Open main menu

Omnibuses and Cabs/Part I/Chapter II

George Shillibeer introduces omnibuses into England—The first omnibus route—Shillibeer's conductors defraud him—His plans for preventing fraud—An omnibus library— Shopkeepers complain of omnibus obstruction.

Laffitte's omnibuses were so exceedingly well managed that they continued to prosper in spite of the many new lines started in opposition to them. With a view to maintaining the superiority of his omnibuses over those of his rivals, Laffitte decided to have two vehicles built which should eclipse in comfort and appearance any others on the streets. He gave the order to Mr. George Shillibeer, a well-known Parisian coach-builder. Shillibeer had been a midshipman in the British Navy, but quitted the service and went to Hatchett's, in Long Acre, to learn coach-building. Later, he started business for himself in Paris, and as English carriages were then becoming very fashionable, he met with considerable success, and built carriages and coaches for the most influential men of the day.

While executing Laffitte's order it occured to Shillibeer that he might, with considerable advantage to himself, start omnibuses in London. He decided to do so, and, disposing of his business, returned to London and took premises at Bury Street, Bloomsbury, whence he made it known that he was about to introduce "a new vehicle called the omnibus." The word "omnibus" was received with marked disapproval by every person to whom Shillibeer spoke concerning his new venture. "If one vehicle is to be called an omnibus, what are two or more to be called?" people said to him.

"Omnibuses," Shillibeer replied promptly, but his questioners were horrified, and to their dying days preferred to call them "Shillibeers." Some people called them "omnis," and Mr. Joseph Hume, speaking years later in the House of Commons, created much laughter by referring seriously to the vehicles as "omnibi."

The route which Shillibeer chose for his first omnibus was from Yorkshire Stingo at Paddington, along the New Road to the Bank. The New Road was the name by which Marylebone, Euston and Pentonville Roads were then known. Three or four short-stage-coaches had been running on that road for many years, but as they took three hours to get from Paddington to the City, and charged two shillings for outside seats and three shillings for inside ones, they were not patronised by able-bodied people, who usually preferred to walk. Moreover, the short-stage-coaches were uncomfortably loaded with luggage, which they collected and delivered every journey.

On the morning of July 4, 1829, Shillibeer's two new omnibuses began to run. A large crowd assembled to witness the start, and general admiration was expressed at the smart appearance of the vehicles, which were built to carry twenty-two passengers, all inside, and were drawn by three beautiful bays, harnessed abreast. The word "Omnibus" was painted in large letters on both sides of the vehicles. The fare from the Yorkshire Stingo to the Bank was one shilling; half way, sixpence. Newspapers and magazines were provided free of charge. The conductors, too, came in for considerable notice, for it had become known that they were both the sons of British naval officers—friends of Shillibeer. These amateur conductors had resided for some years in Paris, and were, therefore, well acquainted with the duties of the position which they assumed. The idea of being the first omnibus conductors in England pleased them greatly, and prompted them to work their hardest to make Shillibeer's venture a success. They were attired in smart blue-cloth uniforms, cut like a midshipman's; they spoke French fluently, and their politeness to passengers was a pleasing contrast to the rudeness of the short-stage-coach guards—a most ill-mannered class of men.

Shillibeer's first omnibus

Each omnibus made twelve journeys a day, and was generally full. So great a success were they that the takings averaged a hundred pounds a week. Nevertheless, Shillibeer had much to contend with. The short-stage-coach proprietors, disliking competition, endeavoured to incite the populace against Shillibeer by declaring that he was a Frenchman, and ought not to be allowed to run his foreign vehicles in England. Moreover, the aristocratic and wealthy residents of Paddington Green objected strongly to the omnibuses coming into their select neighbourhood, and petitioned the local authorities to prevent their doing so. And when they found that their endeavours were futile, they declared solemnly that Paddington Green was doomed. If they saw the neighbourhood to-day, they would consider, no doubt, that their prophecy was fulfilled, although, as a matter of fact, it was railways and not omnibuses that, from a residential point of view, ruined the neighbourhood. But the threatened doom of Paddington Green did not deter the sentimental poke-bonneted young ladies, who resided in the charming suburb, from spending a considerable amount of time in watching the omnibuses start. In the middle of the day many of them were in the habit of taking a ride to King's Cross and back, for the sole purpose of improving their French by conversing with the conductors. That praiseworthy amusement was short-lived, however, for as soon as the omnibuses were in good working order, the gentlemen-conductors relinquished their posts and were succeeded by paid officials.

