MORE OMNIBUS REFORM.
"An Omnibus Traveller" proposes a Fixed Price for Omnibuses, instead of leaving the amount of the Fare to the capricious taste of the Conductor. This plan would certainly put an end to the numerous squabbles that take place at undetermined distances. Charing Cross is generally the focus of all these disturbances. CHARLES'S Statue may be called the Omnibus Seat of War. Pass when you will, you are pretty sure to hear some noisy altercation, in which a female voice takes the high notes and the Conductor the very low ones, as to whether the Fare is to be 3d or 6d. This is not so bad, however, as when the Omnibus is kept waiting for ten-minutes in the middle of a high road whilst the Fare is being argued. It is terrible then to hear the fierce invectives of the three Outsides, and the loud grumbling of the Insides, all anxious to get home to their dinners. Ladies generally hold out the longest. It takes such a long time to convince a woman she ca be wrong, especially in Omnibus matters; and we have seen a lady, with a beautiful ermine tippet, run half way down the Kensington Road, sooner than sacrifice three miserable coppers. She was perfectly right in the long run, - (we really believe there are women who would walk round the wall of China to save a halfpenny toll,)- and we admired her dauntless spirit, though we were pained, as we looked at her muddy boots, at the dirty cause in which it had been exercised. A FIXED PRICE, made intelligible to the smallest capacity, would remedy this far-spreading evil, and stop all those numerous stoppages, and quell those frightful émeutes, which at present disturb the jog-trot equanimity of the most amiable Bus. At present the Fare is 6d. and a fancied imposition or 3d. and a row thrown in. We should like to see it else fixed at the latter sum, without the usual appendage. How strange it is, that Conductors never know how to conduct themselves!
Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1849
see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London - click here
CAD. "No, Mum, we don't go so far as the Cemetery; but I'll 'ail the fust 'Earse for you, Mum, that we meets down the Road."
Punch, September 28, 1861
Victorian London - Publications - Humour - Punch - cartoon 2
MR. PEEWIT (goaded into reckless action by the impetuous MRS.
P.). "I - I - I shall report you to your Master, Conductor, for not
putting us down at the corner -"
CONDUCTOR. "Lor' bless yer 'art, Sir, it ain't my Master as I'm afraid on! I'm like you - it's my MISSUS!"
Punch, 5th October, 1861
GENTLEMAN. "I am not going to wade through that
CAD. "Bill, pull up a bit nearer to the near side for a Swell as Cleans his own Boots."
Punch, March 15, 1862
Nay, I think that I may go as far as to assert
that so complete is the disbelief in the honesty of their servants by these
masters, that to the best of their ability they provide against loss by theft by
paying the said servants very little wages. A notable instance of this is
furnished by the omnibus conductors in the service of the General Omnibus
Company. It is not because the company in question conducts its business more
loosely than other proprietors of these vehicles that I particularize it, but
because it is a public company in the enjoyment of many privileges and
monopolies, and the public have an undoubted right to expect fair treatment from
it. I don’t know how many omnibuses, each requiring a conductor, are
constantly running through the streets of London, but their number must be very
considerable, judging from the fact that the takings of the London General
Omnibus Company alone range from nine to ten thousand pounds weekly. Now it is
well known to the company that their conductors rob them. A gentleman of my
acquaintance once submitted to the secretary of the company an ingenious
invention for registering the number of passengers an omnibus carried on each
journey, but the secretary was unable to entertain it. “It is of no use to us,
sir,” said he. “The machine we want is one that will make our men honest,
and that I am afraid is one we are not likely to meet with. They will
rob us, and we can’t help ourselves.” And knowing this, the company pay
the conductor four shillings a day, the said day, as a rule, consisting of seventeen
hours—from eight one morning till one the next. The driver, in
consideration it may be assumed of his being removed from the temptation of
handling the company s money, is paid six shillings a day, but his opinion of
the advantage the conductor still has over him may be gathered from the fact
that he expects the latter to pay for any reasonable quantity of malt or
spirituous liquor he may consume in the course of a long scorching hot or
freezing cold day, not to mention a cigar or two and the invariable parting
glass when the cruelly long day’s work is at an end.
