Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 4 - Riding London : Of Omnibuses

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WEIGHING thirteen stone, standing six feet high, possessed of an indomitable laziness, and having occasion constantly to go from one part of town to the other, I want to know how I am to have my requirements attended to with ease and comfort to myself. If my name were Schemsiluihar, and I had lived ages ago at Bagdad, I should have gone quietly into the garden, and, after rubbing my ring on my lamp, or burning my incense, I should have prostrated myself before an enormous genie, who would have been very much hurt by my humility, would straightway have proclaimed himself my slave, and, after bearing my wants, would immediately have provided me with four feet square of best Turkey carpet, on which I had only to deposit myself to be wafted through the air to my destination ; or he would have produced a roc for me to sit astride on: or an enchanted horse with a series of pegs in his neck, like a fiddle, the mere manipulation of which increased or checked his speed. But as I happen to live in the benighted year of peace '63, as my name is Nomatter, and as I reside in Little Flotsam Street, Jetsam Gardens, N.W., the carpet, the roc, and the peggy steed are unavailable. I could walk ? Yes, but I won't. I hate walking it makes me hot, and uncomfortable, and savage : when walking, I either fall into a train [-28-] of thought, or I get gaping at surrounding objects and passing people, both of which feats have the same result, namely, my tumbling up against other pedestrians, straying into the road under the hoofs of horses, and getting myself generally objurgated and hi'd at. I couldn't ride on horseback, because no man with any sense in his head, combined with any weight in his body, could ride a horse over London's greasy stones. I could ride in a cab, but it is too expensive; in a brougham, but for the same reason doubly magnified, with the additional fact that I do not possess one. Leaving out of the question the absurdity of the proceeding, there is no living man capable of conveying me for several miles in a wheelbarrow; and when I state that I have never yet been the subject of a commission de lunatico, I need offer no further explanation of my declining to ride in a velocipede - a humorous conveyance like the under-carriage of a chariot, the occupant of which apparently rests himself by using his arms as well as his legs for his propulsion.
    When I was a boy at school, I recollect in the shop-windows prints of an aerial machine, a delightful conveyance like an enormous bat, sailing over London (which was represented by the dome of St. Paul's and a couple of church-spires), and filled with elegantly-dressed company, who were chatting to each other without the smallest appearance of astonishment. I cannot positively state that there was a captain depicted as in command of this atmospheric vessel, though my belief leans that way; but I perfectly well remember a "man at the wheel," grasping a tiller like a cheese-cutter, and directing the course with the greatest ease and freedom. This would have been an eligible mode of conveyance had the scheme ever been carried out; but the inventor only got as far as the print, and there apparently exhausted himself, as I never heard anything further of it. And this, by the way, reminds me that an occasional trip in Mr. Coxwell's balloon would be a [-29-] novel and an exciting method of getting over the ground, only there being no "man at the wheel," there is a consequent absence of definite knowledge as to where you are going; and if I, bent on travelling from Jetsam Gardens to Canonbury Square, were to see Mr. Coxwell looking vaguely out, and were to hear him remarking, "Isn't that Beachy Head?" I should feel uncomfortable.
    So I am compelled to fall back on a cheap, easy, and, to a certain extent, expeditious mode of locomotion, and to travel by the omnibus. I am aware that professed cynics will sneer at my use of the word "expeditious." There are, I believe, journeys performed in the middle of the day, when the snail gallops gaily past the outward-bound suburban omnibus, and when the tortoise, having an appointment to keep at the Ship and Turtle, prefers to walk, in order that he may be in time; but the middle of the day is consecrated to old ladies going "into the City" on business, while my experience is confined to the early morning and the late evening, when we run "express," and when, I will venture to wager, we go as fast, the crowded state of the streets considered, as ever did the York Highflyer or the Brighton Age. My associations with omnibuses are from my youth upward. As a child I lived in a very large thoroughfare, and I used to stand for hours at the window watching the red Hammersmith omnibuses, luminous with the name of "GEORGE CLOUD," and the white Putney and Richmond omnibuses, and the green "Favourites," boldly declaring the ownership of "ELIZABETH and JOHN WILSON" - grand buses those, with drivers and conductors in green liveries, always renewed (with an accompaniment of nosegay for buttonhole, and favours for whip, and rosettes for horses' ears) on the occasion of the Queen's birthday. I was originally taken to school in a hackney-coach-I perfectly well recollect kneeling at the bottom in the straw as we (I and a broken-hearted aunt) [-30-] ascended Highgate Hill, and imploring tearfully to be taken back home, even in the lowest menial capacity - but I came back in an omnibus, in a high state of effervescence, and with a large stock of worldly experience. I first saw her who, as the bagmen's toast says, doubles the pleasures and halves the sorrows of my life, as I stepped off an omnibus. I first went down to my office on an omnibus; and I still patronise that same conveyance, where, I may incidentally mention, I am a "regular," that I always have the seat next the coachman on the off-side, and that ·my opinion on the news from America is always anxiously expected by my fellow-passengers. Long since, however, have the omnibuses of my childhood been "run off the road." Mr. George Cloud and his compeers have retired ; and the whole metropolitan service, with very few exceptions, is worked by the London General Omnibus Company; concerning which - its rise, origin, and progress, and the manner in which it is carried on - I have, under proper official authority, made full inquiry, and now intend to report.
