A Time Traveller’s Guide To London Transport

By Londonist Last edited 39 months ago
A Time Traveller’s Guide To London Transport

From jam-packed tubes to cauldron-esque Routemasters, moaning about public transport is a Londoner’s favourite hobby. But what was travelling like in the past? Have we never had it so good? Here, for the benefit of other time lords, we offer a select guide to London’s transport through the ages.

A traveller's sketch of a double-oared wherry in 1614. Note, in the background, Gothic St Paul's on the right and the skewered heads of traitors above the Great Stone Gate on the left. From a 17th century Scottish manuscript


London was once a river city. If you travel to any point in its history, from late Anglo-Saxon times to the Elizabethan era, you’ll find that light rowing boats — or wherries, to use the Middle English term — are the only real method of public transport, with the exception of steeds for hire from livery stables (and they were mainly to get out of the built-up city). The ‘silver streaming Thames’, you’ll find, is the M25 of its day, and for good reason. Since the streets of the City, Southwark and (to a lesser extent) Westminster are so serpentine and crooked, forever winding in on themselves and dipping like crazy, and strewn with offal, litter, felled timbers, and sometimes even roadside wells, and where the pavement — if there is one — is often no more than a jagged quagmire laced with flintstone, it’s no wonder people prefer, where possible, the wherry. Since London only has one permanent crossing, London Bridge, and a narrow and congested one at that, the wherries dominate the river-crossing trade – you’ll find around 2,000 of them, manned by 3,000 boatmen.

If you fancy a ride, head to the nearest river stairs — these sometimes have beguilingly evocative names like Cherry Garden Stairs, Puddle Wharf, Beer House Stairs — and hail one. The boats will be queued up like in a modern-day taxi rank; you’ll find both single oarsmen and two-men wherries. It costs 1d to cross the river; 3d to go from Westminster to Blackfriars; 8d from the City to Greenwich, though journeys can be up to a third more expensive if you’re rowing against the tide. Aboard, you might be surprised to find finely upholstered and embroidered cushions on seats for a maximum of two passengers, with a removable canopy. But if you’re thinking about reclining into a reverie with the river breeze on your face, know that the boatmen like to bellow out obscenities at their fellow watermen in riverine cant (you can join in if you like). They can be cocky, too. Whatever you do don’t let them take you over the lethal rapids that gush beneath the 19 arches of London Bridge, where the water can drop up to six feet. You’d be well advised to alight and walk to a bank to the east of the Bridge, whilst the intrepid wherryman ‘shoots the rapids’ himself — let’s hope he has his inflatable pig’s-bladder float on him. Still, of a pleasant evening ‘it can be just as pleasant as it is in summertime along the Grand Canal in Venice’. And this from a Venetian tourist, writing in 1562.

A hackney carriage of yore. Photo by Ken in the Londonist Flickr pool

Hackney carriages

For the time traveller to Samuel Pepys’s London, a hackney carriage — the true precursor of today’s black cab, which still takes its name — will be indispensable for getting around town, though since the pavement is so rugged and uneven, prepare to be vigorously shaken in these unsprung vehicles, or even tumbled over the edge into the street, as Pepys was. You’ll find around 400 licensed vehicles in the principal thoroughfares and squares, in theory plying their trade from fixed stands, with the driver perched high up on a wooden seat. You can fit up to six people inside. Private coaches are lavishly painted, adorned with gilt coronets, and attended by footmen in rich liveries; hackney coaches, being available for hire, are uglier and dirtier. Fares align with set ‘drives’ or durations — from the Inns of Court to Westminster is 12d, for instance, and a one-hour hire is 12d — but if you seem unsure of yourself, they may well try to rip you off. To guard against this, you need to note down the carriage’s registration number, which will be displayed on the door, and then you can complain at the Hackney Coach Office if you’ve been charged beyond the set fare, and the driver fined. (But note if you falsely query a price, you yourself will be fined). Since the streets ‘abound at all seasons with a sort of soft and very stinking mud’, in the words of a Venetian traveller, pedestrians become caked in mud thanks to all the carriages. Haquenée, incidentally, is Old French for an ambling horse or mare, often kept for hire; it has nothing to do with Hackney the place.

