THE VICTORIAN HORSE-DRAWN OMNIBUS

For the Victorian middle classes living in towns and cities, the preferred method of transport to commute to work or to go shopping was the omnibus (or ‘bus for short).  Inside, there was usually room for five people on each side, and there was straw on the floor to keep the passengers’ feet warm and dry. But this quickly got wet and dirty, and it also harboured fleas. Although the seats were covered in blue velvet, they were definitely not luxurious. The omnibuses were notoriously stuffy and poorly ventilated inside, with no air except when the door was opened. 

Inside the omnibus, passengers were tightly wedged in and there was a painful jolt every time the vehicle stopped. Sitting so close together made omnibuses a magnet for pickpockets and there was also a very serious risk of catching an infectious disease.

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‘Any Gentleman Oblige a Lady?’ from Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

For these reasons, men preferred to sit on the knifeboard of the omnibus, located on the roof. There were small 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.

If you’re interested in Victorian social history, the memoirs of Molly Hughes (M V Hughes) are well worth seeking out (see Books and Resources). In A London Child of the 1870s (1934), she describes a secret adventure with her brothers in which she went on the mysterious roof of an omnibus for the first time:

‘If I had been asked to a royal ball I couldn’t have been more excited… Dym went up first, then hung down and pointed out the tiny ledges on which I had to put my feet, stretching out his hands to pull me up, while Barnholt fetched up the rear in case I slipped. On the top was what they called the knifeboard…How people stuck on to them I couldn’t imagine. But the boys had other designs: they scrambled down on to the seat in front, by the driver, and got me there too… I was safely tucked in between him and Dym, with Barnholt on his other side.

How powerful the horse looked from this point of view, how jolly to hear the chucklings and whoas, and to see the whip flourished about, but only gently touching the horse. “I never whips old Rosy,” the driver told me. “She’s been with me six years and knows what I want. I use the whip like chatting to her.” …Barnholt, as look-out man, kept calling my attention to things in the shops, and to people doing mysterious jobs in first-floor windows. One room was a nursery, where a boy was riding on a rocking-horse, and in one garden we passed there was a swing with a boy going very high.

We feared to go the whole length of our twopenny ride in case we should be late for tea, so we asked the driver to pull up for us. In my haste to show him how well I could get off by jumping down to Dym in front, I fell right into the muddy street. But no harm was done, and the boys picked me up, and we ran home as fast as we could and slipped in at the back door.’

‘Omnibus Driver’ 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 made it easier for both sexes to access the roof as there was a central gangway, with benches facing the way the passengers were going. There were also ‘decency’ or ‘modesty’ boards on the top deck to give some protection from the weather and to prevent people passing from seeing the ladies’ ankles!

‘London Bridge Station Yard’ from Living London (1901)

 

 

 

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