Victorian London - Transport - Road - Omnibuses - character and history

    It is very generally allowed that public conveyances afford an extensive field for amusement and observation. Of all the public conveyances that have been constructed since the days of the Ark - we think that is the earliest on record - to the present time, commend us to an omnibus. A long stage is not to be despised, but there you have only six insides, and the chances are, that the same people go all the way with you - there is no change, no variety. Besides, after the first twelve hours or so, people get cross and sleepy, and when you have seen a man in his nightcap, you lose all respect for him; at least, that is the case with us. Then on smooth roads people frequently get prosy, and tell long stories, and even those who don't talk, may have very unpleasant predilections. We once travelled four hundred miles, inside a stage-coach, with a stout man, who had a glass of rum-and-water, warm, handed in at the window at every place where we changed horses. This was decidedly unpleasant. We have also travelled occasionally, with a small boy of a pale aspect, with light hair, and no perceptible neck, coming up to town from school under the protection of the guard, and directed to be left at the Cross Keys till called for. This is, perhaps, even worse than rum-and-water in a close atmosphere. Then there is the whole train of evils consequent on a change of the coachman; and the misery of the discovery - which the guard is sure to make the moment you begin to doze - that he wants a brown-paper parcel, which he distinctly remembers to have deposited under the seat on which you are reposing. A great deal of bustle and groping takes place and when you are thoroughly awakened, and severely cramped, by holding your legs up by an almost supernatural exertion, while he is looking behind them, it suddenly occurs to him that he put it in the fore-boot. Bang goes the door; the parcel is immediately found; off starts the coach again; and the guard plays the key-bugle as loud as he can play it, as if in mockery of your wretchedness.
    Now, you meet with none of these afflictions in an omnibus; sameness there can never be. The passengers change as often in the course of one journey as the figures in a kaleidoscope, and though not so glittering, are far more amusing. We believe there is no instance on record, of a man's having gone to sleep in one of these vehicles. As to long stories, would any man venture to tell a long story in an omnibus? and even if he did, where would be the harm? nobody could possibly hear what he was talking about. Again;  children, though occasionally, are not often to be found in an omnibus; and even when they are, if the vehicle be full, as is generally the case, somebody sits upon them, and we are unconscious of their presence. Yes, after mature reflection, and considerable experience, we are decidedly of opinion, that of all known vehicles, from the glass-coach in which we were taken to be christened, to that sombre caravan in which we must one day make our last earthly journey, there is nothing like an omnibus. We will back the machine in which we make our daily peregrination from the top of Oxford-street to the city, against any 'buss' on the road, whether it be for the gaudiness of its exterior, the perfect simplicity of its interior, or the native coolness of its cad. This young gentleman is a singular instance of self-devotion; his somewhat intemperate zeal on behalf of his employers, is constantly getting him into trouble, and occasionally into the house of correction. He is no sooner emancipated, however, than he resumes the duties of his profession with unabated ardour. His principal distinction is his activity. His great boast is, 'that he can chuck an old gen'lm'n into the buss, shut him in, and rattle off, afore he knows where it's a-going to' - a feat which he frequently performs, to the infinite amusement of every one but the old gentleman concerned, who, somehow or other, never can see the joke of the thing.
    We are not aware that it has ever been precisely ascertained, how many passengers our omnibus will contain. The impression on the cad's mind evidently is, that it is amply sufficient for the accommodation of any number of persons that can be enticed into it. 'Any room?' cries a hot pedestrian. 'Plenty o' room, sir,' replies the conductor, gradually opening the door, and not disclosing the real state of the case, until the wretched man is on the steps. 'Where?' inquires the entrapped individual, with an attempt to back out again. 'Either side, sir,' rejoins the cad, shoving him in, and slamming the door. 'All right, Bill.' Retreat is impossible; the new-comer rolls about, till he falls down somewhere, and there he stops.
    As we get into the city a little before ten, four or five of our party are regular passengers. We always take them up at the same places, and they generally occupy the same seats; they are always dressed in the same manner, and invariably discuss the same topics - the increasing rapidity of cabs, and the disregard of moral obligations evinced by omnibus men. There is a little testy old man, with a powdered head, who always sits on the right-hand side of the door as you enter, with his hands folded on the top of his umbrella. He is extremely impatient, and sits there for the purpose of keeping a sharp eye on the cad, with whom he generally holds a running dialogue. He is very officious in helping people in and out, and always volunteers to give the cad a poke with his umbrella, when any one wants to alight. He usually recommends ladies to have sixpence ready, to prevent delay; and if anybody puts a window down, that he can reach, he immediately puts it up again.
    'Now, what are you stopping for?' says the little man every morning, the moment there is the slightest indication of 'pulling up' at the corner of Regent-street, when some such dialogue as the following takes place between him and the cad: 'What are you stopping for?'     Here the cad whistles, and affects not to hear the question.  'I say [a poke], what are you stopping for?' 'For passengers, sir. Ba - nk. - Ty.' 'I know you're stopping for passengers; but you've no business to do so. WHY are you stopping?' 'Vy, sir, that's a difficult question. I think it is because we perfer stopping here to going on.' 'Now mind,' exclaims the little old man, with great vehemence, 'I'll pull you up to-morrow; I've often threatened to do it; now I will.' 'Thankee, sir,' replies the cad, touching his hat with a mock expression of gratitude; - 'werry much obliged to you indeed, sir.' Here the young men in the omnibus laugh very heartily, and the old gentleman gets very red in the face, and seems highly exasperated. The stout gentleman in the white neckcloth, at the other end of the vehicle, looks very prophetic, and says that something must shortly be done with these fellows, or there's no saying where all this will end; and the shabby-genteel man with the green bag, expresses his entire concurrence in the opinion, as he has done regularly every morning for the last six months. A second omnibus now comes up, and stops immediately behind us. Another old gentleman elevates his cane in the air, and runs with all his might towards our omnibus; we watch his progress with great interest; the door is opened to receive him, he suddenly disappears - he has been spirited away by the opposition. Hereupon the driver of the opposition taunts our people with his having 'regularly done 'em out of that old swell,' and the voice of the 'old swell' is heard, vainly protesting against this unlawful detention. We rattle off, the other omnibus rattles after us, and every time we stop to take up a passenger, they stop to take him too; sometimes we get him; sometimes they get him; but whoever don't get him, say they ought to have had him, and the cads of the respective vehicles abuse one another accordingly. As we arrive in the vicinity of Lincoln's-inn-fields, Bedford-row, and other legal haunts, we drop a great many of our original passengers, and take up fresh ones, who meet with a very sulky reception. It is rather remarkable, that the people already in an omnibus, always look at newcomers, as if they entertained some undefined idea that they have no business to come in at all. We are quite persuaded the little old man has some notion of this kind, and that he considers their entry as a sort of negative impertinence.
    Conversation is now entirely dropped; each person gazes vacantly through the window in front of him, and everybody thinks that his opposite neighbour is staring at him. If one man gets out at Shoe- lane, and another at the corner of Farringdon-street, the little old gentleman grumbles, and suggests to the latter, that if he had got out at Shoe-lane too, he would have saved them the delay of another stoppage; whereupon the young men laugh again, and  the old gentleman looks very solemn, and says nothing more till he gets to the Bank, when he trots off as fast as he can, leaving us to do the same, and to wish, as we walk away, that we could impart to others any portion of the amusement we have gained for ourselves. 