The new conductors were dressed in dark velvet suits, and as far as politeness was concerned were all that could be desired. Unfortunately they became possessed of the belief, not yet quite extinct, that to rob an omnibus proprietor was no sin. The amount of money handed in to Shillibeer grew less daily—a very suspicious decrease, considering that people living on the road which the omnibuses travelled declared that the vehicles were as well patronised as ever. Shillibeer therefore made arrangements with various trustworthy people to ride in his omnibuses, as ordinary passengers, and check the number of people carried and the amount of fares which they paid. For a few days every journey that the omnibus made there was a male or female passenger watching the conductors, and from their reports Shillibeer discovered that the two men were, between them, robbing him to the extent of £20 a week. This was corroborated by the conductors themselves, whose style of living had become decidedly luxurious. In their time of affluence they did not forget their poorer friends, and one night, after work was finished, they treated a number of them to a champagne supper at the Yorkshire Stingo. The whole party became hilariously drunk, and while in that condition the hosts threw discretion to the winds, and bragged loudly that they made £10 each a week out of the omnibuses, in excess of their pay. Among their guests were detectives employed by Shillibeer, who repeated the confession of fraud to their employer, with the result that the first professional omnibus conductors were discharged. Shilibeer's leniency, due to his anxiety not to have his omnibuses mixed up in any scandal, encouraged succeeding conductors to steal. Shillibeer was at his wits' end what to do, when a man called on him with a patent register guaranteed to put a stop to the conductors' pilferings. The register was designed to be placed underneath the omnibus, and people entering or leaving the vehicle trod on a plate fixed in the step, the register recording every person who stepped upon it. Shillibeer liked the idea, and bought one of the registers on the condition that the inventor acted as conductor until its reliability had been proved thoroughly.

For two weeks everything went well, and the conductor was anticipating an order for a second register, when a gang of men, in sympathy with the discharged conductors, attacked the omnibus while it was standing outside the Yorkshire Stingo, smashed the patent register with sledge-hammers, and half murdered its inventor. Shillibeer, who had paid £300 for the demolished register, did not order another one to be made, but tried a new and less expensive check, which was in use in the Paris omnibuses. A specially made clock was fixed in a prominent position in each omnibus, with a notice beneath it informing the public that it was the conductor's duty to move the hand a certain distance whenever a passenger entered, and requesting that any neglect of that duty should be reported to the proprietor. But, in spite of that appeal, the conductors neglected persistently to act according to instructions, and not one report of their breach of duty was ever received by Shillibeer from an ordinary passenger. Some of them, indeed, amused themselves by turning the hand round until the register showed that the omnibus had carried an impossible number of people. This amusement was getting very popular when Shillibeer put an end to it by removing the clocks and trusting to his conductors' honour—a confidence which was proved, time after time, to be entirely misplaced.

But, in spite of all obstacles, Shillibeer prospered, and in less than nine months had twelve omnibuses at work. A few of these were two-horse omnibuses carrying twelve passengers inside and two outside. Some ran from Paddington to the Bank, viâ Oxford Street and Holborn. On all these new vehicles "Shillibeer" was painted in large letters on the sides, instead of "Omnibus."

Shillibeer's third omnibus

The Post Office authorities were the first to copy Shillibeer's vehicles. They had four built, resembling the originals in every respect save the painting and lettering. On September 23, 1829, these vehicles—accelerators they were called—started at half-past eight in the morning from the back of the General Post Office for the western and north-western districts. Each accelerator carried twelve or thirteen letter-carriers, who were put down at various points to begin their delivery.

A little later, Shillibeer's brother-in-law started some omnibuses which ran along the Caledonian Road, and were known as "Caledonians." These, too, were successful, and many years later became the property of Mr. Wilson, the once famous Islington omnibus proprietor. Wilson's "Favorites" were known to every Londoner, and the "Caledonians" were merged into them. At the present day the "Favorites" belong to the London General Omnibus Company, Limited, and on their way from the Nag's Head, Holloway, to West Kensington and Fulham traverse their original road.

In 1832, wishing to still further increase the number of his omnibuses, Shillibeer took into partnership Mr. William Morton, a Southwell publican, who sold his business to join him. The partnership was dissolved in January, 1834, Morton taking as his share of the business the whole of the New Road omnibuses. He failed, however, to make them pay, and sold them at a great loss. Eventually he became so reduced in circumstances that he applied for, and obtained, a position as an omnibus conductor, but was discharged for drunkenness, and, in a fit of despondency, committed suicide at his lodgings in Little Carlisle Street, Edgware Road. At the inquest, Shillibeer's enemies—of whom he had a large number among short-stage-coach proprietors—endeavoured to prove that the deceased had been swindled over his omnibus partnership. But these charges were shown to be the outcome of jealousy and petty spite, and it was proved that, in giving over the New Road omnibuses to his late partner, Shillibeer had behaved with great generosity, for that was the only line on which there was no opposition. The omnibuses were paying excellently at the time of the dissolution of partnership, but Morton mismanaged them. The person to whom he sold them soon made them as remunerative as they had been under Shillibeer's management. In fact, the New Road route was the best patronised, and, in 1837, there were fifty-four omnibuses on that road. The fares were then sixpence any distance.

In the same year that Shillibeer took Morton into partnership, there were several lines of omnibuses running in opposition to him, for the old short-stage-coach proprietors were now alive to the fact that there was much money to be made out of omnibuses; but the original vehicles had the reputation of being excellently conducted, and, consequently, were preferred by the public. Aware of this, the proprietors of some opposition omnibuses had the impudence to paint on the panels of their vehicles the word "Shillibeer." Shillibeer then named his omnibuses "Shillibeer's Original Omnibuses."