It would likewise appear that by virtue of this arrangement between the omnibus conductor and his employers, the interference of the law, even in cases of detected fraud, is dispensed with. It is understood that the London General Omnibus Company support quite a large staff of men and women watchers, who spend their time in riding about in omnibuses, and noting the number of passengers carried on a particular journey, with the view of comparing the returns with the conductor’s receipts. It must, therefore, happen that the detections of fraud are numerous but does the reader recollect ever reading in the police reports of a conductor being prosecuted for robbery?
To be sure the Company may claim the right of conducting their business in the way they think best as regards the interests of the shareholders, but if that “best way” involves the countenancing of theft on the part of their servants, which can mean nothing else than the encouragement of thieves, it becomes a grave question whether the interests of its shareholders should be allowed to stand before the interests of society at large. It may be that to prosecute a dishonest conductor is only to add to the pecuniary loss he has already inflicted on the Company, but the question that much more nearly concerns the public is, what becomes of him when suddenly and in disgrace they turn him from their doors? No one will employ him. In a few weeks his ill-gotten savings are exhausted, and he, the man who for months or years, perhaps, has been accustomed to treat himself generously, finds himself without a sixpence, and, what is worse, with a mark against his character so black and broad that his chances of obtaining employment in the same capacity are altogether too remote for calculation. The respectable barber who declined to shave a coal-heaver on the ground that he was too vulgar a subject to come under the delicate operations of the shaver’s razor, and who was reminded by the grimy one that he had just before shaved a baker, justified his conduct on the plea that his professional dignity compelled him to draw a line somewhere, and that he drew it at bakers. Just so the London General Omnibus Company. They draw the line at thieves rash and foolish. So long as a servant of theirs is content to prey on their property with enough of discretion as to render exposure unnecessary, he may continue their servant; but they make it a rule never again to employ a man who has been so careless as to be found out.
As has been shown, it is difficult to imagine a more satisfactory existence than that of an omnibus conductor to a man lost to all sense of honesty; on the other hand it is just as difficult to imagine a man so completely “floored” as the same cad disgraced, and out of employ. It is easy to see on what small inducements such a man may be won over to the criminal ranks. He has no moral scruples to overcome. His larcenous hand has been in the pocket of his master almost every hour of the day for months, perhaps years past. He is not penitent, and if he were and made an avowal to that effect, he would be answered by the incredulous jeers and sneers of all who knew him. The best that he desires is to meet with as easy a method of obtaining pounds as when he cheerfully drudged for eighteen hours for a wage of four-shillings. This being the summit of his ambition, presently he stumbles on what appears even an easier way of making money than the old way, and he unscrupulously appears not in a new character, but in that he has had long experience in, but without the mask.
I should wish it to be distinctly understood, that I do not include all omnibus conductors in this sweeping condemnation. That there are honest ones amongst them I make no doubt; at the same time I have no hesitation in repeating that in the majority of cases it is expected of them that they will behave dishonestly, and they have no disinclination to discredit the expectation. I believe too, that it is much more difficult for a man to be honest as a servant of the company than if he were in the employ of a “small master.” It is next to impossible for a man of integrity to join and work harmoniously in a gang of rogues. The odds against his doing so may be calculated exactly by the number that comprise the gang. It is not only on principle that they object to him. Unless he “does as they do,” he becomes a witness against them every time he pays his money in. And he does as they do. It is so much easier to do so than, in the condition of a man labouring hard for comparatively less pay than a common road-scraper earns, to stand up single handed to champion the cause of honesty in favour of a company who are undisguisedly in favour of a snug and comfortable compromise~ and has no wish to be “bothered.”
It is a great scandal that such a system should be permitted to exist; and a body of employers mean enough to connive at such bargain-making, can expect but small sympathy from the public if the dishonesty it tacitly encourages picks it to the bones. What are the terms of the contract between employer and employed? In plain language these: “We are perfectly aware that you apply to us well knowing our system of doing business, and with the deliberate intention of robbing us all you safely can; and in self-defence, therefore, we will pay you as what you may, if you please, regard as wages, two-pence three farthings an hour, or four shillings per day of seventeen hours. We know that the probabilities are, that you will add to that four shillings daily to the extent of another five or six. It is according to our calculation that you will do so. Our directors have arrived at the conclusion, that as omnibus conductors, of the ordinary type, you cannot be expected to rob us of a less sum than that, and we are not disposed to grumble so long as you remain so moderate; but do not, as you value your situation with all its accompanying privileges, go beyond that. As a man who only robs us of say, five shillings a day, we regard you as a fit and proper person to wait on our lady and gentleman passengers; to attend to their convenience and comfort, in short, as a worthy representative of the L.G.O.C. But beware how you outstrip the bounds of moderation as we unmistakably define them for you! Should you do so, we will kick you out at a moment’s notice, and on no consideration will we ever again employ you.”
