Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - From Morn Till Midnight : On a Bus

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    IT was the same Mr. Ashby Sterry, I believe, who, with his characteristic modesty, once remarked that he laid no claim to the possession of exceptional erudition, or conspicuous culture; but that he flattered himself that, in the art of looking out of window on a rainy day, he was an almost unequalled proficient. I am not skilled at looking out of window; and I consequently envy those who excel in the contemplation of things and people from a casement. I have heard of a gentleman, who resided on that short terrace in front of the sea at West Brighton, near Medina Villas, and known as the "Quarter-deck," who was unfortunately deprived of the use of his limbs, and who used to recline in an easy-chair all day long, carefully sighting with a telescope every vessel that passed across his field of vision, and carefully tabulating the apparent tonnage of the passing craft in a book specially kept for the purpose.
    I lived for about five years in Victoria Street, up three pair of stairs; and I had five windows looking on the lengthy thoroughfare in question. I feel persuaded that, during five years' occupancy of my flat, I had not looked out of the window a dozen times. 
    [-127-] Let me see. Once roused to enthusiasm by the strains. of "The Campbells are coming," or "The Men of Harlech," or "Highland Laddie," I threw up the sash to see the London Scottish march past. I have also occasionally thrust my head out of window to take note of some monster Trades Union procession, trudging along to hold a demonstration in Hyde Park; and a Sunday or two ago, the entire household, SELF included, rushed to the windows to behold the passage of one of the prettiest and most picturesque processions I had ever seen. It was a gathering of Roman Catholic school-children, who were going, so I understood, to visit Archbishop Vaughan, at the Archiepiscopal residence hard by, and to listen to a sermon from a little boy-preacher.
    Onward they came in their thousands. Little boys, brave in rosettes ; tiny mites of girls in white, smiling under gauze veils ; priests in full canonicals ; banners, tapers, crosses, waxen images, and three brass bands playing-whatever do you think? Why, melodies from the "Stabat Mater." Yes, the sublime airs of the "Inflammatus," and the "Cujus Animam" were grandly audible; and as I listened to Rossini's immortal music I remembered that nearly half a century ago my mother, who was a Protestant of the Church of England, proposed to give a performance of the "Stabat Mater" at the Castle Hotel, Richmond; and that no sooner had she advertised the concert, than the local clergy preached so fiercely against her, and conscientious persons distributed so many hundreds of handbills [-128-] warning Richmond to have nothing to do with Babylon, that the poor gentlewoman was fain, in sheer despair, to give up her enterprise, after losing many pounds, to the immediate detriment of five small boys and girls, who were continually demanding roast mutton.
    Thank goodness, there is something like toleration in England nowadays, and I did not hear any cries of "No Popery!" as the thousands of little Catholic school-children, with their flowers, their candles, and their banners, trotted by. Subsequently I looked frequently and attentively out of window. Fortunately, the weather had been so hot, that I have not had much to fear on the score of bronchitis; and as I have had a sharp attack of hay fever, or summer catarrh, without opening the windows at all, I thought that on the principle acted upon by Sydenham, I might cure my cold by throwing open the windows as widely as possible. You will remember that the illustrious physician in question was a martyr to the gout, and after trying ever so many remedies for podagra, he went up one wintry night to the roof of his house, unbandaged his gouty foot, and sat on the tiles in the midst of storm and sleet for two hours. Next day the gout had quite left him. Perhaps the story is not true, and, possibly, it may have been not Sydenham but some other physician who ventured on the hazardous experiment; but I found the anecdote in my commonplace book, just as I have set it down.
    When I looked from the window in Victoria Street, and beheld the almost constant succession of omnibuses [-129-] and road-cars streaming towards Westminster Abbey, or towards Victoria Station, there came over me a feeling of amazement. Is it not, indeed, surprising, astounding, to behold these clattering corteges of huge arks on wheels, crammed inside and out with passengers, and drawn only by two horses, which do not seem to be in any way inconvenienced by the mighty load they have to draw? Probably you may be of opinion that there is nothing wonderful at all in a bus or a road-car. You have grown accustomed to it, even as the cows and sheep have grown accustomed to the sight and the sound of a passing railway train, from which, when Sir Francis Head wrote his Stokers and Pokers, dumb animals used to scamper away in affright. But to me omnibuses are a continual subject of astonishment; and, indeed, I am continually wondering at the sights with which I make acquaintance in this, the most wonderful city in the world.
