of a West-End omnibus for some considerable time, and a man who was once the secretary of a flourishing literary society, and a church organist, is and has been one for some years. And a City man, ruined in business, became, by the irony of fate, the conductor of the very omnibus on which he, formerly, rode up to town every morning.

A small proportion of conductors do possibly make occasional mistakes in their grammar, but that is no reason why a certain writer should have attributed to them, week after week some years, a dialect which they do not speak. Evidently the writer has not troubled to study conductors, and imagines that they are drawn from the costermonger class. Conductors, it may be added, do not even say "lidy," or "lydy," although it has become the fashion in novels and articles to make out that they do. They say "lady" as distinctly as ever the word was uttered.

Omnibus drivers are, as a body, intellectually inferior to conductors. They an usually brought up among horses, and, unlike the conductors, are totally unfitted for any other calling than the one by which they earn their living. Their wages, which are eight shillings a day, after one year's service, enable them to live in comfort and to put a shilling on a horse in every race of any importance. They have no ambition but to "back a winner," and many men who started driving at the age of twenty-one are not a penny richer after forty years' regular work. They continue driving until they become too old, and then they realise that they have been exceedingly foolish. One driver, who for more forty years earned over two guineas a week, now sweeps a crossing for a living. Many others have died in the workhouse.

As a wit the omnibus driver is greatly overrated. There is nothing spontaneous about his witticisms, and all drivers let off exactly the same jokes. These are three from their stock:—

When a coal cart is in front of them: "Now then, short weight, hurry up!"

When another omnibus remains at a point longer than usual: "Got a bit of freehold there?"

When they are driving home to the stables about midnight, and some would-be passenger hails them : "Not to-night, sir. We have the rest of the evening to ourselves."

But it must be admitted that omnibus drivers have the knack of delivering their remarks in a way that makes a stranger imagine that they are uttering them for the first time. And that is an art.

At Christmas time there is a great demand among 'busmen for Rothschild's racing colours. The drivers attach them to their whips and the conductors adorn their bell-pulls with them, as a slight acknowledgment of the welcome Christmas-box—a brace of pheasants—which they have received for many years from the firm of Rothschild. Originally these presents were given only to the coachmen and conductors of omnibuses which passed the Rothschilds' houses, but now others receive them as well, and there must be about three thousand brace distributed every Christmas.

The late Lord Rothschild, who, years ago, gave an annual dinner to the Hammersmith 'busmen—half the men being entertained on one night and half on another—was the first of the family to present Christmas-boxes to them. His gift to every Hammersmith coachman and conductor was a brace of pheasants, a bottle of wine and six cigars. After a time he stopped the bottle of wine and cigars and gave five shillings instead. The Victoria Station Omnibus Association coachmen and conductors also receive five shillings each as well as the brace of pheasants, and the reason why they are favoured is, the old 'busmen say, as follows:—One day, many years ago, in the height of the season, there was a big crowd gathered in Park Lane, and the traffic was stopped for some time to keep the road clear for a member of the Royal Family to drive along. By the fountain the block was so great that pedstrians who desired to cross the road experienced the greatest difficulty in doing so. A lady of the Rothschild family came up Hertford Street and wished to cross over into Hamilton Place, but, naturally, did not venture to pick her way through the wide stretch of omnibuses, cabs and carriages. Benjamin West, a conductor of one of the Victoria Station Association's omnibuses, saw her, and, recognising her, got off his step and, with a polite apology for addressing her, asked to be allowed to escort her across the road. His services were accepted, and he led the way safely through the maze of horses and vehicles. West then returned to his omnibus, well satisfied at having been useful to a member of the family which contains the best friends that 'busmen ever had. But, to his surprise, he saw the lady turn and speak to the page following her, in charge of a pug dog, who came running back to West's omnibus to see to whom it belonged. He read the inscription on the panel, "Victoria Station Association," and then hurried back and reported to his mistress. The following Christmas every conductor and coachman in the employ of the Victoria Station Association received from Mr. Leonard Rothschild five shillings, and the present has been given every year since.

Many instances of the Rothschilds' generosity to individual 'busmen could be given, but it would be indiscreet to mention actions which were performed privately.

