The Horse Bus 1662-1932

Early Pioneers

The first records of a vehicle resembling a bus date to the middle of the fifteenth century when Blaise Pascal, a French inventor, came up with the idea of providing facilities for public travel within Paris.

His idea was taken up and subsequently financed by the Governor of Poitou, the Duc de Ronanes, who authorised the construction of seven carriages capable of carrying eight passengers each.

After an elaborate opening ceremony the first of the ‘Carosses a Cinq Sous’, as the carriages were called, began work on the 18th March 1662, charging a small fare.

Initially they became extremely popular but, since people were riding for amusement only, after a few weeks their popularity waned and the carriages soon faded into oblivion.

It is often quoted that the first successful bus operation was introduced by Jacques Lafitte, a banker, in 1819, however, this is disputed by current research.

This fact would appear to come from an interview with an ageing Mr. Shillibeer sometime in the latter part of the century, and was printed in the ‘Omnibus and Cabs’ book dating from the 1880’s.

Shillibeer says that Lafitte started running omnibus coaches in Paris in 1819 and that he produced some of the coaches before he returned to London in 1829. However, there is no proof that there were any omnibus routes running at all inside the city of Paris at this time.

French sources state that during the period 1819-1827 several applications seeking to establish such routes inside the city were turned down because of worries that the large coaches would block the narrow streets.

In addition, there is no mention of Jacques Lafitte as a concessionaire of transport firms at all. He was a banker; BUT, his brother, Jean Lafitte, was one of the co-owners of the firm ‘Messageries Générale de France, Lafitte & Caillard’, that, during the 1820’s, built up a large stagecoach network in northern France (including many routes from Paris).

It is probable that Shillibeer really meant that he built some of the stagecoaches for this firm. It is doubtful that ‘in Paris’ meant local routes inside the city.

Short stagecoach routes, using vehicles very much like a horsebus (‘Gondoles’, ‘Accélérées’) had been running from Paris to the surrounding areas from the beginning of the 19th century, and vehicles of this type were also used in Nantes.

The Pendleton-Manchester route was running in 1824 and the ‘Caledonian Basket’ an omnibus-like vehicle was also running in Glasgow in the mid-1820’s.

When Stanislas Baudry opened a steam flour mill in Richebourg, outside Nantes, in 1823, he came up with the idea of using the surplus heat for a public bath.

Consequently he introduced a vehicle (of ‘normal’ appearance) from Nantes Central Square to Richebourg for bathing guests (there was already another running to a factory in Salorges for the workers).

But then he noticed that his coach was used more for local transport than for guests at the bath. As a result, in August 1826, he abandoned the public bath and started running two 16-seat covered vehicles on a route from Salorges to Richebourg via Nantes, purely as a transport service.

There are several stories as to how the name ‘omnibus’ came to be used. It is thought to have derived from a slogan originally used by a milliner named Omnès, in Nantes, (‘Omnès Omnibus’).

The most probable solution is that Omnès paid Baudry for using his slogan on the vehicle, but it could be that the word came from the stopping place outside Omnès’ shop (‘look for the omnibus sign’).

However, it seems that ‘omnibus’ was possibly mentioned in the application made by Baudry for the August 1826 route.

This would seem to confirm that ‘L’Omnibus’ replaced the original wording (‘Le Voiture des Bains de Richebourg’) of Baudry’s coach at some time prior to August 1826. In 1827 competition arrived, in the form of ‘Dame Blanche’ (White Lady), another company running inside Nantes.

In the same year Baudry commenced omnibus operations in Bordeaux, and it seems likely that he must have been one of the refused Parisian applications during this time. In January 1828, however, the Paris authorities had a change of heart and accepted Baudry’s (with associates) new application for running 100 ‘Omnibuses’ on 18 routes inside Paris.

10 routes were opened in April 1828, the first omnibuses to run in the French capital. The ‘Dame Blanche’ entrepreneur – Edmée Fouquet – in Nantes followed suit and in May 1828 (also with associates) obtained permission to start running in Paris as well.

Their first route commenced in August 1828 and over the next few years, many more companies followed.

The vehicles that Baudry and Fouquet first used in Paris were three-horse (note Shillibeer’s model) coaches with three compartments (normal at that time, all large stagecoaches in France had ‘coupé’ at the front, ‘berline’ in the middle and ‘rotonde’ in the back) with different classes.

In August 1828 it is noted that the first omnibus vehicles with just one class and one compartment with longitudinal seats and rear entrance appeared in Paris, and in 1830, the three-horse coaches were changed for a more economical two-horse version.

In the USA, the first vehicle called ‘omnibus’ was introduced in New York in 1830, probably as an import of London and Paris influence.

BUT, by 1816, short stagecoaches were already running locally in Manhattan, between New York and Harlem, and in 1827 Adam Brower started a purely local route on Broadway using his vehicle called ‘Accommodation’. Note that this is prior to anything like this running inside any of the big European cities.

