Typical photographs of Victorian street scenes feature a multitude of horse-drawn vehicles all mixed in together, but the preferred public transport of the middle classes to commute to work or to go shopping was the omnibus (or ‘bus for short). This was cheaper than travelling by cab. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger observed that “among the middle classes of London, the omnibus stands immediately after air, tea and flannel in the list of necessaries of life”.
|‘An Omnibus Driver’ from Living London (1901)|
So what were these omnibuses like? Inside, there was straw on the floor to keep the passengers’ feet warm and dry. By the end of the day, this was both wet and dirty; this straw also harboured fleas when it was dry, and the ague when it was wet. The seats were covered in blue velvet; this might sound luxurious but it was definitely not. The omnibuses were notoriously stuffy and poorly ventilated inside, with no air except when the door was opened.
|‘Any Gentleman Oblige a Lady?’ from Cassell’s Household Guide (1885)|
If you were to take a journey on a Victorian omnibus, you would quickly find yourself tightly wedged in beside the other passengers and there would be a painful jolt every time it stopped. When people got on or off, you would run the risk of your toes being crushed or having sticks or parasols poked into your chest or neck. The proximity of other passengers made omnibuses a magnet for pickpockets and there was also the serious hazard of catching a deadly infectious disease.
|‘An Omnibus Conductor’ from Living London (1901)|
For these reasons, men preferred to sit on the knifeboard of the omnibus, located on the roof. There were tiny ledges on which to step to reach the ‘knifeboard’, a raised partition along the middle with seats on each side. It was rare for women to venture up there as it was so difficult to get on and off wearing a cumbersome skirt or crinoline.
|‘London Bridge Station Yard’ from Living London (1901)|
The knifeboard design was replaced by the ‘garden seat’ omnibus in the 1880s, which had a curved staircase at the rear leading to the top deck. This was more practical for both sexes as it had a central gangway, benches facing the way the passengers were going, and ‘decency’ or ‘modesty’ boards on the top deck. These gave some protection to the passengers, and prevented people passing from seeing the ladies’ ankles!