London Had Horseless Buses When Dickens Was A Teenager

M@
By M@ Last edited 26 months ago
London Had Horseless Buses When Dickens Was A Teenager

When do you reckon London got its first horseless buses? Early 20th century? The beauty shown below, which we recently spotted pootling along Bishopsgate, looks like it might be a contender. It first hit the road in 1926.

Image by M@.

In fact, the double-decker above is a relative Johnny-come-lately. By the time these vehicles were rolling around the streets, horseless public transport already had a long history. It's surprising to relate, but passenger vehicles without horses were moving around the streets of London in Georgian times.

Here's an early example from exactly 100 years before the bus above.

Image public domain.

The picture shows a prototype steam carriage by Goldsworthy Gurney. The remarkably named inventor was one of several individuals who got such vehicles onto the streets of London in the 1820s and 30s. The machines promised to replace horse-drawn vehicles, offering greater speed, more power for hills and zero turds.

The dream of a horseless road vehicle had been alive since the earliest days of steam power. Engineers like Richard Trevithick had put together the first examples in the early years of the 19th century, but it was not until a few decades later that the technology had become reliable enough to allow passenger vehicles.

A report in the Morning Post of Boxing Day 1827 lists seven London-based engineers independently working on their own designs for steam carriages. Prominent among them was Gurney, whose carriage works were close to Regent’s Park. He organised increasingly ambitious day trips in his vehicle, reaching as far Barnet and Stanmore at speeds of up to 20mph. One later model was even able to journey to Bath and back.

A press report from 1830 neatly describes one such trip along the Euston Road, and the fear for the future it instilled in horsemen.

It was still more entertaining to mark the rage of the Paddington omnibus and stage drivers, who lingered with curses to behold a coach in motion without guide or horses. Rival whips reconciled their differences to vow vengeance to the march of intellect; and many a hackney-coachman sighed as it passed along, at his own approaching end.

Many competed for the potentially lucrative business of replacing the horse. In 1831, Walter Hancock became the first to introduce a regular service between Stratford and central London. This, only two years after George Shillibeer had pioneered the capital's first horse omnibus. Hancock followed up with a reliable service from London Wall to Paddington with a vehicle named Enterprise (below). Enthusiasts have built a replica of this pioneering omnibus.

Image public domain.

Alas, steam carriages proved too far ahead of their time. A combination of factors led to their downfall. The government imposed punitive taxes and tolls on steam vehicles, while vested interests in the capital's enormous horse industry also stymied their development. The roads of the time were not entirely suitable for such heavy vehicles. Public trust was also an issue. In 1832, for example, one of the machines spun off the road at Paddington, partly demolishing a house. The family of three sleeping in the building were lucky to survive. Gurney, Hancock and others eventually went out of business. It took another half century, and the invention of the internal combustion engine, to change things.

The first motor buses — using internal combustion engines rather than steam power — entered service in the early years of the 20th century. They remained lumbering curiosities for a decade. The tide began to turn in 1909, when the main bus company made profits from its motor vehicles for the first time. By 1911, just 30 bus horses remained.

Some 80 years after Goldsworthy Gurney's first steam carriages, the horseless omnibus had finally come of age. Another remarkably named individual, the Lord Mayor of London Sir Vansittart Bowater, felt moved to predict that by 2013 “a horse will excite more wonder in the City than an aeroplane or dirigible does to-day”. And so it proved.

Last Updated 23 September 2015

JamesLondonist

I used to work at Omnibus House - the coachworks where Shillibeer's Omnibus was built. The pub attached to it is called Shillibeer's.