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836

Sir, - I sincerely hope, as you have taken up the subject of the "Omnibus nuisance," you will not allow it altogether to drop. No police in the world can keep them in order, except some more strict regulations are made. They pull across from one side of the road to the other; pull up suddenly in the middle of the street, on the crossings, or anywhere they choose, and if remonstrated with in the mildest manner, are invariably most insolent. A greater of ruffians can hardly exist. If any other set of vehicles were driven in the same manner, it would be utterly impossible to drive about the streets. Pray endeavour to stop the nuisance through the medium of your very valuable journal.
    Carlton Club, Pall Mall.

letter to The Times, April 30, 1841

Omnibuses, like the cabriolets, are of foreign origin, and, travelling the town upon all the leading lines of the metropolis, are a great public convenience; they are, nevertheless, a great nuisance in the streets through which they run, from the noise occasioned by their perpetual  passage: they have also proved, by their abstraction of numbers, extremely injurious to the retail trade of the metropolis. The charges vary from 6d. to. 1s.; but strangers in London should, upon all occasions, previous to entering them, make enquiry, a caution that will prove productive of relief from much trouble and annoyance.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

Sir, - If the police can spare any time from the persecution of such poor persons as try to keep themselves out of the Workhouse, by selling fruit and other commodities in the streets, it would be well for them to bestow it on the alarming nuisance of racing between rival omnibuses.     At this very time the most desperate contest is being waged between two sets of omnibus proprietors for the sole possession of the road from Sloane-square to Holloway. In my way home this afternoon I have met no fewer than seven omnibuses between the White Horse Cellar and Wilton-place, all going from Chelsea to Islington and Holloway, and all being driven at such a rate, that at first sight it might be imagined that all the inhabitants of Chelsea were going to drive with all the inhabitants of Islington, and were afraid of being too late. A second glance, however, shows that nothing of the kind is going on, for all the passengers contained in the whole seven omnibuses might have been accommodated in one, and have left room to spare. But no matter! The drivers, as if they did it for mere brutal gratification, were flogging their horses and galloping through Piccadilly with no more regard to men or cattle than the Khan of Bokhara has for the lives of a few Christians. If there be no remedy for this, we passengers must do the best we can to take care of our worthless lives, but if, as I believe, such wanton and furious driving is an offence in the eye of the law, let those who are paid to put laws in force look to it, before "cruelty to animals" is succeeded by destruction of human life.
    I remain, Sir, your most obedient servant,

