From omnibus to ecobus London's Transport Museum
A social history of London's public transport, 1829-2000
1829 - 1850  
horse buses  
London's first omnibus      
London's first regular bus service was started by George Shillibeer (1797-1866) on 4 July 1829. Shillibeer and John Cavill were in business in Bury Street, Bloomsbury, as coach builders and livery stable keepers. Shillibeer had seen the omnibus operating successfully in Paris and was inspired to do the same in London. Shillibeer's omnibus could carry up to 20 passengers and was drawn by three horses. He boasted it offered a safer and more comfortable ride than ordinary stage coaches as all passengers would ride inside. Although called Omnibus (the Latin word meaning for all), the fare of one shilling was far beyond the means of the average worker in London yet less than the price of most short stage coach rides. Oil painting of Shillibeer's Omnibus in 1829

Shillibeer's Omnibus in 1829, oil painting
Horse buses
London's first omnibus
More omnibuses,
more competition
Travelling by omnibus
Omnibus law
Different designs
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Shillibeer's first route ran from the suburb of Paddington via Regent's Park to Bank in the City and the five mile journey usually took an hour. Shillibeer was originally banned from picking up passengers in central London (an area known as 'The Stones') as the hackney carriages (the predecessors of today's taxis) had a monopoly in the area. By 1832, however, buses were finally allowed to operate in the city centre after pressure from the public and bus operators ended the hackney carriages' monopoly.  
More omnibuses, more competition      
During the 1830s new services sprang up, with rival bus operators competing for passengers, often racing each other to pick up fares. There were no fixed bus stops as we know them today, and passengers could hail a bus from the roadside. To stop the bus, passengers either banged on the roof or pulled on reins attached to the driver's arms! These methods were eventually replaced by bells. By the 1840s the horse bus had replaced most of the short stage coach operations, which were less suitable for city centres.  
In the face of fewer restrictions and increasing competition, George Shillibeer, the man who revolutionized London's transport, went bankrupt. Unable to pay his debts, he was sent to debtors' prison. He eventually converted 'Shillibeer's Original Omnibuses' into 'Shillibeer's Funeral Coaches' and spent the last years of his life in the undertaking business. He died in 1866 aged 69, and was buried in Chigwell.  
Travelling by omnibus Crowded Omnibus interior, engraving from a painting by W.M. Egley, published in the Illustrated London News, 1859

Crowded Omnibus interior,
engraving from a painting by W.M. Egley,
published in the Illustrated London News, 1859
"Here we are ... in all six and twenty sweating citizens, jammed, crammed and squeezed into each other like so many peas in a pod..."
(New Monthly Magazine, 1833)
Travelling by omnibus in London was not always a pleasant experience. The buses were often crowded with dirty straw on the floor. During many times of the day journeys were extremely slow on London's busy streets. On 30 January 1836, The Times newspaper published a set of instructions for its readers, which were intended to make omnibus travel more enjoyable. It provides a valuable insight into the contemporary omnibus experience.

It read:
Omnibus law
1. Keep your feet off the seats.
2. Do not get into a snug corner yourself and then open the windows to admit a North-wester upon the neck of your neighbour.
3. Have your money ready when you desire to alight. If your time is not valuable, that of others may be.
4. Do not impose on the conductor the necessity of finding you change: he is not a banker.
5. Sit with your limbs straight, and do not with your legs describe an angle of 45, thereby occupying the room of two persons.
6. Do not spit on the straw. You are not in a hogsty but in an omnibus travelling in a country which boasts of its refinement.
7. Behave respectfully to females and put not an unprotected lass to the blush, because she cannot escape from your brutality.
8. If you bring a dog, let him be small and be confined by a string.
9. Do not introduce large parcels - an omnibus is not a van.
10. Reserve bickerings and disputes for the open field. The sound of your own voice may be music to your own ears - not so, perhaps, to those of your companions.
11. If you will broach politics or religion, speak with moderation: all have an equal right to their opinions, and all have an equal right to not have them wantonly shocked.
12. Refrain from affectation and conceited airs. Remember that you are riding a distance for sixpence which, if made in a hackney coach, would cost you as many shillings; and that should your pride elevate you above plebeian accommodations, your purse should enable you to command aristocratic indulgences.
Different designs  
After Shillibeer, the use of smaller buses, designed to carry 12 passengers in a small box-shaped coach pulled by two horses, became popular. However, as popularity and competition grew, operators introduced different styles of omnibuses. Adding a roof space allowed them to carry up to 25 passengers and reduce fares. Coachbuilders became highly skilled in building remarkably lightweight frames which could allow use of the roof areas and provide greater capacity inside. photograph of an early knifeboard bus, c 1855
Early Knifeboard horse bus, c1855  
Photograph of a Thomas Tilling garden seat bus, c 1885

Thomas Tilling garden geat horse bus, c1885
One of the new designs that appeared in the 1860s was called the 'knifeboard' horse bus. It had a long seat on the roof on which passengers sat back to back - London's first double deck bus. Another version appeared later in the 19th century called the 'garden seat' bus. This style of vehicle had sets of forward facing seats (similar to wooden park benches), proper stairs to the top deck, and a larger platform on the back, making boarding the bus easier and quicker. In keeping with Victorian sensibilities, vanity boards were added to hide the ankles of female passengers going up and down the stairs.  
The LGOC    
In 1855 the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) was established and became the largest omnibus operator in London. It was originally an Anglo-French enterprise, the Compagnie Generale des Omnibus de Londres. It bought out hundreds of independently-owned buses and established a consistent level of service for its fleet. Within a year the LGOC controlled 600 of London's 810 omnibuses. Other large operators later included the London Road Car Company and Thomas Tilling & Co.  
Operating a horse bus was an expensive business. Each bus required 12 horses to stay on the road. As well as the cost of the horses and the omnibus itself (about �35 in 1893) there were also the costs of stabling, food for the horses, and vet's fees to take into account. The LGOC spent about �20 000 a year on horseshoes alone. Omnibuses would continue in service until 1914 when the success of the motor bus made the large horse workforce in public transport redundant.  
Charles E Lee, The horse bus as a vehicle, London Transport, 1974
John Reed, London buses past and present, Capital Transport, 1988
John Thompson, Horse-drawn omnibuses, John Thompson, 1986
related topics  
1851 - 1875 : Old horse trams
1901 - 1913 : Motor Buses
Next:1851 - 1875    

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