    If Napoleon the Third had succeeded in his memorable expedition with the tame eagle to Boulogne, it is probable that we in England might still be going on with the old separate proprietary system of omnibuses; but as the tame-eagle expedition (majestic in itself) was a failure, its smaller component parts had to escape as they best could. Among these smaller component parts was one Orsi, captain of the steamer conveying the intruding emperor ; and Orsi, flying from justice, flew, after the manner of his kind, to England, and there established himself. Years after, in 1855, this M. Orsi bethought himself of a scheme for simultaneously improving his own fortunes and bettering the condition of London omnibus-traffic, by assimilating its management to that which for a long time had worked admirably in Paris. He accordingly associated with himself a crafty long-headed man of business,[-31-] one M. Foucard, and they together drew up such a specious prospectus, that when they submitted it to four of the principal London omnibus-proprietors, Messrs. Macnamara, Wilson, Willing, and Hartley, these gentlemen, all thoroughly versed in their business, so far saw their way, that they at once consented to enter into the proposal, and became the agents for Messieurs Orsi and Foucard. The division of labour then commenced : the Frenchmen started for Paris, there to establish their company (for our English laws on mercantile liability and the dangers of shareholding were, a few years. ago, much foggier, and thicker, and less intelligible, and more dangerous than they are now) ; and so well did they succeed, that, in a very short time, they had raised and perfected as a "Société en Commandite" the "Compagnie Générale des Omnibus de Londres," with a capital of £700,000, in shares of 100 francs (or £4) each; three-fourths of the capital - such was our neighbours' belief in our business talents and luck in matters touching upon horse-flesh - being subscribed in France. Meantime, the English section were not idle : as agents for the two Frenchmen they bought up the rolling-stock, horses, harness, stabling, and good-will of nearly all the then existent omnibus-proprietors; they became purchasers of six hundred omnibuses and six thousand horses, of an enormous staff of coachmen, conductors, time-keepers, horse-keepers, washers, and other workmen; and, what was very important, they possessed themselves of the "times" of all the important routes in London and the suburbs. These "times" are, in fact, the good-will of the roads, and were considered so valuable, that in some cases as much as from £200 to £250 were given for the "times" of one omnibus. Under this form, then, the company at once commenced ~vork, Messrs. Macnamnara, Carteret, and Willing acting as its gérants (managers), with no other English legal standing; and under this form, that is to say, as a French company [-32-] with English managers, it worked until the 31st of December, 1857, when, the Limited Liability Act having come into operation, by resolution of the French shareholders the "Société en Commandite" was transformed into an English company, and bloomed-out, in all the glory of fresh paint on all its vehicles, as the London General Omnibus Company (Limited). With this title, and under the managerial arrangements then made, it has continued, ever since.