Sketch of a sedan chair carrying an affluent female passenger

Sedan chairs

Hovering about the streets like strange floating kiosks, and carried on 10-foot wooden poles by brawny bearers who will stop for no mortal being, sedan chairs are a chic if, to modern sensibilities, slightly ridiculous mode of transport for the visitor to Georgian London. Here, you can find over 400 licensed public sedans. You can hail them in any of London’s main thoroughfares or from a West End sedan rank (there’s a big one next to the equestrian statue of Charles I in Charing Cross). If you see a sedan being carried backwards, this means it’s free — the 18th century equivalent of a taxi’s yellow light. They’re made of wood, typically have four curtained windows, and are clad in a uniform black leather; more lavishly decorated private sedans, often liveried and gilt-painted, are the preserve of the beau monde, manufactured by luxury sedan makers clustered around Leicester Square. First authorised by Charles I in 1634, Londoners soon came to appreciate the way they could navigate London’s narrow streets and twisting alleys with agility, carving through the mêlée of coaches and carriages at bottlenecks, and swerving onto walkways. The chairmen go at a jogging pace and if you don’t heed their cry of “Prithee, sir, make way!” or “Have care!” they will quite happily smash you out of the way (and you thought disrespectful cyclists in the 21st century were bad).

Journeys are charged on set ‘runs’ or by distance travelled, normally about two-thirds the price of hackney carriages. Sedans are designed for one passenger only, though they are also known to transport hot pies, children’s coffins (on the laps of weeping parents) and periwigs — when it started raining, the first thought of Scottish judge Lord Monboddo was to send his wig home in a sedan. The gently domed roof is hinged, so there’s no need to stoop to get in. Expect a springy, turbulent, rather uncomfortable ride, though you can poke your head out of the roof or windows for a privileged view of the city.

A word of warning: chairmen have been known to humiliate out-of-towners by loosening the bottom of the chair so they fall out, forcing them to make a fool of themselves by trotting along like a donkey. If it’s a rainy or snowy day, you can even book a sedan to pick you up inside your house or lodgings (some Georgian houses have folding poles under the bannister to transport passengers up and down stairs) so you don’t risk besmirching your fine clothes in the filthy street, nor your reputation by being seen amongst the hoi polloi. Perhaps that’s why, especially in their early days, sedans had a slightly suspect reputation: they were the perfect way of travelling to the door of your lover’s bedroom incognito.

Joshua Reynolds's Cupid as Link Boy, c. 1771, depicting a London link boy with satanic bat's wings and an obviously phallic torch

Link boys

With virtually no street numbering before the 1760s and maps that are impracticably huge (if amazingly detailed), the twisting, labyrinthine streets of 17th and 18th century London can be enough to flummox even the most seasoned of time travellers. Even short journeys can soon descend into nightmarish odysseys, especially at night, when the sparse oil-lit street lanterns give out such a meagre glow. But you can always hire the services of a link boy. Just look out for a nimble little urchin or youth, his cheeky, weathered face caked in grime, scuttling through the streets and alleys wielding a big link — a torch of pitch and tow for lighting the way in dark streets. Also known as ‘moon-cursers’ (since they are out of work on clear, moonlit nights) they will, for a modest price, weave a red thread through London’s backstreets and alleys, escorting you to your door. At least that’s the theory. In the literature of the day, they’re often synonymous with rent boys or even child prostitutes with their phallic cone-shaped torches, as depicted in Joshua Reynolds’s Cupid as a Link Boy (see above). In a poem by the Restoration debauchee Lord Rochester, a libertine and his mistress both lust after their handsome link boy. Whoever gives him the best kiss is the deciding factor in whether, as the libertine puts it, ‘the boy fucks you, or I the boy’. They’re suspect in other ways too. According to John Gay’s Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), they’re sometimes in league with London’s criminal underworld, luring wide-eyed travellers into blind alleys where cut-throats, footpads and pox-ridden doxies lurk. Verdict: avoid.

A south London horse bus

Horse buses

In mid-Victorian London, why not join the 200,000 (mainly middle-class) people who catch around 1,000 horse-buses — or omnibuses — each day. Collectively harnessing the power of 50,000 horses and caking the city in a thousand tons of dung a day, you’ll see these buses everywhere, sometimes green, sometimes black, always bedecked in advertisements, running every eight minutes from 8am until midnight by the mid-Victorian period, proclaiming their run (‘Bayswater to Whitechapel’, say) on the side. Don’t worry about finding a bus stop – they don’t exist – simply hail the horse-bus from the street (they always keep to the left): the cad (or conductor), who’ll be standing on a little foothold by the back of the bus, will bang the roof to get the driver to stop, though in reality he may already be touting for your custom. In the anarchy of pre-Highway Code traffic, he will happily swerve in front of cattle, hansom cabs and carriages to pick you up. Watch out for the cads, by the way, they’ll fleece you if they can; ‘how strange it is’, ponders Punch, ‘that conductors never know how to conduct themselves’. It costs 3d for part of the journey, 6d for the whole journey and 1s to the suburbs.