The Rothschilds are not, however, the only Jews from whom London 'busmen have received benefits. The late Messrs. Barney Barnato and Woolf Joel were very generous to them, and Mr. Morris Abrahams has placed them under a debt of gratitude by starting, on October 26, 1897, the Omnibus Men's Superannuation Fund. Mr. Abrahams, who is a cousin of the late Mr. Barnato, had for some years taken a kindly interest in the 'busmen of the neighbourhood in which he resides, when he was asked to contribute to a fund being raised for the benefit of an old driver, who was incapacitated from further work. He did as desired, and was present at the meeting at which the money was presented to the 'busman. It struck him, however, that this gift was only postponing the old man's days of poverty. The money would keep him for about eighteen months; at the end of that time the man would be still less able to earn even a few pence. The need of a superannuation fund was so obvious that Mr. Abrahams rose and suggested to the men that they should start one, adding that if they would support the movement he would provide all the money necessary for founding it. The men received the suggestion with cheers, and raising Mr. Abrahams aloft, carried him round the room. Finding that the 'busmen would appreciate a fund of the nature he had suggested, he set to work to start one. His first step was to instruct two men in the employ of the London General Omnibus Company to apply for a week's leave, so that they might go all over London to ask the 'busmen to appoint a man from each district to represent them on the committee. The two men obtained the necessary leave, Mr. Abrahams paying them their usual wages, and expenses, while away from work. The first general meeting was held at the Horse Shoe. Six hundred and thirty 'busmen were present, and £40 was collected from them in subscriptions. Mr. Abrahams, who was in the chair, presented the fund, on behalf of Messrs. Barnato, with 250. From that day the Omnibus Men's Superannuation Fund has made rapid progress and has now 1300 members and a reserve of £3200. Mr. Abrahams is the president, Mr. Alfred Rothschild the vice-president,and among the other supporters of the Fund are the Duke of Cambridge, the Duke of Westminster, the Earl of Crewe, Lord Rosebery, and many members of both Houses of Parliament. Mrs. Aubert made a donation of four hundred guineas, and Mr. Woolf Joel left the Fund £250. The trustees are Mr. E.R.P. Moon, M.P., and Mr. Lister Drummond and the committee is composed of twenty-eight 'busmen; the chairman and vice-chairman are both 'bus drivers. The Fund gives fifteen shillings a week for life to any member incapacitated from following his customary employment. The first recipient was "Fat" Smith, a well-known driver of a Kilburn and Victoria omnibus. In his young days Smith drove a stage-coach in Wales, but coming to London in the sixties he obtained a job as an omnibus driver, and retained it until about three years ago, when old age compelled him to resign. The Fund has twenty-three pensioners in all and

the number will soon be increased.

The theatrical profession has given the Fund valuable aid. Mr. Mr. George Alexander lent his theatre for a matinée, at which a large number of the best actors and actresses gave their services. The performance lasted from half-past two until six, and hundreds of people were unable to gain admittance. At the conclusion of the performance the old 'busmen went on the stage and bowed their thanks. Mr. Abrahams has received promises of further help from theatrical managers, actors and actresses.

When the Fund had been started a few months the 'busmen decided to present Mr. Abrahams with a testimonial, and had collected £60 with which to purchase it when he heard of their action and communicated to them his intention not to accept the gift. He requested that the money collected should be returned to the subscribers. But four years later the men were determined that he should have a testimonial, and on June 27, 1901, they presented him, at a meeting at the Holborn Restaurant, with an exquisite silver model of an omnibus. Jim Perry, who is eighty-one years of age, and has driven a London omnibus since 1844, is faithfully reproduced as the driver of the presentation omnibus. Perry may be seen any day driving a London General Omnibus Company omnibus between Baker Street and Victoria Stations. The conductor of the silver 'bus represents J. Baker, a Fulham conductor, known as "Sailor Jack" who acts as collector to the Superannuation Fund.

Mr. Abrahams has, without ostentation, given both time and money to the Fund, and it is to be hoped that London 'busmen will never forget their indebtedness to him.

At the present day there are about 3700 omnibuses on the London streets. For each omnibus there is a stud of ten horses, except when the road on which it works is hilly, and then twelve are required. The majority of omnibus horses are Canadians, and are purchased at the London repositories when between five and eight years of age, the average price paid being £30 per horse. They are then graduated to the work, and become seasoned in two or three months. When seasoned they work from four to five hours out of every twenty-four. After working for about five years they are, generally, unfit for further omnibus use, and are sold by auction, the purchasers being, in most cases, farmers. Many horses recover their "straight legs" after a spell of farm life, and farmers have been known to send up to London as English bred horses Canadians which they purchased, some months before, as "fresh from omnibus work." On several occasions omnibus proprietors have discovered that their new "English bred horse" is a Canadian which they had sold, deeming it unfit for further use. It may be asked how it was that the purchaser did not recognise his old horse before buying it. But omnibus proprietors in a large way of business are continually buying horses, and cannot possibly recognise every animal they have possessed; but their horse-foremen, however, discover the British farmer's smartness. In all large studs a number is allotted to every horse as soon as it is purchased. That number is burnt on the near fore hoof and entered, together with the colour and sex of the animal, in the horse-register book. It is also painted on a slip of zinc and placed over the stall the horse is to occupy. When the animal dies or is sold his number plate is destroyed and a fresh one

allotted to his successor.

