We are used to the idea that business works best when there is competition. Throughout the 1980s we were consistently told that privatised industry was so much better than public ownership. As a result we saw the selling off of British Telecom, and gas and electricity supply. The infamous ‘Tell Sid’ ad seemed to run for ages, encouraging ordinary people to buy shares in British Gas.
Among the wave of privatisations was the deregulation of transport. The railways went as did the bus services, leading not to more efficiency and cheaper prices (as we had been promised) but to ever rising rail fares and the closure of vital (if not particularly cost effective) rural bus routes.
Competition there was, but massive benefits for the consumer? Not so much.
In early Victorian London competition was also the watchword as the capital’s expansion into the suburbs drove a need for greater and more join dup transport links. Over the course of the century London developed horse drawn trams, omnibuses, and overground (and underground) railways. Soon the metropolis was better connected than anywhere else in Europe and, arguably, remains so today (even if we do moan about it reliability).
But here again competition brought as many problems as it brought benefits. We can see an example of this in a report from Queen Square Police Court published in the autumn of 1843.
The magistrate at Queens Square, Mr Bond, complained that his office had been beset with numerous requests for summons as omnibus proprietors prosecuted each other for damage to vehicles, or drivers and conductors brought charges against each other for assault.
Three rival firms were operating in Chelsea, as the starting point for journeys into central London. Messrs. Glover, Child and Ingram all ran ‘buses from the Three Compasses pub at 94-94 Fulham High Street (pictured below in the 1880s).
The competition was fierce but rather than this leading to a better service it merely served as a ‘danger to the public and disturbance to the neighbourhood’ and Mr Bond was sick of it.
Several representatives of the bus companies were in his court in November to hear he warn them that unless they started to take notice he would bring the full force of the law to bear upon them. Mr Bond felt that ‘as trifling penalties appeared to have no effect upon he should for the future, when there was sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction, impose the highest penalty, that of 5L, for each offence’.
Hit them in the pocket was Mr Bond’s strategy, just as it is the preferred strategy of the independent bodies appointed to regulate privatised industries today. Just as today, I suspect our ancestors grumbled about the cost and reliability of their transport networks. They didn’t have anything to compare it with of course as all this was new to them.
At some point the government decided that transport was too important to leave in private hands, and required, at least, some level of nationalisation. Have we reached that point again, some people clearly believe privatisation has failed? In London, of course, our transport remains in the control of the capital’s government, and not entirely in private hands, which means its users are eagerly shielded from attempts to close down unprofitable routes or hike up prices.
And we rarely see realise ‘Blakeys’ and ‘Stan’ fighting ‘on the buses’.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 20, 1843]