The magistrate and the ‘omnibus trick’

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The London Police Courts did not sit on Christmas Day but the Boxing Day papers were still published for Victorian fathers and grandfathers to read over their breakfast of devilled kidneys and smoked haddock and eggs. And so the editors included stories from Christmas Eve, to keep their readership amused, entertained and informed about the ‘doings’ of the courts and the thieves, brutes  and loafers that were the staple of most crime news in the mid-1800s.

On Boxing Day 1853 the breakfaster would have opened his paper to read about ‘the Omnibus Trick’.

A Mr Ayres and a Mr Douglas appeared at the Hammersmith Police Court to protect their business and their reputation. The pair were joint proprietors of the Hammersmith Omnibus Association which ran red buses on a variety of routes across the capital. They had turned up because they had heard that the magistrate at Hammersmith had recently complained about the tactics deployed by some of its operators to entice the public to travel with them.

The magistrate, Mr Paynter, had been at Hammersmith, close to the turnpike gate, when a bus passed with a sign attached to the rear which read:

“4d to the Bank”

Underneath this in very small letters was also inscribed:

“from Sloane Street”

His Worship thought that this was rather misleading advertising as it ‘convened the idea that the fare was only 4d from Kensington to the Bank’ whereas that fare only applied when the vehicle reached Sloane Street ‘which was some way off’. In his eyes it was a ‘trick’ to lure unwary passengers on board. And it seems to be working he added, as several of his fellow passengers that day were surprised when the conductor asked them for more than the minimal 4d to travel to the heart of the City.

The owners of the Hammersmith Omnibus Association were equally scandalised by the practice which, they assured Mr Paynter,  was not of their doing. The ‘trick’ was, they insisted, being perpetrated by a rival company (which also used red omnibuses) and was clearly designed to ‘injure the reputation of their association’. Both partners had attended on Christmas Eve specifically to protect their reputation and deny any shenanigans on their part.

When his worship told them that he had seen two buses carrying the same message (the second with the ‘from Sloane street’ script album obscured) Mr Douglas quickly explained that two rival buses did indeed travel one after the other along that stretch of the route so he was sure they were to blame.

The justice seemed somewhat treasured but still unhappy. He told the men that the conductor on the bus he had taken was ‘very impertinent’ and had he not been a magistrate he might well have summoned him to court. He had taken the numbers of the two buses and he handed these over so that Ayres and Douglas could make sure they were not vehicles owed by their company. The men promised to look into the matter  and then thanked the magistrate for his time and left.

I’m a little surprised that the magistrate was using public transport but I suspect it reveals that the relative inexpensiveness and convenience of the omnibus service was something that appealed to Londoners of all classes. The first horse drawn service) in fact running to the Bank from Paddington) had opened in London in 1829 (a few years after a similar scheme started in Paris) but rival firms ran individual ‘buses for many years before larger conglomerates started to appear.

The first of these was the London General Omnibus Company which started business in 1855 (a couple of years after this case came to court). Within a year of opening the LGOC was running 600 of the capital’s 810 omnibuses; this was the real beginning of a London-wide public transport system.

For me this story has echoes of the modern day dispute between private transport operators. The traditional London tax (the ‘black cab’ ) is being squeezed by private hire companies, mostly notably Uber, who seek to operate at lower fares but with less regard for the ‘service’ they provide or the people they employ. While ‘cabbies’ are still required to learn ‘the knowledge’ Uber drivers rely on satnavs and are accused of taking circuitous routes and ramping up fares for passengers. There are other accusations aimed at them and (as this interesting article suggests) plenty of other reasons why a ‘black cab’ is better than an Uber. But you can make up your own minds, just as justice Paynter did in 1853.

[from The Standard , Monday, December 26, 1853]

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