letter to The Times, May 5, 1845


    "' CHILDREN MUST BE PAID FOR.' Such is the sensible law now of certain Omnibuses! Mothers tremble as they read it. Grandmothers pout and shake with suppressed rage as they point out the offensive document to their offended daughters. In the meantime the new code has effected a great revolution in our public vehicles. The north and west Ridings of London are much quieter, and a gentleman can really dismount now from his horse, and enter a Twopenny Omnibus in peace without fear of being hemmed in with a baby on each side of him, besides having a little prodigy deposited in his lap, in addition to the comfort of having a couple of twins opposite staring him out of countenance. The latter infliction I have always looked upon as one of the most fearful sights of the metropolis, for I have particularly noticed that when a baby takes a fancy to stare at you, it will do so for hours, and that nothing will induce it to take its little eyes off your face but a penny bun, or a bunch of keys to swallow, or some act of great violence.
    "Since the march of reform has turned its steps in the direction of the Omnibuses, I should like a few more improving placards to be suspended inside.
    "The following one is indispensable: 'NO POODLES ADMITTED.' It is not agreeable to have an ugly beast of a French dog looking at one in this warm weather. I beg to say I hate poodles at any time, and dislike them still more in a shut-up carriage, when they will keep eyeing your calf in a most wistful manner, as much as to say, 'Shouldn't I like to have a bit!'  It makes me nervous.
    "Again, I should like to see 'ALL BUNDLES, BASKETS, AND CAGES, RIGIDLY EXCLUDED.' Washerwomen have got into the shameful habit of carrying their Saturday's linen inside the Omnibus; and I have seen the melancholy instance of a fine young fellow turning quite pale upon beholding a false front drop out of the basket with his name written in full in the corner of it. Then bundles are always in the way, and the ladies who bring them in always think that they should be the last persons who ought to have the trouble of carrying them. I dislike parcels in any shape, upon the principle that we never can tell what they may contain, until they burst; and I recollect having a bricklayer's dinner spilt all over my light trousers, from the awkward fact of the knot of the towel in which it was wrapt up giving way. I smelt of onions all the afternoon. Parrots and birds, also, are just as disagreeable for I never knew a parrot yet inside an Omnibus, that was not extremely spiteful, and took the earliest opportunity of biting somebody's finger.
    "I have only one more suggestion to make, and that is, that an intimation be likewise exhibited in a conspicuous part, to the effect that, 'GENTLEMEN ARE REQUESTED TO KEEP THEIR WET UMBRELLAS BETWEEN THEIR OWN LEGS.' This is a nuisance, that to be appreciated must have been felt. In my many journies through life I have experienced that man is too apt to thrust his drenched parapluie between the legs of his vis-a-vis. The practice is, I am aware, a very old one, but cannot be defended upon any footing whatever.
    "Omnibuses may then, when they are properly ventilated, and carry precisely half their present number, and are severely fined every time they stop, be made endurable; but the tax upon babies is certainly a great blessing. The sooner all the other nuisances are thrown after the children, the better.
    "I remain, Sir,
        "(And hope all my life to remain so),

Punch, Jan.-Jun 1849

We had heard so much about the London omnibuses, with their velvet upholstery and veneered panelling, that we were anxious to see these wonderful conveyances. So our amazement was great on boarding one in the Strand to find it narrow, rickety, jolting, dusty and extremely dirty. The only advantage of these vehicles is that they are closed by a door. The conductor stands outside on a small foot-board, incessantly hailing the passers-by. The custom, anyhow, is never to go inside an omnibus, even when it rains, if there is an inch of space occupied outside; women, children, even old people, fight to gain access to the top. A T-shaped wooden bench divides the coach in its entire length. If all the seats are occuped people stand between the legs of those who are seated. It was not till we had reached St. Paul's that the conductor asked us for our fares in a detached, indolent manner that must have been habitual as it appeared to surprise no one.

