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Book review of Bus Fare: Collected Writings on London’s Most Loved Means of Transport, edited by Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr.  (Slogan: Tourists take the Tube; Londoners take the bus).


busfare2The first thing I did with this new anthology was to scan the Contents pages for anything by HV Morton. Happily there is: a piece from 1936 in which the reporter interviews a WW1 veteran who had chucked in a promising army career to drive buses and be closer to his family. Morton, at the height of his powers, delivers a touching piece where he captures the voice of this Londoner as only he could.

Next stop, Henry Mayhew. Tick. Other literary giants between the covers of this excellent hardback include Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford. And a poem by Kipling: perfect.

Contemporary writers include Will Self, who explains why Stockwell Bus Garage is London’s most important building, and elsewhere describes the denizens of that garage’s staff canteen; Peter Watts talks about the retired ladies who travelled every bus route in London and also a piece about the ‘Boris Bus’. London Historians stalwart Matt Brown has a brace of items, one of which explains how most of our buses came to be mostly red. There are articles by former London Transport Museum virtuosi Sam Mullins (The Bus During World War 1) and Oliver Green (London Buses in Wartime). Oh, look! There is Christian Wolmar (a great supporter of London Historians, just saying) on privatisation; and Iain Sinclair, most amusingly on the modern bus driver’s lot. Editors Elborough and Kerr both chip in with items of their own.

But the book kicks off with an excellent essay by Nick Rennison on the man who introduced the London omnibus (and indeed the word ‘omnibus’ in this context) from Paris: the marvellous George Shillibeer. A former midshipman and trained coachbuilder, Shillibeer spent some time in post-Napoleonic Paris before introducing French public transport innovations to London. His first route was from Marylebone to Bank using two buses. Unfortunately, his business wilted under the pressure of instant competition and dishonest staff, leading him to two desperate spells in gaol, first for debt and then later for brandy smuggling. These are the bare bones of a fascinating life. (My own meagre effort on Shillibeer is here.)

Horse buses were ubiquitous on the streets of London in no time, providing easy fodder for journalists and satirists. The early pages of this book provide plenty of fascinating comment from the Morning Chronicle (Dickens), Punch, The Times etc. Laws, rules and regulations by necessity sprang up early on. And just as with the Tube virtually from Day One in 1863, there was much amusing comment on etiquette.

Elsewhere there is copious thoughtful, whimsical, nostalgic writing about bus travel in London. The book is, after all, a love letter to this vehicle in all its forms. The Routemaster, of course, looms large.  In this vein are the images, which are particularly well selected, complementing the text perfectly. Photos, paintings, posters, timetables, portraits. There’s a 1980 picture of co-editor Joe Kerr himself in his conductor’s uniform on the back platform of a Routemaster; harrowing images of buses caught up in the Blitz; the ‘Windrush generation’, whose very presence in London was in no small measure due to staff shortages on public transport; my favourite, though, is probably King George V raising his shiny silk topper to the No 8 to Willesden.

This is a terrific anthology which no one would begrudge tearing the paper off on Christmas morning. But it is so much more than that. Anyone with the vaguest interest in public transport or the social history of modern London, or – most of all – fine writing, will love this book.


Bus Fare, 351pp  hardcover, is published by the Automobile Association with a cover price of £14.99.

 

 

 

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george shillibeer

George Shillibeer, circa 1860. He looks a real character. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection.

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.

Sources:
Wikipedia coverage is okay, here.
But excellent coverage and pictures on Knowledge of London, here.
A good entry on Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, but it’s behind a paywall.

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