    I wonder why cholera, smallpox, and scarlet fever are not permanent pestilences in the horrible slums which continue to rot in some parts of Westminster, and about Soho. I wonder why the people, roused to exasperation by the selfish and stupid locking-up of Lincoln's Inn Fields, do not uproot the railings of a garden which would afford harmless recreation to thousands of children cooped up in narrow courts and alleys, and of years too tender to be able to reach the parks without escort ; in fine, to my causes for amazement there is no end ; nor will there be till the greatest wonder of all comes, Death; when, perhaps, [-130-] we shall find, as good Jeremy Taylor put it, "That it is as easy to die as to be born."
    Omnibuses, in particular, excite my surprise chiefly for the reason, that, when I was born, there were no omnibuses in London, at all. The French maintain that the great mathematician, Pascal, was the first inventor of omnibuses, and that his scheme for such a kind of vehicle lay dormant for a hundred and eighty years; when, in 1828, a line of omnibuses was established in the Paris thoroughfares. In the following year the first London omnibus started from Paddington to the Bank, the conveyance being introduced by a Mr. Shillibeer, who was a "funeral postmaster," and whom I knew many years ago. For some time, indeed, omnibuses used to be known as "Shillibeers"; but the abbreviation of "bus" having become more popular than the contraction "shilly," the first term was universally adopted.
    Of course, our vivacious neighbours across the Channel declare that Mr. Shillibeer stole the omnibus from France; but I happen to have on my shelves time Encyclopoedia of Illustration of old Mr. W. H. Pyne; and among the hundreds of groups of figures, animals, and vehicles drawn and aquatinted by that worthy engraver, I find a veritable omnibus with the door at the back, one long quadrant-shaped window at each side, and a box-seat. The conveyance would hold, I should say, about twelve persons, and the plate, please observe, was published in 1813, when we were in the very thick of our last and terrific war with France.
    [-131-] There is another curious circumstance connected with London omnibuses: the attendant, who stands on his perch by the side of the door, helps passengers in and out, takes the fares, and who is generally a very civil and obliging fellow, is known as the "conductor"; but he was originally called the " cad," a name, I should say, borrowed from the Edinburgh "caddie," who was a porter, or messenger, but with the usual Cockney fondness for abbreviations, "caddie" was shortened into "cad." 
    An omnibus conductor, nowadays, would, I suppose, were the epithet of "cad" applied to him, resent the appellation as a scandalous insult; and, indeed, "cad" has come to be considered a term of contempt, now extended to any mean, vulgar fellow of whatever social rank he may be. The Australians, in particular, are inordinately fond of qualifying persons, whom they do not like, as "cads." If you wear clothes of unaccustomed cut, or decline to accept three invitations to dinner on the same day, or ask for a private room at an hotel in the Bush, you are sure to be called, and will probably be denounced in the local newspaper, as a "cad" of the first water. The drollest thing in connection with this word is that "cad" and "caddie" are both derived from the French word "cadet, meaning a junior member of a family; and can there be anything genteeler at present than a cadet at Woolwich or at Sandhurst?
    When I gaze at the passing buses, I ask myself a question which has troubled me a good deal during [-132-] many years, and to which I have never been able to give, or to obtain, a sufficing answer. We have all heard of omnibus drivers' and conductors' grievances, and the more or less satisfactory readjustment of wages arrived at after the last strike; but still one cannot help thinking that the hours of labour imposed on tramway and omnibus men are, to say the least, harsh, physically injurious to their wellbeing, and contrary to the best interest of their employers. The question of Sunday labour is, perhaps, the most burning one of all, but this particular item should be considered impartially, and with a good deal of circumspection.
    I hold it, at the outset, to be simply monstrous that any class of working men, be they skilled or unskilled toilers, should be compelled to work sixteen-or even fourteen-hours a day, seven days a week. If it be a fact that such toil is imposed on omnibus drivers and conductors, I say that the fact is a scandal to this professedly humanitarian age, and a disgrace to the taskmasters of the over-driven drivers, conductors, and horse-keepers. What time have these maltreated thralls, condemned to a worse than Egyptian bondage, to go to church or chapel; to improve their minds by reading; to partake of a little cheerful recreation; and to enjoy the society of their wives and children?
