A Short History Of London's Pirate Buses

By Zoe Craig Last edited 15 months ago
A Short History Of London's Pirate Buses
1921 London General Omnibus Company AEC K-Type K424 on the route 38 escaped from the London Transport Museum. Photo by Ken.

Paying your bus fare in London these days is incredibly straightforward. Since London's buses went cashless in 2014, we all just tap our Oyster or contactless card, and your fare's deducted in a heartbeat.

Spare a thought then, for our Victorian predecessors for who paying a bus fare became rather more fraught with difficulties.

Back in the 1850s, practically anyone could buy and operate a bus.

Sure, there were the big companies (in 1856, the London General Omnibus Company controlled 600 of London's 810 buses), but some outfits were simply two guys — a driver and a conductor — and a vehicle.

At the Imperial War Museum. Photo by Tony Moran.

The General had good practices, standardising its fares, and charging low fees to increase business. But other operators could charge what they liked, as long as they displayed their fares on a sign inside the bus.

In reality, these signs were often hidden. Add to this the fact that some enterprising teams painted their buses to look just like those belonging to the General, and you get a recipe for dodgy dealings.

Your unwitting Victorian counterpart would board a familiar-looking bus, offer his/her usual low fare, and find the conductor charging twice as much. Once on board, with the bus moving, the confused passenger wouldn't be able to refuse, complain, or even get off — they'd be forced to pay the full amount because, legally, their journey had already started.

Welcome to the world of London's pirate buses.

Tackling the pirates

Pirate Bus Omnibus tells a brilliant story of a Mr William Saunders getting his own back on a pirate bus he accidentally caught in 1892.

Not only was Saunders charged double his usual fare, the dodgy bus travelled half the usual speed, and 'stopped wherever an apology for doing so could be found'.

Photo by Ken.

Saunders decided to warn any oncoming passengers to the unscrupulous nature of the bus operators. The conductor got increasingly irate, first ordering Saunders off the bus (our hero refused), then calling on a police constable to remove Saunders.

Saunders launched into a impassioned speech about how the police should have been protecting him from robbery by the pirates. He then threatened to refer the constable to Scotland Yard.

It turns out Saunders was actually the Liberal MP for Walworth, and quite capable of defending himself against an interfering bobby.

"I have as great an objection to being robbed by conductors as by landlords, and I was glad to find that a quiet method of passive resistance was so successful. A slight extension of the system would soon render piracy unprofitable in the Strand," he said.

Post-war bus piracy

Pirate buses reigned over London's streets until well into the 1920s.

After the first world war, the situation got worse. There was a shortage of buses (many had been requisitioned during the war) and many ex-servicemen took advantage of the absence of any sensible licensing procedure to set up their own bus services.

From Ypres to Lambeth. Now at the IWM. Photo by Terry Moran.

By 1924, London's bus operations had become completely chaotic.

Pirate buses would race their General counterparts, terrifying passengers; take shortcuts to get to the busiest areas for trade; switch between routes to find the best passenger traffic.

Fines for speeding were increasingly common; there were even some more serious incidents of sabotage.

In January 1924, it's estimated that 200 independent buses, under 74 different owners, were competing with the General.

Putting an end to the pirate bus era

Finally, the London and Home Counties Traffic Act of 1924 helped regulate the bus industry, protecting the General from competition by limiting the number of buses allowed on each route.

Bus firms were forced to share their schedules and routes with the police, who firmly enforced them.

In the later 1920s, the economics of running an independent became increasingly difficult. Many were bought by the General.

The take-overs were far from smooth: staff over 50 found themselves dismissed, other ex-pirate drivers were mysteriously declared unfit.

By the time the London Passenger Transport Board was formed in 1932 only 64 (of those 200) independents remained. About a year after it was created, the LPTB had acquired them all.

The quirky era of London's pirate buses was over.

Last Updated 16 December 2022