    With the exception of some very few private proprietors and one organised opposition company - the " Citizen " - the entire omnibus service of the metropolis and its suburbs, extending from Highgate in the north to Peckham in the south, and from Hampstead in the north-west to Greenwich in the south-east, embracing more than seventy routes, is worked by - as it is called familiarly - the "London General." In this traffic are engaged upwards of six hundred omnibuses and six thousand horses, the working of which is divided into ten separate districts, each with a head district establishment. Each of these omnibuses travels on an average sixty miles a day, and to each is attached a stud of ten horses, under the care of a horsekeeper, who is responsible for them, and who knows the exact times when they will be wanted, and whose duty it is to devote himself to them A horse is seldom changed from one stud to another, or removed, except in case of illness; each horse is numbered, and all the particulars relating to him are entered in a book kept by the foreman of the yard. The purchase-cost of these horses averages twenty-six pounds apiece, and the majority of them come from Yorkshire, though agents of the company attend all the principal fairs in England. They are of all kinds: long straggling bony hacks, short thick cobs; some looking like broken-down hunters, some like "cast" dragoon-chargers, some like Suffolk Punches who have come to grief; but the style most valued is, I am told, [-33-] a short thick horse, low in the leg, round in the barrel, and with full strong quarters, whence all the propelling power comes. They are of all colours-blacks, bays, chestnuts, browns, grays - though the predominant shade is that reddish bay so ugly in a common horse, so splendid - more especially when set off by black points - in a velvet-skinned thoroughbred; a colour particularly affected by the manufacturers of the studs in those toy-stables which are always furnished with a movable groom in top-boots, a striped jacket, and a tasselled cap, with a grin of singular vacuity on his wooden countenance. The average work of each horse is from three to four hours a day, and each horse consumes daily an allowance of sixteen pounds of bruised oats and ten pounds of mixture, formed of three parts hay and one part straw. Their general health is, considering their work, remarkably good; to attend to it there are eight veterinary surgeons, who are responsible for the health of the whole horse establishment, and who are paid by contract, receiving four guineas a year for each stud of ten horses. The shoeing is also contract work, twenty-five farriers being paid two pounds per month for each stud. At Highbury, where there is a large dépôt of six hundred horses, there are exceptions to both these rules; a veterinary surgeon and a farrier, each the servant of the company, being attached to the establishment. I went the round of the premises - a vast place, covering altogether some fifteen acres - with the veterinary surgeon, and saw much to praise and nothing to condemn. True, the stables are not such as you would see at Malton, Dewsbury, or any of the great racing establishments, being for the most part long low sheds, the horses being separated merely by swinging bars, and rough litter taking the place of dry beds and plaited straw; but the ventilation was by no means bad, and the condition of the animals certainly good. My companion told me that glanders, that frightful scourge, was almost unknown; that sprains, curbs, and [-34-] sand-cracks were the commonest disorders ; and that many of his cases resulted from the horses having become injured in the feet by picking up nails in the streets and yards. There are a few loose boxes for virulent contagious disorders and "suspicious" cases, but it appeared to me that more were wanted, and that as "overwork" is one of the most prevalent of omnibus-horse disorders, it would be a great boon if the company could possess itself of some large farm or series of field-paddocks, where such members of their stud as are so debilitated could be turned out to grass to rest for a time. Some such arrangement is, I believe, in contemplation; but the company has only a short lease of their Highbury premises, and is doubtful as to its future arrangements there. While on this subject I may state that an omnibus horse generally lasts from three to four years, though some are in full work for six or seven, while there are a few old stagers who have been on the road ten or twelve.
    The coach-building department also has its head-quarters at Highbury, and employs one hundred and ninety men, whose average wages are two hundred and fifty pounds a week. Here all the omnibuses (with the exception of some six-and-twenty provided by two contractors) are built and repaired, as are also the vans used in conveying the forage to the outlying establishments from the central dépôt (of which more anon), and the chaise-carts and four-wheelers in which the superintendents visit their different districts. Every morning at six AM, three compact little vans leave Highbury for the various districts, each containing three men, and an assortment of wheels, axles, and tools, for any repairs that may be wanted. One of these men is always left behind at the head district-dépôt, to meet any contingency that may arise during the day. When an accident occurs in the street, an omnibus is immediately despatched to take the place of that which has broken down; the [-35-] "plates" (i.e. the legal authorisation of the Inland Revenue) are shifted from one to the other; and if the smash has been serious, a large van arrives and brings off the disabled omnibus bodily up to Highbury. But such accidents are very rare, owing to the constant supervision given to the axles, tons of which are constantly thrown aside. These axles are all manufactured on the premises, and are composed of ten or twelve pieces of iron "fagoted" together. The trade or cost price of an ordinary omnibus is one hundred and thirty pounds; but the large three-horse vehicles, which are of tremendous weight (those from