Back in England – the name ‘Omnibus’ was certainly familiar to George Shillibeer. He had returned from France and set up in Bury Street, Bloomsbury, where he built two 22-seat three-horse coaches.

Staffed by ex-naval men they began to work from the ‘Yorkshire Stingo’ on Marylebone Street to the Bank of England, travelling via Kings Cross, on the 4th July 1829. The fleetname used by Shillibeer was ‘Omnibus’ and it was London’s first true omnibus service.

The fare charged (one shilling) was almost a third of that charged by the stage coaches and within a few months the service was well established and successful.

Although Shillibeer established the first omnibus service in London, it was probably not the first in the country.

John Greenwood is said to have commenced a daily service between Salford and Manchester on the 1st January 1824 (although there are no contemporary records that confirm the actual date, there is sufficient evidence to suggest this may be correct), the first instance of a regular omnibus service in Britain.

Greenwood had been the keeper of the tollgates on the turnpike road between Manchester and Bolton at a time when the new ‘middle-classes’ were beginning to reside in the suburbs and had seen the need for some sort of regular local service to connect the two areas.

He purchased a vehicle and experimented by putting it into service between Pendleton (in Salford) and Manchester city centre, running several times daily. The experiment proved a success and within a short time he was running services throughout the surrounding districts.

The difference between Greenwood’s vehicle and Shillibeer’s vehicle was notable. Greenwood’s ‘omnibus’ was described in contemporary records as “…little more than a box on wheels…” whereas Shillibeer’s omnibus was “…a handsome machine, in the shape of a van with windows on each side, and one at the end…”

Meanwhile, Shillibeer’s success in London, where his weekly takings were in excess of £100, had prompted others to enter the business.

Many adopted the name ‘Shillibeer’ as a description of their service and for a while it seemed that this name would pass into the English language in preference to the name ‘omnibus’, but circumstances dictated otherwise.

In 1832, Shillibeer entered into a partnership with William Morton, which lasted only until 1834, Morton taking with him the buses on the original route when the partnership broke up.

Shillibeer decided on a fresh start and opened up a new route between London and Greenwich with 20 buses. However, in 1836, the opening of the London and Greenwich Railway decimated his business and he was unable to recover.

He subsequently set up as an undertaker in City Road and became so well known that the use of ‘shillibeer’ was swiftly dropped and replaced with ‘omnibus’, which has endured to this day.

The Horsebus in Great Britain

The first recorded use of the word ‘omnibus’ as a designation of a vehicle occurred in a printed memorandum dated 3rd April 1829.

Written by George Shillibeer (1797-1866) to John Thornton, the Chairman of the Board of Stamps (from whom a licence to operate in London was required), it announced that Shillibeer was engaged “…in building two vehicles after the manner of the recently established French omnibus…”

Shillibeer’s service, between Paddington Green and the Bank, commenced on 4th July 1829 and introduced a new type of vehicle to the roads of Britain. This date is generally regarded as the start of omnibus history in Great Britain.

The carriage of passengers for short distances was not new; several short-stage carriages (which ran from point to point) had operated in London for many years.

What was new, and which constituted an omnibus service, was that it plied for hire along the route, picking up and setting down passengers in the street.

This removed the need to book in advance, as had been the practice with stagecoaches, or wait for long periods at various boarding points. The venture was an immediate success and although the legality of it was challenged, the Stage Carriage Act of 1832 permitted the practice.

Shillibeer’s first vehicles were box-like structures pulled by three horses abreast, with a rear entrance on which the conductor stood. Seating was on longitudinal benches with passengers facing each other.

Later vehicles, including those of other operators, were generally smaller, pulled by just two horses.

For a number of years, the omnibus remained a single-deck vehicle, the process of accommodating passengers outside being gradual. Initially seats for two or three extra passengers were provided alongside the driver, but later a second row of seats was arranged behind the driver.

By 1845, the curved roofs of many of the newer vehicles provided additional accommodation for male passengers, who sat back to back.

In 1847, Adams & Co., of Fairfield Works, Bow, produced a vehicle with a clerestory roof and a built-in longitudinal seat, which was put into service by the Economic Conveyance Company of London.

To encourage use of the extra seating, the cost of travelling outside was made half that of travelling inside.

Proprietors, however, did not initially favour this type of vehicle, as it was more costly and heavier than existing types and it was more than ten years before the design gained popularity.

In 1851, London staged the Great Exhibition and horse bus proprietors were not slow in catering for the massive influx of visitors by bolting a simple plank longitudinally along the curved roofs of their vehicles.

This was the first ‘knifeboard’ seating, a term (first used in Punch of 15th May 1862) that continued to be used to describe back-to-back seating well into the next century.

Following the end of the Great Exhibition the decline in profitable traffic caused a minor slump in the bus trade with fares being reduced. The lack of trade meant that improvements in the design of the horse bus suffered as a result, and the horse bus in London evolved little over the next few years.

In Manchester, however, Greenwood’s initial service had caused a great number of others to follow him into the omnibus business. By 1850 there were over 60 other horse buses working on the routes into the city.