Francis Wey, A Frenchman Sees the English in the Fifties, 1935

see also James Grant in Lights and Shadows of London Life- click here

see also The Million-Peopled City - click here

see also London by Day and Night - click here

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853  


    If a history could be written of all the men who, by various means, have grown rich and retired upon a competence, we feel persuaded that by far the greater number of them would be found to be the men who have adopted the commendable maxim of giving "a good pennyworth for a penny." The bold adventurers, the successful speculators, the unscrupulous intriguers for sudden gain, constitute, even when taken all together, but a fraction of the immense section of society who, having the world under their feet, live in the enjoyment of respectability and ease. how numerous this class has grown of late years, the observant pedestrian who rambles occasionally through the suburbs and surroundings of the metropolis has a very sufficient idea. The thousands and tens of thousands of genteel residences which have risen and are daily rising in every direction, and which are fit for no other purpose than the occupancy of families well-to-do in the world, afford a sufficient attestation of the numbers of the class to which we allude: they have achieved independence by the industries of commerce; and they owe their success mainly, as their history would show, to the practical adoption of the maxim above quoted. The discovery has at length been made, though it dawned but slowly upon the commercial mind, that the surest, though it may not be the shortest, way to success is by responding to the demands of the million at a rate of remuneration which shall ensure the growth and continuance of that demand. In consequence of the general reception of this discovery as a truth, and in consequence too of the competition which it has done not a little to increase, every necessary of life, and not a few of its luxuries, are now to be procured at a price which leaves the barest fractional margin of profit to the purveyor and the distributor, and which becomes remunerative only through the increased demand to which cheapness invariably supplies a stimulus.
    But we are not going to write an essay on the peculiarities of present-day traffic, though something might be said on that subject worth the reading. We are going to take a ride in a penny omnibus. Here we are at Holborn-hill: the omnibus, a white one, has just turned round, and we are the first to jump in and ensconce ourselves in a further corner. Now we can ride to Tottenham Court-road for a penny, or to Edgware-road, if we choose, for two-pence. We are hardly seated, when an elderly dame literally bundles in, having a large brown-paper parcel, almost as big as a pannier, and a crushed and semi-collapsed bandbox, which she quietly arranges on the cushioned seat, as though she had engaged that whole side to herself. She is followed in an instant by an elderly and portly figure in patched boots, and well-worn dingy great coat, who takes the right-hand door corner, where he sits with clasped horny hands, nursing a corpulent umbrella, upon the handle of which he rests his unshaven chin, as with rueful face he peers over the low door. Bang! goes something on the roof; the explosion startles him from his contemplations, and causes him to poke out his head, which is instantly drawn in again, as the conductor opens the door, and keeps it open while a living tide rushes in-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine! "No more room here, conductor: full here !" "Full inside! roars the conductor," in reply. But we don't move on yet; there is a vision of muddy high-lows, corduroy garments, and coat-tails, clambering up consecutively in the rear under the guidance of the conductor, and making a deafening uproar on the roof in the ceremony of arranging themselves upon what has been not inappropriately styled the "knife-board. "All right bursts involuntarily from the lips of the conductor, as the last pair of bluchers disappears above our heads. Now the "bus" gets under way, and we begin to look around us, and find that we form one of a very mixed company indeed. Opposite us sits the old lady with the bandbox and monster bundle. By her side is a very thin journeyman baker in his oven undress, and next to him a young man carrying a blue bag, and wearing a diamond ring on his little finger, a pair of false brilliants by way of shirt- studs, and a violet-coloured neck-tie. To his left is the wife of a mechanic, carrying a capless, bald-headed fat baby in her arms-baby sputtering, staring, and kicking in an ecstasy of delight, and stretching out its little puddings of fingers to reach the diamond-ringed hand that grasps the blue bag. Next to the mother of the baby is a blue-jacket, a regular tar, who, it would seem, has entered the omnibus for the sake of enjoying a "turn-in," and is endeavouring to compose himself to sleep. Next to him is our friend with his companion the stout umbrella, which he still hugs with undiminished affection. Of the party sitting on our side we cannot give so good an account, by reason of a very voluminous widow, weighing, at a rough guess, some twenty stone, who has almost eclipsed our view in that direction, and whose presence oppresses us with an idea of the cheapness of land-carriage in the present day - estimating it by weight. We stop for half a minute at the top of Chancery-lane, to put down the owner of the blue bag; somebody too drops from the roof, but another climbs up, and another rushes in as we are again getting under way, and, still full, we proceed onwards. We drop three more of our company at the corner of Red Lion-street, and among them, greatly to the relief of the horses and the writer, the ponderous widow. Now we find ourselves sitting next to a shoe-maker, who is taking home a pair of new boots of his own manufacture; we can tell that much by the channels cut by