The opening of Holborn Viaduct—An omnibus is the first vehicle to cross it—"Viaduct Tommy"—Skid-men
After a frost or a slight fall of rain, asphalted Victoria Street and Tottenham-court Road, innocent of sand until many poor horses have slipped and fallen and struggled and strained to rise again, are a saddening sight to horse-lovers. But those, and other notorious streets, at their worst never present such a sight as was witnessed daily on Holborn Hill in the first half of the 19th century. It was a cruel, heart-breaking hill for horses to climb, and people who lived on the spot declared that from morning until night, in all weathers, piteous sights were always to be seen. Year after year the cruelty of compelling horses to pull heavily-laden vehicles up the hill was denounced by hundreds of Londoners, and, eventually, the City Corporation put an end to the pitiful sight by building the Holborn Valley Viaduct. The chief stone was laid by Mr. Thomas Henry Fry, chairman of the Improvement Committee of the Corporation, on June 3, 1867, and on Saturday, November 6, 1869, the Viaduct was opened by Queen Victoria, who came, accompanied by Princess Louise, straight from Blackfriars Bridge, where she had just performed a similar ceremony. In spite of the weather, which threatened at first to be a repetition of the previous day, when London was enveloped in a fog, the crowd was the largest which had ever assembled to greet Her Majesty. On the Viaduct, the tiers of seats erected on either side were filled with a brilliant gathering invited by the Corporation. After the Queen had opened the bridge and departed, and the Corporation's guests had dispersed, the work of clearing away the stands and preparing for the real opening to the public was begun.
Punctually at nine on Monday morning the barrier across the roadway was removed, and at once there was a rush of vehicles whose drivers were eager for the honour of being first across the Viaduct. Thomas Grayson, driving one of the London General Omnibus Company's "City-Atlas" omnibuses, whipped up his horses and won an exciting race amidst the enthusiastic cheers of his passengers. In commemoration of the event, Grayson's regular riders presented him with a new whip, on the handle of which was inscribed the occasion of its presentation. Some of the riders, proud of having been present on the memorable morning, expressed a wish to have a photograph of the omnibus, and Grayson had one taken. In it he is to be seen sitting upright in the box, holding the presentation whip in his hand and driving the pair of horses with which he won the race. Grayson had a large number of copies of this photograph printed, with the following record on the back of each:—
First over the Holborn Viaduct
On November 8, 1869,
at 9 a.m.
Copies may be had of the Driver,
- 1, Victoria Place,
- 1, Victoria Place,
These photographs Grayson offered for sale at sixpence a copy, and the whole stock was soon purchased by the St. John's Wood people—to whom he was already well known—and his fellow 'busmen. The latter promptly and unanimously dubbed him "Viaduct Tommy," and by that name he was known as long as he lived. No London omnibus driver was ever so well known as "Viaduct Tommy" became, for, as he drove along the streets, quite conscious that he was a public character, other 'bus drivers would say to the passengers sitting beside them, "That's 'Viaduct Tommy,'" and the story of his achievement would follow.
"Viaduct Tommy" continued to drive an omnibus for about a score of years after he became famous, and when, at last, he retired he was not forgotten. The people in the neighbourhood where he resided, during the latter years of his life, took pride in pointing him out to strangers, many of whom, when they heard the story, went up to the old man and had a chat with him about the great event of his life.
Every innovation for the public good ruins a few people who prospered under the old order of things, and the building of Holborn Viaduct was no exception to the rule. A number of men had for years made a living by putting the skids on vehicles before they started down the hill, and one of them, who was largely patronised by omnibus men, earned every day between twelve and fifteen shillings. But when the Viaduct was opened their occupation was gone.