Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter I


Carrosses à cinq sous invented—Inauguration ceremony—M. Laffitte's omnibuses—The origin of the word "omnibus" as applied to coaches

Omnibuses, under the name of carrosses a cinq sous, were started in Paris in 1662. The leading spirits in this enterprise were the Duc de Rouanès, Governor of Poitou, the Marquis de Sourches, Grand Prévôt, the Marquis de Crénan, Grand Cup-bearer, and Blaise Pascal, the author of "Lettres Provinciales." The idea was Pascal's, but not being sufficiently wealthy to carry it out unaided, he laid the matter before his friend the Duc de Rouanès, who suggested that a company should be formed to start the vehicles. Pascal consented to this being done, and the Duc de Rouanès set to work at once to prevail upon members of the aristocracy to take shares in the venture. The Marquis de Sourches and the Marquis de Crénan he induced to take an active part in the management and, best of all, he obtained from Louis XIV a decree authorising the establishment of carrosses à cinq sous. Seven vehicles to carry eight passengers each, all inside, were built, and on March 18th, 1662, they began running. The first one was timed to start at seven o'clock in the morning, but an hour or two earlier a huge crowd had assembled to witness the inauguration ceremony, which was performed by two Commissaires of the Châtelet, attired in their official robes. Accompanying them were four guards of the Grand Prévôt, twenty men of the City Archers, and a troop of cavalry. The procession, on arriving at the line of route, divided into two parts, one Commissaire and half of the attendants proceeded to the Luxembourg, and the others to the Porte St. Antoine. At the latter place three of the twopenny-halfpenny coaches were stationed, the other four being at the Luxembourg. Each Commissaire then made a speech, in which he pointed out the boon that carrosses à cinq sous would be to the public, and laid great stress on the fact that they would start punctually at certain times, whether full or empty. Moreover, he warned the people that the king was determined to punish severely any person who interfered with the coaches, their drivers, conductors, or passengers. The public was also warned that any person starting similar vehicles without permission would be fined 3000 francs, and his horses and coaches confiscated.

At the conclusion of his address the Commissaire commanded the coachmen to advance, and, after giving them a few words of advice and caution, presented each one with a long blue coat, with the City arms embroidered on the front in brilliant colours. Having donned their livery, the drivers returned to their vehicles and climbed up to their seats. Then the command to start was given, and the two vehicles drove off amidst a scene of tremendous enthusiasm. The first coach each way carried no passengers — a very unbusinesslike arrangement — the conductor sitting inside in solitary state. But the next two, which were sent off a quarter of an hour after the first, started work in earnest, and it need scarcely be said that there was no lack of passengers. The difficulty experienced was in preventing people from crowding in after the eight seats were occupied. At the beginning of every journey the struggle to get into the coach was repeated, and many charming costumes were ruined in the crush. Paris, in short, went mad over its carrosses a cinq sous, and the excitement soon spread to the suburbs, sending their inhabitants flocking to the city to see the new vehicles. But very few of the visitors managed to obtain a ride, for day by day the rush for seats became greater. The king himself had a ride in one coach, and the aristocracy and wealthy classes hastened to follow his example, struggling with their poorer brethren to obtain a seat. Many persons who possessed private coaches drove daily to the starting-point and yet failed to get a ride in one for a week or two.

Four other routes were opened in less than four months, but at last the fashionable craze came to an end, and as soon as the upper classes ceased to patronise the new coaches the middle and lower classes found that it was cheaper to walk than to ride. The result was that Pascal, who died only five months after the coaches began running, lived long enough to see the vehicles travelling to and fro, half, and sometimes quite, empty. For many months after Pascal's death the coaches lingered on, but every week found them less patronised, and eventually they were discontinued. They had never been of any real utility, and were regarded by the public much in the same light as we regard a switchback railway.

After the failure of the carosses a cinq sous, a century and a half elapsed before vehicles of the omnibus class were again tried in Paris, but one or two feeble and unsuccessful attempts to start them in England were made in the year 1800. A vehicle with six wheels and drawn by four horses was the most noticed of these ventures.

In 1819 Monsieur Jacques Laffitte, the banker-politician, who became, later, the Minister of Louis Philippe, introduced the vehicles now called “omnnibuses” into Paris. They carried sixteen or eighteen passengers, all inside, and the fare was twopence halfpenny from one side of Paris to the other. From the day that they began running they were highly successful, and the first year's profits, it is said, repaid the outlay.

Monsieur Laffitte must not, however, be given the credit of applying the name “omnibus” to the vehicles which he introduced, for it belongs to Monsieur Baudry, a retired military officer. In 1827 Baudry was the proprietor of some hot-water baths in the suburbs of Nantes, and for the convenience of his patrons ran a vehicle at fixed hours to and from the town. This coach, which was similar in build to the Parisian ones, he named the "Voiture des Bains de Richebourg," but quickly came to the conclusion that the title was too long, and therefore endeavoured to think of a more suitable one.

It happened that just at that time a local grocer named Omnès caused considerable amusement in the town by painting over his shop "Omnès Omnibus." No sooner did Baudry see this than he declared that he had found the very word which he required, and straightway renamed his vehicle "L'Omnibus." Later, he started lines of omnibuses at Paris and Bordeaux, but they were not very successful, and the severe winter of 1829, which made forage very dear and the streets almost impassable, ruined him completely and drove him to commit suicide. But before he died he had made the word "omnibus" familiar to Parisians. Many of the vehicles belonging to other proprietors bore the inscription "Enterprise Générale des Omnibus," which, while not making people believe that the coach so inscribed was one of Baudry's, ensured its being called an Omnibus.