countless wax-ends through the hardened skin of his little fingers. Next to him are a couple of boys, who, we suspect, have no other business to follow just now than to enjoy a penny ride for the pleasure of walking back again. We are soon in New Oxford-street, and now the elderly and portly man whom we first noticed lifts his corpulent umbrella carefully out of the omnibus, and disappears in the shop of an advertising tailor, probably in search of a new great-coat, which indeed it is high time that he had provided. Nobody gets up in place of the last few departures-for a good and sufficient reason, namely; that we are approaching the end of the pennyworth, and that all who go beyond Tottenham Court-road must pay a double fare. Now the conductor pops his head in at the window, and, to save time, collects the pence of all the penny passengers, so that there will be nothing to do beyond letting them out when we stop. At Tottenham Court-road all the passengers alight but ourselves, even the old lady emerging from behind her bandboxes, and walking off towards St. Giles's. But new customers are waiting, and in less than two minutes we are crammed again with a new cargo as various as the preceding one, and on we roll towards the Edgware-road. We set out with twelve insiders, and we stop at the end of our route with but four, and yet the conductor has taken twenty-two fares, by an accurate calculation, without actually pulling up to a stand-still once on the way. The necessity of despatch is recognised by both parties to the contract, and passengers, paying their money before they alight, are seen to step out while the vehicle goes on at an easy pace, and others clamber in or on to the roof in the same way.
    We have got to the end of the journey, and nothing better offering on our return, we ascend to the roof, and ride back on the outside to our starting-point. There is a great deal of the world to be seen in the inside of an omnibus, as those who are accustomed to ride in them very well know, but there is still more to be seen on the outside. The "knife-board," that is, the longitudinal seat which stretches from end to end of the roof, is a very favourite position with a numerous class of the metropolitan world. It is sufficiently far above the noise of the wheels to allow of undisturbed conversation, and is a point of eminence from which everything going forward below and around can be plainly seen. We have ourselves made from this point some curious surveys of men and things which we could not possibly have made in a less elevated position, or which did not, like that, afford us an ever-moving panorama of social life and action. We were indebted to it, not long ago, for a series of gastronomical observations of the mode in which London tradesmen live - a view, by the way, which might have satisfied the most sceptical of the material prosperity enjoyed by that class in spite of occasional cries of "bad times." Our omnibus slowly proceeded down a narrow and obstructed street. It was a warm summer's evening, between the hours of nine and ten, and the shopmen of the district, from want of back parlours, were taking their supper in the front floor, with the windows of their apartments open. We say nothing of the garnished sirloins, parsley-decked hams, pickled salmon and lobster salads, with cold gooseberry pies in profusion, of which we had a vision sufficiently distinct, as we were carried along-having no intention of carping at the dietary of John Bull. Our sole comment shall be the remark of a rather hungry-looking genius in fustian who shared the knife-board with us, whose eyes twinkled, and whose mouth visibly watered at the sight, as he exclaimed spontaneously, "Crikey! don't they do it up tidy up here-jest!" - wiping his mouth.
    The boorish incivility and savage behaviour of omnibus drivers and conductors was, not many years ago, the theme of universal irritation and complaint, and very justly so. At the present moment, the reverse is the case, a civil and obliging demeanour being the general characteristic of the profession. The key to the transformation is, doubtless, to he found in the fact, that civility pays better than its opposite. There is still, however, room for improvement in some particulars, as the following little incident will show. Entering the other day an omnibus which, by the inscription on its side, professed to carry passengers to --- church, we found ourselves, while yet a quarter of a mile from the church, the solitary occupants of it. The omnibus stopped, and the conductor called upon us to alight, saying that they did not go any further.
    "Not go any further !" said we- "you don't pretend that I am to get out and walk a quarter of a mile in the rain?"
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "Yes you do; you have the name of --- church painted on the side of your omnibus; you go there, certainly."
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "Don't tell me that nonsense, you go where you profess to go, I suppose."
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "But you must go further. I pay to be taken to --- church, and to the church I will be taken."
    "Don't go any further, sir."
    "Then I won't get out-you may drive me back to where you took me up, and I'll pay you nothing."
    Conductor (slamming the door with a bang that shakes the whole fabric, and bawling to the driver), "Go-on-to-th-church-gen'lman-won't-git-out!" and away we drive, slashing through the mud and mire, and rolling, pitching, and labouring like a vessel in a storm, until we reach the church. At last we alight, and ask the conductor why he wished to set down his passengers a quarter of a mile from their destination.
    "A quarter of mile! Tisn't six yards! you likes a good penn'orth anyhow; you do."
    If we confess to the soft impeachment, we shall add but one more to the numberless illustrations of the great leading principle which governs commercial transactions in the present day.

