Today (July 4) in London History – an 1829 London joy ride

The Omnibus made its debut on the streets of London on July 4, 1829. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The 4th of July. American Independence Day.

And, in 1829, an Independence Day for London as well.

Say hello to Mr Shillibeer’s bus. 

An omnibus to give it its full, formal name. 

July 4th, 1829 was rollout day.

It ran from Paddington to Bank. It ran along what they called the New Road, what we call Marylebone Road and Euston Road. And then along Pentonville Road and the City Road: destination Bank.

Why that route? Effectively it was running along on the outer edge of London. With good reason. It was illegal for stage coaches to take up or set down passengers in central London. Apart from a few designated places. The omnibus route was just outside the jurisdiction of those restrictions. There was a big advantage quite apart from not breaking the law – it made for speed. As one newspaper put it, “there is no delay in taking up and setting down; no calling at booking offices.”

That said, the omnibuses did eventually break through into central London. Much to the fury of cabmen – there went their monopoly. The more things change the more they stay the same. Think of the sound and the fury – the desperate rear guard action London black cab drivers mounted just a few years ago in an attempt to keep Uber from getting into what they regarded as “their market.”

Now, let’s inspect this new phenomenon, this omnibus. Walk around it. Give the tyres a kick. It was drawn by three horses. It was a long, box-like structure. It had two benches on the inside, facing each other, running the length of the cab. Ten people could be seated on each bench. So that was 20 people inside. The driver was of course up top upfront. The door was at the rear of the vehicle. You went up three steps to get into the coach. And down three steps to take your leave of it. And – for thrill-seekers and those willing to brave the elements – the roof was flat. So passengers could ride up there. It was less comfortable, less expensive and more dangerous. Inside passengers paid one shilling and sixpence. Those sitting outside up top paid a shilling. Those prices weren’t cheap. Those were middle class fares. The Morning Post waxed eloquent about the new phenomenon. It described it as “a handsome machine, in the shape of a van with windows on each side and one at the end.”

Now what about George Shillibeer himself? Because ultimately London’s all about its men and women. Shillibeer – it’s an ancient English name. Comes from a lost village called Shillibeer in Devon. 

Our man, though, was a Londoner through and through. He was born in Tottenham Court Road. In 1797. He was baptised at St Marylebone. Right there on Marylebone Road. Three decades later his omnibus would pass his place of baptism. He spent time in the navy. Didn’t take to it. Baled out. Joined a firm in Long Acre, where he learned coach building. Went into business with John Cavil, a coach builder and livery stable keeper in Bury Street in Bloomsbury. He was ambitious. Was thinking trans-nationally. Set up an establishment in Paris for the sale of carriages. That’s where he got the idea for the omnibus. Paris had beat London to it – had omnibuses going a couple of months before George Shillibeer saw it and thought, “that’s what London needs and I’m the man to supply it.” But you know something, it was a rough ride for George Shillibeer. In the words of his biographer, “he knew how to copy the carriage-building ideas of others but was unable to exploit his initial advantage.”

He was hit by a three-pronged competition attack. Other London coach operators introduced vehicles that were a little smaller and more manoeuvrable. And enjoyed a lower mileage duty.  And Shillibeer’s larger vehicles were unsuitable for London’s narrow streets.

Less than two years after he introduced his omnibus, Shillibeer had a commission of bankruptcy order against him. He tried to find a way out – moved sideways. Opened a London to Brighton run and put omnibuses on the route from London to Greenwich and Woolwich. But two more hammer blows. The railway and the steamship trade. The man who introduced the omnibus to London had to flee to Boulogne to escape his creditors. When he came back to London the Insolvent Debtors’ court sentenced him to a stretch in the Fleet Prison. When he got out he took a job on the London and Southampton Railway. But trouble – and another stretch behind bars – was just round the corner. Turns out he’d smuggled 130 gallons of brandy from Boulogne to England. Hadn’t paid duty on it. When the authorities poor George Shillibeer was back in the slammer. 

You have to admire his resilience, though – his true grit. When he got out he set himself up as an undertaker in the City Road. Yes, the City Road that his omnibuses had passed along. Is that the sixth age of George Shillibeer’s life? For the seventh age – his last go-round – he and his wife had a small farm at Chigwell, in Essex. 

He’s buried in the churchyard at Chigwell. And to use that bittersweet phrase London Remembers, in 1929 London busmen put up a tablet in the church in memory of the inventor of the London omnibus.

And your Today in London recommendation. Well, you’ve guessed, I’m sure. Has to be a visit to the Transport Museum at Covent Garden.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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