Some of the opposition proprietors, however, were men of sufficient enterprise to object to remaining mere imitators of Shillibeer, and tried their hardest to make their omnibuses more attractive than those of their great rival. One man made all his coachmen wear a wooden ring on each arm with strings attached to them which ran along each side of the roof of the omnibus and out at the back to the conductor. The passenger would then pull the cord or tell the conductor which side he wished to be put down, and if it were the near side the left string would be pulled; but if the passenger desired to get out on the off side the conductor would pull the right string, and coachman would drive across the road and come to a standstill on what is now the wrong side of the road. It seems strange that such a proceeding should have been allowed in London, but the arrangement was very popular with passengers, who grumbled and wrote letters to the proprietors if the strings were absent or defective. Very soon after the introduction of such strings there were few omnibuses in London without them, and they remained in fashion for many years.

Many omnibuses had clocks fixed in them for the convenience of passengers, and to ensure conductor and coachman keeping their time. Bells did not come into use until many years later. When a conductor wanted his coachman to stop he usually shouted to him. When he wished him to go on he shouted again or banged the door.

Mr. Cloud, who ran omnibuses from the White Horse, Haymarket, to Chelsea and Hammersmith—fares one shilling and half a crown—eclipsed Shillibeer in one respect. Shillibeer supplied his patrons with newspapers and magazines; Cloud provided his with books by well-known authors. A little bookcase, well filled, was fixed in each of his omnibuses at the end near the horses. Books were expensive in those days, and many people rode to Hammersmith and back for the sole purpose of reading a particular one which they knew to be in the omnibus library. But this admirable innovation was abused shamefully by the passengers, who appeared to consider it no sin to purloin the volumes. Disgusted at the dishonesty of his patrons, Mr. Cloud announced publicly that, in consequence of the thefts, his libraries would be discontinued. The bookcases were removed, and in place of each a seat was fixed, thereby enabling the omnibus to accommodate thirteen inside passengers instead of twelve. Other omnibus proprietors decided that their vehicles should also carry thirteen passengers, but provided no additional accommodation. A conductor would tell a person that there was room inside, but when the passenger entered he would find the six seats on either side occupied. If he happened to be a stout party, the burning question was on which side ought he to sit. The matter was generally settled by the new-comer flopping down on some one's lap. Then a quarrel would ensue. As late as 1882 an omnibus with a seat in front of the fareboard was running from Oxford Circus to Henden, viâ Kilburn. It was a most uncomfortable seat, but, nevertheless, it was nearly always occupied, for the conductor, being a very amusing fellow, had a knack of quickly soothing passengers who protested against sitting on a small, cramped seat.

Soon after the removal of the bookcases, some of the Hammersmith omnibuses acquired the habit of loitering, and thereby obstructing the streets. By Act of Parliament, the police had the power to take into custody the driver of any public vehicle who obstructed the high road and refused to move on. One morning they exercised their power by pulling two omnibus-drivers from their boxes and taking them to the police-station. The following day the drivers were fined forty shillings or a month's imprisonment. For a few days there was no loitering on the Hammersmith Road. But one Saturday evening an omnibus pulled up at Knightsbridge in such a position as to obstruct the traffic. A policeman shouted fiercely to the driver to move on, but the coachman calmly shook his head and would not budge an inch. Two policemen promptly rushed forward to pull him from his seat and take him into custody, but, to their astonishment, found that he was chained to the box and the chain fastened by a huge padlock. Their attempts to remove him were useless. Then several other omnibuses came along, and pulled up close to the first one. The drivers of these were also chained to their boxes, and amused themselves and the crowd by chaffing the police and shaking their chains at them. After remaining at Knightsbridge for some considerable time, they drove away in triumph, only, however, to be fined a few days later.

About this time shopkeepers began to complain that omnibuses prevented their customers driving up to their doors in their carriages, and Mr. Shufflebotham, a silk mercer of Ludgate Hill, championing their cause, applied for summonses against twenty-four conductors for loitering. Under an old Act of Parliament, any stage-coach driver taking up or setting down passengers in the streets was liable to a penalty of not less than £5. All the conductors were fined, but public opinion was by no means favourable to the shopkeepers, and further attempts to prove that private carriages had a greater right to the public streets than omnibuses failed completely. On one occasion an alderman had before him a hundred and twenty conductors charged with fearful offence—in tradesmen's eyes—of stopping their omnibuses a few moments in front of a shop when a carriage was waiting to pull up there. The alderman discharged every one of the defendants, and his action was so popular that, until a year or two ago, no one had the impudence to suggest that the days of class legislation should be restored—that omnibuses which carry twenty-six passengers should be turned out of the main street to make room for private carriages with their burden of four.

On January 7, 1832, a new Stage-Coach Act came into force. It had been passed specially to permit omnibuses and short-stage-coaches to take up and set down passengers in the streets.