see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London - click here

    We turn to the omnibuses, the principal and most popular means of locomotion in London. And here we beg to inform our German friends, that those classes of English society whose members are never on any account seen at the Italian Opera; and who consume beer in preference to wine, and brandy in preference to beer, affect a sort of pity, not unmixed with contempt, for those who go the full length of saying ?Omnibus.? The English generally affect abbreviations; and the word ?bus? is rapidly working its way into general acceptation, exactly as in the case of the word ?cab,? which is after all but an abbreviation of ?cabriolet.?
    Among the middle classes of London, the omnibus stands immediately after air, tea, and flannel, in the list of the necessaries of life. A Londoner generally manages to get on without the sun; water he drinks only in case of serious illness, and even then it is qualified with ? the ghost of a drop of spirits.? Certain other articles of common use and consumption on the Continent, such as passports, vintage-feasts, expulsion by means of the police, caf?s, cheap social amusements, are entirely unknown to the citizens of London. But the Omnibus is a necessity; the Londoner cannot get on without it; and the strange; too, unless he be very rich, has a legitimate interest in the omnibus, whose value he is soon taught to appreciate.
    The outward appearance of the London omnibus, as compared to similar vehicles on the Continent, is very prepossessing. Whether it be painted red as the Saints? days in the Almanack, or blue as a Bavarian soldier, or green as the trees in summer, it is always neat and clean. The horses are strong and elegant; the driver is an adept in his art; the conductor is active, quick as thought, and untiring as the perpetuum mobile. But all this cannot, I know, convey an idea of ?life in an omnibus.? We had better hail one and enter it, and as our road lies to the West, we look out for a ?Bayswater.?
    We are at the Whitechapel toll-gate, a good distance to the East of the Bank. From this point, a great many omnibuses run to the West ; and among the number is the particular class of Bayswater omnibuses one of which we have entered. It is almost empty, the only passengers being two women, who have secured the worst seats in the furthermost corners, probably because they are afraid of the draught from the door. The omnibus is standing idly at the door of a public-house, its usual starting-place. The driver and conductor have been bawling and jumping about, especially the latter, and they are now intent upon ?refreshing? themselves. The horses look a little the worse for the many journeys they have made since the morning. Never mind! this omnibus will do as well as any other, and we prepare to secure places on the outside.
    But before we ascend, let us look at the ark which is to bear us through the deluge of the London streets. It is an oblong square box, painted green, with windows at the sides, and a large window in the door at the back. The word ?BAYSWATER? is painted in large golden letters on the green side panels, signifying that the vehicle will not go beyond ?that bourn,? and also furnishing a name for the whole species. A great many omnibuses are in this manner named after their chief stations. There are Richmonds, Chelseas, Putneys, and Hammersmiths. Others again luxuriate in names of a more fantastic description, and the most conspicuous among them are the Waterloos, Nelsons, Wellingtons, Taglionis, Atlases, etc. One set of omnibuses is named after the ?Times?; others, such as the ?Crawford?s,? are named after their owners.
    The generic name of the omnibus shines, as we have said, in large golden letters on the side panels; but this is not by any means the only inscription which illustrates the omnibus. It is covered all over with the names of the streets it touches in its course. Thus has the London omnibus the appearance of a monumental vehicle, one which exists for the sake of its inscriptions. It astonishes and puzzles the stranger in his first week of London life; he gazes at the omnibus in a helpless state of bewilderment. The initiated understand the character of an omnibus at first sight; but the stranger shrugs his shoulders with a sigh, for among this conglomeration of inscriptions, he is at a loss to find the name and place he wants.
    But to the comfort of my countrymen be it said, that the study of omnibus-law is not by any means so difficult as the study of cab-law. Practice will soon make them perfect; still we would warn them not to be too confident. Many a German geographer, with all the routes from the Ohio to the Euxine engraven in his memory, has taken his place in an omnibus, and gone miles in the direction of Stratford, while he, poor man, fondly imagined he was going to Kensington. Even the greatest caution cannot prevent a ludicrous mistake now and then; and the stranger who would be safe had better consult a policeman, or inform the conductor of the exact locality to which he desires to go. In the worst case, however, nothing is lost but a couple of hours and pence.
    While we have been indulging in these reflections, the number of passengers has increased. There is a woman with a little boy, and that boy will not sit decently, but insists on kneeling on the seat, that he may look out of the window. An old gentleman has taken his seat near the door; he is a prim old man, with a black coat and a white cravat. There is also a young girl, a very neat one too, with a small bundle. Possibly she intends calling on some friends on the other side of the town; she proposes to pass the night there, and has taken her measures accordingly. A short visit certainly is not worth the trouble of a long omnibus journey. Thus there are already six inside passengers, for the little boy, who is not a child in arms, is a ?passenger,? and his fare must be paid as such. The box-seat, too, has been taken by two young men; one of them smokes, and the other, exactly as if he had been at home, reads the police reports in today?s ? Times.?
Stop! another passenger ! a man with an opera-hat, a blue, white-spotted cravat, with a corresponding display of very clean shirt-collar, coat of dark green cloth, trousers and waistcoat of no particular colour; his boots are well polished, his chin is cleanly shaved; his whiskers are of respectable and modest dimensions. There is a proud consciousness in the man?s face; an easy, familiar carelessness in his movements as he ascends. He takes his seat on the box, and looks to the right and left with a strange mixture of hauteur and condescension, as much as to say: ?You may keep your hats on, gentlemen.? He produces a pair of stout yellow gloves; he seizes the reins and the whip? by Jove! it?s the driver of the omnibus!
    Immediately after him there emerges from the depths of the public-house another individual, whose bearing is less proud. He is thin, shabbily dressed, and his hands are without gloves. It is the conductor. He counts the inside passengers, looks in every direction to find an additional ?fare,? and takes his position on the back-board. ?All right!? the driver moves the reins the horses raise their heads; and the omnibus proceeds on its journey.
    The street is broad. There is plenty of room for half a dozen vehicles, and there are not many foot-passengers to engage the conductor?s attention. He is at liberty to play some fantastic tricks to vary the monotony of his existence; he jumps down from his board and up again; he runs by the side of the omnibus to rest his legs, for even running is a recreation compared to standing on that board. He makes a descent upon the pavement, lays hands on the maid of all work that is just going home from the butcher?s, and invites her to take a seat in the ?bus.? He spies an elderly lady waiting at the street-corner; he knows at once that she is waiting for an omnibus, but that she cannot muster resolution to hail one. He addresses and secures her. Another unprotected female is caught soon after, then a boy, and after him another woman. Our majestic coachman is meanwhile quite as active as his colleague. He is never silent, and shouts his ?Bank! Bank! Charing-cross!? at every individual passenger on the pavement. Any spare moments he may snatch from this occupation are devoted to his horses. He touches them up with the end of his whip, and exhorts them to courage and perseverance by means of that peculiar sound which holds the middle between a hiss and a groan, and which none but the drivers of London omnibuses can produce.
