Gail Thornton
a pictorial archive of horse


The Omnibus

The Omnibus originated in Paris and was brought to England by the coachbuilder George Shillibeer in 1829. It was not a particularly fast vehicle as it travelled around 5 miles per hour and offered cramped conditions. His first two vehicles were similar to enclosed wagonettes with internal seats only for eleven passengers down each side. The fare from Paddington to the Bank was a shilling and half way for six pence with newspapers and magazines provided free of charge. Although Shillibeer is recorded as having established the first omnibus service in London evidence suggests that John Greenwood was running a daily service between Salford and Manchester in January 1824, for the new middle-classes who were residing in the suburbs to travel in to the city centre.  His vehicle however was not as striking as Shillibeer’, being described as ‘a box on wheels’. The original Omnibus would be similar to the vehicle in this postcard but larger. There are no means of identification but it could be outside the Eagle or Falcon Hotel if you go by the carving above the archway. 

The single-deck omnibus continued for several years but gradually passengers being seated outside started to grow. Initially additional seats for two or three extra passengers were provided alongside the driver. Then came a second row of seats behind the driver, by 1845 the curved roofs of many new vehicles accommodated more passengers, usually male, seated back to back. The term ‘knifeboard’ was first used in Punch, 15 May 1862 to describe this type of omnibus with upper deck back-to-back seating, a term that continues to be used to describe this form of transport. This real photographic post card was produced by E. Ward of 249 Oxford Rd, Manchester, and shows a double-deck knife-board omnibus, with the upper deck being reached by iron-rung stairs. The omnibus would carry around 26 to 28 passengers and would on average travel at seven or eight miles per hour at normal speed. Because of the number of passengers and the weight involved, a team of four horses was required. Though nothing is written on the back of this postcard by nature of the posing of the passengers it would seem that this omnibus has been hired for a trip out.

The private omnibus, introduced around 1870, was widely used throughout the Victorian era to convey guest to and from country houses and hotels to the railway station.  It had much in common with the wagonettes but was a closed vehicle with windows at the sides and front and in the door at the back. Interior seating was approached through a rear door over folding steps and passengers faced inwards three on each side. Many had a crosswise seat at roof level to the rear of but slightly higher than the driving seat, which was a double seat above the forecarriage. However most of the roof area would be occupied by luggage and it was drawn by a single horse or pair. The omnibus in this postcard belongs to the London and North Western Railway Company. It was sent, from London, to Master Bryant at 122 Delapole Avenue, off Anlaby Road, Hull on April 19th 1905. 

By the 1860s a few daring ladies had ventured onto the upper-deck seats, and ‘modesty’ or ‘decency’ boards were fixed to obscure the view of the ladies ankles from below.  Eventually these boards were used for advertising, although on this early postcard the boards are just painted in the livery of the owner. To encourage the use of this extra seating travel outside was half the fare of being seated inside. Though most were only licensed to carry ten to twelve passengers inside and ten to fourteen outside most conductors often admitted more adding to the discomfort for the passengers.  The additional fares tended to find there way in to the pocket of the conductors rather than the company. The Omnibus in this photograph is referred to as a ‘garden-seat’ as the upper seats were in two rows facing forwards. The route for this vehicle is stated on the side which reads ‘Market. Westoe & Harton’ and is from South Shields.

Another postcard of a ‘Garden Seat’ Omnibus but this one is a reproduction from the Nostalgia Postcard Collector’s Club. On the reverse of the card it reads “Horse-drawn Bus, 1944. The ‘garden-seat’ type London Road Car was developed towards the end of the nineteenth century. It had two rows of upper deck seating on either side of the central aisle. Passengers went up a staircase at the back of the vehicle to get to the top. In 1881 a bus like this would have cost £150 to build. The horse-drawn bus went out of commission at the outbreak of the First World War, but the bus in the picture was used to take passengers from Chessington Station to the zoo. The conductress can be seen on the top deck collecting the fares. Fiona Tennet has written to say that she thinks the conductress was her mum, Doreen Cannon, and the driver her grandfather James as they worked at Chessington Zoo before the war.

A wonderful example of a Private Omnibus transporting an enormous amount of luggate probably to the train station, the pair of horses will certainly have their work cut out pulling this weight. On the side of the vehicle it says ‘Beach Hotel’ whilst on the back door on the left it reads ‘Omnibus meets all trains’ and on the right hand door it reads ‘Orders received at CRO…’. On the bottom of the card is written Seaton, which is a coastal resort, described as the gateway to the Jurassic Coast. It is a traditional Devon seaside town in the midst of an area of outstanding natural beauty midway between Lyme Regis and Sidmouth. The postcard was posted in Seaton in 1906 and sent to Miss N. Nicholls, 7 Trevanion Road, Wadebridge, Cornwall.

Here we have several omnimbuses travelling around Hyde Park Corner in London.  It was posted in Barking in 1906 and sent to Mrs Greenwood, 1 Gipton Avenue, Leeds.  The postcard was published by O.F. (Stengal & Co. Ltd).