Taking this view of the case, the omnibus conductor, although entitled to a foremost place in the ranks of thieves non-professional, can scarcely be said to be the least excusable amongst the fraternity.
[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]
James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869
see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click hereVictorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877
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"FORTY-THREE years on the road, and
more," said Cast-iron Billy;
"and, but for my rheumatics, I feel almost as 'ale and 'earty as any
gentleman could wish. But I'm lost, I've been put off my perch.
I don't mind telling of you I'm not so andy wi' the ribbons as in my
younger days I was. Twice in my life I've been put off, and this
finishes me. I'll never hold the whip again that's been in my hand
these three and forty year, never! I can't sit at 'ome, my perch up
there was more 'ome to me than 'anythink.' Havin' lost that I'm no
no good to nobody; a fish out o' water I be."
William Parragreen, known as "Cast-iron Billy," may be said to have commenced life with the whip in his hand. With an inborn aptitude for the profession he took to the road early. Whip in hand he mounted his father's cab, and continued for some years to pilot the vehicle through the busy streets of London.
In the days when the Royal Mails ran from the Post Office, with their armed guards and passengers, prepared for long weary journeys, William was fired with the ambition to drive some more imposing conveyance than the old four-wheeler. At last his hopes were realized, and he commenced his career as omnibus driver on the London roads. This event was indelibly fixed in his memory as it happened in 1834, when the old Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire.
The first locomotive was running successfully between Manchester and Liverpool, although it was regarded by many as a fool-hardy experiment that would speedily come to an end. The first accident on the rails led our hero to believe that the new mode of travelling would not answer. "There was safety and comfort in the old mail, but to be smashed up into minced meat by steam is the sort o' thing folks wouldn't stand." But he has advanced with the times, and now regards the railroad as the great feeder of his own and every other sort of labour in the metropolis.
Two or three years later William engaged himself to the London Conveyance Company. After fourteen years' faithful service the stock was sold off, and he was discharged. "Don't know if they was broke, or wot. They sold off. He next found employment with a job-master for about twelve months, but in the end was turned adrift, and two years elapsed before he again obtained regular employment. This, he assured me, was the only time in his life in which he came to grief.
Fortune smiled once more, and he entered as driver to the London General Omnibus Company, in whose service he has ended his career on the road. "Now," he pathetically remarked, "I'm too old to look ahead. There's the workus on one side; it's not pleasant, and who knows? on t'other, perhaps, some sporting gent wanting me to keep his gate. I might do that; you see I could sit in front fourteen hour out o' the twenty-four, always 'andy." This then is the poor man's paradise, to have some settled spot where he could sit out his days, in imagination perched on his old seat above his steady-going "cattle." He confessed that the post would have its drawbacks. He would miss the scenes of city life, the traffic of the streets, the excitement of racing against opposition. He would miss, too, the greeting of his old patrons, whose front seats were held sacred for the morning and evening journeys. He would lose the run of those whom he had carried to and fro for years, and who, owing to the punctuality of his omnibus at the corner, had risen to fame and fortune. Unlike a well-known aged driver on another metropolitan route, who has amassed two thousand pounds, William was never able to do more than keep things going at home. His first wife was for many years an invalid, and a drain on his resources. His children, who were sickly, needed constant tending. Nor is his poverty to be attributed to intemperance, although he owned to taking "a drop o' liquor to keep the frost out in winter, and stave off the heat in summer;" he also defied any man to say that he had seen him drunk when he should have been sober.
"Nothin' like old Skyler, one o' the best whips on the road; he's over seventy, and rides jobbin' post,' or drives to the Derby four-in-hand. But he never goes to bed sober, not if he knows it! He'll swallow more dog-noses' * (*Ale, halfpenny-worth, Gin, penny-worth.) in a journey than most men livin'."
The subject of the photograph lost his position as driver, owing to his inability to cope with younger men driving opposition omnibuses along the same route. In this instance the omnibuses crossed each other, the younger and more active man so taking the lead as to pick up all the passengers. This was not all, our veteran had become so enfeebled as to require help to mount his perch, while the reins had to be secured to his coat, as he has partially lost the use of his left hand.