    In this manner we have come near the crowded streets of the city. The seat at our back is now occupied by two Irish labourers, smoking clay-pipes, and disputing in the richest of brogues, which is better, Romanism without whiskey, or Protestantism with the desirable addition of that favourite stimulant. There is room for two more passengers inside and for three outside.
    Our progress through the city is slow. There are vehicles before us, behind us, and on either side. We are pulling up and turning aside at every step. At the Mansion-house we stop for a second or two, just to breathe the horses and take in passengers. This is the heart of the city, and, therefore, a general station, for those who wish to get into or out of an omnibus. These vehicles proceed at a slow pace, and take up passengers, but they are compelled to proceed by the policeman on duty, who has strict instructions to prevent those stoppages which would invariably result from a congregation of omnibuses in this crowded locality.
    Our particular omnibus gives the policeman no trouble, for it is full, inside and out, and this important fact having been notified to the drive; the reins are drawn tight, the whip is laid on the horses? backs, and we rush into the middle of crowded Cheapside. Three tons, that is to say, 60 cwt., is the weight of a London omnibus when full, and with these 60 cwts. at their backs, the two horses will run about a dozen English miles without the use of the whip, cheered only now and then by the driver?s hiss. And with all that they are smooth and round and in good condition; they are not near so heavy as those heavy horses of Norman build which go their weary pace with the Paris omnibuses, nor are they such wretched catlike creatures as the majority of the horses which serve a similar purpose in Germany. Their harness is clean; on the continent it might pass for elegant. Although fiery when in motion, they never lay aside that gentleness of temper which is peculiar to the English horses. A child might guide them; they obey even the slightest movement of the reins; nay, more, an old omnibus-horse understands the signals and shouts of the conductor. It trots off the moment he gives that stunning blow on the roof of the omnibus, which, in the jargon of London conductors, means: ?Go on if you please ;? and the word ?stop? will arrest it in the sharpest trot.
    But for the training and the natural sagacity of those animals, it would be impossible for so many omnibuses to proceed through the crowded city streets at the pace they do, without an extensive smashing of carriages, and a great sacrifice of human life resulting therefrom. We communicated our impressions on this subject to the omnibus driver, and were much pleased to find our opinion corroborated by the authority of that dignitary.
    ?The city,? said he, ?is a training-school for carriage-osses and for any gent as would learn to drive. As for a man who is?nt thoroughly up to it, I?d like to see him take the ribbons, that?s all! ?specially with a long heavy ?bus behind and two osses as is going like blazes in front. I see many a country fellow in my time as funky as can be, and sweating, cause why? he feeled hisself in a fix. And an oss, too, as has never been in the city afore, gets giddy in his head, and all shaky-like, and weak on his legs. But it?s all habit, that?s what it is with men and osses.?
    Well! our man and our ?osses? are accustomed to the confusion and the turmoil which surrounds us. With the exception of a few short stoppages, which are unavoidable in these crowded streets, we proceed almost at a giddy pace round St. Paul?s, down the steep of Ludgate Hill, and up through Fleet Street and Temple Bar. We are in the ?Strand?; and here we are less crowded, and proceed at a still more rapid pace, with twelve inside and nine outside passengers, making the respectable total of one-and-twenty men and women. More than this number it is illegal to cram into an omnibus. That vehicle is among the few places in England where you come into immediate contact with Englishmen without the formality of a previous introduction. Parliament, which has to provide not only for Great Britain, Ireland, and the town of Berwick upon-Tweed, but also for a considerable portion of Africa, America, Asia, and the whole of Australia?whose duty it is to keep a sharp eye on the Germanic Confederation, the French Empire, the Papal See, the Oriental question, and a great many similar nuisances; and which, over and above all these important avocations, has to adjourn for the Easter recess and the Epsom races?though thus overwhelmed with business still the English Parliament has found time to pass some salutary laws for the proper regulation and management of omnibuses, to prevent the over-crowding of those useful vehicles, and to ensure regularity, politeness and honesty on the part of the drivers and conductors. The laws with respect to omnibuses are few in number; but they work well, and suffice to secure the passengers in those vehicles against insult and imposition. As, however, accidents will happen, so it may now and then come to pass that a stranger, or a genteel and ignorant female is cheated, and induced to pay the sum of three pence over and above the legal fare; but in these cases it will generally be found, that the passenger might have prevented the imposition, if he or she had condescended to enquire of some other passenger as to the exact amount of the fare. Such questions are always readily answered, and every one is eager to give the stranger the information he requires.
    On the Continent, it is generally asserted that the English are haughty and shy, that they will not answer if a question is put to them; and that, especially to foreigners, they affect silence incivility, and even rudeness. There is no truth whatever in such assertions. Any one, whose good or ill fortune it is to make frequent omnibus journeys, will find that the notion of English rudeness, like many other Continental notions, is but a vulgar error. It is true that no fuss or ceremony is made about the stowing away of legs, that an unintentional kick is not generally followed by a request for ten thousand pardons; but in my opinion, there is a good deal of natural politeness in this neglect of hollow conventional forms, which, after all, may be adopted by the greatest brute in creation. Why should there be a begging of pardon when every one is convinced that the kick was accidental, unintentional, and that no offence was meant? Why should I express my gratitude to the hand that is held out to me in getting in? The action is kind, but natural and does not, in my opinion, call for a verbose recognition Those who discover rudeness in the absence of polite phrases cannot, of course, but think that the English are brutes. But simple and ingenuous characters are soon at their ease in English society.
    There were no stoppages in the Strand; but at Northumberland House, in Trafalgar Square, we stop for a minute or two, as at the Mansion House, to take in and let out passengers. Moving forward again, we go up part of Pall Mall and the whole length of Regent Street to the upper Circus. This point is more than half way in the journey from Whitechapel to Bayswater, and that distance? above five English miles ?is, after all, only a three-penny fare.
    Within the last quarter of an hour we have changed our complement of passengers, and the sky, too, has altered its aspect. Large drops of rain are falling. The driver produces his oilskin cape, a stout leather covering is put over his knees, and over those of the box-seat passengers, whose upper halves are protected by an umbrella. All the outside passengers, too, produce their umbrellas?for few Londoners venture to go out without that necessary protection against the variableness of the climate.
Luckily, however, the shower is over before we have come to Hyde Park Gate, at the western end of Oxford Street. The sun breaks through the clouds, as we turn down that splendid street which runs parallel with the side of the Park. Stately, elegant buildings on our right; Kensington Gardens, green meadows, and shady trees, on our left. Here we leave the omnibus, for we cannot resist the temptation of taking a stroll in these charming gardens. We have made a journey of eight miles. We have seen life on and in an omnibus, in all its varieties; at least, as far as it is possible in a single journey; and we pay for the accommodation the very moderate charge of sixpence.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