As in London, they were small single-deck vehicles with seating for around 12 passengers, but in 1852 John Greenwood introduced a much larger vehicle. It was a three-horse double-deck vehicle accommodating 42 passengers.

An unusual feature for the period was the provision of brakes on the wheels, applied by a treadle on the driver’s footboard. Up until this time the only retarder was the skid, applied by hand on steep gradients.

Another novelty introduced was the use of a bell situated under the driver’s seat, by which the conductor at the rear of the vehicle communicated with the driver.

In 1855, the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus de Londres (London General Omnibus Company) was incorporated in Paris with the intention of purchasing as many of the small independent operators of London horse buses as possible.

Eventually around 75% of the total horse buses operating in London was acquired, and the company set about reorganizing the services.

At the same time it held a competition for the design of a new omnibus that would afford “…increased space, accommodation and comfort to the public…” Although a great many designs were submitted, the Company felt that there was not one overall design that they could recommend for adoption in its entirety but suggested that “…a light, commodious and well-ventilated omnibus…” could be produced by combining the best of the designs.

The new buses produced were generally of the pattern submitted by R. F. Miller, of Hammersmith, with back-to-back knifeboard seating for 10 plus 2 on either side of the driver, making a total top-deck accommodation of 14.

The inside seating was for 12, a grand total of 26 seats, which became the seating standard for the double-deck horse-drawn bus to the end. This type of bus was generally unchanged until the 1880’s, although the design became more curved than rectangular as time passed.

Covered top-decks on horse-drawn double-deck vehicles were never used in Great Britain, although experiments were made.

In France, however, a double-deck horse-drawn bus with coach-built top cover was introduced at Le Havre in 1858, but its principle drawback was its great weight, which put an undue strain on the horses. The idea does not appear to have been copied in Britain.

In 1860, trams were introduced to Britain as an experiment and by 1870 were a feature of urban transport, but did not have an immediate effect on horse-drawn transport.

In 1863 the City of London Regulation Act vested powers to regulate the routes of buses and to restrict the use of large vehicles to the City authorities, but was replaced on the 20th August 1867 by the Metropolitan Streets Act.

The new Act required buses to stop on the nearside of the road, whereas previously they had pulled over to the side on which passengers wished to alight. This had an effect on later designs of horse buses, requiring only access and a platform on the nearside.

The newly formed London Road Car Co. Ltd., introduced a novel design in 1881, when a number of horse-drawn vehicles with front entrance and staircase immediately behind the driver were built.

Later in the year the company introduced similar vehicles with flat roofs and garden seats, which had been in use on the continent for some 30 years.

Until this time it was unusual for women to ride on the top-deck because of access difficulties, but with the introduction of the staircase instead of the ladder, along with garden seating, ladies began to avail themselves of the facility.

By 1890 the older knifeboard seating was gradually replaced by garden seating on vehicles that still had a useful life.

By the turn of the century, the number of London horse-buses peaked at 3736. Most were two horse vehicles, although the large red ‘Favourites’ with 48-seats ran in the morning from Highgate and Islington into the City, but were excluded after 10am because of their size.

Express journeys with four-horse teams pulling ordinary garden-seat buses ran from some of the suburban points into the City, the last such bus, operated by Thomas Tilling, ran on 16th March 1912 from the foot of Balham Hill to Gracechurch Street.

The last LGOC horse-buses had already run on the 22nd December 1907 and by 4th August 1914, when Thomas Tilling ceased to run on the Peckham Rye to Honor Oak route, the horse bus had disappeared from the streets of London.

By this time the tram and the train were serving most parts of the country, offering cheap workman’s and return fares, which were not available on the horse bus.

Outside London, however, the horse bus continued to run, particularly in rural areas. What is generally regarded as the last urban horse bus service in the country was that of Howe & Co., between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead, which made its final run on Saturday 13th June 1931, marking the end of the horse bus as a means of urban transport.

However, the last regular horse bus service in Great Britain continued to run between Wickhambrook and Newmarket, in Suffolk, on market days only, until 1932.

The horse bus had been, in general, the transport of the middle classes and did not derive much revenue from the poorer classes, who walked to work until the advent of the cheaper fares on the trams and trains of the late 1800’s.

The splendid colours of some of the vehicles can be attributed to the fact that literacy, even amongst the middle classes, could not be assumed, so passengers identified their bus, not by the wording it bore, but by the colour and appearance.

When vehicles altered routes, it was usually necessary to repaint them and alter their appearance. In general there were no destination boards, and no indication of the direction of travel, except the wording on the side panel, which was usually a description of the area served.

In producing this history reference has been made to the following sources;
The Horse Bus as a Vehicle (Charles E. Lee, British Transport Commission 1962), The History of British Bus Services (John Hibbs, David & Charles, 1989), The Story of the Bus (CF Klapper, Buses Illustrated Nos. 1&2 [1949-1950]). With thanks to Stefan Back for correcting some of the earlier details that were superseded by modern research.