Manchester, in use in 1862 plying to the Exhibition, weighed thirty-six cwt.), cost two hundred pounds. The ordinary time of wear is ten years; after that they are of little use, though some last seventeen years. The wheels require entire renewal every three years, and during that time they are under frequent repairs, the tires lasting but a few months. So soon as an omnibus is condemned, it is broken up; such portions of it as are still serviceable are used up in repairing other omnibuses, but in a new omnibus every bit is thoroughly new. The condemned omnibuses stand out in an open yard abutting on the line of the North London Railway; and the superintendent of the coach-builders told me he had often been amused at hearing the loudly-expressed indignation of the railway passengers at the shameful condition of the company's omnibuses - they imagining that the worn-out old vehicles awaiting destruction, which they saw from their railway carriage-windows, were the ordinary rolling-stock of the London General. The wood used in the composition of the omnibuses is English and American ash, elm, deal, and Honduras; but the poles are invariably formed of stout English ash. The superintendent told me that these poles last far less time than formerly; and this he attributes to the stoppages having become so much more frequent, owing to the introduction of short fares; the strain [-36-] upon the pole, occasioned by constant pulling-up, gradually frays the wood and causes an untimely smash. Before I left I was shown an ingenious contrivance for defeating the attacks of those universal enemies, the street-boys. It appears that the passengers of. a little omnibus which runs from Highbury Terrace to Highbury Barn, and which, for its short journey, has no conductor, were horribly annoyed by boys who would ride on the step and jeer with ribaldry at the people inside. To beat them, my friend the superintendent invented what he calls a "crinoline," which, when the door is shut, entirely closes the step, and so cuts away any resting-place or vantage-ground for the marauding boy.
    The dépôt where all the provender is received, mixed, and served out for all the district establishments, is at Iron-gate Wharf, Paddington, on the banks of the Regent's Canal; a convenient arrangement when it is considered that the barges bring stores to the doors at the rate of fourpence halfpenny per quarter, while the land-transport for the same would cost one shilling. Hay is, however, generally brought in at the land-gates, for the facility of the weigh-bridge immediately outside the superintendent's office, over which all carts going in or out are expected to pass. There is no settled contractor for hay, but there is no lack of eager sellers, for the company are known to be quick ready-money purchasers, and a transaction with them saves a long day's waiting in the market. On this same account the company are gainers in the deal, to the extent of the expenses which a day's waiting in the market must involve for rest and refreshment for driver and horses. When a sample load is driven into the yard and approved of by the superintendent, a couple of trusses are taken, from it and placed under lock and key, to serve as reference for quality; and when the general supply comes in, every truss which is not equal to the quality of the sample is rejected by the foreman, who carefully watches the delivery. The whole of the machinery-[-37-]work of the building is performed by steam-power, erected on the basement-floor, and consisting of two engines of two-hundred-and-fifteen-horse power, consuming four tons of coal a week. By their agency the hay received from the country waggons is hoisted in "cradles" to the topmost storey of the building, where it is unpacked from its tightened trusses; to the same floor come swinging up in chain-suspended sacks, the oats from the barges on the canal, and these are both delivered over to the steam-demon, who delivers them, the hay separated and fined, and the oats slightly bruised (not crushed), and freed from all straw and dirt and stones, through wooden shoots and "hoppers, into the floor beneath. There - in the preparation-room - the ever-busy engines show their power in constantly revolving leather bands, in whirling wheels, and spinning knife-blades, and sparkling grindstones; there, are men constantly allaying the incessant thirst of the "cutters" with offerings of mixed hay and straw, which in a second are resolved into a thick impervious mixture; while in another part of the room the bruised oats into which it is to be amalgamated are slowly descending to their doom. All the "cutters" are covered over with tin cases, else the dust germinated from the flying chaff would be insupportable; while at the hand of every man is a break, a simple lever, by the raising of which, in case of any accident, he could at once reverse the action of the machinery. Descending to the next floor, we find the results of the cutters and the bruisers ; there, stand stalwart men covered with perspiration, stripped to the shirt-sleeves, and who have large baskets in front of them at the mouths of the shoots, anxiously awaiting their prey. Down comes a mass of chaff, the basket is full, a man seizes it, and empties it into a huge square trough before him; from another shoot, another basket is filled with bruised oats these he empties into the trough on the top of the chaff; he pauses for one minute; a whistle, forming the top of a pipe [-38-] descending into the basement-storey, is heard, that signals "All right and ready." He turns a handle, and presto! the floor of the trough turns into tumbling waves of metal, which toss the oats and the chaff hither and thither, mix them up, and finally drop them, a heterogeneous mass of horse-food, into sacks waiting their arrival below. Three of these sacks are sent away daily as food for each stud of ten horses ; seven large provender-vans are, throughout the whole of the day, conveying sacks to the different district establishments twenty-six men are engaged at this dépot, each from six A.M., to six P.M.; and the whole affair works without a hitch.