see also George Sala in Twice Round the Clock - click here

see also James Payn in Lights and Shadows of London Life - click here

A Great Bore in an Omnibus

AT this wet and dirty season of the year, men sitting in an omnibus frequently sustain some little inconvenience, in having every now and then their knees brushed by a lady who gets into the vehicle, with her enormous skirts, on which she has swept up a lot of mud in the streets, and necessarily wipes it off upon their trousers. It is high time that omnibuses should be made four times as broad as they are now, in order that the extravagant apparel of the female passengers may be consistent with the comfort and cleanliness of the others, who may be unwilling to ride outside to oblige a lady, or unable to do so even with the view of avoiding a nuisance.

Punch, December 14, 1861

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[Stolid determination on either side to let the other side have the benefit of Affable Person. Complete unconsciousness, on both sides, of Affable Person's existence. Omnibus goes on. Embarrassing situation of Affable Person.

Punch, October 28, 1871

see also Edmund Yates in The Business of Pleasure - click here (1) (2)

   I scrambled on to the roof of the first one I saw, allowed myself to be carried to the end of the line, and then returned to my starting point. On the way, I had occasion many times to wonder at the most familiar ease with which some one of my neighbours, in order to pass from one part of the seats to another, made use of my shoulders as a support, causing me to feel for a moment the whole weight of his person, and giving me, on removing his hand, a vigorous shove like a gymnast who flings away his pole after jumping the rope. The first who rendered me this service, as he struck me unexpectedly, left me in amazement. As is natural, I turned to have at least the offset of a smile, which should mean 'Excuse me.' Oh no! He had shoved my shoulders about without giving himself the trouble to see how tall I was. Seeing this was the custom, I took my precautions, and every time I saw a fellow passenger reaching out his hand, I held out my shoulder saying 'Help yourself,' and so held firm till he had done so. Thus I came out a little less injured.

Edmondo de Amicis Jottings about London (trans), 1883

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Thomas Crane & Ellen Houghton, London Town, 1883

see also W.J.Gordon in The Horse World of London - click here

see also George Sala in London Up to Date - click here

see also Mary H. Krout in A Looker-On in London - click here

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here

On the box seat of a Hampstead-bound Atlas omnibus to-day the old driver was lamenting the fact that so many good horses have been taken away for the war, and that there is no joy in driving the indifferent cattle which now draw the omnibuses. He says his regular box seat customers, who pay a tip of a shilling a week for a reserved seat beside him, are falling away. The young men prefer bicycles nowadays, or hansoms, and the old men do not like climbing up and down now that the omnibuses are so much larger.

R.D.Blumenfeld's Diary, October 13, 1900

The police are very active now in suppressing omnibus racing, which is becoming dangerous. I was on a Road Car omnibus to-day in Whitehall. A London General Company omnibus pulled up alongside. Next came a pirate. They all started at once, and the drivers lashed the horses into a gallop, the while the vehicles rocked like boats. The passengers got excited, and one man's top hat blew off. When we got to Trafalgar Square the Road Car was leading by a length, and the pirate, with his starved horses, was one hundred yards behind. The new rate of a penny from Charing Cross to the Bank seems to act as a magnet to the former point, and the rivals take great risks in getting there first.

R.D.Blumenfeld's Diary, December 17, 1901

   These were the last years of the dying century. London was still 'good old London' then: the London of the 'eighties and the 'nineties so much derided, so mercilessly satirized by young moderns to-day. .....
     It seemed strange even all these years ago to see London without its old horse 'bus going clippety-clop up the Edgware Road or along Oxford Street . . . the 'Royal Blue' was the one I remembered best. It used to ply from somewhere near Oxford Circus to Victoria and took three-quarters of an hour doing it. Nominally there was room for twelve inside; it usually held eighteen. There was straw on the floor, which on wet days . . . well! never mind about the straw on wet days. The conductor, insecurely perched on the step at the rear, would collect fares, and the door there was a square tablet on which he chalked up the amounts which he had collected.
    I remember being very much puzzled as to the mathematical process by which, when he had taken fourpence from me, he chalked up threepence, and once, quite innocently, I asked for an explanation of this abstruse calculation. But only the once! The explanation, I may say, was neither satisfactory nor relevant. I forget in what year the punching-clip and ticket system was introduced into the omnibus service, but I do know that this ticket system was greatly resented by the 'bus conductors. And one of the earliest strikes I recollect was an omnibus strike in protest against that unpleasant innovation.
    Of course, one never went on top of 'busses until what was poetically termed 'garden seats' were introduced. Before that there was what was called the 'knife-board' by way of seating accommodation, and only the lords of creation were able to negotiate the iron ladder which led up to it. One passenger was privileged to sit on the box beside the driver, but how he obtained that privilege I have never known to this day. Needless to say that this privilege, too, was reserved for the great sex.
    When the 'garden seats' first came into use the iron ladder, too, was made more accessible, and some of us, more venturesome than others, made our first attempts at climbing to the top of a 'bus. Punch at the time had a joke about the shy young lady out for a country walk. She comes to a stile over which she will be forced to climb. To her consternation a man is standing close by, and she marvels how she can possibly negotiate the stile without showing her ankles, whereupon the stranger remarks, genially: "Lor, don't you be afeeard, miss, I am a 'bus conductor; ankles ain't no treat to me!" Autres temps, autres moeurs. Ankles, methinks, ain't no treat to anybody these days.

Baroness Orczy, Links in the Chain of Life (autobiography), 1947