Each omnibus costs from £150 to £160, and lasts for about twelve years. It is renovated every year previous to being inspected by the police, who, on passing it, affix a number plate to the back of the step. The police have two plates, which they issue on alternate years, so that a constable can see at a glance whether an omnibus is licensed. For each plate licence an omnibus proprietor has to pay £2 a year, and also an annual tax of 15s.. to the Inland Revenue. Until about ten years ago the Inland Revenue tax was £2 2s. and would in all probability have remained so had not Mr. John Manley Birch—one of the oldest established proprietors—sued the Crown for a rebate on the ground that as omnibuses came under the Hackney Carriage Act he could not be compelled to pay more than the hackney carriage tax of 15s. Mr. Birch's action was made a test case and was decided in his favour, one year's rebate being allowed.

When an omnibus is no longer fit for London work it is sold at auction, and becomes, eventually, a summer-house, a workmen's shed, a cricket club's dressing-room or refreshment bar. The London General Omnibus Company burns its old vehicles.

Until a few years ago it was a common thing for old London omnibuses to be purchased by colonial and provincial proprietors, and a "Kilburn" would be found at work at Liverpool, a "Camden Town" at Clacton-on-Sea, and a "Hammersmith" or "Bayswater" in New Zealand. But municipal authorities have, in most places, decided that an omnibus which is unfit to be at work in London must be regarded as unworthy to ply in their districts, and consequently the value of old omnibuses has fallen considerably.

English-built omnibuses are acknowledged to be the best obtainable, and Mr. Christopher Dodson, the well-known London coach-builder, supplies many of the leading continental proprietors. Mr. Dodson has recently invented a new staircase, which is more convenient for passengers, and reduces considerably the risk of accidents. It is already in use on some of the Road Car Company's Putney and Brondesbury omnibuses.

The nightly washing of omnibuses is an important matter, and the person who looks into an omnibus yard during the day would be surprised at its changed appearance if he were to see it late at night. About 10 o'clock the first omnibus arrives in the yard. On its way from finishing point the conductor, lamp in hand, has searched the seats and floor his omnibus, and found, perhaps, a stray penny. If he discovers a parcel, a purse, or anything of any value, he trudges off with it to the nearest police-station, bearing no grudge against the careless passenger who has made his walk necessary, for he knows that he will be rewarded, no matter whether the article is claimed or not. When the article is not claimed, he receives, eventually, a proportion of it value. If his search has proved fruitless, he and the coachman leave their omnibus as soon as it is in the yard, and depart for home, or the nearest public-house. But before they have quitted the yard the night men or "washers" have taken out the horses and led them into the stable. Sometimes they take them upstairs to bed. Then the washers unharness them and hang up the harness in the gangway. The collars, however, are hung under the number plates, for it is very necessary that every horse should have his own collar. The horses are then groomed, provided with food and water and secured for the night. The washers are now ready for the next 'bus, which has probably by this time entered the yard. From midnight until nearly one o'clock 'bus follows 'bus in quick succession. Each has its appointed position in the yard, so that there shall be no hitch in its getting out at the proper time in the morning. When the last omnibus has entered, the stable-gates are locked and the men sit down to their supper. It is a lively meal, and if the day has been a dry one and the 'buses are not very dirty, they linger over it. If, however, there has been much rain, they hurry through it, for a wet day means very hard work for them. The 'buses have to be swept and swabbed, the wheels, the body, and the windows have to be cleaned, the brass work polished, the cushions brushed, and the aprons shaken and sponged. For some hours the yard is full of noise and bustle.

At five o'clock the coachbuilder's men arrive to test the wheels and thoroughly overhaul each omnibus, and in the event of their discovering any defect they repair it immediately. The coachbuilder's men are followed by the veterinary surgeon, who examines the horses; and if he thinks that any of them should have a rest he gives instructions to that effect to the foreman.

About seven o'clock the coachman and conductor of the omnibus which came in first on the previous night arrive, the former carrying his whip and rug, the latter with his little tin box—which contains his bell-punch and tickets— under his arm. In a few minutes the 'bus leaves the yard for its starting point. 'Bus after 'bus now passes out, and by ten o'clock the yard has a deserted appearance, fowls and geese being almost in sole possession, until the first change of horses is made.