The practice of racing, to the detriment of vehicles and discomfort of passengers, has been in vogue for half a century; but my informant remarked that in the "good old days" the struggle raged much more fiercely than it does now. Then there were many small proprietors running a neck-and-neck race for a living. The large companies which now monopolize the routes have in some measure tended to check the evil. At the same time the daily earnings of each conveyance depends so much on the joint efforts of driver and conductor, that they do not scruple to urge on their steeds when it suits their convenience. The demands thus made upon the strength of the horses soon renders them unfit for the road. I have been assured by more authorities than one that such horses as are employed will, on an average, stand omnibus work no longer than eight years. It is curious to observe that both horse and conveyance must be renewed at about the same time. I gather from the Police Report for 1875 that in six years 8180 public conveyances were condemned as unfit for use. In 1875, 9684 licences were granted for public conveyances in the metropolitan district. It will be seen, therefore, that the whole of the public conveyances of London are renewed about every eight years. The number of omnibuses running last year within the metropolitan area was 1448; horses, allowing ten to each omnibus, 14,480; drivers, conductors, and horse-keepers, 4344. The men employed in omnibus work are, as a class, fairly healthy, notwithstanding their exposure to all weathers, and that they labour fourteen hours out of every twenty-four. The supply of men flows from a great variety of sources; the majority of the drivers have been trained early in the management of horses. In some cases the education thus bestowed has been so purely professional as to leave the men ignorant of the most rudimentary branches of knowledge. For all that, some of them have filled better positions, they have owned their own studs, and driven their own coaches. One I may mention was at one time a man of property, and an authority on all matters relating to the "turf." Early in life he made up his mind, seemingly, to spend his money, and to live merrily while it lasted; and when his funds were gone he settled down, cheerfully enough, to driving an omnibus. Quite recently he has come in for a windfall, in the shape of a legacy of over a thousand pounds. Immediately on his receiving the money he descended from his perch, and was last seen lolling over the bar of a restaurant, smoking a fragrant cigar, and wearing a suit most horsey and juvenile; a white hat, tilted so as to partially shade the left eye, would have completed his attire, but for a narrow black band with which it was adorned. The band was possibly worn in grateful remembrance of the friend who left him the money, or of the money that had already gone in procuring some fleeting pleasure for its owner. Be that as it may, when the legacy has been squandered its owner will doubtless resume his seat on the box.
Omnibus conductors are drawn from the ranks of unfortunate clerks, mechanics, and tradesmen of all sorts. No special training being required for the duties of a conductor, the post is open to all comers who can read and write, and who can produce some satisfactory reference as to character. The pay is 4s. a day, but the "black mail" exacted from them in various ways renders it almost impossible for them to exist on their pay. There being, moreover, no proper check on their drawings, the men are exposed to the greatest temptations. It is in some instances tacitly understood by employers that the taxes imposed on conductors (for tips and treats to driver, horse-keeper, &c., &c.) shall be taken from the fares; were this not so, and the conductor strictly honest, his fourteen hours' work would go for next to nothing.
Would it not be possible, in the interest of masters and men, to let out the omnibuses by the day? To adopt indeed the system in force with hackney carriages. The masters would require to find time-keepers, and appoint inspectors to prevent racing, and to limit the number of journeys. Although the number of omnibuses running in the metropolis is perhaps not so great as before the introduction of city lines and tramways, they are again steadily increasing to meet the demand of a growing population.
A great reduction in fare followed the laying of railways and tram-lines; but there has been no diminution in the gross earnings of the omnibuses. This is accounted for in two ways, the abolition of mileage and tolls, and in short journeys. When Henry Mayhew wrote on this subject, the mileage tax on each conveyance was three halfpence for every mile traversed; seventy miles being the average distance per day, the charge for mileage was eight shillings and nine pence. In some of the routes the toll charged was tenpence per journey, or five shillings for the day's work of six journeys. The abolition of these imposts conferred a great boon on the public, as under the old system omnibuses could not run at the present low fares and yield a profit to their owners.
In conclusion I must thank Mr. Smith, of the City Mission - the pioneer missionary to omnibus men - for his introduction to "Cast-iron Billy."
see also Edmund Yates in The Business of Pleasure - click here