Public transport in Victorian London: Part One: Overground
Simple name : Online essay
Collection : Information
Reference number : 2008/1998


During Queen Victoria's reign, London's population grew at an astonishing rate and the central area became increasingly congested. The development of cheaper, horse-drawn public transport enabled more people to travel than ever before and this influenced the growth of the suburbs.

Before Shillibeer

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, public transport in London was expensive and offered passengers little choice. Short stage coaches ran regular services to the City from outlying villages like Camberwell, Paddington and Blackheath. Hackney carriages had a monopoly in the City, where they alone were permitted to set down or pick up passengers on demand. Travelling by short stage or hackney coach was expensive and could only be afforded by the better off, the most wealthy of whom owned their own carriages. Another key route was the river, where traffic continued as it had for centuries. Wherry boats or river taxis could be hailed from various parts of the riverbank. The vast majority of working people could not afford to use public transport at all and so were obliged to live within walking distance of their work. This led to severe overcrowding in some parts of London, where poor-quality housing and a lack of sanitation had created some notorious slums.


In 1828 George Shillibeer, a London coachbuilder, visited Paris where he was impressed by the efficiency of its new horse-drawn bus service. The following year he imported the idea to London and began operating a single horse-drawn omnibus, connecting the suburbs of Paddington and Regent's Park to the City. This service was quite revolutionary: Shillibeer's omnibus ran to a strict timetable, regardless of whether it was full; it picked up and set down passengers anywhere along the route; and fares could be paid on board, unlike the short-stage coaches, which had to be booked in advance. The omnibus was pulled by three horses and carried 22 passengers, who sat inside protected from the weather. The fares of sixpence and one shilling were less than those charged by hackney cab and short-stage coach. Even so, travelling on Shillibeer's omnibuses was not cheap, and they were used mainly by the middle classes.

Nevertheless, the service proved very popular and other operators set up in fierce competition. Soon there were 90 omnibuses on the same route, sometimes racing each other to pick up the most passengers. After many complaints the operators set up an Omnibus Association, with Shillibeer as Chairman, to regulate the busy route. The operators realized that the number of passengers was limited so the Association agreed to reduce competition by restricting the number of omnibuses to 57, running at 3 minute intervals, with inspectors to enforce the new rules. The Association was London's first coordinated attempt to provide a regular bus service. In 1832 the monopoly of the hackney carriages was removed, allowing horse buses to operate in the City. Within two years there were 620 licensed horse buses in London and by 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, when business was booming due to an influx of visitors to London, this total had more than doubled and the number of routes had increased to 150. Service intervals varied from 5 to 20 minutes in Inner London to an hour or longer in the outlying suburbs. Whilst many different omnibus companies existed, in 1856 several operators were taken over by the new London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), originally a French operator. After a year spent buying out rivals the LGOC had a fleet of 600 omnibuses and was the largest bus company in the world. Other larger operators included Thomas Tilling and the London Road Car Company. Major companies began to cooperate, forming associations to regulate buses, restricting their numbers, setting timetables and sharing revenue between owners.

In the early 1830s, operators introduced new buses that could be pulled by just two horses, increasing manageability in London's narrow streets. The first double-deck buses were built in the late 1840s, providing outside seats offering cheaper travel. The 'knifeboard' bus had a single seat fitted lengthways on the roof reached by iron rungs. The 1880s saw the introduction of a new design, the 'garden seat' bus, which had forward-facing seats and a curved staircase at the rear, making boarding easier. Other refinements were added later (acetylene lighting was introduced in the 1890s), but the horse-drawn bus remained largely unchanged throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century. Development of the horse bus was ultimately limited by the load that a pair of horses could pull.

Horse trams

One way of increasing the number of passengers that could be carried was to run the vehicle on rails set into the road. By pulling a carriage on steel rails, friction was reduced, making it much easier for a pair of horses to pull a heavier passenger load, thereby increasing profits. In 1861 an American, George Train, ran the first trams in London along three demonstration lines in Bayswater, Victoria and between Westminster Bridge and Kennington. The experiment was not a success. The residents of these affluent areas had little need for public transport and objected to the noise of the trams. Also, the rails jutted up from the road, greatly inconveniencing other road users. Whilst potential benefits had been demonstrated, after only a few months the lines were removed. Nine years later, in 1870, London's first tram service began between Brixton and Kennington, on steel rails laid flush with the road surface. Being able to carry more passengers than a bus whilst using the same number of horses meant that trams' fares could be dropped to 1d per mile (1p per 4km). This, together with early morning workers' tickets at half price on the railways, brought public transport within the reach of many more working people for the first time and enabled them to live further out from their workplaces in the crowded city centre. Not only were trams cheaper; travelling at 6mph (10 kph) they were also slightly faster than horse buses, which managed 4mph (6kph).

There were disadvantages to the horse tram. As with horse buses, hills posed a problem and where an extra horse could not succeed cable haulage was employed, as on Brixton and Highgate Hills. The installation and maintenance of rails caused immense disruption, sometimes closing off entire streets. Derailments were a hazard, and trams often dominated the centre of narrow roads, crowding out other road users. However, for all their shortcomings the horse trams provided Londoners with a cheap, efficient and reliable public transport network.

The horse tram services were operated by private companies such as North Metropolitan Tramways and The Pimlico, Peckham & Greenwich Street Tramways. However, these companies had to obtain authorization from Parliament to construct their tramways. With the introduction of the Tramways Act in 1870, additional restrictions were put in place. This Act gave local authorities powers to object to new tramway schemes and the option to compulsorily purchase the private operators after 21 years. Furthermore, Parliament banned the construction of tramways in the City and West End. Nevertheless, an extensive network of tram routes was developed outside these areas.

The London County Council (LCC) saw the social benefit of building links to new housing estates, and the provision of cheap workmen's fares was an important part of their policy. With this in mind, they compulsorily purchased many of the horse tram routes in the 1890s.

Horse power

Fifty-thousand horses were required to keep Victorian London's public transport running. According to one writer of the time, these horses ate their way through a quarter of a million acres of foodstuff per year, and deposited 1000 tonnes of dung on the roads every day. The disposal of large quantities of horse droppings was a major problem. Dung could make the roads hazardous and unpleasant when wet. Crossing sweepers made meagre earnings clearing a path for pedestrians to cross and dung carts collected and deposited droppings on vast dung heaps in the poorer parts of town each day. To keep a single bus or tram on the road for 12 hours each day a team of 12 horses was required, each one harnessed for 3 to 4 hours and travelling about 15 miles. The horses needed to be fed, watered, stabled and groomed, and tended by blacksmiths and vets. Caring for the horses represented up to 55% of operating costs and was even greater if feed prices rose (such as following a poor harvest). The LGOC spent about £20 000 each year on horseshoes alone. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, operators looked for an alternative to the horse that would be both cheaper and more efficient. The electrification of the trams and the arrival of the motor bus in London just before the First World War caused the gradual demise of the working horse on London's streets.

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