Don’t expect much fanfare as you climb aboard. In Sketches By Boz, Charles Dickens notes how each new passenger was peered at with insouciant disdain as though they had no right to be there. Around 14 people can squeeze into the bus’s ‘inside’ lower-deck, which has straw on the floor, small windows and sometimes free books for the passengers’ perusal. Fleas and crooks abound — sometimes female pickpockets have a fake gloved hand in their lap whilst their real one reaches into a pouch. If you’re male, you’ll be obliged to surrender your seat to arriving female passengers, clambering up the metal rungs onto the upper deck where there’s seating for up to ten passengers either on two inward-looking benches or in on a ‘knifeboard’ bench, sitting in the middle (with nothing to hold onto). They’re painfully slow and cumbersome – top speed: 4½ miles per hour – and get clogged up into mighty crushes of traffic between the Temple and the Bank of England. But you’ll get an amazing view of the metropolis as it rattles by from the top deck. Should you be able to see through the fog, that is.

If you want a real shock, book yourself on a voyeuristic ‘slumming’ trip, whereby horse-buses are driven through the most squalid and deprived parts of the East End so the bourgeois can press their noses against the glass and witness abject, grinding poverty first-hand for their edification and entertainment. Even royalty engage in this poverty porn. When you want to get out, the cad will blow a whistle to get the driver to stop.

Third-class passengers at an underground railway station in London, from Gustave Doré's A Pilgrimage, 1872

The Victorian Underground

With locomotives pulling wooden cars along the tracks, and smoke, sulphur and coal dust swirling about its platforms, the Victorian Underground will be a shock to any time traveller’s system, particularly asthmatics. Newspapers routinely carry reports of passengers perishing underground, asphyxiated by noxious fumes; little wonder that contemporary writers are so fond of conflating Underground with Underworld. You’ll find the network operated by two rival companies: the Metropolitan Railway, which runs trains clockwise on the outer rail, and the District Railway, which runs them anti-clockwise on the inner rail. Together, they operate the Circle Service (the future Circle line) around the inner core of the city. Unfortunately, though, they hate each other and are happy to sacrifice passengers’ needs to their prolonged and bitter enmity. You’re supposed to be issued with a ticket for the shortest route between stations, sometimes, depending on which company operates it, you’ll just get an ‘O’ (outer, so clockwise) or ‘I’ (inner, so anti-clockwise), meaning that you might have to circle the entire network – a 70-minute round trip — just to go one stop.

It may feel like you’ve stumbled into a strange mirror universe. There is no eastbound and westbound, only ‘up’ — confusingly, since it’s in the opposite direction to upriver, towards the City — and ‘down’, towards the West End. Trains — one every 10 minutes — run at 20mph (compared with up to 60mph on the 21st-century Underground) and, in a lovely touch, you’ll find little bars in some of the stations. It will be atmospheric — the tunnels reverberate with passengers’ footsteps on the wooden platforms and, as the trains draw in, the pendant gas lights sway a little, scattering shadows. If you can afford a first-class carriage, expect gilded mirrors, leather door panels and net luggage racks; their second-class cousins are dimmer and more spartan. The third-class carriages are really disgusting; stinking, saliva-strewn, and packed like a cattle train, sometimes no better than open wagons. Trains explode. In 1864, the Morning Post reported how, as a train was waiting at the ‘up’ platform at Paddington, the boiler blew up, ripping off much of the station’s roof. Terrorism is nothing new either. In October 1883, a bomb exploded on the Metropolitan Railway injuring 72 passengers crammed into third-class carriages, the handiwork of Irish Republicans. Yet it runs over 800 trains a day and is the envy of the world, fuelling the suburbanisation of London.

Dr Matthew Green is the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, published by Penguin. Londonist recently reviewed it.

And it wasn't just horse-drawn buses in Victorian London! Find out about the early horseless carriage here.

Last Updated 15 October 2015