Great cities, nations and indeed empires depend strongly on the efforts of eccentrics and mavericks. Pioneers with a vision who take big risks regardless of the obstacles or the consequences. One such was George Shillibeer (1797–1866), who put the first omnibuses on London’s streets in 1829, and for him the consequences were mostly bad.
Shillibeer’s background remains obscure, but he was born in Tottenham Court Road and spent his early career in the navy, attaining the rank of midshipman. He then joined a coachbuilding company in Long Acre. Visiting Paris, he saw their new omnibuses on the street, and immediately returned to London to emulate this. He first intended to call the London vehicles “economists”, but thankfully stuck with “omnibus” in the end. On the 4th July 1829, Shillibeer’s first omnibuses went into service. These were carriages which could carry 20 passengers and were drawn by three horses.
Shillibeer’s first difficulty was that hackney carriages had an exclusive monopoly on licensing in central London, forcing him to run his route outside the jurisdiction, from Paddington to Islington. The fare was one shilling, not cheap. His second problem was that competition was immediate, mainly from fifteen passenger vehicles which attracted less vehicle tax, which soon led him to bankruptcy, although he somehow managed to remain operational.
The hackney carriage monopoly ended in 1832, allowing Shillibeer to run a service to Greenwich in addition to his existing London to Brighton service. But by now his problem was not only competition from his many omnibus rivals, but also from steam riverboat operators and the new London and Greenwich railway. What’s more his omnibuses were still too big for London’s narrow streets. Once again, Shillibeer was in default of his road taxes, but this time his property was seized and he absconded to Boulogne with angry creditors in his wake. On his return, the debtors’ court sentenced him to several months in the Fleet prison. He wasn’t out long when the authorities discovered 130 gallons of smuggled French brandy in his premises in Camden and back to prison he went.
Shillibeer spent the rest of his career as an undertaker, but he couldn’t get carriages out of his system, developing and patenting a new type of funeral carriage, again modelled on a French idea. He is buried in Chigwell, Essex, where the busmen of London commissioned a memorial tablet to him in 1929.
The only commemoration in London of the father of the London bus is Shillibeer Place in Marylebone, near where he had his depot and stables.