    I have treated of the horse service, the coach-building service, and the foraging service of the company. I may in conclusion come to its human service, the drivers and conductors.
    Each man, before entering on his duties, is required to obtain from the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, a license to act. To obtain this, he must give reference to three respectable householders, and deposit five shillings for the expenses attendant on the necessary inquiries and issue of the license. If the references be satisfactory, a license, in printed form, describing the name, address, and general appearance of the holder, is granted, and with it the metal badge to be worn when on duty. These licenses are renewable on the 1st of June in each year, and as the magistrates endorse on the paper every conviction or reprimand, the renewal of the license is necessarily dependent on the possessor showing a clean bill of health. If the driver have no serious blot on his character, and can prove to the satisfaction of the superintendent that he is competent for the management of horses, he is generally at once accepted; but the conductor's character must stand a greater test. He is virtually the representative of the company on the omnibus, and to him is confided a large amount of discretionary power, such as the refusal to carry intoxicated people, or such persons as by dress, [-39-] demeanour, etc., may be "fairly objectionable to passengers." He is constituted the arbitrator among "brawling passengers," and has, indeed, a very stringent code of rules laid down for his guidance - one of which is, that he is to "abstain from any approach to familiarity," which - as in the case of a pretty maid-servant with a not unnatural susceptibility to approach - is, I take it, soul-harrowing and impossible to be carried out. As regards the collection of money, each conductor is provided with a printed form of "journey-ticket," on which at the end of every journey, he is required to render an account, at some office on the route, of the number of passengers carried, and the amount of moneys received. At the end of the day he makes a summary, on another form, of the whole of his journey-tickets, and next morning he pays over, to the clerk in the office, the money he has received during the previous day, deducting his own wages and those of the driver, and any tolls he may have paid. Every driver receives six shillings a day, every conductor four shillings, out of which the driver has to provide his whip and apron, and the conductor the lamp and oil for the interior of the omnibus. Both classes of men, are daily servants, liable to discharge at a day's warning, but either can rest occasionally by employing an "odd man," of whom there are several at each district establishment, ready to do "odd" work, from which they are promoted to regular employment.
    The receipts of the company are very large, averaging between eleven and twelve thousand pounds a week (in one week of the Exhibition year they were above seventeen thousand pounds), and I asked one of the chief officers if he thought they were much pillaged. He told me he had not the least doubt that, by conductors alone, they were robbed to the extent of twenty-five thousand pounds a year; and a practical superintendent of large experience, on my repeating this to him, declared that he believed that sum did not represent the half of their losses from the same source. I [-40-] asked whether no check could be devised, and was told none - at least, none so efficient as to be worthy of the name. Indicators of all kinds have been suggested; but every indicator was at the mercy of the conductor, who could clog it with wood, and so allow three or more persons to enter or depart, while the indicator only recorded the entrance or exit of one ; and unless some such turn-table as the turntable in use at Waterloo Bridge could be applied (for which there is obviously no space in an omnibus), check was impossible. The sole approach to such check lay in the services rendered by a class of persons technically known as "bookers," who were, in fact, spies travelling in the omnibus, and yielding to the company an account of every passenger, the length of his ride, and the amount of his fare. But it was only in extreme cases, where the conductor was incautious beyond measure, that such evidence could be efficient against him. These "bookers" are of all classes, men, women, and children, all acting under one head, to whom they are responsible, and who alone is recognised by the company. The best of them is a woman, who, it is boasted, can travel from Islington to Chelsea, and give an exact account of every passenger, where he got in, where he got out, what he was like, and the fare he paid.
    I think I have now enumerated most of the prominent features of our omnibus system. When I have casually mentioned to friends the work on which I was engaged, I have been requested to bring forward this grievance and that. Brownsmith, weighing fifteen stone, wants only five persons allowed on one seat; little Iklass, standing four feet six in height, wants easier method of access to the roof. But my intention was description, not criticism ; and even if it were, I doubt whether I should be inclined to represent that any large public body, comparatively recently established, could on the whole be expected to do their work better than the "London General."