    As things stand at present with the hackney carriage folk, it seems to me to be a case of work, work, work- unflagging labour, incessant slavery from early morning till late at night, from the 1st of January to the 31st of December. Of course, I shall be told that these [-133-] luckless martyrs to the public convenience, or rather of corporate selfishness and public indifference to the interests of men who serve that public so loyally and uncomplainingly, have certain fixed holidays allowed them in the course of the year, or are allowed an occasional "day off" from their grievous servitude. Otherwise, it seems next door to the incredible that there should be in London some sixteen thousand men, intelligent, able-bodied, and capable, willing for very moderate wages to work sixteen hours a day, every day, with no interval for Sabbath rest; and when I mention sixteen hours of daily drudgery, I am bound to remember that, in all probability, the sixteen hours often practically mean eighteen.
    The driver must be on his box, the conductor on his perch, by eight in the morning at latest, and it must be nearly midnight ere the last omnibus returns to the yard. There are, however, many things to be done before and after the driver takes the reins in hand. The men, I suppose, require some refreshment when their hands are at last really free for a few hours; on the whole, it would be instructive to learn the exact quantity of nightly rest - shall I say enjoyed? - by omnibus drivers and conductors.
    To me, who have watched life on a bus almost from its beginning, there are few subjects of curious meditation more interesting than the changes which have taken place in the fares charged. At the commencement sixpence was the universal fare from the West to the East end. I can well recollect when what were [-134-] called twopenny "busses" were introduced. It was, I think, in 1847; since I remember that in the year in question I drew, in a comic periodical called The Man in the Moon, edited by Albert Smith and Angus B. Reach, a little vignette representing a quarrel between an omnibus conductor of the old and expensive school, and another of the new and cheap one. "Come on!" cries the new bus man, squaring up at his antagonist. "Come on!" contemptuously echoes the conservative conductor, "d'ye think I'd bemean myself to fight a tupp'ny?"
    And, lo! in these days of cheapness, even a twopenny bus has come to be thought dear. For a while the penny bus that journeyed between the Strand and Waterloo Station was deemed a marvel of cheapness; but now, I am told that you can get from Trafalgar Square to Westminster for a ha'penny. But mark the artfulness of mankind! From Victoria Station to Baker Street the bus fare is threepence. Why threepence? Because there is no opposition on the line. I am told by a lady who frequently uses the threepenny route, that the horsing of the buses might be much improved, and, on the whole, that the vehicles are accustomed to meander along, in a gentle, but somewhat dawdling manner. The Irish nobleman, who was being carried in a sedan-chair, of which the bottom unfortunately came out, observed, "That but for the dignity of the thing, he might as well have walked;" and my feminine informant holds somewhat analogous opinion touching the threepenny buses, with the jaded steeds, that travel between Victoria and Baker Street.
[-135-] When their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales opened, in 1872, the Bethnal Green Museum of Science and Art, there was hoisted at one point of the line of route a huge placard bearing the inscription, "The Greatest Curiosities in Bethnal Green are Outside the Museum." Similarly, I may remark, that to me the greatest curiosities in the London omnibuses are to be found on the exterior, and not in the interior of these conveyances. The Metropolitan bus, as I first knew it, was a very modest vehicle, holding twelve persons inside, and none at all, save the driver, outside. In construction, it did not differ very much from the vehicle I have glanced at, as figuring in old Mr. W. H. Pyne's Encyclopoedia of Illustration, in 1813. The roof was wholly free from passengers, and years elapsed before there was added to the top of the bus two long rows of seats parallel with the sides of the bus, and which very soon acquired the popular designation of the "knife-board." No females ever climbed to the "knife-board" eminence; and, indeed, almost the only bus with a box seat available for a fair occupant, was the London and Richmond one.
    When the London General Omnibus Company - the capital for which was largely subscribed in Paris - began its operations, its promoters held an Exhibition somewhere near Charing Cross, of models of improved omnibuses ; and among these I recall several with staircases on the outside, like those attached to the Russian "isbas," and by means of which the "knife-board" could be reached. This eventually led to the adoption of what [-136-] is known as the "garden-seat" system, and to me it is positively delightful to watch, looking out of window, the transformation of the formerly barren, or at the most, men-folk frequented roofs of the buses, into so many brilliant parterres of tastefully dressed ladies, who gaily ascend the staircases, and seat themselves on the commodious benches, at right angles with the longitudinal sides of the bus.
    I have fallen hopelessly in love with hundreds of brilliant bonnets, and handsome hats, to say nothing of skirts and sunshades of every colour of the rainbow; and I only regret that the altitude of my apartments precluded me from scanning the countenances of the doubtless lovely occupants of the garden-seats. Perhaps, for the sake of domestic peace and quiet, it is better that I should have admired the costumes, and not become acquainted with the fascinating lineaments of the wearers thereof.

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source: George Augustus Sala, London Up to Date, 1895